Why religious leaders matter

 On June 11, Catherine Warren and I attended an Interfaith Leaders Conference at the United Nations headquarters. The forum was sponsored by the Permanent Mission of Burundi to United Nations and The Connected Hearts, Inc., and featured religious and NGO leaders, including the famous Rev. Al Sharpton. They discussed the topic “Why religious leaders matter towards zero exploitation of women and children 2030 Agenda.” The panel was moderated by Taj Hamad, Secretary General of the Universal Peace Foundation.

The forum began with opening remarks by the Ambassador of Burundi to the UN, His Excellency Heremenglide Niyonzoma. H.E. Niyonzima discussed the growing awareness of human trafficking, and the importance of religious influence in affecting change. This sentiment was repeated by all of the speakers. Rev. Sharpton spoke first, and he is not famous for nothing. The reverend was incredibly eloquent as he compared the interfaith struggle of the American civil rights movement in the 1960s to the current battle against human trafficking. Much like that movement, the revered argued that peace can only be achieved through interfaith action by religious leaders. Otherwise, he said, “temples will be the hiding places of irrelevance.”

The Rabbi Michael Paley spoke next, relating a story from the Talmud about female dignity to the effects of human trafficking. He suggested that the safety and dignity of humanity was more important than religious tradition. Pandit Satish Deo, a Hindu priest, noted the spiritual power of women in religions across the world. He argued that following religious teachings meant protecting women. He also advised more interfaith forums on the topic, and spiritual counseling for victims of crimes against women.

Daisy Khan, the Executive Director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, was the first woman to speak at the panel. She countered the perception of Muslim women being passive and subjugated, stating “gender equality is an intrinsic part of Muslim faith.” She warned against allowing extremists to define world politics. She also recommended the website wisemuslimwomen.org, which highlights strong and faithful Muslim women.

The next speaker was Simone Monasebian, the Director the New York Office of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). She related child and female trafficking to her experience in the UNODC, and suggested a partnership between her organization and The Connected Hearts, Inc. After her, the Rev. Father Philip Paul Tah spoke. Rev. Fr. Tah is a Nigerian priest, and so was able to speak with authority on Nigerian struggles with this problem. He suggested that because trafficking is such a secretive process, it is easy to ignore. He then proposed that religious leaders make a week to host events bringing awareness to this topic.

Nelly Niyonzima, the Founder and Executive Director of The Connected Hearts, Inc., spoke last, thanking everyone for their participation. Her organization promotes awareness of trafficking and exploitation.

It was an incredibly powerful event, one that affected both Catherine and myself. It is important that the Presbyterian Ministry do as much as possible to advocate for women and children, particularly with regards to this subject. I hope that in the future, we may do events and advocacy to support victims of trafficking.

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