"Women are the ones who ensure religion survives"

Organised by interfaith NGO Religions for Peace, an international conference in Lindau on Lake Constance is dealing with the peace-building role of women inspired by the faith of their respective religions. Some 600 participants from around the world meet virtually to discuss the central challenges of our time. By Christoph Strack

By Christoph Strack

Hate speech and the role of religion in conflicts are on the agenda for this year's meeting, but the main focus is on how women regard political leadership and responsibility and the big challenges facing humanity.

Religions for Peace (RfP), which describes itself as the biggest interreligious NGO in the world, is seeking answers to the drift away from traditional diplomacy and its emphasis on multilateralism and mutual reliability between states toward nationalism and populism, often culminating in violence.

The RfP's 50th anniversary year, like almost everything else in 2020, has been overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The same goes for the conference "Women, Faith & Diplomacy". Lectures and debates are all happening online. Azza Karam, general secretary of the RfP, the first woman in the post, is one of the few to have come from abroad. Her stay will include daily tests for COVID-19.

Azza Karam, secretary-general of "Religions for Peace" (photo: Christian Flemming)
"Religion ist heute häufig von Männern dominiert", sagt Azza Karam, denn religiöse Institutionen hätten bei der Suche nach Lösungen und Kompetenzen lange Zeit "Priorität auf die Männer gelegt". Dabei werde 90 Prozent der Arbeit von Frauen erbracht. "Sie sorgen dafür, dass Religionen überleben oder überhaupt ein Innenleben haben." Frauen, auch Frauen in Führungspositionen so wie Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel, hätten einen anderen Leitungsstil und verstünden ihre Verantwortung stets auch als Dienst an der Allgemeinheit.

Crucial point in history

Karam says the conference is to be seen as a forum for exchange and moral support for the global community at a time of crisis. "The exchange here gives us the opportunity to understand that we are all at a critical juncture in world history. Not just because of the pandemic, but also because of a worsening environment that affects the hundreds of millions of lives and challenges national health services."

Karam, an Egyptian-born citizen of the Netherlands who served as an adviser to the United Nations on culture and religion, has been resident in the United States for twenty years. She has devoted her career to issues of religion, democracy, development, human rights, and gender. 

For her, the conference on "Women, Faith & Diplomacy" is about finding a connection of global relevance. In her view, people of faith can bring about a "new kind of leadership and diplomacy" on both the micro and the macro levels.

Religion dominated by men

Azza Karam combines her agenda with a critical look at organised religion. "Today, religion is dominated by men," she says, adding that religious institutions "prioritised men" in their search for solutions and expertise. At the same time, she says. 90 percent of religious work is done by women. "They are the ones who ensure religion survives."

Karam says women have a different style of leadership and always see their responsibilities as part of a service. One example she gives is the widespread admiration for the German chancellor Angela Merkel. "She is a great model for many, many women in the world. And for many men, too." Karam's own desire to see a different style of leadership applies to men and women and aims to make space for a more inclusive and sensitive approach to people and their problems. 

Ring for Peace wooden sculpture (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Gißibl)
Die kunstvoll gearbeitete, überdimensionale Holzskulptur „Ring for Peace“ ist ein Symbol des Zusammenhalts und der Einheit der unterschiedlichen Religionen und Konfessionen. Religions for Peace hatte sie 2019 als dauerhaftes Zeichen für die Verbundenheit der religiösen Bekenntnisse im Inselpark von Lindau enthüllt. Sikhs und Buddhisten, Hindus und Juden, Muslime und Christen unterschiedlicher Bekenntnisse, auch Vertreter verschiedener indigener Traditionen waren damals zusammengekommen, um diesen besonderen Moment zu teilen.

The delegates run the gamut of world religions and regions: there are female delegates from the Arab World, a Catholic nun from Nigeria, human rights activists and environmentalists from Cameroon, Zambia and other African countries and elsewhere in the world, such as Asia, the Balkans, or Latin America. There's even a female bishop from Sweden, along with a series of participants who have played a leading role in interreligious dialogue or science. The conference will open with messages from the UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres and the German government.

Peace and light

A large wooden sculpture entitled the "Ring for Peace" (pictured above) will take centre-stage at a small service called "peace and light". The artwork was unveiled last year by RfP in Lindau's main park. 

This year's service at the wooden sculpture will be streamed live 

The pandemic has affected both the organisation and the theme of the event. Azza Karam: "We are in a moment when we must stand together as people and a family of people and recognise that any threat to the individual is a threat to everyone. At the same time, it's a special moment for diplomacy."

Christoph Strack

© Deutsche Welle 2020