I wish to thank the Muslim Council of Elders for convening this Global Conference of Human Fraternity and for extending an invitation to me to speak on the ‘Premises of Human Fraternity.’ I am grateful to join with His Eminence, the Grand Imam, for the third time at such a conference as this.
This conference and others like it reflect a growing sense of and movement toward unity among the world’s major religions. This momentum has been gathering for decades, and with our active involvement and encouragement, it promises to become an inexorable force toward peace and justice and a new epoch in human history.
And, yet, our success is not certain. We must remain in close and constant contact with one another, for there remain within all major religions powerful extremists who believe they, and only they, possess the truth.
The realization that our creator — the Divine, the Holy, the One that loves and cherishes each of us, celebrates our diversity and deeply desires we live in harmony with one another — has been increasing in the consciousness of humanity. This is one of our premises.
We as religious leaders must show the way forward. We must be the ones who set the example. When we are in the midst of bitter disagreements with one another, our people are dismayed.
In the Christian faith, for example, it was because young people were tired of factional disputes that they created ecumenical organizations such as the Young Men’s Christian Association, the Young Women’s Christian Association, and the World Student Christian Movement. These new bodies breathed fresh air into world Christianity and led to the ecumenical movement that brings me before you today.
Similarly, in my country, interfaith groupings are rapidly supplanting the Christian ecumenical organizations that have been a key source of cooperation and understanding. Again, young people desire to have new and deepened relationships with people of other faiths. They will not wait for faith leaders to forge these paths.
Our faith traditions teach eternal truths, but they will nevertheless change in the years ahead because the world has become a smaller place and our young people yearn for unity. It is a struggle between cosmopolites and localites. One need not be a world traveler to be a cosmopolite, but one must be open to and interested in new experiences and be sensitive and vulnerable and open to the realities and experiences of others.
Too often, however, localites feel threatened by those who are different from them, by those who have different beliefs, faiths, customs, and traditions. In my country, at this moment our historic openness to the world is being threatened by rulers who seek to build walls, restrict movement, and disengage from the world.
What we need throughout the earth are religious and political leaders who can comfortably and articulately express their faiths, interests, and concerns without demanding obeisance and surrender from those who possess different beliefs.
This understanding, tolerance, and acceptance of one another is more essential today than ever before. The beautiful planet given to us by our Creator is threatened by climate change and weapons of mass destruction. The possibilities for a good and decent life are similarly threatened by continuous warfare, rampant greed, and pervasive surveillance techniques.
Again, I use my own country as an example of the challenges before us. We spend $1 trillion on weapons, spies, and related activities and maintain military installations in nearly every nation on earth. We have kept soldiers in some countries for more than 70 years. We possess vast numbers of dangerous armaments. We have overthrown many elected governments and even now threaten to do so.
Despite the many good things my nation does and has done, these nefarious activities cannot be ignored. Indeed, if we persist in this course our democracy will be lost. Glorification of war and the military legions will replace it, and the nation will bankrupt itself. This pattern is not unknown in world history among the great empires that have risen and fallen.
But this tragedy need not take place. Time remains to change direction, but the hour is growing late. We as religious leaders must ally ourselves with those all around the world who seek justice, peace, reconciliation, and unity. It is only when we continue to work closely together, to analyze correctly, and to place the higher interests of humanity above our own narrow, sectarian interests that we can help lead our people to a better future.
Jesus said to his disciples, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.” May we here be blessed with the wisdom to interpret the signs of the times.
We are being called, and we will continue to be called to withstand malevolent forces that seek to divide and use us for purposes of establishing domination and control. It is an age-old story. But, again, I suggest to you we must be wiser and more determined than ever before to change course.
The fact that dialogues and conferences such as this one continue to take place; the fact we continue to raise our voices for justice and peace provides hope that a new way forward can be found.
Nearly one billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty over the past 30 years. Religious groups such as those represented by many of us have strongly supported the Millennium Development Goals and the Sustainable Development Goals. Lifting the next billion out of poverty will be more difficult as some wish to restrict trade and maintain the grotesque gap between the rich and the poor, on course presently to control 2/3 of all wealth by the year 2030. This inequality will fuel more unrest, resistance, and revolution.
Over the past half century, life expectancy has grown by 20 years; child mortality has decreased, 2.5 million deaths are prevented each year among children aged under five years through the use of measles, polio, and diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccines. Hundreds of millions of additional people now have access to clean drinking water in this century alone. We are winning the fight against malaria, and more than 200,000 lives are being saved each year in this struggle.
Fewer people have HIV/AIDS today. Forty-one million cases of Tuberculosis have been cured, and 6 million have been prevented over the past 25 years. Eradication of Guinea worm disease, river blindness, and lymphatic filariasis is within reach.
We still have much to do to reduce deaths related to tobacco use, numbering more than 5 million each year around the globe. Pandemic diseases and emerging diseases such as AIDS, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, and Influenza continue to cause fear, economic instability, severe illness, and premature death.
We have made significant progress in raising life expectancy and reducing mortality among infants and young children through improvements in living conditions and activities to combat major infectious causes of death. We must continue to harness scientific, technical, and medical resources to address cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and other noncommunicable conditions.
I wish to celebrate the progress we have made in reducing poverty and improving health. Religious leaders have given support to these efforts, but we must not become complacent. If poverty and the inequality of wealth deepens, and health conditions worsen, the flow of migration, the number of displaced peoples, and the depth of anger will increase and imperil all or any gains we have made.
Among the changes in everyday life that are required in my nation—and yet resisted—are those that will lead to a more sustainable life on earth for all people. Young people are prepared to advance and implement these changes.
These include the use of LED light bulbs, opting for the use of bicycles and mass transportation over private automobiles, changes in cooking and less use of red meat, reduced use of water, correct oil recycling, to name but a few changes many are already embracing but all will have to accept.
Scientists and naturalists are warning us that as climate change rapidly intensifies, the end of civilization and the natural world, as we know it, is on the horizon. Many religious leaders have sounded the warning for years now, but I do not think we have given it the priority attention it requires.
The 20 warmest years ever recorded have been in the past 22 years and the top four in these past four years. We are not making sufficient progress toward limiting warming to 1.5C as scientists advise, and my country is doing its best to ignore the deepening crisis.
It will be impossible for us to meet in comfortable conditions such as these and discuss citizenship and dialogue and how to defend the rights of the oppressed and persecuted if melting polar ice and rising seas, severe weather conditions, and more drought and famine plague our nations. Panic will set in. It is infinitely more challenging to make rational decisions in the midst of fear and panic.
I am well aware that many in this room have lived through wars and chaos and know how bad conditions can become.
My friends, my beloved brothers and sisters, I am honored to have a few moments to speak with you today. I cherish the time we have together. We do face significant challenges today and in the years ahead and there is no one else I would rather be standing alongside in the struggle for human liberation and dignity than you, my fellow believers.
We are called to bold and prophetic leadership, and I believe we are ready to exercise it. I know that our Creator desires for us to put his teachings and our beliefs into action.