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More than 500 delegates from around 50 countries have gathered in Oslo for the triennial  World Humanist Congress. Surrounded by damage from the July 22 bomb blast, the congress delegates mourned the dead and pledged their commitment to the congress theme of “Humanism and Peace”.  Congress speakers, including His Royal Highness Crown Prince Haakon of Norway, spoke of the role that Humanists can play in building a world of peace based on human dignity.

The congress was opened by Sonja Eggerickx, president of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) on the morning of August 12, at the Oslo Congress Center. She was followed by Åse Kleveland, president of the Norwegian Humanist Association, who welcomed delegates to Oslo and asked them to join her in a minute of silence for the people killed on July 22. The congress center itself was affected by the Oslo bombing, with more than a dozen large windows still boarded up,

The theme, venue and time of the World Humanist Congress were chosen four years ago, but the July 22 attacks have given them a new significance, say conference organizers. “Now that the terrorist attack has brought this issue to our own doorstep, we want to show the world that we can respond to violence by renewing our commitment to peace,” said Roar Johnsen, vice president of IHEU (www.IHEU.org) and former president of the Norwegian Humanist Association.

The Norwegian commitment to peace-building was also reflected in the other speakers and venues for the opening day of the congress. After speeches by His Royal Highness the Crown Prince Haakon of Norway, and Professor Johann Galtung, the Norwegian sociologist who founded the discipline of Peace and Conflict Studies, the congress moved to Oslo City Hall, the site of the annual Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony, for a formal reception, followed by dinner at the Nobel Peace Center.

In his speech to the Congress delegates, Crown Prince Haakon welcomed the congress to Oslo. Noting that the attacks of July 22 had “caused sorrow, pain and loss for a large number of people” and “shook the entire nation” he said  “I am proud and encouraged by the way the Norwegian people have responded to the terror”.

The Crown Prince also spoke about the congress theme of  Humanism and Peace, saying, “Every day we are reminded of our differences and the reasons why there is confrontation and violence in the world. But what is truly needed is the opposite: to emphasise what unites us. Once we realise that every human being has the right to lead a dignified life our differences become less important. On this common ground we can work out how to live with our differences and take advantage of the positive opportunities that resides within them.

“The vision of the International Humanist and Ethical Union is ‘a world in which human rights are respected and everyone is able to live a life of dignity’. It is a bold vision, which is not difficult to share regardless of spirituality or religion. But it is also a constant challenge that each and every one of us face on a daily basis in practical life.”

The Crown Prince was followed by Johann Galtung, the Norwegian sociologist who founded the discipline of Peace and Conflict Studies. Professor Galtung spoke about the development of rational procedures for the peaceful resolution of conflicts. He illustrated the the issue of conflict and violence with a discussion of the beliefs and behaviour of Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people in his attack on July 22.  Galtung revealed that his granddaughter was at the youth camp on Utoya and hid behind a rock a few feet from Breivik as he shot her friends. Yet, in conclusion, Galtung said “we can put Breivik behind us.”

The Congress will continue on Saturday and  Sunday, with speakers including:

Taslima Nasrin, ex-Muslim writer forced out of two countries by death threats

Sophie in‘t Veld, MEP, Chair, European Parliament Platform for Secularism in Politics

Judith Hand, social anthropologist and expert in peace building

Heiner Bielefeldt, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief

Peter Eigen, founder of the anti-corruption group, Transparency International

Wendy James, professor emeritus of social  anthropology at the University of Oxford.

Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, author of Good without God

PZ Myers, professor of biology, renowned atheist blogger

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