The Congress of the Leaders of World and Traditional Religions is held once every three years in
Astana Nursultan* (*soon to be renamed Astana), the capital of Kazakhstan. The first congress was held in 2003, so this year was the seventh. Jinja Honchō has sent a delegate to all (or almost all) of the full Congresses, and to most of the meetings of the Secretariat, which are held every year.
This year, once again, they sent a delegate: Revd Fujië, one of the Executive Directors. (The date clashed with a several important festivals, so the President and Vice Presidents were not available to go.) He doesn’t speak any English, so I was sent to interpret for him. The Congress is interpreted into six languages, including English, but delegates who do not speak any of those languages have to provide an interpreter who does; I noticed at least two others at the Congress.
The Congress itself is primarily symbolic. Leaders from lots of different religions meet in one place, and give monologues about the importance of religious dialogue, the evils of extremism, and the value of peace. It has grown in prestige since the first one, which was mainly attended by delegations that were Muslim, Kazakh, or both. At that point, I think Jinja Honchō’s participation was an important part of making it truly “world”.
Jinja Honchō is now less important in that respect. This year’s session was attended by, among more than 100 delegations in total, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the Sephardi and Askhenazi Chief Rabbis of Israel, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, the General Secretary of the All-Africa Conference of Churches…
And the Pope.
I’m going to assume that you don’t need a link for him.
With arguably the highest authorities in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in attendance, as well as representatives of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism in addition to Shinto, the Congress has a lot of symbolic weight as a call for religious tolerance — and, let’s face it, symbolic weight is what most religious leaders offer these days.
I think it is valuable for Jinja Honchō to attend this event. For one thing, I spoke to one member of another delegation who had never even heard of Shinto, so it helps to raise awareness that we exist. For another, the basic message is an important one, particularly in this day and age. It provides an opportunity for Shinto to provide a non-monotheistic and non-Abrahamic perspective on the issues, and we do try to do so.
It is also an opportunity to form links with other important religious groups around the world, because you can just bump into significant members of those groups, and they assume that, as a participant in the Congress, you are worth talking to. (You don’t get to just bump into the Pope, but Jinja Honchō has a good relationship with the Vatican already.) That can serve as a starting point for longer term cooperation, and common activities. I’m hoping to hear back from a couple of people, who unfortunately did not have business cards to give me, and then hoping to convince Jinja Honchō that we should build relationships.
Personally speaking, it was a very significant experience. I was a member of the delegation rather than just an interpreter, even if interpretation was my main role, and it’s something I would never have imagined myself doing twenty years ago. (It wasn’t a once-in-a-lifetime experience, because Jinja Honchō currently want me to go back next year, for the Secretariat.) On a minor note, I now have an official Jinja Honchō business card.
I also enjoyed the event more than I expected. The interpreting (simultaneous English to Japanese, normally with no text, for seven hours on the most intense day) was very hard work, but it was a good chance to talk informally with the rest of the Jinja Honchō delegation. It was also interesting to be part of a government-hosted event and we had two extremely good liaison officers.
It may go without saying that I believe it is important for Shinto to pay attention to the world outside Japan, and participation in events like this is a useful part of that. I am very happy that I am able to help.