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Ted Turner's Millennium World Peace Summit
by Austin Ruse
Ted Turner has called Christianity a religion for “losers.” He also has urged that adultery be tossed out of the Ten Commandments. And once at a black-tie dinner he made an offensive joke about the pope. Yet Ted Turner also recently convened a world conference of religious and spiritual leaders in New York City.
Turner set the tone of the four-day August meeting on the opening day, bounding energetically toward the main podium in the UN General Assembly Hall to thunderous applause from the reported 800 religious leaders and 1,000 observers. Their adoration grew as he vigorously denounced his childhood Christian fundamentalism. Everybody laughed when Turner said he had wanted to be a missionary. He said his little Christian sect, however, was “intolerant” because it taught that no one else was going to heaven. “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.”
Given his past pronouncements, Turner’s remarks were not as surprising as the reaction of the “religious and spiritual leaders” from all over the world, who rose and vigorously applauded, fists and clapping hands pummeling the air. They hooted and hollered like it was an old-time revival meeting. While this was supposed to be a meeting in which all beliefs were equally respected, it was clear that at least Evangelical Protestants were not welcome.
He Has a Dream
Turner’s meandering, off-the-cuff speech praised “indigenous” religious faiths and then wandered through a paean to the things that all humans have in common—“culture, language, love of birds, butterflies, wives and flowers.” Turner dreams that all the sharp edges of strong religious faith can be pared away, that all theological differences can be dialogued out of existence or at least set aside so we can get on with the real work of mankind. He dreams of a group of religious leaders of the world who can serve, not souls, but the United Nations, which Turner believes is the real hope for mankind’s salvation.
Turner is not alone in this dream. He shared it with former US Senator Tim Wirth, who ran the Clinton administration’s population control negotiations at the International Conference on Population and Development at Cairo in 1994. He shared it with New Age Canadian billionaire Maurice Strong, who spearheads the Earth Charter initiative, which proponents call a “new Ten Commandments.” And finally, when Turner shared it with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, they all agreed to hold the Millennium Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders this year.
But the summit, called to advance the causes of peace, love, and understanding, was little more than a confab between the Far East and the far Left. While it brought together hundreds of religious leaders, observers noted that it lacked proportional representation of the two largest faiths, Christianity and Islam. And most of the Christians present were politically left of center. Numbers aside, the meeting ignored or insulted the traditional beliefs of Christians and Muslims.
A Far Eastern Majority
While the meeting was born from the mind of Ted Turner, the principal organizer was Turner’s hand-picked “Secretary General” Bawa Jain, member of an Indian religion called Jainism (members frequently take the name of the sect), which believes in karma and reincarnation. The dark-bearded Bawa Jain has been a longtime fixture in UN spiritual circles and is connected to something called the Temple of Understanding, as well as the Very Reverend James Morton’s Interfaith Alliance, and the Vatican-condemned United Religions Initiative.
Jain began inviting religious leaders in early 1999. He said he traveled the world for 18 months presenting his vision to religious and political leaders. “Even at this moment terrible conflicts threaten the lives of large numbers of people in various parts of the globe. There is a growing conviction that new measures must be sought to arrest violent conflict in the years ahead.”
Turner and Jain’s intentions were three-fold. First, bring together world religious leaders to talk and to find common ground. Second, issue a declaration on world peace. Third, the major work of the conference, establish a permanent body attached to the UN that would advise it on religious and spiritual matters. The body would also “parachute” into trouble spots around the world and diffuse the trouble. Organizers repeatedly suggested that most conflicts are based on either ethnic or religious differences and therefore religious leaders were specially positioned to fix them.
But all three intentions ultimately came to naught. Perhaps the seeds of failure were planted in the beginning with the list of invited leaders. Jain invited leaders from Hinduism, Sikhism, Shintoism, Judaism, Taoism, Christianity, Islam, Jainism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Confucianism, and indigenous religions. Not that this conference was supposed to be a representative democracy, but some observers felt that the two largest religions, which represent fully one-third of humanity, Christianity and Islam, were vastly outnumbered by other mostly Eastern faiths.
“This Summit was a Hindu-Jain show,” said a Roman Catholic priest familiar with the UN. From the great number of orange-robed men wandering all over the swank Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Park Avenue, where many of the meetings took place, it appeared the Eastern faiths were very well represented. “I wonder if this was really India’s attempt at getting a permanent slot on the Security Council,” said one skeptical delegate.
A well-connected Muslim delegate also complained about the token presence of Christians and Muslims. He explained that an overwhelming number of countries are under administrative control of either Christians or Muslims, yet both religions were under-represented. “If this body is to have any credibility at all, it must address the concerns of both Christians and Muslims,” he said.
From Spanking to Christian-Bashing
The conference was awash in the literature of the Far East. Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, who practices “ayurvedic medicine,” circulated literature that said the way to world peace is to stop spanking. “In our homes when we strike our children, we teach everybody to beat everybody else, and the beating goes on, right on down the line, until they are a soldier or a gang member or a rebel, and then they are fighting to kill.” The Satguru also said that it was Christian culture from Britain that imported these notions to Hindu culture in India.
Another of the many Hindus there, Dr. Bhupendra Modi wrote, “In one way or another, all religions recognize the existence of God. Despite their different paths, all religions [are] in essence one and convey the similar message [sic].” H. H. Acharya Shri Krishnamaniji Maharaj distributed a booklet describing the “March Toward Universal Religion.” There were dozens of such papers around the conference room.
