High-Level Thematic Debate of the UN General Assembly Promoting Tolerance and Reconciliation
April 22, 2015
New York, NY
High-Level Thematic Debate of the UN General Assembly Promoting Tolerance and Reconciliation Your Excellencies, Your Eminences, distinguished spiritual leaders and ladies and gentlemen, I want to thank President Sam Kutesa, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and the High Level Representative of the Alliance of Civilizations, Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, for bringing us together for a timely and important discussion of how each one of us can contribute to building bridges of tolerance and foster peaceful societies in the face of violent extremism. Before I proceed, with your permission, Mr. President, Secretary General, just a few days ago lifesavers of UNICEF, their life was snuffed out and many of us attacked. A few days earlier, again, lifesavers of the United Nations in Mali, and that continues and continues. Let us all rise for a moment of prayer. Let them rest in peace, and may their families be given strength to cope with that challenge and also may we resolve, United Nations will not be deterred from standing with the people, and giving them succor, and giving them help and giving them aid in time of need. If you just rise for a moment, and whatever prayer you want to offer on that.

May God grant all UN peacekeepers his protective guidance and spare them from further trouble. Thank you.

Seventy years ago, after the devastation reaped by World War II and the Holocaust, the United Nations was founded in the belief that all nations could be unified in peaceful coexistence. I’m a survivor of the Holocaust. I know what ethnic cleansing is all about. I experienced racism, desecration of holy sites, the burning of my synagogue on Kristallnacht November 10, 1938, the extermination of my family in Auschwitz and Terezin. Now, Secretary General, you went to Auschwitz, and you paid respect to those who were murdered. So you’re talking to someone who had a life experience and nothing is better than a life experience in order to see the crisis we’re facing at this time. Yes, I did experience, and so many others who lived through those horrible days of World War II, mankind’s capacity for cruelty and inhumanity. And in spite of these experiences, I have not lost faith in God, I have not lost faith in man, and I have not lost faith in people’s yearning for peace. I believe passionately in our greater capacity for peace, the same belief in peace upon which the United Nations was established. I also believe that every conflict comes to an end. Hundred Years’ War, Thirty Years’ War, World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, you name it. Every conflict comes to an end. Too many millions of victims as a result of those conflicts. And we, religious leaders, must see to it that every conflict’s end should be hastened. Tragically, we face once again a volatile world and conflict. We need an alliance of all us who are assembled here today to move toward peace. It cannot be denied, as we have heard, that religion, when wrongfully interpreted, is a factor in these conflicts.

Today, over 30 conflicts around the globe in the Middle East, East Asia, Africa, beyond are fueled by what I call the religious TNT, the powerful corruption of religion that can spark zealotry, terrorism and disregard for the human life of the other. It seems every day we see graphic examples of extremists and radicals hijacking religion, misusing and abusing God’s name to legitimize the barbarism. As the title of today’s debate illustrates, we must promote tolerance as the first step to counter this criminal abuse of religion and combat violent extremism.

I would, however, offer a comment. The word “tolerance” is really a misnomer. “I tolerate you” puts me in a superior position. I keep up with you. I tolerate you. You’re a second-class citizen. You are not equal to me, so I would respectfully propose that instead of using the word “tolerance”, we speak in terms of mutual acceptance, mutual understanding, and get away from this definition of tolerating the other, tolerating the stranger, tolerating the immigrant. No, they’re equal with us. They’re all God’s creations. So we have to strive for mutual acceptance. That’s what we must strive for. Love thy stranger. And your neighbor is repeated 36 times in the Torah. This principle of respect for those who are different is universal. I can cite you, but I didn’t want to be too long, similar guiding principles in the New Testament, the Koran, the sacred text of Buddhism and Hinduism, and the writings of Guru Nanak, among others. There’s a universal message of respecting the other. Love for your fellow human being. Mutual acceptance. It is through learning about and respecting those who are strangers to us, the person of a different faith, the immigrant, and even the person who was yet to show us the willingness to understand, respect us, that we can truly build inclusive societies. Not an easy task. But let me propose four essential things we must do in the name of peace. First, whenever I see a church, mosque or temple burning, I have a flashback, see my synagogue burning on Kristallnacht. The desecration of holy sites, the center of religious life leads to destruction of human life, the destruction of any house or worship, be it church, mosque, synagogue or temple, is an attack of the jugular vein of a faith community. Faith cannot be protected if worshippers are afraid of being blown up by mobs of hatred in their spiritual home. Worshippers are going to worship and they have to be afraid of being blown up and not to return home. This is why in 2001 the Appeal of Conscience Foundation initiated a United Nations Resolution for the Protection of Religious Sites, which by the way, was passed unanimously here in the General Assembly and enacted as Resolution A55-LAD1. We must condemn all acts of religious destruction, and treat any such acts as an attack on all faiths, not just the particular faith of the holy site that is destroyed.

