U.N. religious summit speakers decry efforts at conversion
By Tom Strode
WASHINGTON (BP)–The Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders failed to accomplish one of its main objectives in four days of meetings but evidenced widespread opposition to efforts at religious conversion.
The summit, held partly at the United Nations General Assembly Hall in New York, was attended by about 800 religious leaders and 1,000 observers from nearly 100 countries. The meeting was designed to focus on conflict resolution and reconciliation, as well as poverty and the environment.
While a document on world peace was signed by many of the participants, the meeting failed to produce an advisory council to the United Nations, as forecast.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan rejected a request by summit organizers for an advisory body of religious and spiritual leaders to assist him, according to The Washington Post. Annan declined the recommendation because of a lack of details about the proposed council, an aide to the secretary general said, according to The Post.
Leaders of the summit, however, agreed to establish a steering committee to find ways to collaborate with the United Nations.
Meanwhile, pronouncements were voiced by speakers from different religious traditions against attempts to convert people to other religions, and they met with strong affirmation, reported a Southern Baptist representative and another evangelical Christian observer. Evangelicals especially would be targets for such sentiments, since they have sent missionaries throughout the world to proclaim the message of salvation exclusively by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
On numerous occasions, there were “very negative comments regarding proselytization,” said Ken Welborn of the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board.
Such declarations were met by “vigorous applause,” said Richard Cizik, who represented the National Association of Evangelicals at the summit.
“That view was held by most of those at the conference,” Cizik said. “What I think was also unfortunate was that the representatives of Christianity were joining that same call to denounce proselytizing, in particular Joan Brown Campbell. She came out with a strong statement that proselytizing must be renounced.
“The irony is the U.N. charter documents affirm the right of people to change their religious beliefs.”
Campbell is the former general secretary of the National Council of Churches, a coalition primarily made up of liberal Protestant denominations.
“Some of the most rousing applause” during the summit came when CNN founder Ted Turner denied the “need for a blood sacrifice,” Welborn said. “[I]t was a sad comment, a very sad comment.”
The only evangelical representative on the program was Anne Graham Lotz, who “essentially gave a gospel presentation,” said Cizik, NAE’s vice president for government affairs.
The “weakest representation” at the summit was from conservative Christianity, said Welborn, NAMB’s director of Christian ministries to the United Nations community. “The focus was mostly on Eastern religions,” he said.
“If the indigenous religions in Africa, the Hindus in India and others” are concerned about proselytization by Christians and others, “they certainly didn’t get an opportunity to dialogue with those groups because so few evangelicals were invited,” Cizik said.
The purpose of the summit was positive, Welborn and Cizik said.
The potential for future conflict between religious groups needs to be addressed, Cizik said. “But I don’t think you can achieve that objective by excluding those who should be included, notably evangelicals, nor by calls against proselytizing,” he said.
The week after the Aug. 28-31 meeting, the Vatican released a 36-page directive targeting religious pluralism and pronouncing salvation from sin is available only through the Roman Catholic Church, according to The Post. The statement says not only other religions but Protestant churches have weaknesses that endanger the eternal destiny of their members, The Post reported.
In addition to Christianity, other religious movements represented at the summit included Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Ba’hai, Confucianism, Shinto, Taoism and Zoroastrianism.
In his speech at the U.N. General Assembly Hall, Turner, who helped fund the summit, called for cooperation among cultures and religions in order to achieve peace. At one time, he was going to be a Christian missionary but Turner said he changed his mind about the faith of his childhood after studying other religions.
“What disturbed me is that my religious Christian sect was very intolerant — not intolerant of religious freedom for other people, but we thought that we were the only ones going to heaven,” Turner said, according to his prepared remarks. “It just confused the devil out of me, because I said heaven is going to be a mighty empty place with nobody else there. So I was pretty confused and turned off by it. I said it just can’t be right.”
After studying other cultures, Turner adopted a view outside biblical teaching. “Instead of all these different gods, I thought maybe there’s one God who manifests himself and reveals himself in different ways to different people,” he said.
The document on peace circulated among religious leaders included a commitment to pursue peace in collaboration with the United Nations, as well as:
— the promotion of “the equitable distribution of wealth within nations and among nations;”
— a call for the “universal abolition of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction;”
— the development of a “global reforestation campaign.”
One of the criticisms leveled at the summit before it even began was for its rebuff of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner. The Dalai Lama, who was exiled from Tibet following the country’s takeover by Chinese communists more than 40 years ago, originally did not receive an invitation to the summit after it was made clear the Beijing government opposed his participation. Later, he was issued an invitation to speak on the final day, which was not held in the General Assembly Hall, but he declined it. The first two days of the meeting were held in the U.N. hall, but the final two days were at a New York hotel.
The summit, as well as another U.N. meeting, has resulted in concern among at least some conservative Christians about progress toward a one-world government. The U.N. Millennium Summit of leaders from more than 150 countries began Sept. 6. Among proposals to be considered are a worldwide tax system, as well as establishment of an international court and a full-time international security force.
Baptist Press [September 2000]