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World Religions Aim to Quell Conflict

Religious leaders gather at Stanford to start global search for common ground.

It wasn't quite the embrace felt around the world. But when delegates from Pakistan and India signed a declaration here last week calling for religious dialogue between the two newly nuclear countries there was a sense beneath a large white tent amid thunderous applause that something special had happened.

The audacious goals of the fledgling United Religions Initiative, a global interfaith peace effort, were finding practical voice even as they were being ironed out at the group's summit on the Stanford University campus here. For many, it was affirmation that URI is on the right track.

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URI envisions itself as a movement on the scale of the United Nations and with a similar goal of world peace. But URI's principal tool is religion, not politics or conventional diplomacy.

"There's got to be a neutral space, not controlled by any religion, but founded on spiritual values that would allow religions to pursue peace among themselves," says Episcopal Bishop William Swing, the group's founder. Religion, he says, is fueling most of the world's conflict, whether in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, or south Asia.

URI joins a constellation of interfaith movements but distinguishes itself by the sweep of its purpose. Groups such as the World Council of Churches have focused on specific problems, from homelessness to ecology. But URI is, in Bishop Swing's words, "aiming for the whole pie, world peace."

URI was born three years ago and last week it took a critical step: drafting a "purpose statement" that calls for creating "a safe space for spiritual partnerships in which the peoples of the world pursue justice, healing, and peace, with reverence for all life." Some 225 religious leaders from 50 countries were on hand to ratify the charter, which will now be sent to all the world's major religious groups for feedback and approval. Swing's target: 60 million signatures.

There was also agreement to call for a 72-hour global cease-fire as the clock ticks over to the year 2000.

INTERFAITH efforts often encounter their own kind of internal warfare, stumbling between the extremes of one religion trying to dominate or a kind of relativism that eliminates all distinctions, says Eloise Rosenblatt of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif. But she says those extremes are giving way to exploration of a middle ground. "The two poles are the beginning of our curriculum for the next millennium," she says.

Christian fundamentalists have already written off the URI as antithetical to their understanding of the Bible.

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But the Rev. Charles Gibbs, URI executive director, sees several factors that make the group's goals feasible. First, the growing leadership role of women, which strengthens values that favor partnership. Second, migration of religions in recent decades. Eastern and Western traditions are mingling, and understanding is growing. Third, the ease of global communications helping diverse groups work together.

L.M. Singhvi, a former high commissioner of India and current member of India's Upper House, is a strong URI backer. "I've been in lots of negotiations and conflict resolution for many years as a diplomat. But we've never really had meaningful contact between religious and cultural communities." It's that dialogue he sees as the key, untried solution to world conflict and the reason he shook hands with delegates from Pakistan last week.

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