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DEVELOPMENT: Faith-based Groups Fight for a Better World

Thalif Deen

HIROSHIMA, May 27 2008 (IPS) - The World Health Organisation (WHO) has estimated that nearly 30 to 70 percent of the sprawling health infrastructure in the African continent is owned or run by faith-based organisations.

And globally, one-third of all AIDS patients are now cared for under the auspices of the Catholic Church.

The U.N. children’s agency UNICEF, in collaboration with Muslim and Christian organisations, raised the immunisation coverage rate of children under a year old, to 75 percent, up from only 6.0 percent, in once war-ravaged Sierra Leone.

And according to the Buddhist Leadership Initiative, about 30 percent of monks in China, Cambodia and Laos have received health care training on HIV/AIDS, as they embark on a journey to battle the devastating disease in Asia.

Archbishop Celestino Migliore, representing the Holy See at the United Nations, says the Catholic Church runs more than 250,000 schools on all continents, with 3.5 million teachers educating 42 million students.

Despite charges that some groups propagate religion while providing social and humanitarian services, still most faith-based organisations continue to make a significant impact with their services worldwide.

As the world continues to battle bigotry, illiteracy, disease, and xenophobia, a group of more than 1,300 religious leaders, educators, activists and children from 62 countries re-affirmed the key role played by these organisations to help resolve the political, social and economic ills of our times.

“In a world of plurality, we call on all religious and spiritual communities to recognise that no religion is an island,” says the Hiroshima Declaration adopted at the conclusion of a three-day meeting here of the Global Network of Religions for Children (GNRC).

The GNRC points out that faith-based organisations are unique players in the international community. “Their large and far-reaching constituencies and local presence, even in the most remote parts of the world, give them the potential to provide assistance on a truly global scale.”

Rev. Keishi Miyamoto, a representative of the Arigatou Foundation, which sponsored the GNRC meeting, said: “Our aim is to serve as an effective bridge between the U.N. system and the world’s religious leaders and their massive faith communities, when it comes to the one concern most easily shared by all humanity: the survival and well-being of children.”

In its declaration adopted Monday, the GNRC proposed that a ‘World Day of Prayer and Action for Children’ be held annually on Nov. 20, the International Children’s Day, as part of a global movement of solidarity with children.

Asked what role religion and ethical education can play in helping eliminate conflicts, racism, and xenophobia, Dr. Daisaku Ikeda, president of Soka Gakkai International (SGI), said: “I think the central mission of religion is to bring forth the most positive qualities in each of us.”

“Religion exists to enhance our spiritual aspects, to help us become more truly human – to help individuals become happier and societies become more peaceful and harmonious,” he told IPS.

All too often however, rather than religion serving human needs, human beings become subservient to religion, said Dr. Ikeda, who heads the Tokyo-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) with over 12 million members in some 190 countries.

“This has to be set straight, and here I think we should remember that the founders of all the great faiths shared one common concern – freeing people from suffering and enabling them to be happy,” he added.

It is tragic that history is filled with so much discrimination and so much conflict waged in the name of religion. “But most times these have actually been political conflicts disguised as religious ones – political interests making use of religious differences for their own ends. This has to stop,” said Dr. Ikeda, who is also a Buddhist philosopher, author and peace proponent.

In his view, religion and education each have a critical role to play in the healthy development of society. “In a manner of speaking, they are like the two wheels of a cart. Religious faith without education is always in danger of falling into dogmatism and fanaticism.”

On the other hand, he said, “Education that lacks an ethical or spiritual underpinning can warp our attitudes toward knowledge, allowing scientific research to run dangerously out of control.”

Nothing demonstrates this more horrifically than the development of nuclear weapons, he said. “This is why I have put my energies into dialogues aimed at bridging differences of nationality, religious affiliation and ideology, and into promoting educational exchanges that foster people-to-people connections,” Dr. Ikeda added.

Dr. Mustafa Ali, secretary-general of the African Council of Religious Leaders and GNRC Coordinator for Africa, said faith-based institutions possess critical assets – moral, spiritual and social.

In many less developed countries, faith-based institutions provide over 50 percent of education and medical services, complementing those of governments and local authorities. This is besides the pastoral care, counseling and other services.

In the past, Dr Ali said, many bilateral and multi-lateral institutions such as U.N. agencies and official government aid institutions did not consider that faith-based institutions play a key role in providing much needed services to communities. This was a huge mistake.

Now, these same institutions have taken faith-based organisations much more seriously, and more attention is also being paid to inter-faith institutions, he added.

For example, the joint Inter Religious Council of Uganda-Religions for Peace helps coordinate the provision of palliative care to over 50,000 HIV/AIDS patients every day. The Inter Religious Council of Sierra Leone has helped end violence in that country.

In West Africa, it was only after UNICEF sought the help of religious leaders that its immunisation campaigns substantially increased and became effective, Dr. Ali pointed out.

“Having said that, more still needs to be done. There is a huge deficit/gap between what’s done and what’s needed to be done out there,” he added.

Faith-based institutions such as GNRC, the World Conference of Religions for Peace (WCRP), the African Council of Religious Leaders (ACRL) and many others can help reach out to many more millions who remain out of reach, he declared.

Dr. Ikeda of SGI pointed out that practitioners of the world’s different faiths should focus their wisdom and efforts in resolving the shared problems of the planet. Fostering people of talent and commitment who can make positive contributions to human society is the role religion should play in the 21st century.

The various forms of interfaith dialogue that the SGI takes part in are motivated by the desire to encourage this kind of contribution, he added.

“I think it is critical for people of different faiths to come together on the common ground of dialogue, return to first principles – the spirit of their respective founders – and strive for the elevation of humanity and the construction of peace.”

He said dialogue – and the shared aspiration to contribute to humankind it inspires – is the most effective antidote to religious dogmatism.

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