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PWR Barcelona Speaker Shirin Ebadi Urging Arab Women to Keep the Faith

The 2003 Iranian Nobel Laureate said that the main obstacle for post-revolutionary Arab women is a “patriarchal culture” that imposes a false interpretation on Islam.

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)– On the sideline of an April 2 conference hosted by Columbia University Law School, Shirin Ebadi, who in 2003 became the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, briefly discussed the consequences of the Arab uprisings on women with Women’s eNews. The Iranian lawyer‘s answers were translated from Persian by her translator Shirin Ershadi.

Shirin Ebadi Greeting Audience at Columbia Law School
Courtesy of Columbia Law School, Photo by Bruce Gilbert

Q: The Arab uprisings brought hope when they started in Tunisia. We now see that women’s rights are endangered. Have these uprisings been a good thing for Arab/Muslim women?

A: It has been good, but not enough. The voice of Arab women has been heard and that’s why I am saying it has been good; but unfortunately some countries want to retract the rights that women gained in the past. I am very glad that women are resisting. Women will only attain their rights when they learn how to resist dictators and oppressors.

Q: What is the main obstacle for women’s rights in these societies?

A: I think it’s the patriarchal culture. The patriarchal culture uses everything to legitimize itself. In Islamic countries, they interpret Islam in such a way that it is against women, whereas Islam has a different interpretation. With a correct interpretation of Islam, we can respect women’s rights.

Q: The Arab uprisings seem to have energized women to fight for their rights. Can we say that we are witnessing a rebirth of the Islamic feminism?

A: I have issues with “Islamic feminism. ” Feminism means equality of rights between men and women. Then, it is not Islamic. However, a Muslim woman can be a feminist.

Q: Speaking of feminism, we have lately witnessed extreme manifestations of feminism in Muslim-dominated countries, such as the ones inspired by the Ukrainian group Femen. Last month, a young Tunisian woman posted topless pictures of herself online with the words “my body is mine, nobody’s honor” written across her breasts and stomach. What is your take on this type of expression?

A: Here, the issue is the issue of freedom. People have to be free to do what they want to do. Of course, freedom is not unlimited and the limit of everyone’s freedom is the freedom of others. Therefore, if one’s freedom doesn’t hurt the other person we cannot limit it.

Q: In 2009, after the contested reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iranians took to the street but their attempt to defy the regime resulted in a huge crackdown. Can the Arab uprisings be an inspiration for the Iranians who want change?

A: What I can tell you is every day the number of those who oppose the government increases. Iran is like a volcano, any minute the lava may come out. So wait and see what happens.

Opposition to Sanctions

During the Columbia University law conference, Ebadi reiterated her opposition to economic sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program.

The lawyer, who in 1970 became Iran’s first female judge, lives in exile in London and fiercely opposes the current Iranian regime. But she said economic sanctions “affect Iranian people and increase the corruption within the government.” Instead she recommended “political sanctions” that would “specifically target” members of the regime and “third countries where Iranian officials enter and have assets.”

She suggested, for example, to “target international satellites that broadcast Iranian propaganda in non-Persian languages. ” She said that today in Iran “16 TV stations hold propaganda of Iran in non-Persian. ” She also recommended sanctioning companies that provide the Iranian government with technology used for repression.

Shirin Ebadi is well-known for her defense of human rights, particularly those of women and children. At an April 2 awards dinner, she received the Wolfgang Friedmann Memorial Award from the Columbia Journal of Transnational Law. Since 1975, the prize has honored outstanding contributions to the field of international law. Ebadi was also honored as a Women’s eNews 21 leaders for the 21st Century in 2004.

Hajer Naili is a New York-based reporter for Women’s eNews. She has worked for several radio stations and publications in France and North Africa and specializes in Middle East and North Africa. Follow her on Twitter @H_NAILI


The Council that convenes the Parliament of the World’s Religions is faced with an enormous one-time financial challenge we must immediately overcome to continue to exist. By April 13, 2013, we can raise the $150,000 needed to go on. 

In just two days, generous gifts granted through our fundraising site on CauseVox and direct commitments have totaled more than $35,000.

CPWR Executive Director Dr. Mary Nelson says each Board Trustee is meeting equal fundraising goals through personal outreach. By helping us meet this challenge, the Board of Trustees can free the Parliament to carry on the mission of creating peace in the world through interfaith harmony by:

  • Convening the next Parliament event
  • Widening our connections and keep encouraging local interfaith event
  • Celebrating our deep 120 year history
  • Honoring our leaders and MOVE FORWARD TO A FUTURE WITH HOPE

“Our problem started when a bomber attacked Madrid just weeks before the 2004 Barcelona Parliament,” says Mary Nelson. To explain further why the Parliament is acting fast, Nelson continues,

A last-minute loan became necessary to carry out the event.  But a life changing Barcelona Parliament was held, bringing people together to overcome fear through interfaith action.

