For information only - not an official document.
Press Release No: UNIS/SG/2639
Release Date: 30 August 2000
Secretary-General, Addressing Millennium Summit of Religious, Spiritual Leaders, Urges Participants to Set Example of Interfaith Cooperation

 NEW YORK, 29 August (UN Headquarters) -- Following is the text of the address by Secretary-General Kofi Annan to the Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders, delivered this morning:

 This summit of religious and spiritual leaders is without doubt one of the most inspiring gatherings ever held here. Its timing, on the eve of next week's Millennium Summit of Heads of State and Government, could not be more auspicious. Thank you for coming to the United Nations.

 Religion can be a realm of extraordinary power. It can offer solace in troubled times. It can make sense of the seemingly senseless because that’s the world we live in. It can give us strength to meet the physical and spiritual challenges of life. Religion helps us find our place in the cosmos; it knits families and communities together; it endows individuals with compassion and morality. Whether one believes without question or wrestles with doubt, whether one is part of a religious community or worships in the privacy of the soul, religious practices and beliefs are among the phenomena that define us as human. For many of us, the axiom could well be: "We pray, therefore, we are."

 Of course, the practice of religion differs widely. But at heart we are dealing in universal values. To be merciful; to be tolerant; to love thy neighbour; no religion can claim a monopoly on such teachings.

 There is no mystery here. Such values are deeply ingrained in the human spirit itself. It is little wonder that the same values animate the Charter of the United Nations, and lie at the root of our search for world peace.

 So let us today, from this great centre of global community, reaffirm every man and woman's fundamental right to freedom of religion: to worship; to establish and maintain places for worship; to write, publish and teach; to celebrate holidays; to choose their own religious leaders; and to communicate with others at home and abroad.

 Member States of the United Nations have enshrined these freedoms in several landmark documents, most notably the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Where governments and authorities fail to protect these freedoms, it is at once an affront and a menace. Where religions and their adherents are persecuted, defamed, assaulted or denied due process, we are all diminished, our societies undermined. There must be no room in the twenty-first century for religious bigotry and intolerance.

 Religion is frequently equated with light. But we all know that the practice of religion can have its dark side, too. Religious extremism has too often oppressed or discriminated against women and minorities. Religion has often been yoked to nationalism, stoking the flames of violent conflict and setting group against group. Religious leaders have not always spoken out when their voices could have helped combat hatred and persecution, or could have roused people from indifference. Religion is not itself to blame: as I have often said, the problem is usually not with the faith, but with the faithful.

 So I humbly suggest that today's meeting is also an opportunity for religious, spiritual and political leaders, as well as their followers, to look within, and to consider what they can do to promote justice, equality, reconciliation and peace. Men and women of faith are a strong influence on group and individual conduct. As teachers and guides, you can be powerful agents of change. You can inspire people to new levels of commitment and public service. You can help bridge the chasms of ignorance, fear and misunderstanding. You can set an example of interfaith dialogue and cooperation.

 Dag Hammarskjöld once said, "The United Nations stands outside -- necessarily outside -- all confessions.  But it is, nevertheless, an instrument of faith. As such, it is inspired by what unites and not by what divides the great religions of the world." 

 As the world's religious and spiritual leaders, you embody humanity's deepest yearnings. You have travelled many paths to this time and place. Some of you have been imprisoned for your beliefs. Some have survived the Holocaust, or seen your people targeted for genocide. Still others have lived through other tribulations and indignities. Whatever your past, whatever your calling, and whatever the differences among you, your presence here at the United Nations signifies your commitment to our global mission of tolerance, development and peace. For that, we must all be profoundly grateful.

 It is my sincere hope that you will maintain your engagement with these issues. With your help -- through prayer and good works -- that mission can succeed. Thank you very much.

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