Young Muslims, Jews and Christians become peace facilitators

August 5, 2010

A group of young men speaking to each other outside.

Students at the Bossey Institute practicing dialogue techniques as they prepare to become peace facilitators. —Photo by Annegret Kapp/WCC

BOSSEY, Switzerland

While peace is a commonly held value within Judaism, Islam and Christianity, other religious values can often become sources of conflict. In order to build community beyond faith boundaries a group of young adults from each of the three faith groups recently spent a week here focusing on the common value of peace.

The result? Each of them will return to their homes as qualified peace facilitators.

Participating in the Ecumenical Institute in Bossey, Switzerland month-long summer course called “Building an Interfaith Community,” the 32 participants from 20 countries forged a sense of community out of their religious diversity.

A new dimension to the July course for 2010 included exploring “how to overcome conflict and restore good relations.”

“Whether it is visiting a church, synagogue or mosque, or having formal lectures outlining different faith approaches to contemporary issues, or just socializing and enjoying each other’s company, the group is challenged to live together and grow as a community, overcoming stereotypes and preconceived understandings of each other,” says Tara Tautari, program executive for Education and Ecumenical Formation for the World Council of Churches (WCC).

As the WCC prepares for the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation in May 2011, it is including peace education in all its spiritual formation and educational programs. For the students of the summer interfaith seminar this meant a five-day intensive training program on “Dialogue for Peaceful Change.”

The training, which was developed by practitioners working in conflict settings, offered concrete tools for conflict management and effective communication skills for mediators. An international team of trainers taught the students about the role of conflict in human relations and its various and often hidden layers.

“Now, one of you will make a proposal and the other will say ‘no.’ Then ‘A’ will make another proposal and ‘B’ will say ‘no,’” said Ingeberte Uitslag, a peace trainer from the Netherlands during the sessions.

“The person I was talking to was deaf and dumb,” Benjamin Adekunle, a participant from Nigeria, said summarizing his feelings after sharing a personal story with a partner who had been asked not to show any facial expression or other reaction to what was said.

“We believe heavily in experiential learning,” says Colin Craig, a Roman Catholic and the senior coach for the training program. Craig became involved in peace building activities during the “troubles” in his native Northern Ireland and was inspired by the ecumenical Corrymeela Community of lay Christians dedicated to reconciliation work.

“It wasn’t so much a pious activity as it was a thrilling activity,” said Craig, who hopes to pass on the enthusiasm he has experienced to the next generation. “You really felt that you were on the edge of something.”

Restoring right relationships

Helping groups that strive for social change to overcome conflict is the primary task for trainer Paul Muego, who is a social worker as well as a mediator in the Philippines.

Muego hopes that the students at Bossey will be able to apply their new peace facilitator skills in their day-to-day lives, starting within themselves.

“Sometimes it is very easy for us to identify ourselves as victims — victims of violence or conflict — but often times it is very difficult for us to acknowledge, or even see, that we ourselves are victimizers,” he says. The hope for Muego is that a key learning would be how to build and restore “right relationships.”

But, can this be achieved in a one-week training session while nestled in the idyllic Swiss countryside along Lake Geneva?

Some students were enthusiastic about the program, like Koni Patrick, a Christian theology student from Nigeria.

“I consider this seminar as something that will equip me personally so that I will be able to make a change in my society,” she said.

Others are skeptical. “The problem of trust” is a key factor when applying mediation and conflict management techniques in a place like her home in Israel, Sahar Yasdanpour, one of two Jewish participants said.

“We maybe don’t trust the other side and that is why it is very hard to do peace,” she says. “If this program will give me the answer to the issue of trust, maybe I would be able to do that, but it's hard.”

Tautari and her WCC colleagues hope the opportunity for young people from different continents and faith communities spending a month listening to one another stories and learning how each live out their own spirituality will help students gain a better understanding of different ways to view the world.

“It turned out that I didn’t know as much as I thought I knew” about Christianity and Judaism, Adrian Kirk, a Muslim student from the United States said.

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