Unexpected invitations come with the holidays every year, but one in particular received by Jan Willis, professor of religion, caught her attention. It was from the U.S. State Department, and was inspired by President Barack Obama.
The invitation asked Willis to serve as just one of 20 American religious scholars and nonprofit leaders selected by the U.S. State Department to participate in the inaugural Indonesia-U.S. Interfaith Cooperation Forum that was being held in Jakarta, Indonesia, Jan. 25-27 under the auspices of Religions for Peace.
“As soon as I read it, I knew I had to attend this,” Willis says. “It was a unique opportunity, and one I knew could not miss.”
The consultation was a follow-up to President Obama’s “New Beginning” speech in Cairo, Egypt where he called for interfaith cooperation, especially between Muslims and other faiths. Indonesia was chosen as the location for the first meeting by virtue of it being the largest Muslim nation in the world.
Willis, a Buddhist and renowned Buddhist scholar, was the only Buddhist from The United States invited and one of only two at the gathering; the other: Tep Vong, who is “the Great Supreme Patriarch” of Cambodia.
Pradeep Ramamurthy, senior director for Global Engagement at The White House, served as the head of the U.S. delegation. Other regional participants came from Cambodia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand.
“As I understand it, initially the meeting was to include only Muslims and Christians,” Willis says. “But even though Indonesia is ninety percent Muslim, they also have Buddhists and Hindus along with Christians and others, so we were included, as well.”
Willis called the three-day consultation, which was held at the Bororbudur Hotel in Jakarta “exciting,” “interesting,” and “ultimately exhausting.” The delegates met almost continually from morning into the night discussing four areas designated “common challenges and responsibilities”: poverty, climate change, education and good governance. Each topic was tackled with plenary sessions, workshops and breakout groups. Meals were also taken together.
“It was amazing,” Willis says. “Even with so many different religious perspectives and the inclusion of activists from the nonprofit groups, there was a lot of common ground and understanding. These were obviously very big topics we were tackling, but everyone seemed very interested in working toward a consensus for specific social change.”
After three days the group issued a formal statement of “Shared Concerns and Commitments,” which included being “united” specific commitments. Willis says it laid an important foundation on which to build, and she hopes that future conferences can further define more specific measures. There will be a second meeting, tentatively in Washington late this year or next year to continue the discussions that were begun.
“It was a very effective start,” Willis says. “I think there’s a foundation here that can be built on.”
The shared commitment statement issued by the delegates in part stated (replicated verbatim):
1. Educate our religious communities on the causes of structural poverty and advocate in governmental and intergovernmental forums for its eradication.
2. As a complement to the work of specialized religiously-affiliated development agencies, work to engage local religious communities – including women’s and youth groups, and schools – in the implementation of grassroots-led development and public health programs.
3. Advance multi-religious partnerships, while engaging the public sector, in order to equip local religious communities for such programs.
Protecting the Environment
1. Educate our religious communities on the dangers of climate change and environmental degradation, and advocate in governmental and inter-governmental forums for effective, equitable, and verifiable climate and environmental protection agreements.
2. Work to engage our local religious communities – including women’s and youth groups, and schools – to advocate “green” standards, models and practices.
3. Advance multi-religious partnerships while, while engaging the public sector, in order to equip local religious communities for such efforts.
Promoting Education and Religious Diversity and the Common Good
1. Educate our religious communities about religious diversity and its value for the common good. Encourage each religious community to identify and teach from its own test and traditions about the inviolable dignity of others and their freedom of belief and practice.
2. Jointly advocated for basic formal education about religious traditions, religious diversity, and their importance for social cohesion; and advance related informal education, placing special priority on women’s groups and experiential service programs for youth.
3. Advance multi-religious partnerships to counter religious discrimination, persecution, or humiliation, and to foster respect for diverse religious sensitivities.
Advancing Good Governance
1. Explore the application of the principles of good governance to our own religious institutions.
2. Educate our religious communities one the need for good government and advocate for it.
3. Advance multi-religious partnerships to educate and equip local religious communities for advocacy for good governance.