Religions for Peace World Assembly

Women push for gender equality in Lindau

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. By Christoph Strack

At the 10th Religions for Peace World Assembly in Lindau, a town in southern Germany, a quarter of all participants were female. Indeed, even the Vatican sent a female delegate from Caritas International. But while there were more women in attendance 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."

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 Baha'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 (1618-1648), which was sparked by religious differences, and also impacted the town of Lindau.

Aim of the World Assembly: bring representatives of different religions and creeds together to further mutual understanding (photo: Ahmed Khaled Photography)
A vocal female presence: "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." 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"

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."

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 United States.

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 people

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

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 Lindau had been.

Religions for Peace, meanwhile, launched two projects to show it is serious about combatting religiously motivated violence. Attendees put up a seven-metre 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. 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 co-ordinated by religious institutions in order to get ordinary people involved and engaged.

50th anniversary

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

Whatʹs more, William F. Vendleyʹs successor as secretary-general of the World Conference of Religions for Peace is to be a woman. Azza Karam, who was born in Cairo and today holds Dutch citizenship, will be the first woman to be elected to this position. A practicing Muslim, she is just one more indication that our religious world is slowly becoming more gender equal.

Christoph Strack

© Deutsche Welle 2019

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