Letter from Nanjing  

The world has seen enough bloodshed and death on the pretext of religion. Isn’t it about time that we started to strive toward a situation where we finally talk to each other, if nothing else? This was the consensus of delegates from two continents attending the third annual Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) for interfaith dialogue, which concluded on Friday in Nanjing, capital of East China’s Jiangsu Province, just a small place with a population of more than 5 million. In one of China’s most pleasant and prosperous cities, which twice served briefly as the nation’s capital, a «harmonious future» for Asia and Europe is keenly anticipated. The terms «harmony» and «harmonious society» became a kind of mantra for two days full of discussions and visits to mosques and temples, including the White Cloud Temple in Beijing. Harmony sounded like an allusion to classical notions of social order in which people do not question their role in life and treat each other compassionately. At the third ASEM, the participating countries – Greece and Cyprus among them – declared in the Nanjing Statement the importance of enhancing cross-religious communication. The objectives are nothing short of peace, development and – what else? – harmony. At a press conference, Assistant Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai said something that some years ago would have sounded incredible: China adheres to the policy of guaranteeing the freedom of religious belief, and acknowledges the active role religion plays in building a «harmonious society» he said. Another Chinese official, Ye Xiaowen, minister of China’s state administration for religious affairs, said it has been proven by history that faith is an objective reality and that it can neither be imposed nor deprived. He also highlighted the «harmony» his country is seeking while acknowledging understandable differences. «A country or an ethnic group, while preserving its own cultural heritage, should be open and tolerant to other civilizations,» were his exact words. Sure enough, the Chinese Communist government today regards folk religion as superstition, a remnant of old China used by the ruling classes to keep power. This is still in line with the Marxist dogma that religion is the «opium of the people.» However, reconsidering Marx’s words, China’s Communist Party appears to be wondering whether there might not be some use for religion after all. Old temples demolished by Maoist radicals during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s are being rebuilt in great haste. In an effort to improve relations with the Muslim, Buddhist and Lamaist minorities, the government amended its constitution in 1982 to allow freedom of religion. Nevertheless, up to the present day only atheists are permitted to be members of the Chinese Communist Party. Officially there are more than 100 million religious believers in China, or about 10 percent of the population. But experts say the real number is very much higher. Within its own ranks, the party knows that some members practice religion even though this is against the party’s rules. In the countryside, so I was told, party secretaries routinely take part in religious ceremonies. Within the party a debate is growing about whether it should take a different approach to religion. This, of course, does not mean being more liberal toward what it regards as anti-government activities. In modern China, so manifestly «capitalistic» when you set foot on the ground, the party must be acutely aware that its own ideology holds little attraction for most ordinary people. Recently the party has begun to put a more positive spin on the role of religion. Last week’s interfaith dialogue in Nanjing is the most recent proof of this action. The event was given considerable prominence even in the official media. Slogans such as «A harmonious world begins in the mind» echoed the party’s recent propaganda drive concerning the need for a «harmonious society,» as featured in a Central Committee document where it was argued that religion can play a «positive role.» In Friday’s China Daily an editorial stressed that «centuries-old prejudice, misunderstanding, a sense of superiority and a drive for domination cannot be overcome overnight. Hopefully the positive momentum of ASEM will continue.» It will. The Fourth ASEM Interfaith Dialogue will be co-hosted by the Netherlands and Thailand next year in Amsterdam. In his address, Greece’s delegate Ambassador Alexandros Filon made an inspired interfaith proposition: collaboration with the Ecumenical «Green» Patriarch Vartholomaios on global warming and pollution. Vartholomaios is renowned for declaring that »crime against the natural world is a sin.» China – now building about two power stations every week – is renowned for its inability to control its ever rising global CO2 emissions. Sadly – and although Hong Kong is the seat of a Greek bishop – there was no Greek Orthodox clergyman at this interfaith meeting.

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