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URI in the World

A Humble Commitment to Peace

URI in the World

by Azza Karam

URI envisions a world at peace, sustained by engaged and interconnected communities committed to respect for diversity, nonviolent resolution of conflict, and social, political, economic, and environmental justice.

This is URI’s mission statement. It is forever timely, simple, and amazingly powerful.  As is the organization’s structure and its work. Matter of fact, impassioned, committed – these are the traits of URI members from its founding in 2000 till today. And these traits are evident in all the URI women I have had the privilege to work with. None of them have haughty, moralizing, power-hungry mannerisms. Nor do they insist on one right way of being and doing, creating or representing. No pretense or illusion about bearing the “white man’s burden.” Moreover, URI representatives maintain a steadfast refusal to be anything but humble.

URI is fluid, inclusive, and all about service through love of peace. It is the only global multi-religious organization whose members include people of all beliefs, and who are steadfastly and systematically about ordinary folks doing extraordinary things – without bragging. Well, at least not all the time.

I should know… for I work with all manner of ‘religious’ people. I also work and cohabit in a space dominated by all manner of secular folks who, on a good day, simply do not like anything connected to religion. In my realm of daily existence, I am either expected to “use” the religious, or turn the other check to those who have called me a “moralizer” because I advocate for integrating faith-based actors with secular ones as a necessary means to strengthen a civil society beleaguered and attacked almost everywhere in the world.

I work with those busy with developing an almost instant expertise on “all things religious” (as opposed to investing significantly in studying the nuances of complex and diverse faiths among the world’s cultures). I also work with ‘instant experts’ on all things religious, who would seek to be gatekeepers to the realms of religious existences, and who strut from city to city, boasting of their humility.

I have lived long enough in this work to witness diverse institutions and individuals who have woken up to smell the pungent aroma of “religion and terrorism” – some would argue it is camouflaged as “religious liberty,” “development,” and/or “peacebuilding”. Among them are those who are scrambling to build the biggest and most inclusive House of All, yet in their scramble they overlook or ignore those who look, speak, and act differently – or involve them in a tokenistic fashion.

I have roamed the world from Korea to Peru, from Egypt to Cape Town, from China to Ohio, and from New York to Colombo, all the while “doing religion.” I have learned that “noblesse oblige,” or white man’s burden, is still very much alive. And today it has taken to donning the old-new cloak of salvaging souls in the name of the “most holy” (which varies), or indeed in the name of “sustainable development” and “peace.”

And we are all, unfortunately, living to see the very narratives and physical acts of hate which killed millions in the past, resurface with a vengeance – and worse, be defended.  At the same time, sexism continues to rear its head in a global misogynistic backlash.

I have seen nuns run an orphanage of thousands of children on a pittance each month, and I have seen believers whose diverse temples are so grand, and whose expenditure run in the hundreds of millions – they can but stand in awe.

Photo:    Max Pixel

Photo: Max Pixel

I have also seen those houses of worship wear their hearts on their sleeves with pride and sing tunes of passion for social justice for all, but especially those whose rights and dignity continue to be violated in murderous silences. Sometimes their “temples” are no bigger than a room in a basement – yet they accommodate oceans of loving and dignified service. And it is in that category, that I would place the URI members I have had the privilege to work with.

It is a little known story that thanks to URI’s hard work and selfless commitment to the cause of peace, their UN representatives Monica Willard and Deborah Moldow were able to catalyze the first body inside the United Nations for learning, policy guidance, and building of UN staff capacities regarding religion – the United Nations Interagency Task Force on Religion. This is the only collective space inside the United Nations on and about religions and religious engagement, the first such space since the UN’s founding.

I was further impressed as I saw them continuing their hard work with the Mission of Jordan to the United Nations. Their work on other governmental missions, years later, ensured that the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution decreeing not one day, but an entire week dedicated to World Interfaith Harmony every year. And it made sense when Audrey Kitagawa, a long-time URI member, herself went on to become the chair of another amazing institution – the Parliament of World Religions.

It is not easy to work with governments. It is not easy to work with the UN’s myriad bodies and many entities. And it is certainly not easy to keep serving with love when the reactions are ruthless and unforgiving and the recognition is minimal – if offered at all. And yet the commitment to service to all, for peace, appears to be ingrained in the DNA of URI.

Today, when an institution like the United Nations is under attack, defunded, and belittled by some of the same entities who are meant to uphold it, the support of URI to the quintessential instrument of multilateralism and global inclusion is invaluable. Such support from a multi-religious entity seeking to embody “we the Peoples,” noted in the UN Charter, is a matter of global importance. The support given by the world of beliefs to the world of governments is a strategic necessity.

Keep up the spirit URI! More power to your Cooperation Circles all over the world. And may peace prevail on earth.

Header Photo: Deviant Art