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World Peace Prize presented in India to Mormon leader

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PUNE, India — As the standoff over nuclear weapons continued Monday between the United States and North Korea, a senior LDS Church leader accepted a World Peace Prize in India and called on world leaders to recognize that a failure to accommodate religion results in conflict.

White horses led a large procession to honor Elder D. Todd Christofferson, who walked down a green carpet on the street outside the World Peace Center in Pune, India, to the sounds of Indian bagpipers and high-pitched cymbals.

"My friends, peace is our common aim," said Elder Christofferson, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "Peace between countries, peace within communities and peace, ultimately, for each of us."

Michael Nobel, a great-grandnephew of the founder of the Nobel Peace Prize, joined the World Peace Prize Committee and the president of World Peace University as they conferred the award named for Saint Shri Dnyaneshwara, a revered 13th-century Hindu philosopher.

"The world today, with all its problems, it needs you, the church you represent and your work," Nobel said. "It needs you more than ever. Thank you, Elder Christofferson, and my sincere thanks to your organization for continuing your work."

World Peace University President Vishwanath Karad said the award honored what he called Elder Christofferson's "relentless mission of love, compassion and sacrifice."

The emotional ceremony was a spectacle of color, music, traditional Hindu prayers and honorifics. The event took place under a massive tent outdoors, with nearly 5,000 people sitting on chairs covered with white cloth under twirling fans. The celebration began with a prayer for world peace.

Elder Christofferson and his wife, Sister Kathy Christofferson, joined everyone by pressing their fingers and thumbs together and chanted the pranava, the sacred mantra, "Om."

Then they joined a long line of dignitaries to pull together on a rope that rang a bell for world peace and democracy.

Nobel, co-founder of the Nobel Charitable Trust, said he was grateful to lend his name to honoring Elder Christofferson.

"There are other prestigious awards, and one of the them is the World Peace Prize, considered as the foremost peace award in this country," he said.

Karad said the World Peace Prize Committee chose to honor Elder Christofferson for his "noble mission of spreading the message of peace and harmony throughout the world."

"Elder Christofferson has personally visited and worked with church members and government, civic and religious leaders in 80 nations" since he began his service as a general authority of the church in 1993, said Elder Robert Kumar William, an LDS Area Seventy from Bangalore, India.

The church has provided $1.89 billion in humanitarian aid throughout the world since 1985.

"Why would they deserve (the prize)?" Nobel said. "The members of the church have shown us that it's possible to translate into worldwide action something that lies deep in the hearts of many of us, compassion for others. ... The Mormon church and its organizations richly deserve this commission for its outstanding humanitarian accomplishments."

Calling the honor one beyond his dreams, Elder Christofferson said he and the LDS Church and its members were grateful for the 2017 Philosopher Saint Shri Dnyaneshwara World Peace Prize. The prize has been awarded by Maharashtra Institute of Technology World Peace University eight times since 2006, generally to spiritual leaders from India. Elder Christofferson is the first recipient from outside Asia.

"As a little boy growing up on a farm milking a cow, I never imagined I would be sitting here," he said during a news conference afterward. "It was such an honor. I'm still having a hard time believing it's real. I'm gratified. I know it's not simply to me personally, but I represent several millions of people who really want to bless the lives of their fellow man, who believe in being faithful disciples of Jesus Christ and try to incorporate his character in their lives."

He spoke in a traditional American blue suit and blue tie but draped in an orange shawl with gold trim and shiny gems that caught the light. He also wore the gold medal given to him as part of the prize. The honor also includes a cash award of 525,000 rupees, about $8,000, which Elder Christofferson will be donating to a school for the disabled in India.

Positive influence

He used his acceptance speech to focus on the good religion does and to urge world leaders and policymakers to consider the broad array of research he outlined about the positive impact of religion on people, communities, economies and nations.

"Failing to appreciate the good religion does society or the nation as a whole and to accommodate religion whenever possible results in social conflict," he said.

"Government officials and policy makers, like yourselves, who seek to establish lasting peace and prosperity for people of all faiths should understand why and how," he said. ... "True religion offers a stable foundation for a just and healthy society. It strengthens and ennobles nations, communities and individuals. It is my hope that we will all recognize and appreciate the great good religion does and work together — as people of diverse faiths or no faith at all — to build more peaceful nations and ultimately a more peaceful world."

He cited dozens of studies that showed religion produces happy marriages; healthy, successful children; strong moral character; safe communities; and active, engaged citizens.

