Participant Feedback

Some feedback from participants


Number One: from Charanjit Ajitsingh

Charanjit Ajitsingh

This is a short report of my reflections about the congress. There were 700 people who attended the conference, a big delegation from Japan, more than 200 young people and a significant presence of women which was heartening. I managed to attend the following events:-

Inaugural ceremony including Dalai Lama’s speech on 4th September

Circle groups on day 2 and 3

Plenary 1 Role of Religion in promoting human rights and Plenary workshop 1

Part of the General meeting

Workshop on Women as agents of Social change

Europe and the Middle East Chapter meeting

Plenary 2 on Science and Religion and Plenary workshop 2

Workshop on health and healing

Led Sikh worship on 7th morning

Plenary 3 on Hindus , Muslims and Christians: How can they live together in India and Plenary workshop 3

Chapter Workshop presentation

Final session on Peace Action:Gandhian Strategies & Children’s Theatre and

The closing ceremony

I also attended part of cultural programmes. We also had the opportunity to attend an Interfaith Iftar service and meal at the local cultural centre.

It was also good to meet people informally especially young people from Afghanistan and of Tibetan origin and those studying Chennai and Bangalore who were happy to be at the congress. They shared their aspirations and concerns quite openly when they felt that they would be listened to and their opinions will be valued.

Highlights for me were

  • The inauguration ceremony with the performance of the Japanese yoga group, the Japanese choir, prayers from 9 faith traditions and the Chennai folk girls dance
  • The speech on compassion by Dalai Lama. He talked about the development and of religious belief in humanity over a longer timescale of 3000 to 4000 years. He said that when things are beyond our control belief in a higher being’ God or Buddha gives hope and inspiration. He said that the development of science and technology over the last two hundred years brings us immediately what we want. In 20 th century technology brought a lot of destruction, 200 million killed. He reiterated that material development does not bring inner peace and his message was of compassion for all on this planet. He said the basis of genuine harmony is to ‘keep your own faith and respect the other tradition, otherwise there is conflict in the name of religion. He expressed the wish that the 21 st century should be the century of Dharma in which the values of love and compassion and mutual respect are fostered.
  • The session on the role of religion in promoting human rights in which Swami Agnivesh, Indian human rights activist, Revd Peter Moraes and Mrs Marzia Rawhani, a human rights lawyer participated. Each of them brought their own perspective on the promotion of human rights but I was particularly struck by Mrs Rawhani’s research and how she made the link with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and religion, religion being the root of human motivation which enables us to embrace the higher notions of justice. She highlighted the religious persecution of the Bahai community in Iran, a community that refuses to consider themselves as victims but reach out to others with love and compassion
  • The session on science and religion was equally inspiring with three very different contributions by Dr TP Srinivasan, Swami Jithamananada Maharaj , Revd Abhi Janamachi and Dr Steven Leeper. Dr Leeper gave the practical examples of creating a culture of non-violence and for the elimination of nuclear weapons. He mentioned the work of Hiroshima peace culture Foundation and Hiroshima memorial services in different parts of the world in August. ‘Mayors of Peace’ a campaigning organisation was also mentioned. The Swami made a connection between science and religion and gave examples from the Vedic times from Upanishads of ‘the finite in the Infinite.’ He said, ‘In 1981 science got shattered and fell at the feet of prayer. Thought is the most powerful thing in the world, Thought can cascade the body. He laid stress on basic oneness of existence and interconnectedness of holistic universe. Interiorisation of God is important which can be achieved through the recitation of Aum. He ended with engaging the audience in recitation which was quite inspirational.
  • Plenary on how Hindus , Muslims and Christians can live together was also illuminating. Challenges of communalism and religious extremism are there in India although secularism is a positive concept which confirms religions, recognises and celebrates them. Dr Radha Krishnan, a Gandhian scholar raised the issue of why only three faiths were considered and not the Sikhs, Bahais, Buddhists and Zoroastrians. He said, quoting Mother Teresa that there are three ‘I’s who are great enemies of living together. They are ignorance, irreverence and intolerance. He said that a new religious outlook is needed to understand religion and make our children proud of it as better and worthier human beings. Later on the children from his institute gave a superb performance on how they cultivate Gandhian values of dealing with conflict and of living together .
  • I also found the workshop on Women as agents of social change helpful. The two examples, one from South India of the work of a Women’s rights lawyer who also runs a refuge and the other a Japanese woman whose mother and other members of the family were victims of Hiroshima bombing presented their work in a moving yet sensitive way. I thought they were real role models for peace and human rights.
  • The session on health and healing mentioned some of the research done in the field. However, I did not see a closer link being made between faith and healing.

Things which could be improved

  • Inauguration was too long, too many speeches about the Dalai Lama before he arrived, no wonder there was a grand exodus after Dalai Lama’s speech
  • Many people missed the keynote speech, there needed to be a break after the speech of Dalai Lama and reconvening would have helped.
  • Only a few managed to get to the grand photo session
  • Plenary workshops could be crisper, time lost in summarising the morning session left less time for questions
  • Improved balance between religious representation especially in the country in which the congress happens. For example, the Sikhs form 2% of India’s population but only two young Sikhs attended. There was no Sikh contribution from the stage in any of the plenaries.

On the whole the Congress had huge successes and IARF came out as a much stronger organisation. I feel that the Congress was well worth attending and that I gained an enormous amount and it was a good learning experience. I felt really rejuvenated. The visits and companionship were a true bonus. I am already looking forward to the next Congress.


