PM says religious conflicts are big challenge for international community

Religious conflicts are one of the biggest challenges facing the international community, Prime Minister Paul Martin said on Sunday as he prepared to head to New York City to attend the United Nations General Assembly.

"You can sit down to discuss economics, you can discuss politics and in fact, there is normally a rational background that one can approach logically," Martin told a banquet marking an interfaith conference hosted by McGill University.

"But when religious differences are allowed to keep us apart, there is no logical way to deal with it."

Over 200 academics from Canada, India and the United States gathered at the conference to mark the 400th anniversary of the Sikh scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib and to hear experts on Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism speak on universality and justice.

With religiously based conflicts continuing in places like Kashmir, the Middle East and Sudan, Martin praised meetings that bring religious communities together.

"The breakup between people on account of religion is not simply limited to one region of the world," he said. "But it is part of our history and, unfortunately, it is part of our present.

"I hope that the discussions (going on in the conference) mean that my successor, when he or she goes to the United Nations, will not have to spend time there talking about the religious differences that keep us apart."

Martin heads to the UN on Monday and will address the General Assembly on Wednesday.

Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, who delivered the conference's keynote address, also urged greater dialogue among religious communities in order to protect universal human rights.

"This conference takes place against a global back drop that could be described as both a human rights revolution and a counter revolution," Cotler said.

"We've had the best of human rights protections on the books but yet the worst of human rights violations on the ground," he said.

"We have been witnessing brutal forms of religious and ethnic conflict that have led to tragic, humanitarian tragedies. Religious communities should reclaim the human rights voice within their (own faiths).

"We need to involve religion in the greater human rights culture."

However, Rev. Darryl Gray, a Union United Church pastor and head of the English-rights group Alliance Quebec, said the government still hasn't gone far enough to encourage religious tolerance, especially since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

"Canada was built with immigrants and refugees but we are seeing a disproportionate amount of racial profiling," he said.

"We look at people, see a turban or a Muslim, and perceived them as a villain or a terrorist. Even 10 years ago, Canada was a champion of human rights. Now, it is not longer that champion."

The Montreal conference ends Monday.