World Interfaith Harmony Week

“This age of globalization needs enlightened people in each faith who can examine their sacred writings and traditions and identify the aspects that can benefit all humanity as well as those that preserve each religion's identity. UPF and its network of Ambassadors for Peace celebrate this week each year, in a way that encourages understanding, respect, and cooperation among people of all faiths for the well-being of our communities and peace in the world”


Supported by UNODC, the Universal Peace Federation (UPF), UNCAV, the Coalition of Faith-Based Organizations, Youth and Students for Peace, and the Women’s Federation for World Peace organized an event commemorating the World Interfaith Harmony Week on February 3rd 2023 in the VIC (UN building) in Vienna. 200 guests attended the conference on the theme “Why Religions and Cultures in Dialogue matter for achieving the UN SDGs“.


In his welcoming remarks Mr. Peter Haider, President of UPF Austria explained the background of World Interfaith Harmony Week, proposed by King Abdullah II of Jordan in 2010, adopted by the UN, and observed during the first week of February. UPF celebrates this week annually to encourage understanding, respect, and cooperation among faiths to enable peace, he said. The conference theme, Why Religions and Cultures in Dialogue matter for achieving the UN SDGs, poses the following questions: Do religion and culture matter? Why is dialogue important? Are religions and cultures important for achieving the UN SDGs? At a time of war in Europe and global climate crisis, Mr. Haider asked the speakers to offer a response. He then introduced Dr. Rathor, the moderator for the first session.


Dr. Afsar Rathor, a former UN diplomat and President of LIOS-SOIL was rawing on decades of experience at the UN. Dr Rathor highlighted the significance of the topic at a time of rising nationalism and race supremacy, creating a need for Interreligious dialogue to help to achieve the UN SDGs. Religious leaders can educate communities to promote values that support social and economic well-being by inspiring action locally and globally. Religious and cultural dialogue can support inclusive development, he said. He mentioned the success of Muslim and Christian leaders engaging their communities to solve the Ebola outbreak in Africa where governments had failed. Messages of fear were replaced by messages of hope based on trust, resulting in cessation of some traditional funeral practices. Since 85% of the global population have a faith affiliation, he believes governments and UN organisations need the cooperation of faith leaders to attain UN SDGs. Conferences, such as this, raise awareness as speakers share their expertise to enlighten people on best practices.


Mr. Jean-Luc Lemahieu, UNODC Director, Policy Analysis and Public Affairs, considers religion and cultural diversity essential factors when facing multiple crises. Dialogue, understanding, and mutual respect are critical for peace, he said. UNODC believes collaboration with faith-based and cultural organisations is key to reducing violent crime, drug abuse, and corruption, as seen in the successful tackling of violent extremism in Indonesia. Due to changing geopolitics and war in Europe, he observes the focus shifting away from other conflict zones and underdeveloped areas, such as Africa, whose economy has contracted, causing migration, crime, violence, drug abuse, making the UN SDGs unattainable. Access to justice is impaired by corruption, particularly in conflict zones. Interfaith and intercultural cooperation can accelerate joint work based on UNSDG 10 to reduce inequality and promote social, economic, and political inclusion. He considers religious freedom critical for promoting health, education, gender equality, access to justice, and climate action. Referring to the ubiquitous increase in drug abuse driven by several risk factors, he emphasised the value of faith-based organisations in reducing drug addiction. He concluded that interfaith initiatives for harmony, understanding and peace help to achieve UN SDGs and alleviate suffering.


Short Video report  Video Session 1  Video Session 2


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H.E. Dr. Haitham Abu Alfoul, Ambassador of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan to Austria, thanked UPF and co-organisers and emphasised the importance of World Interfaith Harmony Week for Jordanians who uphold mutual religious respect and promote values of peace inherent in all religions. King Abdullah II saw the need to promote harmony and uphold positive values entrenched in all religions to enable a secure world. Quoting King Abdullah’s II acceptance speech for the Templeton Prize, 2018: The great commandments to love God and love one neighbour are found again and again in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and other faiths around the world. It is a profound message calling every one of us to struggle to look beyond ourselves and discover inside what is the source of all hope of all coexistence.’

