"World's Religions After September 11: A Global Congress," organized by Professor Arvind Sharma and his colleagues at McGill University, Montreal, began on the fifth anniversary of the terrorist bombings of the New York City Trade Towers and the Pentagon in 2001. An international group of participants--including Hindu, Jain, Muslim, Jewish, Islamic, and Christian scholars, religious leaders, and laypersons--addressed the topic of religious change, especially the influence of the terrorist attacks on societies and their understanding of religion.
The Faculty of Religious Studies at McGill University has been active in sponsoring events and ongoing projects that bring leaders of the world's religions together for dialogue. In 1998 they formulated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the World's Religions, which continues to circulate among religious leaders and scholars. That declaration has been presented and discussed at numerous conferences, including the Parliament of World Religions in Barcelona in 2004, as well as the recent global congress, which devoted a number of panels and sessions to the topic of human rights and religion.
The conference revolved around four themes that were presented in opening plenary sessions, individual papers, panel discussions, and the concluding session. The first plenary session stressed the Importance of (1) the search for commonalities among religions seeking peace, especially in the political arena. The presenter, Iranian lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, has spent a lifetime seeking peace among religious factions in Iran. Two other plenary speakers, His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Reverend Didiji of Swadhyaya Parivar, are leaders of new religious movements. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar stressed (2) the unity we can find in our common humanity. Didiji focused on (3) the importance of nonviolent, socially engaged religion. At the final plenary session, Arvind Sharma summarized the issues of the conference, suggesting that the world congress could help move all religious persons toward (4) support for a universal declaration of human rights by the world's religions. Religions, he said, are a negative force when they fight among themselves, but they can become a positive force when they work together.
Many of the presentations considered the connection between the political realm and religions. One topic receiving much attention was how religions could focus their resources on implementing human rights and how they could work with other religions in this area. Another was how interreligious debate could lead to forms of just-war theory relevant for the current age of terrorist warfare. The specific issue of how to protect religious groups from indiscriminate or dishonest proselytizing also received attention, as Hindus and others are feeling pressured by the evangelistic methods of other religious groups.
Christians have discussed these issues in many settings. Bringing their voice to this interreligious setting, though, provided a witness that contributed to and balanced other views. Harvard professor Harvey Cox presented a plenary on Pentecostalism in which he outlined Amos Yong's Trinitarian view of Christian witness. Donald Posterski, from World Vision Canada, presented a Christian view of evangelism. The Interfaith Commission of the U.S. National Council of Christian Churches (NCCC) presented two panels on the topic of forgiveness--one from the point of view of ecumenical dialogue, the other, interfaith dialogue. Lyndon Harris, rector of St. Paul's Chapel at Ground Zero in New York City, presented his plan for a garden of forgiveness at the site. Others who spoke outlined views of forgiveness and restitution from their respective traditions. Participants from the United Church of Canada met with the NCCC Interfaith Commission, which held its biannual meeting in conjunction with the global congress. …