Multifaith clergy dialogue in the name of peace

When the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance recently assembled three of the world’s great religious leaders for a multifaith dialogue, a rabbi, a priest, an archbishop and the president of the world’s largest Muslim nation confronted the greatest current obstacle to world peace: religion.

“Today, we would have to say that the threat to world peace in many cases, tragically, emanates from those who claim that they speak in the name of God,” Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Wiesenthal Center, told a group of distinguished spiritual and political leaders who gathered at the museum on May 5 (for a roundtable discussion). Packed into a small, dark conference room on the upper level of the museum, a group of dignitaries determined to combat global intolerance and violence proved that although there are hard questions to answer, dialogue is a key component in elucidating what different faith communities have in common.

The center brought together Kyai Haji Abdurrahman Wahid, former president of Indonesia; Lord George Carey of Clifton, archbishop of Canterbury emeritus; and the Rev. Patrick Desbois of France, to bestow them each with medals of valor for their humanitarian work, presented at the center’s National Tribute Dinner on May 6, which also honored Hollywood heavyweight Amy Pascal.

“As you recognize the strength of someone else’s faith, you may recover greater confidence in your own,” said Carey, who has devoted his life to bridging the gap between Islam and the western world. At the behest of Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, he established the Alexandria Process, an initiative that coalesces Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders for peacemaking efforts in the Holy Land. But in 2004, during a four-day conference in Cairo, Egypt, moments of stark divisiveness prompted some leaders to walk away from the table.

Carey once found himself at a similar crossroads when the Anglican Church, over which he presided for more than a decade, voted to divest from doing business with Israel. But instead of walking away, Carey publicly criticized the Church of England for aligning themselves with one cause over another.

“How can we promote peace if we take sides?” Carey asked.

“The real test is to have a dialogue that works from our own attachment to our own faith, but at the same time, from a very deep understanding of other faiths.”

The problem that we face, he said, is not merely that the issues are challenging, but that many influential leaders remain silent in their stead.

Although the assembly praised Carey’s message, many wondered how to engage with a leader like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who openly denounces the Jewish state — and isn’t exactly a candidate for friendly dialogue. Avoiding the question, Carey downplayed the longevity of political leaders and suggested starting at the local level by building relationships with Iranian citizens.

Which is precisely what Wahid, who served as president of Indonesia from 1999 to 2001, has been doing within his country. Since 1984, when he became head of Nahdlatul Ulama, an umbrella organization overseeing 14,000 Muslim madrasas that serve as the center of study for Muslim theology, he began reforming the nation’s largest educational and social welfare system. He engaged in a public denunciation of Holocaust denial in the Muslim world and convened a multifaith conference where, for the first time, a Holocaust survivor delivered personal testimony that was broadcast throughout the Arab world on Al Hurra satellite TV.

While Wahid has built bridges among different faiths, the obstacle that remains is narrowing the gender divide perpetuated by Islam.

Working closely with his wife, Nuriyah Wahid, a staunch advocate for women’s rights in Indonesia, the former first couple intends to change the culture of Muslim theology, beginning with the Quran.

“To this point the Quran has been interpreted by men,” Nuriyah Wahid said through a translator at the museum’s afternoon reception. “The Quran itself does not distinguish between men and women, and men are using their interpretation to promote their own interests. This has to be straightened out.”

The importance of tolerance and openness in today’s increasingly intolerant world was the theme of the dinner the following day, where a mix of Hollywood denizens, Holocaust survivors, politicians and the center’s wealthy donors gathered for the award ceremony in the ballroom of the Regent Beverly Wilshire hotel.

At the event, $2 million was raised for the Wiesenthal Center, which recently inaugurated the museum’s newest addition, a life-size replica of Simon Wiesenthal’s office from Vienna.

After a short presentation on his support for Israel, Rabbi Hier introduced a frail and wheelchair-bound Wahid, who received a standing ovation.

“If we as a people are dedicated to openness, we have to recognize Israel — there is no other way,” said a weak-voiced Wahid, who was scheduled to attend a press conference in Israel following his visit to Los Angeles.

With a captive audience, Pascal, the Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chair, said she was “daunted” by the honorees before her. She shared her vision of Hollywood as an industry that values collective responsibility — a medium that entertains, but also tells the truth.

“Being a good Jew means supporting people and causes not when it’s in our self interest,” she said. “Survival is a privilege that entails obligation. Every day God gives us the opportunity to do the right thing and at least one day, we should take it.”