Azza Karam Chosen to Lead Religions for Peace
A New Day for Interfaith Relations
by Paul Chaffee
August 2019 should go down in interfaith annals as a milestone, a month when a quiet, mostly unnoticed development emerged that could exponentially magnify the power and effectiveness of the interfaith movement globally. It happened at the 10th Assembly of Religions for Peace held in Lindau, a small island in the middle of Germany’s Lake Constance. The new developments, though, portend much more than the vitality of one organization. To understand, we need a bit of institutional history.
Three international interfaith organizations have dominated interfaith activity for the past quarter century: the Parliament of the World’s Religions, the United Religions Initiative (URI), and Religions for Peace (RfP), which was actually founded 49 years ago.
Every several years, starting in 1993 the Parliament has organized mega-events in Chicago, Cape Town, Barcelona, Melbourne, Salt Lake, and Toronto. URI, by contrast, is a network. It has more than 1,000 affiliated interfaith groups in 113 countries and counting. The point is though, that URI and the Parliament are both thoroughly grassroots projects; participants are often asked how they self-identify religiously, but no one represents his or her tradition. People simply represent themselves. All who come in good will are welcome.
By contrast, most of the 900 delegates who attended the 10th World Assembly last month, representing 125 countries, came as representatives of their traditions, meaning most are high up in their respective clerical hierarchies. They come first on behalf of their traditions, not themselves. About 100 delegates represented governments that work with RfP organizations in their respective countries.
This “representative hierarchy” versus “grassroots self-identified” difference has largely kept the interfaith world divided. Half a century ago, without any major global interfaith body, it surely seemed wise to build an interfaith network of leaders who could speak on behalf of their constituencies. At the same time, over the past 25 years, interfaith groups at the local level have sprouted up spontaneously in thousands of venues – two of the strongest being URI and the Parliament. All who come in good will are welcome. In short, two very different ways of building interreligious relationships.
Meanwhile, many in the interfaith vineyard have lamented the fact that these major interfaith stakeholders haven’t surmounted their differences and worked together in promoting the values and goals they share.
A Turning Point Embraced
A key to the historic developments in Lindau last month is the growing realization that collaboration is the only way humanity and the Earth as we know it can survive this century. The Assembly was addressing a host of global challenges … “the protection of the environment, the advancement of peace and reconciliation, the promotion of intercultural and interreligious dialogue, the foundation of a culture of justice and solidarity, and the resistance to all those tendencies that do harm to the dignity and sacredness of the human person and his inalienable fundamental rights,” in the words of Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in a keynote as the Assembly opened. But, looking back on his own involvement, he noted:
Almost 28 years of active engagement with all these problems has revealed one truth: that nothing can be achieved if we work separately and independently. Nobody – not a nation, not a state, not a religion, nor science and technology – can face the current problems alone. We need one another; we need common mobilization, common efforts, common goals, common spirit. Our future is common, and the way toward this future is a common journey.
This realization undergirded the rest of the Assembly, a program wonderfully detailed by Katherine Marshall in her report in this issue. What happened at RfP’s business meetings was equally important. As Marshall notes, Audrey Kitagawa, chair of the Parliament’s council, and Victor Kazanjian, executive director of URI, were both made honorary council directors of RfP. Such a gesture is unprecedented and opens new doors. And closer to home, Tarunjit Singh Butalia, who writes for TIO each month and has been a leader in numerous international interfaith efforts, has been named executive director of Religions for Peace-USA.
The election of Azza Karam as the new Secretary General of RfP garnered the most press. That Azza is a woman and a Muslim from Egypt was touted as an amazing breakthrough. More important however, are her 20 years of operational experience, much of it at the UN. She has chaired the UN Inter-Agency Task Force on Religion and Development and been president of the Committee of Religious NGOs at the United Nations. She has taught at numerous universities and published more than half a dozen books, most recently Religion and Development Post-2015 (2014). Equally important for the interfaith community is Azza’s reputation as a sparkplug for interfaith activities and networking. Her latest contribution to TIO was an overview of URI in the world last May, where her inclusive global vision and experience shine through.
Since taking the lead at RfP in 1994, William Vendley has built a huge network of religious and political leaders in countries around the world, a mammoth project that has been crucial in the development of interreligious institutions. He has been a pioneer and leaves an extraordinary foundation for creating a global interfaith culture of peace and justice.
In his final address to the Assembly Bill Vendley called on religious leaders everywhere, and their communities, to be “bilingual,” conversant not only with one’s own community but in meaningful dialogue with the community outside. And he reiterated Patriarch Bartholomew’s theme: “We have to understand that there is no security except for shared security, no well-being except for shared well-being. I think we are heading for a day when the kind of provincialism and parochialism we still sometimes see today will no longer be an option.”
The world may not notice the difference from what happened in Lindau this year or next. But something radical has changed in the huge, growing global community that dreams of sharing a pluralistic, inclusive, peaceful culture. In a time of endemic crises, this is cause for thanksgiving and celebration.
Header Photo: Pixabay