On the Relevance of Interreligious Summits

28 April 2023

One of the most common forms of interreligious dialogue is participation of religious leaders in various summits, forums and conferences. For instance, a significant interreligious platform is the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, which has been held regularly in the capital of Kazakhstan since 2003.

However, some participants in interreligious meetings are of the view that such events are often ineffective and represent a kind of formal procedure that does not lead to “real”, meaningful results either among direct participants or in society at large. Sometimes they point to the superficial, cliché nature of statements adopted at interreligious forums, their declarative nature and lack of any scientific or practical value.

For instance, during a meeting with participants of the European Council of Religious Leaders held in Moscow in 2011, His Holiness Patriarch Kirill noted, ‘It is easy to subscribe to general words – no one takes any responsibility, and then no one reads these general statements. Interreligious groups talk about peace and friendship, but meanwhile bombs are exploding in the Middle East, North Caucasus and Europe. On one level there is a politically correct dialogue, on the other one there is harsh, sometime scary reality’. The problem of representation of religious communities is dialogue is raised here. Indeed, one of the issues related to the effectiveness of interreligious dialogue is who participates and who is absent from the meetings cited. Participants in interreligious initiatives are often only those who recognize the virtues of dialogue and, by and large, do not need to promote tolerance and mutual respect. And sometimes it turns out, as an expert at an interreligious conference remarked, that participants “convince themselves” when they do not need to. Dialogue also leaves out a significant number of members of religious communities, including those for whom peacemaking ideas expressed would be particularly relevant.

In this post, we would like to reflect on the need for interreligious summits, what their purpose is and how to evaluate their effectiveness.

In order to make sense of these questions, we would like to propose a theoretical model of types of interreligious dialogue. It is useful to distinguish between four main types of interreligious dialogue: polemical, peacemaking, cognitive and collaborative. These types of dialogue can be roughly associated with questions that frame interreligious relations: Who is right? Who are you? How can we live together peacefully? What can we do to improve world?

Polemical interreligious dialogue aims to demonstrate merits of one’s faith and is expressed in arguments about the truth of religious teachings. Cognitive dialogue involves an introduction to and comparative study of religions. That is, participants seek to understand what believers of the other religion believe in and what values they hold. The attitude to understand another religion that takes place in cognitive dialogue allows the question of truth and salvation to be taken out of the spotlight, which can provoke antagonism and hostility.

In the XX century, peacemaking interreligious dialogue began to actively develop. Popularity of this dialogue direction was largely due to the realization that in today’s global, interdependent and interconnected world, believers of different religions inevitably come into mass contact with one another, and therefore it is important to ensure positive relations between them. That is, it is not a question of comparing religious worldviews and different perceptions (as in polemical and cognitive dialogue), but how believers of different religious beliefs can live in peace and harmony, and how they can contribute to resolving existing conflicts and strengthening social stability.

As this mode of communication evolved, the aim came to be defined not only as peacemaking but also as collaboration between believers in a wider perspective to solve various social problems (helping those in need, justice, discrimination, integrating migrants, protecting religious freedom, contributing to the prosperity of society, affirming traditional values, environmental issues, etc.). Such collaborative interreligious dialogue presupposes practical cooperation between believers in various spheres of common interest. Thus, within the framework of peacemaking and collaborative dialogue the emphasis is placed on ensuring constructive interaction between religions as social institutions.

Besides, it is noteworthy that peacemaking dialogue can be implemented at three levels: high (religious leaders), medium (scholars, experts) and ordinary believers (grass roots). For example, at the grassroots level, various youth interreligious events can take place. “The medium level” conceptualizes the question of why believers of different religions should live in peace and respect each other, what kind of ideological platform can determine positive relationship. Two main strategies of peacemaking dialogue can be identified at the conceptual level: (1) emphasizing “pacifist” values of religions (through quoting or interpreting sacred texts and articulating principles of positive attitudes towards other religions) and (2) stressing similarities (in dogma and/or ethics). An example in the field of Muslim-Christian dialogue is the 2007 open letter by Islamic leaders and scholars, ‘The Common Word between Us and You’. The Common Word justifies, through quotations from the Bible and the Quran, that the main similarity between Islam and Christianity, which can underpin respectful relationships, is their recognition of the One God and the paramount importance of the commandments of love for Him and love for one’s neighbor.

We have thus distinguished four main types of interreligious dialogue: polemical, cognitive, peacemaking and collaborative. And we have also noted three levels at which this dialogue can take place. Now we can return to the original question concerning the significance of interreligious summit practices.

There is an opinion that contacts within the framework of interreligious summits cannot be called dialogue at all “in the true sense of the word” as there is no exploration of theological issues, changes in the positions of participants, their “spiritual growth and enrichment”. Indeed, within the framework of interreligious dialogue there can be the goal of comparative study of religions or simply understanding of some related social phenomena and processes. However it is important to realize that each of the four identified types of interreligious dialogue has its own goal; they are different modes of relating that should not be confused.