Why now?  A Spanish court judgment of $276,600 against the Parliament slowly came to the U.S. Courts. On March 21, 2013, the U.S. court upheld the debt against the Parliament. We were advised we had at least three months,  but court papers served last week gave us until April 17,2013.

The CPWR Board met and said we dare to do the impossible; the work of the Parliament must go on. To protect the celebration of our 120th Anniversary this year, we had raised $126,600 in our earlier efforts. The need now is $150,000 more.

In a few short days, by internet, direct solicitation, Board efforts, we have an additional $35,000 in hand. And we’ve just started. You can help make the difference.

Reasons to donate are many and personal, but the hundreds stepping in already have  shared that the Parliament:

  • “…teaches tolerance”
  • “…is a vehicle for peace in the world,”
  • “…was the highlight of my life.”
This is the hour that we must come together. If we care about the Parliament, NOW is the time. If you care about the Parliament, please give generously. Your gift of at least $100, or whatever you can give, can help build hope for the future.


I got chatting with a rabbi who, it turned out, was good friends with some of those I’d already met … we swapped stories and experiences; the richness of conversations like these was inspiring. As the rabbi said to me, ‘It’s not about religions, it’s about relationships.’
Sean Rose, Faith Acts Fellow
Tony Blair Foundation
Melbourne Parliament, 2009

Experiencing the Hospitality of Sikhs

At the 2004 Parliament in Barcelona, Sikhs served food to all who were hungry, a service called langar. Photo by Rowan Fairgrove.

by Rev. Susan Baller-Shepard
from Huffington Post

Twenty-five years ago, I worked in Walsall, England, in the West Midlands, near Birmingham. Birmingham is a city known for many things, including having the largest Sikh gudwara outside of India.

In Walsall, in Caldmore (called “Karma”), I worked with countless Sikh families and experienced incredible hospitality from all of them. I was moved by the family cohesiveness and equality expressed within the Sikh families with whom I worked. I had never known any Sikh families before I met those in Walsall.

In 2004, while attending the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Barcelona, Spain, the Sikh community at the Parliament hosted langar for thousands of us daily. We would enter a tent at lunch time, remove our shoes, put a covering on our heads and sit down with thousands of others to have a vegetarian meal. As a Presbyterian minister, I was struck by this hospitality to strangers. The Christian tradition speaks a great deal about hospitality, because Jesus was all about it: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.”

Click here to read the full article

Sitting in the Heart of the World

by Ellen Grace O’Brian
Vice-Chair, CPWR Board of Trustees

As a practitioner of yoga, I was aware of the Parliament of the World’s Religions as the watershed interreligious event that opened the door to yoga in the West through Swami Vivekananda’s dynamic presence at the first convening in 1893. What I didn’t know was that beginning in 1993, this powerful global event was now occurring approximately every five years and was open to everyone with an interest in the interreligious movement. Although I had heard about the Parliaments in Chicago (1993) and South Africa (1999), it wasn’t clear to me how to participate and that it was something that could so profoundly affect my life and my community.

Curiosity has a way of helping us discover doorways that we didn’t know existed. In 2002, I learned about a local group of people meeting in someone’s home to talk about the next Parliament event slated to convene in Barcelona in 2004. Between homemade soup, networking, and sharing about why we thought it could make a difference to bring people together, I found myself on the path to the fourth global parliament event. This local connection with people who had been to other parliaments, and those who, like me, were just learning about it, was invaluable. It provided inspiration as well as information. Little did I know I was already engaged in one of the hallmarks of the Parliament: bringing people together in ways that empower and equip them to solve the problems we face in our world today.

When I checked in at my first Parliament in Barcelona, I was overwhelmed by the abundance of programs and events, the sight of so many people from different religious traditions and far reaches of the globe engaging in dialog, and the inspiration that pervaded everything from the meeting place to the program book. After a time of prayerful consideration about what I should chose amidst such rich opportunity, I dove in. One of the things I decided to participate in was a dialog with others who were concerned about the rise of religiously motivated violence in our world.

The dialog group I was assigned to included a Hindu man from India; a Muslim woman from Egypt, a Christian seminary student from the US, a Catholic woman from Rome, and a Lutheran man from Switzerland. We were provided with some questions to reflect upon and discuss. Why was this issue important to us? What in our own experience had contributed to why we cared about violence in our world? What could we see ourselves doing we returned home to our own communities that would make a difference?

