The Columinst (TC): Rev. Sugino, what does the phrase ‘Peace on earth’ mean to you in the course of your work?

Kyoichi Sugino (KS) The world’s major religious traditions have the broadest, most comprehensive and holistic notion of “peace.” Thus, Religions for Peace advances common action for this comprehensive notion of “peace on earth,” in preventing and resolving conflicts, promoting just and harmonious societies, advancing human development and protecting the Earth.

TC: Iraq and Sri Lanka are hostile environments where you have worked, how do you decide where to meet in order to have dialogue without fear?

KS: Religions for Peace recently convened a meeting of Syrian religious leaders outside Syria. In the current crisis with the killing of civilians, massive violation of human rights, and growing armed insurgency, minority religious communities are reluctant to overtly resist the Government out of the fear of reprisal and the uncertain future. They are also vulnerable to government troops in areas under siege.

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In such crises, we work with Syrian religious leaders to determine the best location for their dialogue. The venue should be religio-politically neutral and impartial. The facilitator of dialogue has to be deeply trusted by all parties. Religions for Peace is trusted because of its genuinely multi-religious identity and its track record.

In Iraq, immediately after the occupation in 2003, Religions for Peace supported the desire of Iraqi religious leaders to work together. To that end, we organized discussions in safe havens such as England, Jordan, Korea, and Japan. We also equipped them to help war-injured Iraqi children, which included sending the most critically injured to Korea for reconstructive surgery. In addition, twenty Iraqi doctors, chosen jointly by the leaders of the different religious communities, were sent for specialised surgical training in Korea, where they learned how to treat the specific injuries children can sustain in armed conflict. While such humanitarian efforts have their own inherent medical value, they have an even larger symbolic impact, demonstrating the real possibility and benefit of multi-religious harmony.

TC: Some people say coming together to have a dialogue for peace is a futile exercise. What is your response?

KS: If dialogue focuses on dogmatic presentations of different faith perspectives, it may not be so effective. However, I have experienced myself the religious communities’ power with a common action for peace. Inter-religious dialogue and cooperation has now reached a different level of evolution and is producing concrete results, preventing and resolving conflict and building sustainable peace in troubled regions of the world.

The differentiating character of Religions for Peace’s approach to peace building is in its experience and proven record of engaging diverse religious and ethnic groups in the framework of Inter-religious Councils (IRCs) on national, regional and international levels. Supported by and coordinated through continental and global IRCs, our affiliated IRCs worked with religious communities to educate their adherents on the root causes of conflict. We serve as effective advocates for conflict prevention, play a central role in mediation and negotiation among armed groups and lead communities in reconciliation and healing which is required to transform armed conflict into a true and lasting peace.

TC: You have been to so many places on earth, which place best represents the idea of peace on earth?

KS: While “peace” may be our ultimate goal, I believe that peace is also a “process”, which is sometimes challenging and painful but with many moments of joy and happiness. When I was with Israeli Jews, Palestinian Muslim and Christian youth in Paris, it was both a painful and hopeful moment of “peace on earth” as they shared their feelings and commitment to peace with tears during the Gaza crisis. Sunni, Shiah and Christian leaders from Iraq overcame their barriers and removed their turbans during a dinner at a Pakistani restaurant located in Tokyo, while seriously discussing their responsibilities as Iraqis for the future of their country. This too was a moment of “peace on earth.” When religious leaders in Africa unite to address child survival and maternal health and mobilize their spiritual, moral and social assets to launch a national and regional advocacy campaign, I see “peace on earth.”

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TC: You now work in New York. How has 9/11 changed the city in terms of the relationships among people?

KS: 9/11 posed a grave threat, exposed our vulnerability and challenged reality for all of us living in New York, but it has also offered a new positive path and opportunities for society. While we still suffer from divisiveness, discrimination, hatred, and religiously motivated violence, there has been an evolution of inter-religious movements worldwide, promoting peaceful co-existence among people of different faiths. We should continue to nurture this positive movement so that we can together reject the misuse of religion for discrimination, violence and war.

TC: As a Japanese and a global citizen, which place in the world has the most meaning for you personally and why?

KS: In my work in Religions for Peace, I have had the privilege of visiting many places and meeting with many peacemakers from the grassroots to national to international levels, all with different religious backgrounds. I enjoy “being here and now”, while “being deeply connected with peacemakers across the globe” who are at the forefront of peace building.

TC: When you need to find your own inner peace, where do you go?

KS: As a Mahayana Buddhist minister myself, my day starts with meditation and sutra recitation in the morning. During the day I devote myself to here and now, and in the evening, I recite the sutra to show my appreciation and self-introspection. I bring my portable Buddhist altar wherever I go – to Africa, the Middle East or Asia. My work for peace is a process to which I humbly try to contribute and it is also a process of my personal spiritual development and enlightenment.

This interview was conducted for The Columnist, a newsletter by Consulus that offers ideas on business, design and world affairs.