September 13, 2004

U.N. Envoy Seeks to Enlist the Clergy to Ease Conflicts


NY Times
Published September 13, 2004

John C. Danforth, the American ambassador to the United Nations, says he is actively trying to create a new forum for leaders of the world’s faiths to involve themselves in resolving the conflicts in a world of terror.

The focus of the U.N. has been to discuss issues between nations, whereas a lot of the conflict in the world today is not between nations but between nations and people who feel they are commanded by God to shoot children and blow up buses, Mr. Danforth, 68, an Episcopal minister and a former United States senator who took up his present post on July 1, said in an interview on Friday.

In the interview, Mr. Danforth said he was deeply troubled by the silence from religious leaders in the face of acts like the school siege in Russia last week in which hostage takers attacked students trying to flee.

If there are people who believe that God commands them to shoot children in the back and if we start with that kind of belief, is there any voice against it and if so, where is that voice? Mr. Danforth said. Is there any place in the world to deal with this point of view? I don’t see it.

He said there was nowhere to bring forward religious grievances and have them publicly discussed and, possibly, reconciled. What is needed, he said, is a much stronger voice from the faith community, some kind of place or forum for mediating religious conflict and involving the participation of people of faith.

Mr. Danforth, who has become known for blunt-spoken directness in a place where evasively stated disagreement is the norm, said the time had come for people of faith to move beyond writing letters to members of Congress and participating in conferences on tolerance — which he described as good-feeling gabfests about how nice we should be to each other.

As for his fellow members of the clergy, he said, I am concerned that most of them are either finessing the issue or ignoring the issue, just getting people to come through their doors and passing the collection plate.

Mr. Danforth, an imposing 6-foot-3-inch presence with a sonorous baritone that millions of people came to know in June when he officiated at the Washington funeral for President Ronald Reagan, has been known to keep his political and ecclesiastical lives apart since receiving separate degrees from Yale’s schools of divinity and law on the same day in 1963. In his 18 years in the Senate, he regularly preached at Tuesday morning services at St. Alban’s parish church at the National Cathedral.

He said the actual form his proposal would take was still vague, but he envisaged a center for a small but skilled group of people who are expert in various faiths and in conflict resolution.

While he acknowledged that his proposal would be a new activity for the United Nations, he thought the world organization was the best site for the effort, and said he was determined to pull it off. This is absolutely at the forefront of what I think about every day, and it just happens now that I am in this job and have this place, he said.

Among the concerns he said a new forum should address were, What is the relation between government and religion, to what extent is government an arm of religion and, in those countries where it is, to what extent do they provide for the rights of religious minorities?

He said he thought the times called for a readjustment of religious commitment to solving world conflicts. A lot of people think religion is the answer, he said. But right now, religion is the problem.

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