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Religions for Peace: Women push for equality

August 23, 2019

At this year's global religion summit on Lake Constance, female delegates from Africa, Asia and the Middle East made clear women must have a greater say.

A sign in Lindau for Religions for Peace
Image: DW/C. Papaleo

At the 10th Religions for Peace World Assembly in Lindau, a town in southern Germany, a fourth of all participants were female. Indeed, even the Vatican sent a female delegate from Caritas International. But while there were more female attendants than at previous summits, many still bemoaned a lack of gender equality.

"We hope that more women will belong to the next World Council," said Mehrezia Labidi-Maiza, who served as the first vice-president of the Constituent Assembly of Tunisia. She said that "women need to become more visible at all our events." At this year's four-day Religions for Peace World Assembly, Labidi-Maiza was one of numerous outspoken female participants demanding that women have a greater say. And likewise Layla Alkahafaij, who was imprisoned in Iraq for 10 years during Saddam Hussein's dictatorship and later became an MP in the country's parliament, said: "We want women to get more involved."

Lindau Religion for Peace Religionen für den Frieden
In Lindau, women are demanding a greater say across all religionsImage: Ahmad Khalid Photography

Highly diverse summit

Labidi-Maiza's and Alkahafaij's statements at the Religions for Peace World Assembly were major highlights. The summit, incidentally, was attended by individuals from all corners of the world and boasted representatives of countless creeds, among them Hindus, Buddhist, Christians, adherents of the Bahá'í faith, of Sufism, and Judaism. Representatives of Amazon's indigenous peoples were in attendance, as were indigenous Canadians. Yet, above all, female delegates from Asia, Africa and the Arab world expressed a new sense of confidence, highlighting engaged grass-roots activism.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier's welcome address to the guests from 125 different countries, meanwhile, made clear that religion may never justify violence. He said that "we may have different regions, but we are united in our conviction that religion may never be used to justify hatred or violence." He stresses that, as "a devout Christian," this issue is dear to him.

Steinmeier said that "we may not be indifferent when many people say that religions are inimical to peace or even lead to wars." The president then referred to the Thirty Years' War, which was sparked by religious differences, and also impacted the town of Lindau.

This is why, he said, the Religions for Peace World Assembly should send a clear signal that "no war should be waged in the name of religion!" Adding that "faith and religion can be misused for secular reasons or political objectives."

Peace meeting takes up women's role

Religiously motivated terror

The most recent, religiously motivated terror attacks were a big topic at the summit. The Easter attacks on churches in Sri Lanka with hundreds of fatalities were discussed, as were the horrendous attacks on mosques in New Zealand and the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh in the US.

Read more: The Christian Church: Dying out or thriving like never before?

For some, Steinmeier was surprisingly direct when he made his comments about religions. While such outspokenness is not uncommon in Europe, religion can be a sensitive topic elsewhere. A day after Steinmeier's comments, Nigerian cardinal John Onaiyekan echoed the president's sentiments, saying that "the marriage of religion and politics is never a good idea; politics usually takes the role of the husband." He then added: "In Africa, we have experience with husbands." In his view, religion should remain independent.

Reaching out to ordinary folks

Jose Ramos-Horta, who was the first president of East Timor after independence, was more optimistic. He told DW that religion is important for peace to remain stable "because of religious leaders, who really connect with ordinary people."

Dr. Vinu Aram on climate change

Vinu Aram of India's well-known Shanti Ashram said "I will leave Lindau filled with hope." She said this was also a consequence of the way Germany had dealt with the refugee crisis, on how open-minded the people in Lindua had been.

Religions for Peace, meanwhile, launched two projects to show it is serious about combating religiously motivated violence. Attendees put up a seven-meter high "ring of peace" along the shore of Lake Constance, and then congregated to issue a promise to protect religious sites from violence – even though in practice, this can prove dangerous.

Lindau: Religions for Peace gathering
More than 1,000 religious figures, activists and youths attended the Lindau gatheringImage: Ahmad Khalid Photography

Read more: Catholic Church rejects use of gender identity theory in education 

William F. Vendley, the outgoing secretary-general of the World Conference of Religions for Peace, said "religious sites must be protected, including by individuals who have a different faith." Criminologists, meanwhile, presented a method for gathering the DNA of rapists in war and conflict zones. It promises to be more affordable than other methods, and can help women restore their dignity in a judicial sense at least. Both projects will be coordinated by religious institutions in order to get ordinary people involved and engaged.

50-year anniversary

So, Religions for Peace now faces clear expectations for coming years. Including for 2020, when Religions for Peace turns 50. Organizers have already issued official invitations to celebrate the anniversary in Lindau. Germany's best-known female Protestant, Margot Kässmann, will be there, too. She was voted into the 80-member strong World Council, which represents Religions for Peace between World Assemblies.

And soon, Azza Karam will succeed William F. Vendley to serve as the secretary-general of the World Conference of Religions for Peace. Karam, who was born in Cairo and today holds Dutch citizenship, will be the first woman to be elected to this position. She adheres to the Muslim faith, and makes clear that our religious world is slowly becoming more gender equal.

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Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C