[ACNS, by Rachel Farmer] Freedom and the role of faith communities has been the subject of a bridge-building event for Christian and Muslim academics gathered in the Ecumenical Institute of Bossey in Geneva, Switzerland this week (11-15 June). The Bridge Building annual seminar, now in its 18th year, was set up by the then-Archbishop of Canterbury in 2002 and is hosted by the World Council of Churches. Its sponsorship has been taken on by Georgetown University, Washington DC, which invites some 30 scholars from around the world to take part.
One of the presenters was Dr Azza Karam, who is a senior adviser on social and cultural development for the United Nations Population Fund in New York, and also a professor at Amsterdam’s Vrije Universiteit. She claimed the attitude of United Nations has changed toward faith-based organisations in recent years.
Dr Karam started the United Nations’ engagement with faith-based organisations about 20 years ago when UN agencies seemed to steer clear of working with them.
She said: “We started this work in 2000, but it took off quite intensively in 2007. So, I am looking at it as someone who has seen the pendulum swing. Now we have gone to the other extreme. . . We have made it into a marketplace.”
She said she was worried about the “doing religion”, that she believes is now becoming a “business” in the marketplace.
Despite her criticism of some of the interaction with faith-based organisations, Dr Karam said that interfaith encounters are “to be cherished in particular ways, not only because they’re religious, but to be cherished because it’s part of civic engagement.”
She said governments in the past had tended to focus on secular groups within the civic space.
“What is to be cherished is that we see the religious actors are part of that space, and it is important how we continue to nurture this space,” she said, “and we need to be in that civic space.”
During the week various scholar presented and discussed issues on the topic of freedom – between humanity and God, different religions and politics, personal conviction and public order, and between individuals – exploring the historic role of faith communities in addressing freedom.