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Retired bishop confronts militant religion

Last weekend the Fairfax press carried an investigative piece by Debra Jopson profiling the 21 Muslim men convicted of terrorism charges over the last six years in Sydney and Melbourne. The report was accompanied by mug shots of all the men, most of them young, bearded and fierce-looking.

The article sought to put this in perspective when it quoted research that 'identified a fringe of about 100 Islamist extremists in Australia's Muslim population of 340,000'. This indicates that those jailed are the extreme end of a tiny minority, but highlights the sense of threat engendered by this group.

The United Nations has designated 1–7 February each year as World Interfaith Harmony Week. It was launched in 2011 to counteract this sense of threat at a time when interreligious conflict is a grave concern around the globe. To mark Harmony Week, Eureka Street TV features this interview with a man who is one of the world's leading interfaith activists.

Retired Episcopal Bishop of California, William Swing, is the founder of one of the largest international interfaith organisations. Through it he is seeking to mobilise believers from all traditions to cooperate and to lessen the dire effects of militant religion.

The event that triggered his interest in this area was an invitation in 1993 from the United Nations to host an interfaith service at the Episcopal Grace Cathedral in San Francisco in 1995. This was one of the events celebrating the 50th anniversary of the formation of the UN.

At first Swing's vision for his new interfaith organisation was inspired by the United Nations, and it would be called United Religions. It would involve world religious leaders, and peak religious bodies meeting to formulate a charter that would unite them in a common vision.

But after travelling extensively and meeting with many of the main leaders, he was disillusioned, realising there was not the will for this sort of collaboration. After extensive consultation, he came up with a radically different idea that he called the United Religions Initiative (URI).

Rather than a top-down model working with religious leaders, URI starts at the grass roots, fostering 'cooperation circles' in local communities. This involves people from different faiths working in small groups on projects in which they have a common interest. The circles are self-organising and self-funding, and work under the aegis and guiding principles of URI.

URI began in 2000 with the declaration of its charter: 'We, people of diverse religions, spiritual expressions and Indigenous traditions throughout the world, hereby establish the United Religions Initiative to promote enduring, daily interfaith cooperation, to end religiously motivated violence and to create cultures of peace, justice and healing for the Earth and all living beings.'

The URI started with just one local group, and from those humble beginnings, it has grown exponentially. It now has 570 cooperation circles in 78 countries that involve the participation of over 500,000 people.

Swing was born in West Virginia, the son of a touring golf professional. He served as a priest in a number of parishes in West Virginia and in Washington DC before his appointment as Bishop of California. In San Francisco, as well as his interfaith activism, he is a well known for his work on behalf of the homeless, Latino immigrants and people affected by HIV/AIDS.

He has a number of honorary doctorates, including one from the Jesuit sponsored University of San Francisco. Hisl books include Building Wisdom's House and The Coming United Religions. 

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Peter KirkwoodPeter Kirkwood is a freelance writer and video consultant who worked for 23 years in the Religion and Ethics Unit of ABC TV. He has a Master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity. 

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