We have been working with Sarvodaya Shanti Sena to provide ongoing support to interfaith councils of religious leaders, which we helped form at the end of an in-depth reconciliation program we co-led in 2011-2013. In that program, 160 community-based religious leaders worked in interfaith teams to engage more than 5,000 community members in reconciliation projects. The interfaith councils have provided a structure, within each of three districts, for these religious leaders to continue their reconciliation work. Following the close of our 2011-2013 program, religious leaders have not only continued to lead joint activities and cultural exchanges, but also began to re-integrate an area segregated by war.
During the May 14 exchanges, the religious leaders brought people together by conducting joint ceremonies, leading group games, and facilitating mixed-group discussions of their similarities and differences. Participants were coached to create short theater sketches about their cultural sharing in small groups, which they performed—and the event ended with a beautiful pageant of different dance and music traditions.
The event was organized jointly by interfaith councils in the districts of Trincomalee and Batticaloa—and now, a new interfaith council may take shape, from participants recruited to this event from Polonnaruwa district. Karuna Center raises mini-grants that fund these councils’ ongoing work; Sarvodaya Shanti Sena provides direct support and technical assistance. These interfaith activities and new relationships have helped people to feel safer and reduced tensions with neighbors—and have even helped community-based religious leaders collaborate to deescalate brewing conflicts.
These grassroots initiatives may be small in scale, but we see them as an important peacebuilding strategy—to create understanding among Sri Lankan identities that have been pitted against one another for decades, and to help diverse communities work together to prevent further violence. When entire communities have become alienated from one another, bringing people together is an important step in this journey.