Number Two: from Inga Scharfe

“Incredible India, or: Is the Dalai Lama a Unitarian?”
Reflections on the 33rd IARF World Congress

Inga Scharfe in front of an Indian elephant 

I had never been to an IARF congress before but heard lots about it from Unitarian friends who had travelled to the previous ones in Taiwan, Hungary, Canada, Korea or even to the first one in India. So far, my own experiences with IARF were limited to meeting some foreign representatives at various Unitarian congresses in Germany. Now, I wanted to see for myself what the mythic IARF was like which Antje and Manfred Paul as well as Wolfgang Jantz had engaged themselves in so passionately over the past decades. It did not hurt that the congress was to be held in India: a country which – since studying in England and making many Asian friends – had long been on my list of places to visit. I decided to seize the moment and apply for funding from the German Chapter of IARF. Here, I would like to take the opportunity to thank those responsible for their generous support which enabled me to go!

The 25th August came and the adventure began. Led by Unitarian Rev. Richard Kellaway and together with another 20 fellow travellers from the US, Germany, Canada, the Netherlands and Japan, I embarked upon a pre-congress tour through Tamil Nadu, the neighbouring state to Kerala in which the congress was to take place. Visiting temples, monuments and museums with ancient statures of Hindu deities, our local guide introduced us to the complex history and rich culture of India. What left the deepest impression on me was seeing Hindus engaged in worship: silently praying, playing and singing devotional songs, sleeping in the temple, being blessed by an elephant, eating temple-blessed food humbly shared among friends and family, or taking part in elaborate ceremonies.

Their world was so magical, full to the brim with religious practices that made their life meaningful, no lack of orientation as the question “what or how to do” seemingly did not exist – at the same time, their personal, familial and societal being-in-the-world was highly regulated by Hinduism so that there was very little space for individual decisions (our guide said: “there are three answers in Hinduism: 1. fate, 2. fate and 3. fate”). In comparison, my Unitarian world felt utterly disenchanted, sober and with little that seemed meaningful as such or “given” – still, my personal, familial and societal being-in-the-world felt so free that I was happy to trade magic guidance from above for personal freedom and individual choice “here”.


Coming from the enchanted Hindu world to the congress venue, the Catholic Renewal Centre in Kochi, I encountered another microcosm entirely governed by religion. It was less colour- and playful than the first but all the more rigid. The beds without matrasses, the one shower for more than 40 women per floor and the ever-same meals I only want to mention in passing. My real point of concern for the whole week remained the fact that “The Women’s Block” was locked by a nun at 9:30pm every night while the policy for men was much more lenient (their official closing time was 10:00pm, yet, often one of the two doors stayed unlocked). Never in my whole life had I been deprived of my freedom or experienced such gender discrimination first-hand. The worst was that all the IARF officials I spoke to just answered we had to obide by the rules of the centre. But, as one of the participants of the young adult’s congress remarked: “how can we change the world if we cannot even change this?” And I added: “how could those responsible choose such a venue for a conference on religious freedom and human rights?”

In fact, the practices from 9:30pm to 5:00am violated several rights laid out in the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”: article 1 – we are all born free and equal, article 2 – don’t discriminate, article 9 – no unfair detainment, article 13 – freedom to move… Locked into the women’s block, I spent my evenings dancing and chatting with young Asian women about their boy-friends, arranged marriages, education and I urged them – if possible – not to marry too soon and/or the wrong man! Thus, our imprisonment was productive because it brought out deep solidarity amongst the women, as we realised that rights are not freely granted but have to be fought for again and again. A lesson which will stay with me longer than anything I heard in the plenary talks and workshops of the official programme.

Yet before I get to the latter, I have to at least briefly report on the meeting of the youth wing of IARF headed by Morse Flores, which I attended after the pre-congress tour and before the start of the congress itself. The impressive figures were: more than 200 participants from over 20 countries! In particular, I want to mention a group of Afghan and Tibetan students from Mysore University who live in exile in India, not knowing if or when they will ever be able to return “home”. Talking with them about freedom and seeing how much they enjoyed the interfaith dialogue during the congress moved me to tears more than once. And it was herein that I think the most import achievement of the gathering lay: none of these young people will return as the same person as s/he came to Kochi. This one week will have changed them forever. When I realised that I decided to follow the call of the group: to join the steering committee as representative for Germany for the next four years. Keep an eye out for us!

Last but not least: the congress. Its title was “Beyond conflict to reconciliation – the challenge of 21st century” and it started with a big bang: the Dalai Lama’s inauguration speech. In the course of his talk, he criticised technology and the lack of orientation in today’s world while advocating compassion and love. From a Unitarian perspective it was interesting that he said it was good if people believed, but that it was not a problem if people did not believe either. Hence, he presented himself as an undogmatic religious leader and, in that way, as a good Unitarian who deservedly received the Albert-Schweitzer-Award! I have to admit that his presence impressed me even more than what he had to say. He radiates such joy and has a great charisma – I really enjoyed seeing him live. For the Tibetan students it meant meeting their God so they were eagerly queuing for hours to receive his blessing. Afterwards, they came to me to tell me about this life-changing religious moment. I was very touched by how deeply moved they were. And again, as with the Hindus above, I felt cut-off from this spiritual experience, yet, at the same time – as one of the speakers, Swami Agnivesh demanded – happy to be my own guru!

As you can imagine, there were a lot more memorable moments and meaningful encounters in the plenary sessions, the workshops, the circle groups, the morning worships, the cultural programme in the evenings and – as always – in the coffee breaks. While I cannot share all of these with you I still hope I could give you a brief overview about what it meant to be there for me. Maybe I will see you at the next congress!