Eminent religious leaders of the world pledge to fight extremism

BANGKOK, Thailand - Eminent members of various faiths in the newly established World Council of Religious Leaders pledged Friday to fight religious extremism, poverty and environmental degradation

More than 100 religious leaders ended a three-day meeting here after signing a charter that says "it is our responsibility to work together to remove all causes of tensions in our communities."

The charter defines the aims of the World Council of Religious Leaders, launched Wednesday as an independent, U.N.-backed body representing Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism and other religions.

"By launching this council and signing this charter, we are redefining the role of religions in a world torn by conflict," said conference organizer Bawa Jain.

The conference was held against a backdrop of military tensions between nuclear rivals India and Pakistan, and violence between Israel and the Palestinians.

"Tragically there are some religious leaders who incite hatred and divisiveness," said Rabbi Arthur Schneier, a leading U.S. activist devoted to religious freedom and human rights. "I see ourselves as a counterweight of mutual understanding."

Schneier said the terrorist events of Sept. 11 were a warning that religious extremism must be countered by preachers, clerics and monks, and that they must teach their flocks tolerance.

The World Council of Religious Leaders was set up in line with recommendations adopted by the Millennium World Peace Summit held at the United Nations in August 2000.

The charter commits the signatories to persuade their followers to accept religious, ethnic and cultural differences, and to live in harmony within diverse communities.

The council also aims to become an active partner with the United Nations in reducing conflict, poverty and environmental degradation.

The charter says the council will set up panels of experts to discuss events and areas of potential religious tension and conflicts. It also will consider and hear disputes and matters of concern to any religion.

But it appeared the council would, at best, be an advisory watchdog that relies on the influence of its participants to defuse tensions.

Jain said governments are always willing to listen to spiritual leaders.

"Religious leaders have to work closely with politicians. It is how we mobilize those leaders and work in a multi-religious perspective that is important," Jain said.