04/22/2013 05:05 pm ET Updated Jun 22, 2013

Finding a 'Third Way' on the Role of Religion in Public Life


It is fair to say that global revival of religious faith in recent decades is one of the most deeply polarizing -- and profoundly misunderstood -- forces impacting humanity today.

Consider that only half a century ago, religion was almost universally viewed as a waning power in the world. In 1966, Time famously placed the question "Is God Dead?" on its cover. Yet in the ensuing decades, we have seen a powerful resurgence of return-to-roots religious movements that have utterly transformed the Muslim world and powerfully impacted millions of adherents of Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism as well. In sharp contrast, Marxism, an atheistic political movement that many then believed to be the wave of the future, has all but expired.

Yet today there is sharp disagreement as to whether this massive revival of religious faith represents a positive phenomenon or a negative one. In major countries of the Muslim world, movements have come to power which uphold Islamic law as "the answer" to the profound issues of poverty, inequality and backwardness confronting their societies. Yet these movements invariably impinge on fundamental democratic values and human rights, including the rights of women. At the opposite extreme, many people in the West, especially in Europe, where secularism remains dominant, mistakenly dismiss religion as an inherently reactionary and intolerant force that should have no place in the political arena.

I believe that both of these approaches are profoundly mistaken. Instead, we must find a "third way" between upholding religion as the solution to all of society's ills and dismissing it as unfit for the public square. What is needed is for religious leaders to actively engage in sustained dialogue with representatives of other societal forces in order to build a just and humane society based on principles of pluralism and mutual tolerance.

Finding that balance is the principle agenda of the upcoming third annual Kiev Interfaith Forum, which will take place in Kiev, Ukraine on April 23-24 on the theme of Faith's Role in State, Government and Politics. The Forum, which is co-sponsored by two organizations I serve as president, the Institute of Human Rights and Prevention of Extremism and Xenophobia and the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, will bring together some of the world's most distinguished clerical leaders, politicians and academics from diverse countries around the world including Ukraine, the United States, United Kingdom, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Tunisia, India, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Poland, Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, Norway and Kenya. Participants will discuss such topics as "Moderating Fundamentalism: A 21st Century Approach," "Pluralism: Many Faces of Faith," "Religion, Women and Political Change" and State Intervention in Religious Practice."

Some may ask whether an off-the-beaten-track country like Ukraine has anything significant to contribute to the global conversation on religion, the state and public policy. I believe that interfaith advocates in a former Communist country like my own are ideally positioned to give voice to a third way between religious coercion and rigid secularism. We understand from bitter personal experience that when God is denied and faith is invalidated, all power may end up in the hands of zealots bent on carrying out a doctrinaire program of "scientific socialism." On the other hand, we also comprehend that totalitarian state power -- not to mention bloody pogroms and horrendous attacks of terrorism -- can emerge every bit as readily from a fanatical religious agenda as a militantly secular one.

What we aspire to achieve is a healthy democratic and pluralistic society strongly influenced by the eternal moral values advocated by all of the world's great religions; a society in which people of all backgrounds can live side by side in peace and security. Creating such a tolerant society is vital to the well-being of a country like Ukraine, which has people of 130 nationalities, professing multiple denominations of Christianity, as well as Islam and Judaism. Thankfully, in this blood-soaked land, which for centuries witnessed terrible sectarian conflicts in which millions died, we have for the first time in our history, the absolute freedom to affiliate with any faith.

This is not to say that everything is wonderful in my country these days. Intense polarization between political movements remains a severe problem, and we are still struggling to become a genuine democracy. Ominously, since our last Kiev Interfaith Forum in Kiev one year ago, we have seen the emergence of an ultra-nationalist and neo-fascist movement in Ukraine, which grotesquely labels itself Svoboda (Freedom). This movement, which absurdly claims that most of Ukraine's problems are caused by the Jews and which is also hostile to the Muslim population of the autonomous region of Crimea, won more than 10 percent of the vote in the 2012 elections and now has a substantial and aggressive delegation in Parliament.

Given that Svoboda seeks to claim the mantle of Ukrainian nationalism and Ukrainian Orthodox Christianity, it is deeply reassuring to Jews, Muslims and other minorities that top officials of the Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox churches serve amicably with rabbis and imams on the official Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations, which represents the religious communities of Ukraine in interactions with our government. Leaders of the main Orthodox churches will also be active participants at our Kiev Interfaith forum.

Indeed, only by standing together as leaders of diverse faiths, whether in Ukraine, the Middle East, Europe or elsewhere in the world, can we foil the efforts of extremists to incite fear, hatred and even violence between us. Religious leaders and believers must publicly affirm that we only do honor to our own faith when we recognize and defend the right of others to practice their own faiths unmolested. I believe that our third annual Kiev Interfaith Forum will send forth the message that the best way for each of us to serve God is to remember that we are truly our brother's keeper -- and to behave accordingly in word and deed.

Oleksandr Feldman, a leading Ukrainian philanthropist and member of Parliament, is President of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee and founder of the annual Kiev Interfaith Forum.