For instance, the task of polemical dialogue is to demonstrate advantages of one’s faith and to “win the argument”. Interreligious disputes still take place today, including on the Internet, but it is incorrect to transfer their respective tasks to other forms of interreligious communication. Likewise, cognitive dialogue and peacemaking dialogue should not be confused, since interreligious summits are a form of the latter. Here participants are not at all confronted with such tasks as discussing the dogmatic conceptions of their own and the other religion in order to “understand” the other one; the meeting of personalities in the I-You paradigm, which leads to a change in the inner world of participants, is a different discourse. Nor should we expect from interreligious summits any kind of deep theological discussion, that the issues discussed will be explored with academic rigor.

Another critical argument is that interreligious summits are ineffective; they do not significantly contribute to the attainment of the goals declared by participants and have no practical result. The same response as above can be given here – peacemaking and collaborative types of dialogue should not be confused, although in this case this difference seems less perceptible from the outside.

At the same time, it is important to understand that interreligious summits, such as the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in Kazakhstan, do not assume that participants will take any real steps and organize practical activities to address the problems they identify. That is, the final declarations may state, for instance, that participants are concerned about the inequality of income distribution in the modern world. However it does not mean that when delegates leave at the end of the event to go back to their countries, they will meet with oligarchs or representatives of the Ministry of Economy and try to address this issue. The phenomenon of interreligious cooperation and concrete joint practical activities of believers takes place within the framework of what we have outlined above as collaborative dialogue. For example, the Interreligious Working Group on Humanitarian Assistance for the Population of Syria operated under the Presidential Council for Cooperation with Religious Associations. Its members collected funds from the religious communities of the participants, purchased and sent humanitarian aid to Syria. However, in the case of interreligious summits, we are talking about a special form of peacemaking dialogue, not a collaborative dialogue; the two should not be confused.

But then a logical question arises: What, then, is the significance of interreligious events involving religious leaders?

It is not the conceptual content or the prospects for organizing joint activity that is important for such diplomatic dialogue, but the symbolic significance of the very fact of a benevolent meeting between leaders of different religions. This requires a demonstration by religious figures of good relations and solidarity on some social issues, expression of loyalty to the state and readiness for constructive cooperation for the good of society. Such a “picture” of positive relations, transmitted through media, is an example for ordinary believers and creates a favorable social atmosphere. It is this symbolic aspect, rather than the content of reports or unfolding of coherent and logically connected arguments, that seems to be of paramount importance in various interreligious forums involving religious leaders. The presence of respectful and even friendly relations, common ground on many issues, is of great importance as an example of relations for ordinary believers.

In addition to it, of course, the opportunity for religious leaders to talk to each other, to have direct contact with each other, is important. It can also be important to draw attention to certain issues.

As an illustration of the importance of possible symbolic significance of such interreligious forums, here is only one hypothetical example. Since the 1990s, although there has been less talk about it in recent years, the idea of Eurasian integration has been very popular. This integration can take place not only at political and economic levels, but also comprise a cultural aspect, including taking into account a religious factor. Let us suppose that a meeting of religious leaders of this region (a kind of “Interreligious Council of Eurasia”) could be held. Participants would talk about the common past and prospects for developing cooperation in the future, current acute challenges and search for a joint response to them. The very fact of such a meeting would have a significant integrative effect in media. Although there would be no talk of exploring religious and cultural traditions of each other (cognitive dialogue) or of a plan for concrete joint action (collaborative dialogue), such a single meeting would have great symbolic value.

Undoubtedly, the practice of holding interreligious summits cannot replace other forms of interreligious relations. For instance, it would be beneficial if summits were complemented by academic research of a comparative nature, or by interreligious meetings at the level of ordinary believers. For example, the International Interreligious Youth Forum has been held in Dagestan for many years. “The Dialogue of Religions” project is being implemented in Moscow, with chess tournaments and football and volleyball matches. It is clear that neither peacemaking dialogue at the “high” level (in a form of interreligious summits), nor at the “grassroots” level (in a form of aforementioned interreligious youth meetings) are contradictory but rather complementary.

On the other hand, minimization of contacts between official representatives of religious communities as an alternative to regular diplomatic dialogue can contribute to disengagement. Civil peace and harmony, to the enhancement of which diplomatic dialogue undoubtedly contributes, although perceived by many as a “given”, is in fact a sign of a balanced system of interreligious, international, state-religious and interethnic relations. Therefore, while interreligious summits may be largely formal in nature, some of them may be assessed as “unnecessary”, in this case, as they say, the end justifies the means.

Thus, the complexity of issues and processes in interreligious dialogue demonstrates that different strategies, which do not exclude but rather complement each other, can be employed to harmonize relations. Holding interreligious summits occupies their own particular niche in the system of interreligious relations. They are useful, necessary and fulfill their functions in the framework of maintaining social stability; therefore it is not appropriate to assess them in terms of other types of interreligious communication that have other aims. At the same time, it cannot be denied that the criticism considered are partly valid and should therefore be taken into account by experts in order to optimize the model of diplomatic dialogue.



Melnik Sergey Vladislavovich, senior researcher at the Institute of Scientific Information for Social Sciences of the Russian Academy of Sciences, senior researcher at the Centre for Interreligious Dialogue of the Bolgarian Islamic Academy, associate professor at the All-Church Postgraduate and Doctoral Studies, doctor of philosophy

Photo: BIA