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Faith in Peace

June 10, 2011

Pastor James and Imam Ashafa are former members of competing militias in Nigeria who now work cooperatively to head the Inter-Faith Mediation Centre. (photo: Simon Clark/Eyebox)

By Shaya Gregory Poku

One of my best friends got married a week ago. We have known each other since middle school. We planned prom, encouraged each other through college applications, SATs, first loves and more, but I was unable to travel for the occasion—talk about disappointing.

As a peace practitioner, my feelings of loss and disappointment made me think about how people deal with sorrow, especially in zones affected by conflict. For many, and me included, the act of lamenting is closely related to their religious or spiritual practice, both in making sense of the pain and coping in its aftermath.

Currently, it feels like honest conversations about faith and religion in public life are few and far between. When the topic does arise, it often evokes images of violence; the attacks on 9/11 or the bombing of abortion clinics. Nigeria’s middlebelt region, in whose capital, Jos, Search currently works, has seen hundreds of deaths due to the violent clashes between Muslims and Christians.

While it is true that religion can be used to divide or incite violence; for many, faith is a powerful impetus to act for the good of humanity.

In the United States, religious groups played a huge role in the abolitionist movement and the Civil Rights Movement. Around the world peoples’ faith helps to facilitate and make possible, restorative justice.

I had an excellent opportunity to witness faith for peace, this month at the International Ecumenical Peace Conference, as a delegate on behalf of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A).  The Conference was sponsored by the World Council of Churches (WCC), which brings together 349 churches, denominations and church fellowships in more than 110 countries and territories throughout the world.

The conference sought to strengthen the church’s (as a global entity) position on peace, provide opportunities for networking and deepen a common commitment to the processes of reconciliation and peace.

I met many people who were using religious channels to forward work on peace and social development. The Uganda Join Christian Council is working with ministers to lobby traditional leaders to take new approaches to combating sexual and gender based violence. They’ve also worked with ministers to use their churches as neutral spaces for women to address elders about domestic violence issues. In Zimbabwe, The Common Global Ministries of the United Church of Christ in Zimbabwe advocates for mediation, conflict management and peacebuilding.

At Search, a fundamental aspect of our approach is working within existing cultural contexts and using and developing the capacities of traditional and local leaders. In Jos, we have already partnered with religious leaders because of the religious nature of the conflict. However, even when conflicts do not center on religion, the inclusion of religious leaders as stakeholders can be beneficial.

In Africa, most of the populations with whom we work, have a faith tradition, be it Christian, Muslim or animist. Religious leaders are often looked to for moral authority and can be hugely influential.

Without advocating for one religion or sector denomination, we can still have room to hear religious voices. I’ll close with an excerpt from the WCC convocation, one that resonated with me, and may speak to others who work toward greater peace and understanding:

“History, especially in the witness of the historic peace churches, reminds us of the fact that violence is contrary to the will of God and can never resolve conflicts … [Peace] requires moving from exclusive concepts of national security to safety for all. This includes a day-to-day responsibility to prevent, that is, to avoid violence as its root.”

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