Session III: “Thriving Families and Social Wellbeing” of the conference on interfaith cooperation and the family, held at the World Council of Churches, co-sponsored by UPF.
The chair, Ms. Chantal Chetelat-Komagata, the secretary general of UPF-Switzerland, opened the session by briefly introducing the topic of the conference. In this session, five speakers presented programs in which strong families have become the mechanism to help cure societal problems, support healthy development of youth and effectively combat social ills. This session also looked into specific challenges of dysfunctional families from outside threats as well as from within. It furthermore showed some of the initiatives that have allowed families to fulfill their role in cooperation with the good work of supportive institutions.
The first speaker, Mr. Hafid Ouardiri, president of the Fondation de l’Entreconnaissance and vice president of the Geneva Interreligious Platform, pointed out the importance of interreligious dialogue and cooperation. Mr. Ouardiri emphasized the common values to protect life and families, which are the first principles of any interreligious dialogue and cooperation. Religion can limit our relations with one another, but this shouldn’t be the case, he said. It is in the family that peace is learned and has to be realized. In his words: “The teaching of Islam reminds me that in order to go to God, we need to have an attachment to our family. We are all part of the same family of God. When we see how divided society is, it is very difficult to have harmony in the family. We together, as representatives of different faiths, have the responsibility to defend the family, which is the smallest cell of the society.”
Mr. Ouardiri stressed the need for common sense, expressed in the founding document of the Geneva Spiritual Appeal, a document signed by religious leaders in 1999. He read the founding statement of the Geneva Spiritual Appeal, which urged world leaders to observe three key points:
“1) A refusal to invoke a religious or spiritual power to justify violence of any kind,
“2) A refusal to invoke a religious or spiritual source to justify discrimination and exclusion;
“3) A refusal to exploit or dominate others by means of strength, intellectual capacity or spiritual persuasion, wealth or social status.”
The next speaker, Ms. Deepa Grover, a senior adviser in early childhood development with UNICEF for the European Union and Central Asia, explained that UNICEF’s key aim is working for peace, as working with children means working for peace. As UNICEF’s key mandate is the well-being of children, working for children therefore means working with families.
A recently published document, she said, stated that the best investment is in early childhood development—the period from birth to school entry. During this period there are vital developments happening with the child in almost all areas. Children at a very young age develop much faster than in any later period. Their good development depends on a good environment. UNICEF works with national governments so that the best environment for children’s healthy development can be assured.
Situations of risk can have a great impact on a child’s development, Ms. Grover said. Nurturing care is very important in this phase of a child’s life. Good health, nutrition, quality of caregiving are particularly important for young children, because the early time is the most formative period.
There is a great need to focus on prevention of negative influences. The role of the family is very important to allow children to grow up in a safe and protected environment, Ms. Grover said. To support parents and families through the government’s initiatives is vital for success, she said. Responsive caregiving responds to the child’s needs. Which services enable the best support of the children? Finding answers to these questions is essential for every government, she said.
UNICEF believes that all families with young children need support, Ms. Grover said. The organization provides this support by working through governments, departments of health and all available services so that the risks for negative influences can be reduced as early as possible. Early-childhood education centers can help to create a common vision among parents, caregivers and authorities so that optimal results may be achieved. Such community-based kindergartens exist in Kyrgyzstan and in Tajikistan. There are various examples of collective efforts in various communities that can enable such a family-friendly environment. Ms. Grover quoted Mahatma Gandhi, “If we are to reach real peace in our world, we have to begin with the children.”
The next speaker was Rev. Dr. Peniel Rajkumar, program director for the WCC on interreligious activities. He showed the direct link between social well-being and the well-being of families. As we are not living in an ideal world, we have to consider the situation of fragmented families and less optimal environments, he said.
The family is a cradle in which certain values are practiced and taught. The transmission of those values into practice is essential, he said. Interfaith activities are valuable because of the interrelatedness of all great values in all religions. However, he said, over the years we seem to have acquired a failure and fatigue in translating those precious values into action.
It is time for all people of faith to think how we can move beyond this impasse, he said. Faith by itself is dead, so the Bible says. Also failing to act on urgent issues is a sin too. The longest journey that one can make is the journey from the head to the heart, he said. We need to recover the kind of spirituality that endorses humanity as a universal, spiritual family, so that we can overcome all divisions and create the reality of one beautiful human family.
Dr. Rajkumar ended with a quote of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech: “I refuse to believe that humankind is stuck with racism and war so that peace and brotherhood cannot become a reality!” Dr. Rajkumar expressed the hope that this conference would stimulate all to contribute more fully and responsibly to the advent of a world of peace.
Ms. Giovanna Campello of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) joined the conference from Vienna, Austria, through a conference call. UNODC would like to present some tools that are being used around the world to empower and support families and parents in their important efforts to protect youth and prevent drug abuse and crime affecting young people, she said.
Simply said, UNODC is trying to help parents to optimize their educational efforts to help children avoid involvement in drugs, gang violence, etc. Strengthening the bond between parents and children is key to preventing drug use and crime, she said. For example, in Honduras improved parenting skills have proven very effective in very violent communities, protecting children from falling into aggressive or destructive behaviors.
Statistics prove very clearly the effectiveness of family-based programs in combating crime and drug abuse among youth, Ms. Campello said. If family cohesion goes up, crime and drug abuse go down. This is also visible in communities that have been displaced through war and conflict, as, for example, in Afghanistan and Syria.
UNODC’s family-based programs are being implemented successfully in many cultures and nations. However, she said, these programs should be adapted to the cultural and religious environment in which they are to be implemented. Ms. Campello emphasized that if we all work together beyond barriers of culture and ethnicity, results can be optimized.
Participants of the conference saluted the valuable programs of UN agencies, using the family unit as a base to work with. The audience expressed that especially faith communities would have great interest in such family-based programs.
The last speaker of the session was Dr. Michael Balcomb, the regional chair for Europe and the Middle East of Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (FFWPU), another organization that is affiliated with UPF. Dr. Balcomb began his presentation with a video about the “Peace Starts with Me” rallies and programs worldwide.
He mentioned the preamble of UNESCO, adding that the defenses of peace should be constructed in the minds of men and women, hinting at the precious contribution of women to peace throughout the world. He then stated that, in his opinion, the concept of “Peace starts with me” was more to the point than the UNESCO preamble.
Dr. Balcomb elaborated on the main theme of FFWPU programs of recent years. He then thanked all the partnering organizers of this conference, as well as the participants. Men are most frequently at the origin of wars and conflicts, but for peacebuilding efforts women are often more effective, he said.
Dr. Hak Ja Han Moon, also known as Mother Moon, has been strongly emphasizing the need to realize that peace indeed starts with the individual—me. The key message of FFWPU is that humanity is one large family with a common parent, God, who cares deeply about His missing children. Mother Moon’s special message to all the conference participants is that “we all matter to God very much,” because God is essentially our loving parent, Dr. Balcomb said.
FFWPU holds that this is a special time in which all faiths should work together for peace and sustainable human development, he said. The family is the key and the pivotal focus for learning about peacebuilding, but it also can be the source of great pain and disharmony. Dr. Balcomb documented some of FFWPU’s latest marriage rededication programs to strengthen marriages and families around the world. He concluded his presentation by quoting the founders of UPF and FFWPU: “Let us create one family under our Heavenly Parent!”
After a short but lively discussion, the session was adjourned and the plenary took a short break in preparation for the concluding session.