Dr. Haitham said that while global challenges call for joint action at international level, that alone is insufficient. The key is how we use these tools and learn from each other with respect and humility. SDGs aim to transform the world, but to achieve these goals, he believes people need faith in God and collaboration with those seeking peace and harmony. Referring to the Middle East, he called for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the establishment of a two-state solution and social justice for all. He concluded, with a timely call to action, again quoting King Abdullah II ‘Let us not ignore the alarm bells ringing around us. We must act.’


H.E. Dr. Eglantina Gjermeni, Ambassador of Albania to the International Organizations in Vienna, focused on interreligious cooperation in Albania, emphasizing the need for religious freedom, which protects human rights and promotes social and economic development. She highlighted Albania as an example of interreligious harmony in Europe and how harmonious coexistence of three religious faiths has supported national unity. She mentioned Albania’s protection of persecuted Jews from Europe during WWII; acceptance of the other is part of Albanian heritage as the first Albanian constitution starts with ‘The house of the Albanian belongs to God and to the guest,’ she said. In the post-communist period, she recognized a sense of community and mutual respect among religious institutions; spiritual leaders underwent a revival, avoiding political mobilization along religious lines; politicians have not manipulated faith for political purposes. Interfaith cooperation in rebuilding the post-communist state creates cultural cohesion, stability, and supports modernization. Although Albania is a secular state with no official religion and a pluralistic landscape, she stated religious freedom is guaranteed by the constitution; Albanians support the separation of state and religion and respect for human rights. Interreligious marriages and attending religious festivals of other faiths are commonplace. Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis noted the harmonious coexistence of religions in Albania and encouraged it ‘to become the home of the ecumenical and interreligious dialogue’

She concluded that faith actors should engage in social issues to support UN SDGs.


Prof. Dr. Paul M. Zulehner, Theologian and Professor, Sociology of Religion, commenced his address by revealing its hidden title: Religions: Hope for a tumbling world? He recounted an experience with theology students from the Russian Orthodox faith and the Greek Catholic faith, Ukraine, whom he tasked with creating an island of peace. The response of one student who wants to love as a Christian but cannot overcome hatred begs the question: Can religion bring hope in a tumbling world? Quoting the Beatles All you need is love, Dr. Zulehner qualified the type of love needed – love combined with peace and justice, based on respect for nature. Referring to the phrase ‘tumbling world’ coined by a speaker at a conference in Lemberg exactly on the day of the Russian invasion into the Ukraine on February 24th 2022, Dr. Zulehner believes the tumbling world’s challenges are interwoven, causing hopelessness and fear, resulting in a culture of rivalry. He noted how some political populists and religious fundamentalists use this to fuel hatred, violence, and nationalism. As a counter development emerged with people seeking courage, an ecumenical, international appeal was formulated in response, whose main messages are: religions provide hope, overcome fear, and inspire universal solidarity; religions need renewal as they can be part of the problem; religions present the current challenges as the birth pangs of a world of justice and peace in harmony with nature. Dr. Zulehner concluded by quoting Pope Francis: “God has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity, and has called them to live together as brothers and sisters.”


Dr. Elmar Kuhn, President, Coalition of Faith-Based Organizations, who had just returned from a trip to Egypt to help Christians in need, said this event was a sign of hope for bringing people together. Referring to the integration of culture and religion, he noted how world religions can integrate into different cultures. Cultural behavior can change while central religious values remain unchanged, but religions readapt in cultural environments as with Christianity in South America and Islam in Bosnia, he said. The Coalition of Faith-based Organizations seeks to connect world religions to bring peace and social development through connecting with global organizations. Since religions are partners in the development of cultures, they do not stand alone; thus, he believes interfaith cooperation focused on common spiritual values brings cultures together for peace-oriented activities and cultural developments. Religions must tread a fine line to avoid being part of the problem, he cautioned, as interreligious disharmony can cause rejection of religious values resulting in a failed society. A liberal secular state cannot guarantee itself, nor can religious values be dictated by the state, he reiterated. He stated that shared religious values are preconditions for a society to guarantee human rights, defend cultures and support the attainment of UN SDGs. Concluding, he noted that religions gain value through seeking common denominators with their faith values through harmonious cooperation in partnership with the UN to develop peaceful global coexistence,


