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Try out your own faith, Dalai Lama tells Geneva congregation

Ecumenical News International Feature

By Edmund Doogue

Those who engage in wars of religion do not put their own faith into practice, the Dalai Lama told an inter-faith congregation gathered at Geneva's St. Pierre Cathedral on Sunday, 8 August.

The 64-year-old spiritual leader of Tibet's Buddhists, who has lived in exile from Chinese-occupied Tibet since 1959, was the guest preacher at the Protestant cathedral. The church service coincided with the annual Festival of Geneva, which this year had the Tibetan people as their special guests. Switzerland has about 2500 Tibetan residents, the biggest Tibetan community in Europe. More than 2000 people filled the cathedral to capacity for the service, while 3000 more gathered in front of the building and heard the address on loudspeakers.

Speaking in Tibetan, with his words interpreted into French by French Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, the Dalai Lama told the congregation that all the great religions deserved respect, and, if practised seriously, were a path to love and peace.

Those who waged war in the name of religion had, the Dalai Lama said, failed to look beyond their religion to other faiths which they opposed. If they did examine other faiths, they would recognize the same desire for transformation as in their own.

"It's not enough to belong to a religion," according to the Buddhist leader, who, according to Tibetans, is the 14th incarnation of the Dalai Lama. "You have to experience it. Spirituality is like a medicine. To heal the illness, it is not sufficient to look at the medicine and talk about it. You have to ingest it."

In spite of their differing methods, the great religions shared a common goal to make people better, he said. He advised the congregation to follow seriously "your own spiritual path".

The Dalai Lama, the ministers of the Geneva cathedral - Vincent Schmid and William McComish - and Abbe Pierre, an 87-year-old prominent French priest and campaigner for the homeless, all called for the need for mutual respect of religions.

Geneva's Roman Catholic, Old Catholic and Orthodox communities, as well as Muslim, Jewish and Baha'i faiths, were all officially represented by senior officials at the service.

At the end of the service, Abbe Pierre told the congregation: "You see, I have not become a Buddhist. A woman journalist asked me whether I was thinking about taking up reincarnation. I told her: 'Oh, madam, once is enough'!"

The Sunday service was part of a major effort to make Geneva's cathedral a centre for inter-faith dialogue. Interviewed by ENI after the service, McComish, who is dean of the cathedral, said: "It was the first time I have seen people fighting to get into a church. It was like the sales in January. But once the service began, there was a great sense of calm."

He said that there had been some criticism of the invitation to the Dalai Lama, including from a local Evangelical pastor who had written to the cathedral saying the service would "bring down the wrath of God on the cathedral and the city".

Such comments, McComish said, ignored the Reformed tradition. Also, he said, "the Dalai Lama was not trying to turn people into Buddhists, he was trying to turn them into Christians".

Asked by ENI if there had been an official complaint by the Chinese authorities about the service, McComish said that he had not been contacted by the Beijing government. The Chinese authorities are often critical of the high profile and official welcomes given to the Dalai Lama on his travels and to the movement for greater freedom in Tibet. The Swiss federal government did not give an official welcome to the Dalai Lama. Swiss-Chinese relations are still smarting from a major diplomatic incident in the Swiss capital, Bern, in March this year when the Chinese leader, Jiang Zemin, was highly embarrassed by a Tibetan protest.

Commenting on the Swiss government's low-profile approach, McComish said that the federal government and other Western powers should realize that "if you collaborate with a totalitarian government that is persecuting people and beliefs, you become compromised. And I'm not necessarily referring to Christians and Buddhists."

McComish told ENI that on 24 October the cathedral - which in the 16th century was the church of John Calvin, a leading theologian in the history of Reformed Christianity - would host the first inter-faith service for United Nations Day.

"It's the first time the international community has felt the need to appeal to religious leaders," McComish said. "Fifty-six conflicts around the world have a religious element."

August 10, 1999

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