Representatives of world's major religions launch peace council at conference

BANGKOK, Thailand - Representatives of the world's major religions on Wednesday launched an interfaith peace council dedicated to reducing sectarian conflicts around the globe.

The initiative was announced at the start of a three-day, U.N.-backed conference of more than 100 leaders of the Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and other faiths.

"There is a sense of somber urgency among the leaders" to work for peace, said Bawa Jain, secretary general of the Millennium World Peace Summit. "The use of religion to promote divisiveness and violence must be countered by religious leaders from all traditions willing to become actively engaged in peace building."

The conference is being staged in the Thai capital against the backdrop of increasing military tensions between nuclear rivals India and Pakistan and the continuing spiral of violence between Israel and the Palestinians.

The peace council — called the World Council of Religious Leaders — is an effort to get religious leaders directly involved in conflict resolution the world's many trouble spots, conference organizers said in a statement.

It will "determine concrete ways that religious leaders can reduce tensions in current areas of conflict including Asia and the Middle East," the statement said, without elaborating.

Other items on the council's agenda including working with the United Nations in fighting poverty and environmental degradation.

The initiative was based on recommendations made by an earlier summit held at the United Nations in August 2000. It is one of several specific measures that participants at the Bangkok meeting are expected to put forward to involve religious leaders in the crises confronting the world.

The recommendations were expected to be made public after the signing of a council charter on Friday.

Israel's chief Ashkenazic rabbi acknowledged in a speech to the conference that religion has caused many gulfs between nations.

"But religion can also be a bridge," Meir Lau said. "Let's build the bridges and work together to freedom, to love, to peace for the entire world."

Lau also made a fervent appeal for dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, saying that a lot could be learned from the courageous actions of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Jordan's late King Hussein, who signed peace treaties with Israel despite vehement Arab opposition.

A Hindu ascetic from India called for the protection of religious harmony in the world by putting an end to proselytizing.

"Your freedom to practice your religion does not extend beyond your congregation," said Dayananda Saraswati. "This religious council should safeguard the freedom of religion to practice but not to convert."

He urged conference delegates to "enjoy the mosaic of varied cultures of different hues."