Common Call to Action
Religions for Peace Looks to its Future
by Katherine Marshall
The 10th World Assembly of Religions for Peace was held last month at in Lindau, Germany on Lake Constance. This was a large and diverse gathering, 900 participants from 125 countries, thoroughly prepared and organized around the theme “Caring for our Common Future – Advancing Shared Well-Being.” The outcomes are reflected in a Declaration which highlights the broad issues discussed, and focuses on several “action points,” effectively a study agenda for interfaith students and activists everywhere. The Declaration acknowledges that “we are experiencing what we call a ‘meta-crisis’ of our modern order,” and the balance of the document unpacks how, together, we need to respond.
As is the case in such events, side discussions of a “track 2” nature were held on some critical conflicts, Myanmar/Bangladesh, Central African Republic, North and South Korea, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and South Sudan. Other discussions focused on women’s roles in the Middle East, the Amazon crisis, and follow up to the Marrakech Declaration.
A highlight was the handover of leadership of Religions for Peace from Bill Vendley, who has been the Secretary General for 25 years (since 1994). He is being succeeded by Azza Karam, now serving as senior advisor on culture at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). The appointment of a women with a strong operational and UN background was widely noted and acclaimed. As well, Azza has been a colleague – her work featured at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs – and a friend. We look to her new challenges with special delight (see one interview with her here). Bill Vendley’s reflections can be found here.
Religions for Peace holds a global assembly every five to seven years (the two previous assemblies were in Vienna, linked to KAICIID, in 2013, and Kyoto in 2006). The current Global Assembly was held in Lindau, Germany. The German government provided substantial support for the event and was actively involved, including a keynote speech by Germany’s Federal President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. His comments were forthright on the significance of both positive and less positive roles of religion; interestingly he led with quotations from John Lennon’s song Imagine, noting its skepticism about religion. But his statement was followed by his conviction that engagement is vital.
The city of Lindau was very involved, both officially (mayor and other leaders) and community, notably during a ceremony dedicating a Ring of Peace sculpture and a public dinner. Wolfgang Schürer, from St. Gallen University among other roles, played a central part in bringing the event to Lindau and in the German organizing structure, Ring of Peace Foundation. Bishop Gunnar Stälsett also played a key role in organizing the event and during the sessions.
A striking feature of the event was the active presence of the leaders of the Parliament of the World’s Religions (chair of trustees Audrey Kitagawa) and United Religious Initiative URI (executive director Rev. Victor Kazanjian). The three sometimes rival interfaith organizations have in the past faced both lack of clarity and competition on their roles. Both Audrey and Victor are now honorary council members of RfP.
The Assembly began with two day-long parallel meetings of women and youth, followed by four days that alternated between plenary sessions and sessions that broke participants down by topic, region, and religious tradition. During one slot a wide range of events included seminars with diplomats, workshops, and “lightening talks” (TED talk style). And the event was punctuated by business meetings that, among other things, elected RfP’s new Secretary General and Governing Council.
The Assembly opened and closed with lengthy plenaries. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew was a prominent speaker at the opening, declaring that “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.”
Standing beside the Patriarch were RfP co-moderators (Kosho Niwano, Cardinal John Onaiyakan, and Vinu Aram), Shaykh Abdallah Binh Bayah, Bill Vendley, and the German Federal President. During the Ring of Peace ceremony, the High Representative of the UN Alliance of Civilizations, Miguel Moratinos, gave the keynote address. KAICIID Secretary General Faisal Bin Muaammar was present and active. The International Partnership for Religion and Sustainable Development (PaRD), which is linked to the German Development Ministry (BMZ) ran a workshop and a meeting place. Several UN officials participated (UNHCR, UNICEF, UNAOC).
The Friday closing plenary featured a reading of the Declaration, reports from the “track 2” groups that had met (a message from Pope Francis was read by Cardinal Bo during the presentation by the Myanmar delegation). It included a lengthy handover of leadership that featured a series of warm tributes to Bill Vendley and his leadership. Azza Karam was welcomed with enthusiasm; her speech focused squarely on human rights and freedom, and she said that while she did not promise “weak, meek, and mild,” she is deeply committed to listening and engagement.
The Assembly overall was structured around five “commissions” that covered (a) advancing positive peace; (b) preventing and transforming conflicts; (c) promoting just and harmonious societies; (d) working for sustainable and integral human development; and (e) protecting the Earth. For each topic, regional and national consultations were held in the months leading up to the assembly, and four of them came with “action” items “blessed” by acclaim of the Assembly. These included the Charter for Forgiveness and Reconciliation, endorsement of the Anti-Nuclear treaty, and the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative. A broad commitment to advance an Alliance of Virtues was presented by Shaykh Hamza Yussuf.
During the Assembly’s meeting, dramatic press coverage of fires in the Amazon rainforest called particular attention to the global climate crisis and particularly to the rainforests, which were a planned focus of the Assembly. The roles of indigenous peoples were heard, with a range of active participants.
Press coverage of the Assembly was extensive, not surprisingly especially in Germany.
Photo: Religions for Peace