10/13/2011, 00.00
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Baha'i on pilgrimage to Assisi: education, ecology and dialogue against fundamentalism

by Nirmala Carvalho
A.K. Merchant, national administrator of the Baha'i community of India, highlights the themes that he will bring to the 25th international meeting for peace in Assisi, on 27 October. An interview with AsiaNews.
Mumbai (AsiaNews) - October 27 next the Meeting of World Religious Leaders for Peace will be held in Assisi. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the event, celebrated for the first time in 1986 by Pope John Paul II. To mark the occasion, Benedict XVI will attend a special meeting with representatives of the main religions of the world. Among the guests, is A.K. Merchant, director and former general secretary of the Indian Baha'i community: a religion which recognizes all the great founders of religions as preachers of the one God and humanity as a single race, without ethnic or religious distinctions. Merchant said he was "very surprised and happy" to have received the invitation. In addition to his commitment with the Baha'i community, Merchant has worked in the field of the environment and renewable energy. Theses, theme, he hopes the Day of Assisi will address, because "change is possible, if you commit to do so." Below, an exclusive interview with AsiaNews.

Mr. Merchant how important is the Assisi meeting in your opinion?

Compared to the Earth Summit in Stockholm in 1972 – and the following one in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 - somethings has changed. The world is aware of climate change, of widespread devastation, of unhealthy lifestyles. The problem of resource depletion is now well known. The world has become aware of the devastation and ecological imbalances taking place. Against the background of these events, the appeal of the Holy Father is very significant and urgent for our time. Linking this to St Francis of Assisi, is most significant , something this generation needs to learn.

Ten years on from 11 September, radicalization is growing. How urgent is the Pope's invitation?

Insecurity among the population grows, causing the rise of radicalism and fanaticism in many sectors of society. People are trying desperately to cling to something, to ensure greater security for their lives and their future. They want to ensure their r community does not get harmed. While some are very busy trying to preserve the status quo others want to undo what has caused them great injustice. To stop this, religious leaders should try to transmit positive messages to their communities that emerge from meetings like the one in Assisi.

According to the Baha'i faith, many conflicts occur because the leaders of some religious communities instil prejudice. To avoid this we must be careful and be wary: in what we say and do, how we behave, how we relate to other believers. I also believe in the role of the media: if it supports positive initiatives such as this, we can hope for a turnaround.

It is a challenge on several fronts: a process involving educational systems, media and political and religious leaders. You have to take decisions and implement them, so everyone knows the results.

India has a rich spiritual heritage and is the birthplace of four major world religions. However, the pluralist fabric of the country is torn apart and there is a growing politicization of religion. What are you thoughts on this?

India is a country where the spirit of harmony and mutual co-existence are real, and with the support of the media, motivated by religious and political leaders can do much to promote peace and harmony. You can do good with awareness and education. With the will and commitment, change is possible.

Multi religious, multi ethic, multi lingual dialogue is taking place in India and there are many people working towards building peace so that the multi religious pluralistic culture of tolerance is not forgotten.

Radicalization unfortunately is the result of a small minority with vested interests taking advantage of the emotions of the vast majority. Political leadership must work towards nation building, sadly they often do not see beyond electoral victory and it is unfortunate that our systems of governance are so gravely flawed that the interest, security of the common people is often overlooked.

Religious leaders too, who are supposed to be at the service of the people, at times play on the emotions of their followers.

Education plays a fundamental role in promoting "understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial, ethnic or religious groups. Material education goes hand in hand with spiritual education and moral development

In India the vast majority in India, on a daily basis does not discriminate on basis of faith, they all seek friendship and helpful support of each other irrespective of the differences, but at times rumour mongering, mischievous elements can destroy peace. One must go to the original texts of the founders of the religion to understand their teachings.

The spark of divinity is in every human person, and while we cannot change history, we must drop the baggage of fanaticism, fundamentalism and develop a culture of unity in diversity, a life imbued with values, rather than become a slave of culture of consumerism or prey to senseless violence.

India is one country where spirit of harmony and mutual coexistence is lived out, and with the support of the media, well meaning religious and political leadership we can do a lot to foster peace and harmony

A lot of good can be done with awareness and education. Change is possible, if one is committed and strives to do so.

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