As I sat with this group of people from religions, countries, and viewpoints different from mine, something became apparent that changed everything for me: we all shared a deep concern about this issue and a belief, grounded in our diverse traditions, that peaceful change was possible. The experience of connection across differences was profound, I felt like I was sitting in the heart of the world. We were inspired to return home and engage in action. Then it came to me. I live in a large, diverse, metropolitan area. I realized that if people who were concerned about the rise of violence in our own community gathered together, that group would look very much like the one I was with in distant Barcelona. And, with a similar rich diversity, we could find ways together to begin to solve this problem.

When I returned home with this inspiration from the Parliament, I reached out and was joined by leaders from different faith communities, educational institutions, government and nonprofit organizations, students and community members who met to convene a community nonviolence conference. Inspired by the Parliament model, hundreds of people have attended these conferences over the years and brought forth their own commitments to action.

Whenever I think about what the Parliament does, or what it means to attend such a global gathering, I remember my experience of sitting in the heart of the world. And I think about what happens when people come together and share their deepest concerns and aspirations for a peaceful world.

Rev. Ellen Grace O’Brian is the Spiritual Director of the Center for Spiritual Enlightenment, a ministry in the tradition of Kriya Yoga. She was ordained to teach in 1982 by Roy Eugene Davis, a direct disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda. She is the author of several books on spiritual practice and is the editor of the quarterly magazine, Enlightenment Journal.

Rev. O’Brian is the Founder of Meru Seminary, training leaders in the Kriya Yoga tradition, as well as Founder and Chair of the community nonprofit educational organization, Carry the Vision, which provides educational programs in nonviolence. She received the 2008 Human Relations Award from the Santa Clara County Office of Human Relations recognizing her contribution to positive human relations and peace in Santa Clara County. She serves as a member of the Advisory Council of the Association for Global New Thought; on the Executive Board of the International New Thought Alliance; and as Vice-Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions.

Vivekananda speaks to Norway

by William Lesher

The hearts and prayers of people of goodwill everywhere go out to the people of Norway and to the families of those killed and wounded in the recent bombing and senseless slaying of young people.  It is especially painful when such tragic acts are in any way associated with misguided religious overtones.

The poignant words of Swami Vivekananda in his opening speech at the first Parliament in 1893 come readily to mind:

“Sectarian bigotry and its horrible descendent fanaticism have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair.”

How relevant this 118 year old statement is to this current situation.  Vivekananda ends by declaring, “ But their time has come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolls this morning may be the death knell of all fanaticism…”

Given the aura of contentiousness, conflict and confusion that hangs over the global social order today, it is doubtful that violent acts against people and property can be prevented.  It is, nevertheless, Vivekananda’s fervent hope that still motivates the Parliament of the World’s Religions and all expressions of the interreligious movement.

At the Barcelona Parliament in 2004, hundreds of participants attended workshops on “Religiously Motivated Violence” and made commitments to stand with people of other faiths whenever lives are threatened or property is defaced or destroyed.  Currently the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions encourages religious and spiritual communities everywhere to adopt a “Solidarity Pledge” as a minimal expression of their harmony, support and respect for people of other faiths.  In the greater Los Angeles area where I live, a group has recently formed called “Interfaith Witnesses for Peace,” pledged to gather on short notice, as a silent testimony to peace, wherever a religious community is threatened.

The tragedy in Norway is another occasion for us all to reassess our personal commitment and that of our religious communities, to active expressions of peace-building.  Are we building bridges to other faith communities?  Are we teaching and preaching respect for other religions, providing opportunities to learn what others believe and how to best share our beliefs with them?  Are we exploring ways to work together for the common good?  Are we mobilized to act, as a powerful presence of solidarity and love when tragedy strikes.

It is our engagement in interreligious actions like these that keep Vivekananda’s fervent hope alive.

Lessons from My Journey

Trustee Cornerby Helen Spector, CPWR Trustee

When Rev. Dr. David Ramage recruited me in 1990 to serve on the Board of Trustees leading up to the 1993 Parliament, I was not engaged in or much aware of the inter-religious movement.

My commitment to the Council’s work caught fire when I joined a group of Trustees to travel to Cape Town in 1998, to meet with our organizing counterparts and talk with leaders from all the faith communities who would support the Parliament in 1999 in Cape Town.  From that visit and my work since, I have come to see clearly the power of the interfaith experience and the positive impact of Council’s community organizing approach.