Called a champion of religious freedom by one presenter, he echoed a talk he gave Friday in Cambridge, England, where he made the case that religious freedom promotes social and political diversity and improves incomes for women and global economic growth.

"Recognizing and protecting faith," he added, "is the path to peace."

It also can lead to prosperity, he said.

"Countries with strong traditions of religious freedom tend to be not only more stable and safe, but more prosperous. A recent study reached the remarkable conclusion that the presence of religious freedom in a country is one of only three factors significantly associated with global economic growth. Consider what a difference that principle could make. Imagine what changes would happen if more officials and policymakers recognized that protecting religious freedom is one of the three most significant things they could do to promote the economic growth and well-being of their country."

New Utah ties

The Maharashtra Institute of Technology World Peace University is an engineering school with 18,000 students that seeks to instill values and promote peace through the combination of science and spirituality.

Karad is the driving force behind that vision, and he has a broad following beyond his students and the city of Pune, which has 3.1 million people.

"The union of science and spirituality alone will help bring harmony and peace to mankind," Karad said.

Ashok Joshi, an Indian who lives part time in Utah, told Karad he couldn't have a World Peace Council without a Mormon and encouraged Karad to visit Salt Lake City and familiarize himself with the LDS Church.

Impressed by the global humanitarian work of the church, its efforts on behalf of refugees and the honor code lived by its members, Karad instantly found new partners. Students from Westminster College and Salt Lake Community College have traveled to India for joint projects with World Peace University for the past two years. Both schools' presidents, and Utah Valley University President Matt Holland, were in the Utah delegation for the ceremony. Afterward, they engaged in talks to expand their partnerships with World Peace University.

Karad teaches, like the LDS Church, the avoidance of alcohol, smoking and profanity. Perhaps most of all, he was struck by the Mormon emphasis on families. Joint families, an extended family arrangement, is prevalent throughout India.

The Utah delegation included Holland, Westminster College President Stephen Morgan, Salt Lake City Community College President Deneece Huftalin, and Richard Nelson, CEO of the Utah Technology Council.

Elder Randy D. Funk, Asia Area President for the LDS Church, visited from Hong Kong.

Karad said he felt the day was historic, a small beginning that might lead to a great partnership.

Karad acknowledged Monday that the Mormon community — with nearly 16 million members worldwide and 43 congregations and 13,000 members in India — is relatively small in numbers, but he called for the spread of value-based education systems, another area of common ground with Elder Christofferson. The LDS Church operates four universities and colleges, each with an honor code and emphasis on character education.

"You preach here at the university the importance of values," Elder Christofferson said. "You teach the value of character in education. We teach the purpose of education is building character. I feel comfortable. I feel very much at home."

Elder Christofferson issued a strong response when fielding a question during a news conference about secularists who blame religion for conflict.

"Those who use religion to divide and attack have offended God and profaned religion and the beauty and power it has for good," he said.

On the other hand, religions provide healing. For example, recent studies show that charitable donations by people in India exceed $42 billion a year.

"At the institutional level," he said during his speech, "humanitarian services provided by religious volunteers lift people and improve whole communities. And because these welfare services are generally provided without charge, they reduce financial burdens on government.

"Religious volunteers provide substantial assistance in areas that would otherwise fall to governmental agencies. Life-changing aid includes refugee assistance, child and foster care services, job training and other employment-related services, counseling and mental health support, literacy and mentoring programs, crime and substance abuse prevention, legal representation, assistance to victims and families of criminal offenders, and services for the homeless."

Prize recipients

Elder Christofferson is the ninth person to receive the World Peace Prize. Past recipients are:

2006 — H.H. Mata Amritanandmai Devi, a Buddhist guru and founder of Mātā Amṛtānandamayī Math, a global charity.

2007 —Sri Sri Ravishankarji, founder of the Art of Living Foundation.

2008 — (2) Husband and wife team of Hiroo Saionji, president of the Goi Peace Foundation and the World Peace Prayer Society, and Masami Saionji, chairwoman of both organizations.

2009 — Rev. Dada J. P. Vaswani, a nonsectarian spiritual leader who promotes vegetarianism and animal rights.

2010 — Vijay P. Bhatkar, eminent computer scientist.

2011 — Pramukh Swamiji, a Hindu swami and guru from the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminaryan Sanstha spiritual organization.

2016 — Mahayogi M Mumtaz Ali Khan, a yogi born Muslim and trained in Hindu.