BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — World leaders today share a growing list of complex problems, and yet the leaders seem to be getting worse, not better, at working together, according to Rowan Williams, the former head of the Church of England.
"What we see is not a movement toward greater justice … but greater fear, division and inequality," he said during the opening day of the G20 Interfaith Forum, an international gathering of religious leaders and faith-based social activists from the world's 20 leading economies.
Faith communities can help reverse this trend, Williams and other religious leaders said, addressing how to be more unified in the face of issues like climate change and the global refugee crisis. Ahead of the G20, or Group of 20, annual meeting in Argentina later this year, they're asking secular politicians to pay more attention to people of faith.
“At a time when our politics becomes more and more divided and polarized, when the defense of national boundaries literally and metaphorically becomes the one thing that many political leaders care about, our religious traditions say we are not permitted by the holy God we serve to forget about any portion of the human race,” Williams said.
The G20 Interfaith Forum is aimed at bridging the gap between faith groups and political leaders, speakers said. Participants hope to help policymakers choose hope over fear and to showcase what's possible when people in different religious communities and countries work together to care for those in need.
"We all have much to learn from each other, whatever our religious or ethical motivations for serving," said Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Elder Christofferson and Williams were among the world faith leaders asserting their strong commitment to morality and human dignity, values that are sometimes missing from secular policy debates.
Why religion matters
The fifth annual G20 Interfaith Forum features three days of panel discussions during which speakers share their on-the-ground experiences addressing issues like starvation and violence, as well as their suggestions for G20 political leaders. This year's discussion topics include environmental protection, religious freedom law, women's rights and workplace policies.
The gathering is an opportunity to “showcase the powerful contributions that can be made when people and organizations from across political, national and religious boundaries work together to address pressing challenges,” explained Brian Adams, one of the conference organizers, during his opening remarks.
It's also a chance for faith leaders to refocus policy debates on people in need, noted Pope Francis in his letter to forum participants, which was read Wednesday morning by another Catholic leader.
READ MORE: Elder Christofferson presents at G20 Interfaith Forum on relieving suffering worldwide
“We should offer a new way of looking at men and women and at reality, not with a view to manipulate or dominate but with respect for their own nature and creation as a whole,” he said.
Religious leaders who spoke Wednesday morning didn’t claim to have the perfect policy solutions for issues like human trafficking, terrorism, climate change and the refugee crisis. They focused on the need to push for solutions to those problems across all facets of society and religious leaders' special ability to unify people across lines of difference.
“Religious traditions have a unique reach across the world. They are to be found everywhere,” said Williams, who is now the chairman of Christian Aid, a charity in the United Kingdom. “If we wish to see people motivated for positive change towards justice, then we need to connect that motivation with a religious vision.”
Already, faith groups help with the implementation of secular policies around the world, whether they’re aimed at increasing gender equality or reducing poverty rates, said Abdullah Al Lheedan, from Saudi Arabia’s cultural exchange program. For example, in his country, Muslim leaders have been working with government leaders to address the outcry stemming from the end of the ban on women drivers.
“Religious institutions work hand-in-hand with the government to … moderate attitudes toward these issues,” he said.
Faith groups are skilled at speaking up for the people who sometimes get lost in secular policy debates, said Metropolitan Emmanuel of France, a leader in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
“We as a church have a responsibility to take care of the most vulnerable and to stand together with minorities and help them when needed,” he said.
Although most faith groups share an interest in protecting the vulnerable, it’s not always easy for them to coordinate their efforts to help those in need. Theological differences can lead to unhealthy competition and even violence, said Claudio Epelman, executive director of the Latin American Jewish Congress.
“Religions have faced a lot of tensions and strife,” he said.
Participants in the G20 Interfaith Forum don’t deny those challenges. But they’re trying to create a space where people learn from diversity instead of rejecting it.
“We’re celebrating our singularity and our own identity,” Epelman said.
As Elder Christofferson described some of his church’s successful social programs around the world, he noted that it wasn’t his intention to brag. He spoke about providing hygiene kits to people affected by hurricanes or earthquakes and job training through the church’s Self-Reliance Initiative in the hopes of inspiring more such programs.
“That we may strive together, working side by side in our own ways according to our own faith and values, … is my hope and prayer,” he said.
Striving together is what will change the world and solve crises like climate change and forced migration, said Kiran Bali from India, who serves as global chair for the United Religions Initiative.
“Actions speak louder than words. Our collective action will have a much more powerful impact on issues that we are dealing with today,” she said.