During our visit, we each were asked to meet individually with leaders from different faith traditions. Although I am Jewish, I had done considerable consulting with the Episcopal Church in the United States, so I visited with the Dean of St. George’s Cathedral.  He spoke with great energy about the glory days of interfaith in Cape Town during the struggle to overthrow apartheid, when every few weeks, leaders from all faith communities would meet to map the next steps in their powerful strategy of standing and marching forward together.

When he had finished his story, it seemed that a great sadness overwhelmed him, and he sat quietly for a few moments. I asked him what he hoped would come from organizing and holding the Cape Town Parliament, and he said in a very quiet voice, “Since our victory in overcoming apartheid, we have not met again. I hope that we will find a way to come together again as leaders of faith and share our hopes for rebuilding our country.”

In the years since that meeting, I have had the opportunity to witness the formation of the Cape Town Interfaith Initiative, which just observed its 10th anniversary on May 10, 2010.  Gordon Oliver, CTII Chairman, credits the Parliament event as the organizing impetus for this vibrant and growing local inter-religious movement.

More recently, Dr. Gary Bouma, Chair of the Board of Management in Melbourne, has shared with us that “before PWR 2009, 3 or 4 cities in Melbourne (which is itself divided into over 20 separate cities with their own mayors, councils and local responsibilities) had interfaith councils; now all but one do. This is a HUGE result!”

While these stories show what tangible results look like when local communities get inspired and connected, I learned something else in Cape Town, something perhaps even more important about our work of interfaith.

In the lead up to the 1999 Parliament event, The Cape Times daily newspaper sponsored a 13-week special section—“One City, Many Faiths.”   Monday through Friday, the paper carried four full pages of stories and information about five different faith traditions—Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and African Independent traditions—which have significant populations in the city.  The publisher organized discussion groups, luncheon meetings of leaders, and interviews with people on the street to keep this initiative highly visible and energized.

After the Cape Town Parliament was over, I talked with the publisher, asking him what results he had seen from this massive initiative. “None,” he said. I was stunned. This was a huge investment of energy and resources! What did he mean he hadn’t seen any results?!

Then he told me the lesson that we all must remember: “We cannot tell you what the results are, because we have no way to count the number of hate crimes, attacks and killings that did not happen because someone walking on the street no longer saw a person who dresses differently or worships differently as someone to be feared.

The world is full of stories like these that we will never hear. Yet we know that the inter-religious movement helps us to see each other as people with whom we share human experiences, even while we know we differ on how we worship and what we believe.

Mrs. Helen Spector joined the Board of CPWR in 1990 to help plan the 1993 Parliament Centenary Celebration. As a professional facilitator and Organizational Development consultant, Mrs. Spector has used her skills to further the values and goals of CPWR. She served as co—chair for the Site Selection task forces for the 2004, 2009 and 2014 Parliament events. She now lives in Portland, Oregon and continues as a Trustee of the Council.

Ireland Remembers Friar Donal O’Mahoney

From Irish Times

Fr Donal O’Mahony, OFM Cap: FR DONAL O’Mahony, who has died aged 74, was an inspiring Christian, a tireless peace campaigner and a truly remarkable priest in an age when the traditional leadership role of the clergy is diminishing.

A member of the Capuchin order, following the Franciscan way of life, he was a champion of the poor and will long be remembered as the founder in 1978 of Threshold, Ireland’s main non-profit national housing advisory organisation.

In his capacity as a known peace-maker, he acted as mediator in several high-profile kidnappings, including the abduction 35 years ago of Dutch industrialist Tiede Herrema by an IRA splinter group. Extremely modest, he never talked about it in public later.

Threshold had its roots in the run-down flats of Dublin where the archbishop had appointed him as chaplain to the flat-dwellers in 1978.

His involvement with people at the coalface of Ireland’s housing problem honed his interest in social justice, especially the plight of down-and-out emigrants who had returned, hoping to make Ireland their home, only to fall through the cracks of society, ending up in exclusion and grinding poverty. He also worked with the street girls of the inner city.

Essentially, he founded Threshold as a peace and justice project, focusing specifically on housing and homelessness. It is a registered charity with offices in Dublin, Cork and Galway. Its fundamental work is advising people on their housing rights.

In a tribute to Fr O’Mahony, Threshold’s chairperson, Aideen Hayden, said his work “touched some of the most vulnerable people in Irish society”.

Seeing housing as a basic dignity, she added that “he understood that people didn’t just need a roof over their heads – they needed a home”.

An unsung hero, his career path reads like the CV of a high-flying international diplomat.