Brothers and sisters, I want you to actually look up that resolution and cite this resolution that was adapted here by consensus to your congregants, to your people, let them know where the United Nations, all nations stand for on this particular issue. I repeat, Resolution A55-LAD1 enacted in the year 2001.

None of us who are committed to be guardians of peace and reconciliation must marginalize preachers of hatred, who incite violence, demonize other faiths, and help spread any form of xenophobia, be it anti-Semitism, Christianophobia, and Islamophobia. And, you know? We heard some wonderful, eloquent speeches. Proverbs tells us, “Life and death are in the power of the tongue”. Let’s use our tongue to spread love. Let’s use our pulpit to preach brotherhood. Life and death are in the power of the tongue, and as leaders, we should use the tongue not to divide, but to unite us.

Let me give you a concrete example what religious leaders can do. In 1992, at the height of a Yugoslav, former Yugoslavian conflict, my beloved brother, then Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, now Cardinal McCarrick, and the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, which we founded in 1965, brought together the Patriarch Pavle of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Archbishop Vinko Puljic of Zagreb, Grand Mufti Selimoski of Sarajevo. Political leaders were not talking, they were fighting. There was no dialogue between Milosevic and Tudjman and Izetbegovic. We brought these religious leaders together, and after a tormenting few days in neutral Switzerland, we came up with a consensus ... please pay attention what we said then, and how relevant it is today ... a crime perpetrated in the name of religion is the greatest crime against religious. I repeat, and it’s not copyright, you may use it, a crime perpetrated in the name of religion is the greatest crime against religion. We believe that true faith stands for life and not for death.

Second pillar of building an inclusive site is education. You know, when a child is born, a child is not born with hatred. A child is born with love. Hatred is taught, acquired. So it’s our responsibility as educators that if we teach the right thing to our children, how painful it is to see a young lad with a Kalashnikov, 10 years old, teenagers ready to decapitate fellow human beings. So we have to do a great task to make sure that all our children are taught what it means to respect the other. And let us encourage all member states of the United Nations in the governmental, non-governmental organizations, and particularly the media and social media to align with us to promote through education a culture of mutual respect and tolerance for the diversity of religions which we represent an important aspect of the collective heritage of all mankind.

And finally, the third pillar. We have to be the role models. Not easy, but we have to be the role models. And prominently embody the universal principle of respect and acceptance of difference. I am deeply proud that in my synagogue, Park East Synagogue, has become a beacon of inter-religious cooperation. I was, my congregation, the Jewish community, as such, was greatly honored when his Holiness, Pope Benedict, now Emeritus, XVI, came to Park East Synagogue, first papal visit to a synagogue in the United States. But there was not only Pope Benedict, but there was also His All Holiness, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the Grand Mufti ... I’m sorry, His Holiness Alexei, Patriarch of Moscow, Russia, Grand Mufti Ceric of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Chief Rabbis of Israel and Europe. Now, why do I mention this? This is a message of solidarity of inter-religious cooperation for the benefit of all of God’s children.

Finally, I believe that not all of us must not only set an example, but we must also hold other leaders and the public to account. Maimonides, who lived, by the way, in the Golden Age of Spain, Maimonides defining what the Shofar is all about, it’s a clarion call to help awaken us from our slumber of indifference. Apathy, indifference. Enables the perpetrators of evil to prosper. I personally experienced and all of us have had the experience what apathy and indifference leads to. And therefore, persecution of religious minorities in various parts of the world, we should react to it, not be silent. And I respectfully suggest, Secretary General, Mr. President, there ought to be a resolution for the protection of religious minorities in the forthcoming special session at the UN General Assembly because religious minorities today in the world carry the brunt of pain and suffering, and here I join also a plea on behalf of my Christian brothers and sisters, who are today in the front lines of persecution, being oppressed, uprooted and decapitated, let us be a voice of conscience, not silence in the face of what’s facing our suffering brothers and sisters. Despite the upsurge of violent fanaticism, true faith has a potential to become a force of (Inaudible) resolution and I have full faith that we can weather this crisis, too. Hopefully soon. But we must learn the lesson of Noah and the flood. You know, Noah survived the destruction of a civilization that was full of conflict, hatred and greed, and to make sure that there is hope, God created a symbol, the rainbow. How many colors does a rainbow have? Seven. And every color is distinctly visible, but they blend, they harmonize. This is our challenge; we must respect every color, every culture, every faith community, and assure what the Alliance of Civilizations is trying to do within the framework of the United Nations.

Abraham was given a mission, the ha-abreha be a blessing. Each one of us are placed on earth for a short period of time with a mission to help God perfect an imperfect world. We are placed on earth, and each one of us can make a difference to help God perfect an imperfect world. So I pray that God may give us the wisdom to be his co-partner in perfecting a world in disarray today. Thank you, and God bless you all.
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