On the 50th anniversary of Religions for Peace, we take a look at what progress has been made and visions for the future with Azza Karram, recently elected Secretary General.
Azza Karram was elected Secretary General of Religions for Peace in August 2019. Born in Egypt, a Dutch citizen, professor of religious studies and diplomacy, former UN official, her soul has a universal dimension, and she now leads a movement made up of more than 900 religious leaders from 90 different countries, committed with her to making peace a place of encounter and a journey to be travelled together as a community. Religions for Peace held its first assembly in 1970 between 16 and 21 August. It was led by the great Japanese visionary Nikkyo Niwano, founder of the Rissho Kosei-kai. In the 1990s he also involved Chiara Lubich in this world assembly. He saw in her a unique spiritual and pragmatic consonance. This year Religions for Peace celebrates its 50th anniversary. We got in touch with Azza Karram in New York to ask her what progress has been made and to share her vision for the future.
It’s been 50 years since Religions for Peace was founded, what do you see as the movement’s mission and what message is the movement giving today?
After 50 years of life, we have seen how necessary it is for religions to work together, regardless of institutional, geographical or doctrinal differences. This is the message we give even if we have not yet realized it perfectly because we know that there is a process of continuous learning and the fatigue of working together. Covid has further emphasized the need to work together. Religious communities and NGOs inspired by religious values are already doing so because they were the first to respond to this humanitarian crisis. It is true that health institutions have also intervened but they would not have been able to do so properly without the religious institutions which have not only offered a medical, financial and psychological response to the crisis but have also been able to see the spiritual needs of a community and are responding fully on all fronts. And yet, how many of these religious institutions, while responding to the needs of the one same community, are working together? Very few and not for lack of exigencies, expertise or knowledge. Sometimes I suspect that we are really trying to save our institutions, and working together in this complex time requires even more effort and commitment because it is easier to be concerned about the sanctity and cohesion of our groups than be open to a universal commitment. Instead, Covid is forcing us to act differently. We wanted to launch a multi-religious humanitarian fund precisely to show that responding to a need together means having the intention and will to build a common future which does and will bring about abundant fruits: we know this from our history and we want to continue to show how fruitful inter-religious collaboration is.
What challenges does Religions for Peace face?
I think the challenges Religions for Peace faces are the same as those faced by all institutions, not just religious, but political, institutional, judicial and financial in terms of trust, efficiency, legitimacy and competences. In my opinion religious institutions have been suffering from these crises for a long time and will continue to suffer from them longer than civil institutions. Back again to the pandemic. Blocks and closures have created an institutional breakdown in our communities. We all understand what it is like not to be able to meet together anymore which is one of the basic and fundamental functions of our experiences. Instead, these functions are under threat for churches, temples, mosques and synagogues that used to welcome hundreds or thousands of people but are now restricted to 50 or a few dozen. Not being able to meet together in person has meant having to restructure our religious services which we have done but how much is this affecting religious practice? Not only the members of these communities but also those who lead them are having to redefine their role and how they carry it out in the world. So, if I am already struggling to survive as an institution, how can I work with others who are experiencing the same difficulties in other parts of the world? All of us are challenged to think differently – the United Nations, governments and we too as religions. And then the very existence of faiths is threatened in countries and societies where authoritarianism does not allow the practice of faith and where the regimes feel their intrinsic fragility to be threatened by the voices that speak out for human rights, justice and multilateralism.
To respond to these challenges we need to work together more closely, we need financial resources and dare I say we also need greater political awareness of the social role that multi-religious collaborations play which should also be supported economically because they provide spaces of service, meeting and unique resources for the growth of a society. Instead, I see that faiths are often on the margins and if they do work together they are generally the last to be considered in governments’ plans.
You cited collaboration as a fundamental pillar of inter-religious experience. We know that Religions for Peace has been collaborating with the Focolare movement for a long time. How do you see this work continuing and how can it be implemented?
It has been a long-standing collaboration that began in 1982 and saw Chiara Lubich elected as one of the honorary presidents of Religions for Peace in 1994 and now Maria Voce has been one of our co-presidents since 2013. When I started my term of office, I promised myself that I would honor all those who have gone before me and who have allowed Religions for Peace to be what it is and so this also includes Chiara. I really need to find a space, also on our website, to talk about this friendship. The thing that strikes me most about our bond, both in the past and now, is that it has always been a vital, living collaboration formed by the people. The fact that someone from the Focolare is still responsible for communications at Religions for Peace is a fruit of this inheritance, and over the years, members of the focolare have served our movement in the most varied ways as has the Rissho Kosei-kai. These inter-religious collaborations where human resources are shared, images of the living divine that honor the sacred space of dialogue with their presence, are for me a sign of reciprocity towards God because through working together in inter-religious dialogue we are serving Him and showing everyone the beauty of having created us of so many religions.
How do you see the future for Religions for Peace?
I imagine it under the banner of multilateralism. Just as the United Nations is the multilateralism of governments, I see our movement as the multilateralism of religions. We are, after all, committed as human beings at a micro and macro level to preserving the diversity willed by the Creator and saving it for all, including the institutions. I imagine the benefits that institutions might derive from this vision and from our work, and if we work together we will all flourish. If political institutions are only interested in saving themselves and if religious bodies are only interested in saving themselves, this will not only lead to the destruction of our groups but of the whole planet. Instead, the Pope himself, first with the Laudate Si and now with his new encyclical, which was the result of a document he wrote with the highest Sunni leader, is calling us, is a call to all of us to safeguard the earth, but above all a call for the inclusive, human fraternity of all religions. We support this encyclical and this call to fraternity excludes no one, not even those without faith, and we will fight to really make it the patrimony of all religions.
Edited by Maddalena Maltese