Last week, I was at the meeting of the Secretariat of the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, in Astana, Kazakhstan, as half of Jinja Honchō’s delegation. As it turned out, I had a lot less to do than last year. First, our Liaison Officer used to work at the Kazakhstan Embassy in Tokyo, so we already knew him, and he speaks good Japanese. That meant I did not need to interpret between him and Revd Mitsui. And then it turned out that they were providing simultaneous Japanese interpretation of the session, so I didn’t need to do that, either. Of course, we didn’t know the identity of our Liaison Officer until a couple of days before the meeting, and only found out about the interpretation after we arrived, so I was already there…
If we can confirm that this is going to be the case next year rather more in advance, I may not need to go. Someone who can speak a bit of English needs to go, but other staff at Jinja Honchō can do that. We will have to see — if things are unclear, I will have to go, because it would be a bit catastrophic to have no interpreter and need one.
As last year, a lot of people, including Revd Mitsui, gave speeches that were generally connected to the theme of the meeting, but not really to each other, and no changes were made to the documents that were up for “debate”. The recent events in Israel did make things a bit strained at a couple of points, because there was a delegate from Israel, who condemned Hamas for their terrorism, and a delegate from Iran, who mourned the plight of the Palestinian victims. There were also people, both Muslim and Christian, who mourned the victims on both sides and called for negotiation, and the final declarations were adopted unanimously, so in one sense the meeting was a success. Even under very difficult conditions, leaders of different religions came together and engaged in dialogue.
Incidentally, the Iranian delegate also said that Iran was ready to help other countries advance the position of women. Don’t all rush at once.
On the subject of women, there were, once again, very few women. The Church of England representative was a woman, and I think she has been a regular attendee for some time. The UAE representative was a woman again this year, as were the representatives of some governmental bodies, but there was an overwhelming dominance of men. The Congress is now explicitly calling for more involvement of women, but I think this is a good example of a case where it is the wrong place to make the change. The Congress should gather leaders of world and traditional religions (it’s right there in the name), and as long as most of them are male, it can’t really do anything to get more women involved, other than completely changing its purpose. It would certainly be good to have more women involved, and it is also good for the Congress to call for it, but I don’t think there is anything that the Congress itself can actually do to get more women involved.
The symbolic meaning of the meeting, and the informal contacts made around it, are much more significant than the formal speeches. The Congress does plan to start doing more practical things over the next ten years, under the rubric of “spiritual diplomacy”, but the symbolic significance should not be underrated.
I would still like Jinja Honchō to be more actively involved, but we will see. They are very busy already, and it is not entirely clear how they could get more involved.