By Mary Wisniewski
CHICAGO, June 27 (Reuters) - Former President Jimmy Carter, who is sponsoring a conference this week on equality for women in religion, said that some religious institutions are sexist, including the Roman Catholic Church.
"How many Catholic priests do you know that are women? None," Carter said in a telephone interview.
This week at the Carter Center in Atlanta, Carter will open a conference called Mobilizing Faith for Women to encourage religious leaders to advance equal rights. The conference will include discussion of sex trafficking and war's impact on women.
Carter was known during his political career for being open about his "born-again" Baptist faith.
But he publicly broke with the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, over its decision in 2000 to oppose women as pastors, and is now vocal about discrimination against women by religious leaders.
In the interview conducted on June 20, Carter identified many ways in which women are treated as second-class citizens, including unequal pay in the United States.
"The root cause of it is two-fold," Carter said. "The major religions preach women are inferior to men, and the other thing is just the general condonement of violence in society. The U.S. is one of the prime examples of constant war."
He said the way the Islamic faith is interpreted in some regimes is "very punitive" toward women, such as in Saudi Arabia, where women are banned from driving cars. The Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist political movement in Afghanistan, shows "extreme prejudice" toward women, Carter said.
"In some areas, women are treated as children all their lives," Carter said.
Carter belongs to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a moderate group that split from the Southern Baptist Convention.
"We believe in complete equality between men and women," he said.
Carter's wife, Rosalynn, is a deacon at their Plains, Georgia church, where he teaches Sunday school.
He sees progress in equal treatment of women among certain Protestant denominations including the Methodists and Episcopalians.
He also sees progress in some Islamic countries, such as Tunisia. Also, a group of religious and traditional leaders in Africa called Tostan have eliminated genital cutting and reduced child marriages in 6,000 villages.
Tunisia is considered one of the most progressive of Islamic countries on women's rights, including the right to education and gender equality. But human rights groups have recently expressed concern that the country could retreat on these rights.
"There's a stirring of realization that abuse of women is not only, I would say, morally wrong, but is detrimental to the country's economic progress," Carter said. "Because to omit the tremendous capability among women from the economic growth of the country is beginning to be seen as a negative factor."
Carter said religious writings are often interpreted to permit the oppression of women, just as they once were interpreted to tolerate slavery. But times change, and that can change the way religious texts are viewed, and which texts are emphasized over others.
He noted, for example, that Saint Paul said there is no difference between women and men, slaves and masters and Jews and Gentiles, that all are equal in the eyes of God.
"That's the primary verse that I quote when I do get into an argument," Carter said. "Not that many people argue with me about it because they know how I feel."
Despite his criticism of Catholicism's lack of female priests, Carter said he thinks Pope Francis has so far done "quite well" in his new role.
"He has experienced poverty and has lived among poverty-stricken people," Carter said.
He said Francis could emphasize justice and equality of treatment of the very poor more than some of his predecessors.
Besides Carter, forum participants will include Sister Simone Campbell, who helped organize "Nuns on the Bus," which protested budget policies seen as hurting the poor; Zainah Anwar, founder of Sisters in Islam; and Mona Rishmawi, of the United Nations human rights office. The event will be on live webcast Friday and Saturday at www.cartercenter.org.
The Carter Center is a not-for-profit focused on advancing human rights, founded by Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter. (Reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Greg McCune and Bill Trott)
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