“What nationality is the sun? African? American? Indian? Russian?”
“What color is the air? Black? Brown? White? Yellow?”
“What is the religion of water? Hinduism? Christianity? Islam?”
Thus read posters leading into the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf. Perhaps parody comes too easily to mind, yet the meeting was like this. The messages, repeated every day, were that conflict was bad and was caused by too strongly held religious faith (generally Christianity and Islam), that poverty was caused by the rapacious ownership of the means of production, and that mankind was hell-bent on destroying planet Earth.
It’s not that sensible voices were absent, but there weren’t very many. On opening day, in the General Assembly Hall, the Patriarch of Ethiopia called for the protection of the unborn. The packed audience greeted this with absolute silence. The next speaker, the Secretary General of the World Muslim Congress, said that marriage could only occur between a man and a woman, and he condemned all forms of “sexual abnormalities.” Again, deafening silence. It wasn’t that the crowd was not listening, however, because the next speaker, a Buddhist “Master,” received a standing ovation when he condemned all attempts at religious conversion. The Reverend Joan Campbell, recently retired head of the National Council of Churches, also received cheers for condemning “conversion.” An American Indian explained that at one time all people were “indigenous people” and it was Christianity that separated people from their early faith and therefore condemned the environment to degradation.
Cardinal Arinze, head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, read a statement from Pope John Paul II, a longtime champion of ecumenism properly understood. He has supported the kind of dialogue the World Peace Summit purported to be and extended a greeting to its participants. After the anti-Christian tenor of the opening day speeches, however, one Vatican source described Arinze as “furious.”
The Earth Charter
One of the chief proposals bandied about during the summit was something called the Earth Charter. The charter, a pronouncement on the environment, grew from the frustrations of the organizers of the UN Conference on Environment and Development (Rio de Janeiro, 1992), who wanted some kind of environmental charter adopted there. Shortly after the Rio Conference, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev joined with Maurice Strong to begin a process that they hope will end in the universal adoption of this document.
In its 16 major points the charter may sound like a benign call for peace, love, and understanding. “Respect Earth and life in all its diversity.” “Care for the community of life with understanding, compassion, and love.” “Build democratic societies that are just, participatory, sustainable, and peaceful.” To well-trained ears, however, other points will sound more ominous. “Ensure that economic activities and institutions at all levels promote human development in an equitable and sustainable manner.” The term sustainable generally is understood as approving population control, including sterilization and abortion.
The Earth Charter campaign is now running in dozens of countries. Governments, businesses, and individuals will be asked to agree to it in the coming months. It is expected to be presented for ratification to the UN General Assembly next year. Charter proponents presented it at the summit because they can put a unique kind of pressure on governments and individuals to support its passage.
United Religions Initiative
Also at the center of much of the World Peace Summit was the fairly new and as yet little reported movement called the United Religions Initiative (URI). [See Touchstone June 2000: “Midwives of a Common God.”] URI is now active in 58 countries on all continents and in 33 states in the United States. Founded in 1995 by Episcopalian Bishop William E. Swing, URI documents call it a “global community dedicated to promoting enduring, daily interfaith cooperation, ending religiously motivated violence, and creating cultures of peace, justice and healing for the Earth [sic] and all living beings.”
URI leaders intend to create “a permanent assembly, with the stature and visibility of the United Nations, where the world’s religions and spiritual communities will gather on a daily basis.” URI president Reverend Charles Gibbs describes URI as “an inclusive, decentralized organization, a spiritual partner of the United Nations.”
URI positions are more than religious and delve into controversial political issues, including support for population control and environmental extremism. URI is also radical on sexuality; its president and vice-president have signed a new document called the “Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing” produced by the radical pro-abortion group SEICUS (Sexual Information and Education Council of the US). This declaration opposes “unsustainable population growth” and supports homosexual marriage, artificial contraception, and abortion.
URI and its supporters believe one of the major stumbling blocks to their endeavors is the presence of “fundamentalists.” Swing has condemned traditional notions of Christian evangelization, equating “proselytizing” with “condemning, murdering, [and] dominating” as things that “will not be tolerated in the United Religions zone.” Former UN official Robert Muller says the UN should lead “vigorous actions” against “religious fundamentalism.”
An Uncertain Future
In the end, the World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders achieved very little. It did issue a feel-good document, although it was written well in advance and was in no way negotiated by participants. It appeared in a New York Times ad at the summit’s close, but it was signed only by Bawa Jain. Finally, no permanent body was established to advise the UN on religious and spiritual matters. Organizers said religious leaders had committed to it, but they didn’t say who agreed.
One is tempted to think that the prognosis for the World Peace Summit might be seen in an incident that occurred early in the week. During the seminar on conflict resolution a shoving match broke out over audience access to the microphone. Six security guards weighed in and scattered what appeared to be a rugby scrum of ten mostly Far Eastern clerics. The chairman abruptly ended all audience participation.
Austin Ruse covers the United Nations for Catholic World Report and NewsMax. He is also president of the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute, which monitors UN activity.
Austin Ruse writes from Washington, D.C., where he is president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (www.c-fam.org) and the Culture of Life Foundation (www.culture-of-life.org). He is the editor of C-FAM?s "Friday Fax" report on life and family issues at the United Nations.