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.