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Religious women launch global peace initiative


The smell of history was in the air. At the United Nations in New York, President Bush talked about the necessity of war. At the United Nations in Geneva, for the first time in history, women were convened under the auspices of the United Nations to talk about new initiatives aimed at the promotion of world peace. The voices were in tension, but the dialectic between the two may well decide the future history of the world.

In New York, Bush was rattling planes, missiles and troopships at the United Nations. The U.S. government had determined to wage war. Saddam Hussein, Bush argued, had defied the body of nations, and only the destruction of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction would bring peace. As a result, the U.N. Security Council agreed, however reluctantly, however slowly, to threaten only this country rather than all those other countries now equally capable of mass destruction. If, confronted with a list of nonnegotiable resolutions, Iraq did not disarm, the council said, refusal would result in armed force.

The Bush forces preened with delight. The New Crusade had begun. But the victory was a Pyrrhic one. All over the world, groups and individuals, enemies and allies as well, reacted with distaste and disgust -- against Bush, against U.S. Americans, against the whole so-called Christian world.

It was more of the same: old answers to old questions. Force against force. Might makes right. George W. Bush was the voice of past history.

In Switzerland, at the other U.N. Headquarters at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, the U.N. conference “The Global Peace Initiative of Women Religious and Spiritual Leaders,” marked the first time in history that women had been gathered under official auspices to contribute to a discussion of international politics. More than 500 women religious and spiritual leaders from 75 countries gathered from Oct. 6 to Oct. 10, to talk about war, its uselessness, its destructiveness and its function as a seedbed of other wars.

The U.S. delegates of the Global Peace Initiative called “upon women from the international community to join an interfaith delegation to Washington D.C. to meet with our nation’s political leadership to discuss the importance of … pursuing all viable alternatives to war. … In the event of war we will send a delegation to meet with Iraqi women to address their immediate needs and provide sustainable ways to heal the community through education, financial and spiritual means.”

The women were the voice of a future devoted to peace. A whole new attitude toward world affairs and political relations began to make itself heard about global issues on a global level. The notion of women gathered under the aegis of an international political body to talk about political issues signaled the start of a new era in world politics. These women did not come together to threaten war. They did not come to make temporary treaties and secret agreements. They came together supported by women in business and politics to create a global network of leaders rooted in spiritual values and committed to standing for peace, both for their own nations and for women, men and children everywhere. Nothing of its kind has ever happened in the world before.

In 1999, Kofi Annan, secretary general of the United Nations, aware that only a regeneration of higher values could bring peace to a world armed to the teeth and driven by personal gain, called for a special meeting of international spiritual leaders.

Annan also said, “The future of the world belongs to women.” Nevertheless, over 85 percent of the participants to the Millennium Peace Summit were male leaders of various international religious groups. The U.N. meeting of the Global Peace Initiative of Women Religious and Spiritual Leaders was called to right the imbalance.

The results were dramatic. Jewish and Palestinian women talked together about creating common contacts and joint meetings for peace. Rabbi Chavi Koster of B’nai Israel Village Temple in New York, and Lily Habash, the representative of the Palestinian Authority, agreed to the formation of a new group, El Kafi/Day, Hebrew and Arabic for “enough.”

Koster and Habash agreed, “We need mothers who are going to stand up and say: ‘We are all children of Abraham. We will not raise our sons to be terrorists or soldiers.’ ”

Afghan women and American women talked about the devastating destruction of Afghanistan -- done in the name of saving it -- and the need to resist such moves in the future.

The Global Peace Initiative announced the formation of a Women’s Negotiation Corps, an international group of women who will visit zones of conflict to initiate woman-to-woman diplomacy. Women’s fact-finding groups will be used to determine immediate needs and open up new channels to support official diplomats.

Nearly 100 businesswomen in attendance at the conference launched a Business Council for Peace to provide programs, finances and markets for women’s businesses in conflict regions including the West Bank, Gaza, Israel, Rwanda and Afghanistan.

Most important of all, women came. Despite centuries of public invisibility, women themselves recognized the need for alternative feminine voices in the public arena. Women representatives from every continent took part, many of them involved in social ministries, most of them committed to religious institutes and contemplative practices.

The meeting was a sea of Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, Christian and Muslim female spiritual leaders who deal daily with the effects of war. These were the women who bind up the spiritual, physical and social wounds caused by the militarism, economic inequity and racism engendered by both politics and religious fundamentalism itself.

The meeting demonstrated a respect for each culture and each tradition. Daily prayers were ecumenical, the meals were vegetarian, the cultural events were multinational: a singer from Iran, a dancer from India, a film series from the West, drummers from Japan. The meeting was, if nothing else, a glimpse of the way the world ought to be. More, it was an experience of the way the world can be if and when nations and people finally transcend the racism, the ethnocentrism, the sexism and the religious oppression that obstructs it. As long as we function only for our own gain, none of us will gain.

Spiritual leaders talked about stopping the wars within the self if we want to end war with the other. They talked about the contrast between the place of women as leaders and thinkers that lies at the theological heart of each religion and the cultural distortions that have blocked the emergence of women as a world force regardless of the theology of equality. “Discrimination stems from culture,” said Marjis Zaidi, a journalist from Pakistan, “and then is given the color of religion.”

Women bishops, Christian and Buddhist nuns, swamimis, Muslim scholars and judges mixed, talked and agreed that the real effects of war are borne by women and children. These voices of the future were calling a halt to the myth that war is a contest between armies. War is about the devastation of the defenseless innocent by the ruthlessly powerful for the sake of the economically secure.

The goals of the meeting were serious ones: to build international networks and to support U.N. activities aimed at eliminating the causes that lead to conflict. And, like male leaders everywhere, the women in Geneva issued public resolutions. The difference is that instead of making treaties designed to lessen the chances of war, the women called for strategies designed to advance the conditions that make for peace.

Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, author and lecturer, lives in Erie, Pa. The speech that she gave at this conference is reprinted in full on the NCR Web site, http://www.natcath.org/NCR_Online/documents/index.htm

Related Web site

The Global Peace Initiative of Women Religious and Spiritual Leaders

National Catholic Reporter, November 22, 2002