In Rome, he was appointed secretary general of his order’s worldwide division for Justice, Peace and Ecology; he taught for a year at Berkeley in California as a visiting scholar; worked with Pax Christi both in Ireland and Holland; and was declared Franciscan of the Year by an American religious journal.

In South America and South Africa, he participated at UN meetings on the environment and sustainable development; set up workshops in Ethiopia and Eritrea on alternatives to violence; and addressed the Parliament of the World’s Religions at Barcelona.

In 2008, he received a Peace Award from the Interfaith Foundation of South Africa.

Click here to read the entire article.

Meeting “The Hugging Guru”

Mata AmritanandamayiFrom America Magazine

Marlborough, MA. I was invited to speak last evening at an appearance in one of the Boston suburbs of the famous modern Indian teacher, Mata Amritanandamayi (literally, “the mother,” “the one entirely composed of bliss in the imperishable”)— Amma, mother, who tours the world regularly, and has been widely honored for her charitable works for the poor in many places. She is also famous for embracing those who come to see her. For she is also “the hugging guru,” and is known to receive for hours at a time whoever comes to her, embracing them warmly and with a loving smile. She is also considered, by many of her disciples, simply a divine person come down to earth.

So I had the opportunity to speak a few words in introduction to her own lecture (in Malayalam, her native South Indian language, with a subsequent translation read by a discipline) and subsequent devotional hymns and a long evening of embraces. I was invited partly as a specialist in Hindu-Christian relations, and partly, I suspect, as a Harvard professor. But what to do, speaking a few word before nearly 1000 people (mostly Western, most “converted” to being her devotees) gathered to see this person they know to be divine? One might turn down such a request, of course, but if one does accept it, how to speak in a way that honors the occasion, respects her loving presence and good works, while yet also communicating something of Christian love too? It is quite a challenge to weave everything together in the right balance, definitely a Catholic and definitely standing before so large a group of very sincere devotee of Amma. So I pondered this for days, finally accepted the invitation, and eventually came up with the speech below; I showed up in my Roman collar, gave my talk, garlanded her, was embraced by her, spoke with her in Tamil for a brief moment, and enjoyed it all. But see what you think of my little speech. Did I say too much? too little? would you agree to speak on such an occasion?

Here it is (though also click here for the summary and video excerpt posted by Amma’s organization):

“Namaste, vanakkam, good evening. It is a grace to be here tonight with you. I know that we all travel by so many personal paths, yet by a singular invitation we are here together for a time, and that is good that it is so. I offer you this ancient Jewish blessing as we collect ourselves: “May the Lord bless us and keep us;  / may the Lord make his face to shine upon us,  / and be gracious to us;  / may the Lord lift up his face upon us,  / and give us peace. Amen.” (Numbers 6)

“We are here tonight, gathered together with Amritanandamayi Amma. When we speak this name — Amritananda-mayi, “perfect, complete in the bliss of the imperishable” — the Sanskrit scholars among us may think first on a philosophical level, perhaps turning to the Upanisads to probe the meaning of “bliss” and “the imperishable.” We may eventually think of the undying spark within all beings, and of a bliss grounded in the highest immortal Reality.

“But we also know that this name — Amritanandamayi — tells us something simpler and more immediate. We are invited to see how our guest — our host — is open to the undying Spirit that blows where it will — in, through, and around each of us. With her tonight, we learn again to stop covering our light with a bushel basket, and to share the bliss that is within us.”

Click here to read the entire article.

Interfaith Relations: 5 Defining Events

The revival of the Parliament since 1993 is listed among the top five most important events that define the modern interreligious movement, according to Beth Katz.  The following is from her blog “The Accidental Theist“:

Recently, I gave a presentation to a group of clergy about the complexity of interfaith relations in which I traced the development of the modern interfaith movement. As I was sharing highlights of all that has and is unfolding in the U.S. and our world in terms of interfaith relations, I was struck by what an incredible time it is to be living in. Some of the most encouraging and challenging interfaith events to ever happen have occurred in the past fifty years alone (just a drop in the sea waters of time).

Here are five of what I think are some of the most formative events to have shaped interfaith relations in the U.S. and beyond in the past fifty years—let me know what other events you think belong on this list:

Click here to read the full article

Rev. Dirk Ficca Interviewed by IFYC

In September 2009 the Rev. Dirk Ficca, executive director of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions (CPWR) sat down for a video interview with Erin Williams of the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC).  In addition to providing images and context for the organization over the last century, the conversation touched on the fruits of our Barcelona event, the promise of Melbourne and Dirk’s original encounter with the interreligious movement.

The interview is hosted on our YouTube account in two installments.

For Part One, click here.

For Part Two, click here.