“Now we see that as religious leaders we have similar values. We are all human beings. The fact that we practice separate faiths and wear different types of religious garments need not separate us.”
I am writing from Trincomalee, on the Eastern Shore of Sri Lanka, watching gentle waves roll in from the Bay of Bengal and enjoying the warm breezes. It is hard to imagine how devastated this coast was by the 2004 tsunami, not to mention the relentless lashing of 27 years of civil war. While the country is now at peace, the 80 Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, and Christian religious leaders we have worked with for the last 20 months remind me that it will take many more years to heal the psychological and emotional scars of the war and to create a truly just and democratic society.
Nevertheless, at our closing symposium they expressed surprise and pride at the remarkable progress they have made since we began working together in September 2011. They recalled how nervous they were to meet each other in the beginning, afraid of each other’s accusations, of blame for the horrors of the war. They felt stymied by the Tamil/Sinhala language barrier, uncertain of each other’s religious customs, of what would offend. “Now we are friends, almost like family,” reported one Buddhist monk. “It is time to heal the divisions that have caused so much suffering in this country.“ “And we have learned to not allow our religion to box us in,” shared a Hindu priest. “Now we see that as religious leaders we have similar values. We are all human beings. The fact that we practice separate faiths and wear different types of religious garments need not separate us.” Given that the war ended with a military victory and that ethnic and religious tensions remain high, the trusting relationships these religious leaders have forged is no small accomplishment.
Future planning of district councils
The religious leaders also spoke proudly of the over 50 community projects they have implemented in inter-faith teams in their three districts, projects ranging from women’s vocational training, to Tamil, Sinhala, and English language classes to break through the language barrier, to inter-ethnic youth camps, to community work days to jointly repair their places of worship. And during several days of impact interviews with the beneficiaries of these projects, I heard first hand what a difference these projects have made. Villagers from different ethnic and religious communities tell me that after years of mutual suspicion, they are now attending each other’s religious and cultural festivals and even weddings. If they witness trouble brewing, especially among youths, they speak with each other or with the religious leaders to diffuse the problem.
The program has been further strengthened by peacebuilding trainings for 80 young religious leaders who have joined their elders to form district inter-faith councils. These councils are in the process of registering as independent organizations to carry this work into the future.
Not only have the religious leaders reached down into the grassroots, but they have also raised their voices on the national stage. On March 2 our Sri Lankan partner for this project, Sarvodaya
organized a national conference on inter-faith peacebuilding at the main convention center in the capital city of Colombo. Over 700 religious leaders from around the country were in attendance. Our group from the Eastern Province shared their joint resolutions for equal rights and for interfaith and interethnic tolerance. The event was headline news on one of Sri Lanka’s major TV news programs. While this program is coming to a close, we will collaborate with Sarvodaya, to find ways to continue to support the district interfaith councils as they carry their work into the future.
-Olivia Dreier, Karuna Director
Pictures from Sarvodaya's March 2nd's national conference on inter-faith peacebuilding:
The training of 50 religious leaders in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire ended last week on a satisfactory note. At the closing ceremony, the Vice President of the Association of Baptist and Evangelical Churches of Cote d’Ivoire spoke on behalf of participants and expressed “gratitude and appreciation” to Joachim Diene and Joseph Sebarenzi for the quality of the training. He also thanked the organizers [Karuna and AECOM], for “their interest in the current situation of Cote d’Ivoire and for their assistance toward a Cote d’Ivoire that is united, reconciled, and peaceful in justice and love of one another.”
Joachim and I enjoyed working with priests, pastors, and other church leaders. Each day began and ended with a prayer. On several occasions, participants came to me and Joachim to say how insightful and practical the training was in terms of developing peacebuilding skills for both an interpersonal and national level. One participant told me, “You should also train decision-makers,” referring to political leaders, including the commissioners of the newly-formed Commission for Dialogue, Truth and Reconciliation.
Cote d’Ivoire used to be peaceful and was considered as a model of economic development in West Africa. But the situation changed with the death of former President Félix Houphouët-Boigny in 1993 (he ruled the country from 1960 to 1993). His death left a political vacuum that eventually led to a coup in 1999 and in a rebellion in 2002; political instability and violence culminated in post-election violence in early 2011. After presidential elections in December 2010, The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) declared opposition leader Alassane Ouattara the winner while The Constitutional Council declared incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo the winner. A war ensued and ended in Ouattara's victory and Gbagbo's arrest.
Since the end of the violence, the country is recovering economically and peace initiatives are being taken at both government and civil society levels. I am glad the Karuna Center continues to share its peacebuilding expertise in countries around the world.
