On the 50th anniversary of ‘Religions for Peace’, Maddalena Maltese interviewed the Secretary General, Azza Karram

[New City Magazine – May 2021 pages 4-6]

Azza Karram was elected Secretary General of Religions for Peace in August 2019. She was born in Egypt, she is a Dutch citizen and professor of religious studies and diplomacy, not to mention a former UN official. Not surprisingly, her soul has a universal dimension, and she now leads a movement made up of more than 900 religious leaders from 90 different countries. Together they are committed to making peace a place of encounter and a journey to be travelled together as a community.

Religions for Peace [originally called World Conference for Religions and Peace WCRP] held its first assembly in 1970 between 16-21 August. It was led by the great Japanese visionary Nikkyo Niwano, founder of the Rissho Kosei-kai. In the 1990s he also involved Focolare founder, Chiara Lubich, in this world assembly. He saw in her a unique spiritual and living witness. Last year Religions for Peace celebrated its 50th anniversary. We interviewed 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 need to roll up our sleeves and work tirelessly 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 communities and are responding fully on all fronts. 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 desire, 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 past experience 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 abilities. 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’ve all experienced what it is like not to be able to meet together anymore, and this is a basic and fundamental need.

Instead, this inability to meet together is a 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 being challenged to think differently – the United Nations, governments and we too as religions. Also faiths are threatened in countries and societies where authoritarianism does not allow the practice of faith and where these regimes feel threatened by the voices that speak out for human rights, justice and a global vision.

To respond to these challenges we need to work together more closely. We need financial resources and dare I say it – we also need greater political awareness of the critical social role that multi-religious collaborations play. They should be supported economically because they provide spaces of service, meeting and unique resources for the growth of society. Instead, I see that faiths are often marginalised and if they do work together, they are generally the last to be considered in government 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 eventually saw Chiara Lubich elected as one of the honorary presidents of Religions for Peace in 1994. 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 honour 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 strong, living collaboration formed by 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

How do you see the future for Religions for Peace?

I envisage 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. I can see 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 institutions but of the whole planet. Instead, the Pope himself, with Laudate Si’ and now with his new encyclical, is a call to all of us to safeguard the earth, but above all a call for the inclusive 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.

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