Muslim Woman Azza Karam Chosen to Lead Religions for Peace

On the same day that a prominent woman urged greater inclusion of female leaders in Religions for Peace, delegates to the 10th World Assembly of the interreligious global organization elected their first woman secretary-general.

On Wednesday (Aug. 21), they chose Azza Karam, an expert who works with the United Nations on issues of religion and development, as the organization’s new top official.

Karam, a Muslim and a professor of religion and development at Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, succeeds William Vendley, a Roman Catholic scholar from the United States who has held the role since 1994.

“A woman as head of RFP International — now that’s what I call ‘walking the talk,’” Tarunjit Singh Butalia, executive director of Religions for Peace USA, told Religion News Service. “She will serve as an example to young boys and girls of faith of gender equality.”

The announcement comes at a time when other women leaders have been seeking greater visibility in the leadership of the organization and beyond it.

As a procession of hundreds of leaders attending the assembly stepped off for a ceremonial walk through this Bavarian city, male officials of Religions for Peace held the most prominent spots at the front of the line.

But on Wednesday, midway to their destination, a new “Ring for Peace” sculpture symbolizing interreligious unity, women began to be included in some of those front-row locations. And as the organization’s officers posed for a photo, Mehrezia Labidi-Maiza, an honorary president, took a turn holding its red hockey-stick-shaped banner.

A couple of hours before, Labidi-Maiza, the first vice president of Tunisia’s Constitutional Assembly, spoke in a special session of the global assembly about the importance of women leaders in interreligious groups.

Speaking directly to Vendley, the outgoing RFP secretary-general seated in a plenary hall, she urged greater visibility for the female clergy, academicians and theologians in their midst from Africa, the Americas, Asia and Europe.