Spiritual leaders tap future of peacemaking: women

500 religious leaders and businesswomen met in Geneva this week for thethe Global Peace Initiative.

When Toni Maloney, a nonpracticing Catholic, left here this week, she was "all 'spiritualed' out," she said with a smile.

The New York City businesswoman was returning home – her horizons widened – from a conference the likes of which she had never attended before: 500 women religious leaders from around the world had gathered in a search to inject a spiritual dimension into peace-building, and to harness women entrepreneurs to their effort.

She had come to the three-day Global Peace Initiative of Women Religious and Spiritual Leaders, she says, because "peace right now has a certain urgency about it in the US," and because, as a successful marketing consultant heading her own company, "It's time for me to give something back."

Others came to discuss ways in which they could bring their moral authority as spiritual leaders to bear on conflict zones.

"Rich countries know how to call for economic resources to rebuild" nations fractured by war, says Dena Merriam, convener of the initiative. "But what about the international community's spiritual resources? Who tends to the spiritual healing?"

Behind the initiative, explains Bawa Jain, secretary general of the World Council of Religious Leaders, lies the hope that spiritual leaders can join their voices to influence politicians.

"I want to experiment with religious diplomacy," he says. "We are seeking a collective voice with moral authority that politicians will have to listen to. First we have to scout the religious world for those with authority, and then seek political leaders who will acknowledge it. There won't be peace until you have the political will and the religious commitment. I don't know whether they exist."

"Are we willing to trust our world to politicians alone?" asks Ms. Merriam. "I would have more confidence if people of wisdom who have dedicated their lives to the service of humanity were brought in to provide moral guidance."

The conference, which closed on Wednesday, set up an international Womens' Negotiating Corps, designed both to help stave off conflict and to speed reconciliation after a war. In its preventive role, the corps intends to support official diplomacy through fact-finding missions on the ground; in its healing role, it might oversee one of the conference's proposals – that peace-education in schools be made a condition for reconstruction aid.

The meeting also called for greater recourse to collective prayer, which Sister Priya, a nun with the Self Realization Fellowship, which practices yoga meditation, calls "the greatest untapped resource we have.

"We can change the world, we are already changing it, those of us who pray and act," she says.

Women came to the conference from 75 countries and all the world's major religions, including Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Shinto, Bahai, and Jainism. That diversity, participants say, was especially important in light of the way in which religious differences have often been exploited to make war.

"People here were able to step across boundaries," says Virginia Harris, chair of the Christian Science Board of Directors, who addressed the conference. "It's the spiritual component that will be the vehicle for peace, and we have to have a higher platform than denominational doctrine."

Much was made at the meeting of womens' particular experience and skills at keeping the peace – among their children, for example – and the fact that since in most parts of the world women are relegated to grassroots responsibilities, it is at the grass roots that they should focus their efforts.

In that spirit, American businesswomen attending the conference launched a Business Council for Peace, offering women in war-torn countries such as Rwanda and Afghanistan knowhow and assistance in rebuilding their lives.

"We train people every day, we negotiate every day, why not repurpose those skills?" says Ms. Maloney. "We can bring competencies."

Among the ideas proposed was the creation of a website on which women, whose businesses had been vetted by the UN Development Fund for Women, could post their needs – such as help with accounting or marketing – to see who could meet them.

As well, the head of Eziba, which sells exotic craftwork over the Web, offered to add Rwandan baskets, often woven by women widowed by the genocide, to her online catalog.

"The idea that spirit and business walk hand in hand is absolutely critical," says Amber Chand, Eziba's founder.

When it came to the immediate threats to world peace, such as Iraq or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the women acknowledge that they have little direct leverage. "We are not under the illusion that we can control what Bush or Saddam Hussein are going to do," says Merriam.

Instead, the conference decided to send an international delegation of women spiritual leaders to meet US political leaders to stress "the importance of investigating and pursuing all viable alternatives to war."

"We are not going to solve the world's problems because four or five hundred women come together, but it's a beginning," says Sister Priya. "When enough of us get together, then we will be heard."

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