-Joseph Sebarenzi, Karuna Board Member
With the strong support of our Sri Lankan partner Sarvodaya
, our Inter-Religious Cooperation for Community Development and Social Empowerment program has truly come into its own. As of December 31, 2012, over 7,000 community members have participated in 44 inter-faith/inter-ethnic community projects and related events, well above program targets. In recent months, the projects’ leaders have made a strong effort to make their joint work publicly visible, both in the eyes of their respective communities and by district officials. Their push for visibility has included visiting each
other’s projects and openly worshipping in each other’s religious sanctuaries during events associated with the community projects.
Most recently, workshops designed to engage the Sri Lankan youth in our peacebuilding work were held in Batticaloa, Trincomalee, and Padaviya. The participant’s youthful enthusiasm brought fresh energy to the program. They are more outspoken than their elders and more easily ready to bridge ethnic divides. Another recent achievement was the collection of “rescue stories,” stories of those who protected members of another faith/ethnic group during the years of conflict, often at risk to their own safety. These stories will be edited and published in multi-lingual pamphlets. Other upcoming publications include a children’s book with peace stories from all four-faith groups and an inter-faith peacebuilding training guide, translated into both Tamil and Sinhalese, that can be used for future inter-faith workshops and programs involving peacebuilding and reconciliation. As this program comes to a close, we look forward to the upcoming national conference on inter-faith peacebuilding and the knowledge-sharing symposium with our core group of 80 Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian religious leaders. Karuna Center is grateful to USAID and Tetra-Tech ARD
for their support of this program. -Kelly Donovan, Intern
Photo Above: Al Kaeem Moulavi, a Muslim who
protected many Hindus and Buddhists
in his village during Sri Lanka's civil war.
A training on "Rescue and Moral Courage." Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian religious leaders focused on the value of collecting and disseminating stories of rescue from the years of conflict.
Sarnia Appukurukkal, a Hindu priest who hid and protected Buddhists who were fleeing Tamils at his temple during Sri Lanka's civil war
D. Karlioyaranoya, a Buddhist living in Trincomalee who hid Hindus, fleeing a Buddhist mob, under a tarp in the back of his truck, driving them past checkpoints to safety
Photos by David Garrison, 2013
Although Côte d’Ivoire’s post-electoral violence of 2011 has limited the role that Ivoirians of different political leanings can play in the country’s development, civil society actors have retained the freedom to operate in a way that creates greater space for political expression and positive action. Two such actors are Côte d’Ivoire’s Evangelical and Catholic churches. Karuna associates Joseph Sebarenzi and Joachim Diene have begun working with members of these congregations to capitalize on their breadth of reach and make optimal use of their power as change agents.
Joseph and Joachim, in partnership with the US-based development firm AECOM, facilitated a three-day training workshop in Abidjan for 50 Evangelical and Catholic Christian leaders to analyze the positive role they can play in the post-conflict recovery process. Participants were encouraged to discuss steps they can take to enable more proactive contributions in the recovery experience and develop greater inclusivity in the profile of Ivoirians involved. Joseph and Joachim are now developing a training of trainers manual to prepare the participants to return to their own communities ready to help their fellow members support the recovery process in their respective areas.
-Kelly Donovan, Intern
In late February, I returned to Sri Lanka for our third set of inter-faith workshops with our group of 80 Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian religious leaders. As previously described, this work is taking place in the Northeast of the country, an area deeply affected by 30 years of civil war. Working with religious leaders provides a politically acceptable way of addressing deep residues of inter-ethnic tension left in the wake of the of the 2009 military victory over the Tamil Tigers (LTTE). While the government proclaims that economic development will solve all problems, the citizens of this area know that much more will be needed to rebuild trust after a war that killed and displaced thousands and left communal relations in tatters.
Our focus this time was on the use of dialogue as a tool for reconciliation. Given the language barriers, it is no wonder there has been so much social distance and the space for all kinds of prejudices and tensions. Like other inhabitants of the region, only a handful of our religious leaders speak both Tamil and Sinhalese or are able to use English as a lingua franca. Thanks to the presence of translators, the leaders had the opportunity to fully listen, as each group shared deeply about their suffering during war and their concerns for the future. In this region all groups suffered, including the Buddhists (who are all Sinhalese and the dominant group in the country) as they were victims of frequent LTTE attacks. The participants said it was the first time they had openly shared painful experiences with members of other groups. It is not the cultural norm and the political climate discourages it. The subsequent relief and warmth between participants was palpable. At tea break, monks, priests, imams, and pastors strolled arm and arm, even if they had little language in common. After each group had the opportunity to openly share their own experiences and concerns for the future as the larger group listened, the relief was palpable. It has taken five months of careful work to build the necessary trust for this to happen.
