By Heather Burns
Living in the United States, there are many things we take for granted - fresh water, healthcare, clean air, organic produce - and peace. We enjoy free speech, the priviledge to worship in whatever way suits us, and most Americans live without fear of violence or war. It is only in the absense of violence that sustainability can take root.
Karuna Center for Peacebuilding assists communities and societies around the world, working in every stage of a conflict – analyzing and addressing the root causes of tension, leading interventions to prevent further violent escalation, and encouraging reconciliation. Such important - and inspiring work...
By Olivia Drier, Karuna Center for Peace
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.