Dr. Katsumi Otsuka, Co-Chair Universal Peace Federation Europe and Middle East, thanked the co-organisers and expressed the support of UPF for the attainment of the UN SDGs. Comparing two Olympic Games, 1920 in Belgium after World War I, during a pandemic, and 2020 in Japan during the pandemic, he noted they both gave courage and hope to people to move forward. Highlighting how joint international events create unity and give hope, he called on participants to revive the spirit manifested in the Olympics. Regarding the UPF founders, Dr. and Mrs. Moon, he mentioned their experience under Japanese occupation, World War II, and the Korean war. He believes such experiences motivated them to pursue peace by dialogue and to encourage people of faith to participate in peacebuilding, as expressed in UPF Principles. Applying external political methods alone cannot solve global problems, he said, but should be combined with a faith-based approach to devise better solutions. Thus in 2000, Rev. Moon proposed a UN Interreligious Council as the upper house to renew the UN. UPF implements its policies through an interfaith network, respecting human dignity, the main pillar for harmony and unity. He shared the story of a Muslim friend who won the hearts of his neighbours through dialogue in a small Japanese village when building a mosque. The mosque opening was broadcast on local TV. This taught him the importance of interfaith dialogue. In conclusion, Dr. Otsuka quoted John Lennon: ‘A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.’


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The moderator of the second session Dr. Farida Valiullina, UPF liaison UN Vienna office, first greeted the audience and introduced the panel. In her opening remarks, she emphasised that particularly faith-based organisations are able to make progress towards sustainable development and that almost every religious, indigenous and spiritual tradition teaches the moral obligation to protect the planet and to live in harmony.

The panel consisted of five main speakers who represented different areas in society and each one of them shared their insights on the issue at hand.


Ms. Tatjana Christelbauer M.A., Agency for Cultural Diplomacy Austria, (Orange Feather Dance meditation 4 peace) as the first panellist tried to convey the message of love and peace, saying we all should do the same wherever we are and however we feel. Among other things, she said that art cannot solve the problems created on the political stage. However, art can engage in activities that support an end to violence. Together with her colleague Ms. Ursula Wagner, they performed a dance meditation for peace.


The next speaker H.E. Aftab Ahmad Khokher, Ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan to Austria, drew attention to rising islamophobia in many European countries. Such actions which disturb peace cannot be ignored, he said. He strongly believes that religions and cultures play a crucial role in promoting values, such as tolerance, empathy, cooperation, understanding, and reaching out to others.


Prof. Dr. Ille Gebeshuber, Institute of Applied Physics, Tech. University Vienna, focused her speech on the approach to living in balance with nature through new ways of cohabitation. She mentioned the ability of religious organizations to promote and raise awareness of the UN SDGs in their communities, thus encouraging people to act and behave in such a way that realises a sustainable lifestyle. In her opinion, interfaith initiatives can bring people together from diverse backgrounds to collaborate on projects that address specific UN SDGs, such as poverty, health, and education. Religious teachings and values can also inspire individuals and communities to live sustainably and act as stewards of the environment. She concluded that interfaith dialogues can promote understanding through creating a more inclusive and harmonious society, which is key to achieving the UN SDGs.


The fourth panellist, Dr. Joshua Sinclair, American writer, filmmaker, actor and director, medical doctor emphasised the fact that truth is not the result of a specific religious belief, a theological dogma, or a way of thinking. In his view, truth is something much deeper; it is the basis of life. It can be found through living a sincere and authentic lifestyle in relationships with our fellow human beings.


The final speaker Dr. Rahela Kaveer, Chairwoman of World Hazara Council, made a presentation about the current situation in Afghanistan, focusing on women’s role in economic development and their potential contribution to society. She made an earnest appeal for people to come together in order to eliminate prejudice and fear and to foster peace, freedom, and development.


The session continued with reflections and questions from the audience addressed to the panellists. To conclude the conference, Mr. Peter Haider, President of UPF Austria, acknowledged four members of Afghan communities in Austria, Europe and the USA for their efforts for peace and goodwill. In recognition of their achievements, they were appointed as ambassadors for peace. The certificates were handed over to them by Mr. Jacques Marion, Co-Chair of Universal Peace Federation Europe and Middle East.

 World Interfaith Harmony Week
First proposed at the UN General Assembly on September 23, 2010 by H.M. King Abdullah II of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Just under a month later it was unanimously adopted by the UN and henceforth the first week of February is observed as a World Interfaith Harmony Week. World Interfaith Harmony Week conferences were organized in the UN in Vienna in 202020192017201620152014 und 2013.



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