The leaders are now fully engaged in implementing over 40 inter-faith community projects. Projects range from enlisting youth in the joint repair of cemeteries for each faith group, to a mushroom growing project for women, to computer classes for mixed youth, to Tamil and Sinhalese language classes. Together with our Sri Lankan partner, Sarvodaya, the leaders have also produced and distributed 4,000 inter-faith calendars with holidays and traditions from all four faith groups. They are planning radio and television discussions on reconciliation, a children’s book of peace stories from their respective traditions, exchanges with religious leaders from other parts of the country, and a national conference on inter-faith peacebuilding.
I recently returned from two weeks in the Sri Lankan city of Trincomalee, where we had earlier launched our year-long reconciliation program with a series of workshops within Buddhist, Christian, Muslim and Hindu religious communities. This time, for our second workshop series, I facilitated groups of religious leaders from the four different faiths combined.
Religion is important in Sri Lanka as an identity marker, a community, a spiritual focus, and a cultural way of life. In the rural areas, religious groups tend to live, work, educate their children, and enjoy their public spaces in distinct villages with very little connection to those of other traditions. In urban areas these barriers are looser, but still fraternization is largely along religious/ethnic lines. The long civil war has only reified these divisions and added an element of distrust to the already complex issue of identity.
In our religiously mixed workshops, some participants commented that they had never spoken to, for example, a Muslim person or a Christian person. I observed a certain joy in their discovery of common ground on both mundane and theological issues. We spoke together about the root teachings of each religion and explored the similarities of all traditions in fostering peace, harmony, respect, and equality. Group members acknowledged that these abstract concepts were not necessarily practiced but that at least the aims were shared.
To deepen our understanding of the role of identity in the context of violent conflict, we looked at the reality of our multiple identities, finding those that overlap and provide a cross-cutting shared identity, such as Sri Lankan, educator, religious leader, woman, soccer player, etc. We also explored the psychology of wounded identity, which again they share because many have been targeted and harmed in Sri Lanka because of their ethnic/religious identity. How we are socialized to develop prejudices, indulge in stereotyping, and grow up to hate other groups also figured in our workshop, and participants shared somewhat honestly what they had been taught about each other and how much they had to re-learn.
This exploration led us to discussions about their special status as religious leaders and role models. Each of them made commitments to return to their communities with a mandate to develop inter-religious activities and to be visible themselves with members of other religious groups. We hope they will begin to speak out against discrimination, to become more self-aware about their own expressions of prejudice, and to develop opportunities for teaching tolerance to others.
The accompanying photos, each an illustration of inter-religious communication, represent one small step in recovery from decades of war and enmity. I wish I could post them on billboards throughout Sri Lanka, which is so much in need of inspiration, connection, and hope.
The beautiful island of Sri Lanka, lying just off the coast of southern India, has endured one of the more brutal wars of the last century, lasting 26 years and claiming 80-100,000 lives. The Sri Lankan government’s military victory in May 2009 brought an end to the violence but left many challenges in its wake, as reports of civilians deaths and human rights abuses abound and the grievances of Tamil and Muslim minorities remain unmet.
In October I travelled to the eastern coastal city of Trincomalee to launch a year-long reconciliation program with 80 Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian religious leaders from surrounding areas. It was deeply affected by the war as well as the 2004 tsunami. Repeated flooding has further damaged homes and infrastructure, compounding endemic poverty.
In Sri Lanka, ethnic groups tend to be regionally divided, but in the Eastern District all three groups (Sinhalese, Tamil, and Muslim) live in close proximity, although the Tamil-speaking minorities are in the majority. Everyone is relieved that the war is over. However, grievances, mistrust, and enmity run deep, as do the social and psychological wounds of war. Addressing ethnic tensions head-on would be too fraught in a political climate where the Sinhalese-dominated government insists that the country’s only problem is one of economic development. Religious leaders offer a more indirect route. The Buddhist are all Sinhalese and the Hindus, Tamil; while Tamil speaking Muslims identify as their own ethnic group and during the war clashed with Hindu Tamils. Christian congregations form something of a bridge, containing both Tamil and Sinhalese speakers. The program will engage all four groups of religious leaders in community-based projects to rebuild relationships. However, sustainable peace will not come without a greater degree of social justice. As the participants come to understand each other’s challenges, it is hoped that together they can also advocate for non-discriminatory government policies.
Karuna Center is delighted to be working in partnership with the U.S. based development firm ARD and Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement
, one of Sri Lanka’s oldest and largest NGOs that has been engaged with peace rural development and community empowerment for over 50 years. The religious leaders will be able to build on Sarvodaya’s extensive village councils to develop their projects.
During this first visit, we held separate workshops for each faith group. Each group analyzed the layers of problems their communities face in the aftermath of war as well as sources of resilience and the ways in which their faith traditions can contribute to a more peaceful and tolerant future.