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Bishop striving to put an end to 'religionism'

He'd like to invent a new word: religionism.

Religionism would be to religion what racism is to race, an acknowledgement that people harbor prejudice about each other's beliefs, that in fact they sometimes kill each other in the name of God, says the Rt. Rev. William Swing.

Putting an end to religious violence is one of the goals of the United Religions Initiative, the interfaith organization Swing dreamed up seven years ago.

The grass-roots group, which now has members in 40 countries, is holding its "North American Summit" in Salt Lake City this weekend.

The soft-spoken, outspoken Swing, bishop of the California Diocese of the Episcopal Church, says he didn't set out to be the founder of a worldwide interfaith group.

His involvement started with a phone call in 1993, when he was asked to organize an interfaith worship service to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the U.N. charter. He went to bed that night, he says, thinking about all the wars being fought around the globe, "most of them fueled by religion." If the nations of the world could come together each day at the U.N., why couldn't the world's religions do the same, he wondered.

"When I got out of bed I did not want to start a United Religions Initiative. What I wanted to do was find a United Religions Initiative. I thought, it must be out there somewhere," Swing told 200 URI North American Summit attendees Thursday evening at the University of Utah's Olpin Union.

Swing ended up traveling the globe talking to religious leaders, from the Dalai Lama to the Pope — and came home realizing, he says, that if change was to happen it had to start from the bottom up. And it had to come in ways the world hadn't imagined before. What the world didn't need was just one more candlelight, ecumenical worship service that made people feel warm and fuzzy one day a year.

What the world needed, he decided, is dialogue, with people of different religions actually talking to each other about their religions.

With the help of two gurus from the business world, Swing and his URI planning team developed a group organized around grass-roots "cooperation circles" that operate on the notion of "appreciative inquiry." Instead of a tidy little interfaith service, it would be a free-form encounter that included not just the "major" religions but indigenous cultures and even witches.

The URI North American Summit, which runs through June 4, began Thursday with a dedication ceremony for the first interfaith chapel at the University of Utah. The ceremony included a member from the Baha'is, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, indigenous traditions, Jews, Muslims, Taoists, Unitarians, Wiccanns, Sikhs and "all other religious spiritual traditions."

Each URI "cooperation circle" must include seven or more people who represent at least three spiritual expressions. No one in the circle is allowed to proselytize. If the circle chooses to, it can team up with other circles to form a "multicircle" around a URI theme such as conflict resolution or environmental concerns. There are now 135 cooperation circles worldwide, including ones in such volatile places as Israel and Northern Ireland.

"We've started videotaping improbable pairs," Swing said in an interview Thursday. One such pair is a white South African Air Force officer, left blind by a car bomb, and the black ANC member who admits he planned the bombing. In the video, the two are participating in a URI cooperation circle.

"There's a peace that passes understanding that some people arrive at," says Swing. "Our job is to hunt for that vision and hold it up high."

Last summer, 275 URI members from five continents signed the group's charter, whose purpose was officially summed up: "to promote daily, enduring interfaith cooperation, to end religiously motivated violence and to create cultures of peace, justice and healing for the Earth and all living beings."

Although that would seem benign enough, the URI has gotten its share of hate mail from people who worry that the group will blur the world's religions. Swing himself has been called everything from a heretic and egomaniac to "the Antichrist."


E-mail: jarvik@desnews.com