IIC Newsletter: July 1997
The Place of Dialogue in Halting and Healing Conflict

Reflections on the International Interfaith Centre Conference, Westminster College, Oxford, March 23 –25, 1997

Hurt Causes Hurt
When human beings hurt, they are prone to hurt others, like cornered animals. Then a vicious circle may develop, in which attitudes harden and hurt and fear escalate. In Northern Ireland, Protestants hurt because of the feeling that they are an embattled enclave within a sea of militant Irish Catholicism; and Catholics hurt because of the abuse they have suffered as a minority community within the province. In both cases, religious affiliations have reinforced, and have been reinforced by, nationalistic identities: the determination to maintain union with Britain on the one hand, and the desire for a united Ireland on the other.

Similar hurts and fears, deriving from similar religio-political dimensions, are present within the conflict in Bosnia. These dynamics were clearly and sensitively explained at this year’s IIC conference, through presentations by people experienced in working within the respective communities.

Need for Sacrifice

One of the main aims of dialogue in these situations is to help break the vicious circle by reminding each side of the humanness of the other, and acknowledging the hurt that has been caused. Recognition of the terrible price paid for violence, along with mutual fear, can bring conflict to a halt. However, despite numerous initiatives aimed at developing reconciliation and dialogue, the situations in both Bosnia and Northern Ireland seem to require an additional component to bring lasting healing. Some speakers suggested an element of sacrifice will be needed. Not just forgiveness, but a renunciation of preoccupation with the rights of ethnic or religious groups, and even of personal freedoms, to give way to a sense of shared concern for good. That way, fear and suspicion could end, until perhaps one day the public celebration of different group identities could become a blessing rather than a threat, an expression of diversity within unity.

Neville Hodgkinson
– Brahma Kumaris

Multicultural Tolerance

The discussion of Bosnia, and the strongly secular nature of post-socialist Yugoslavia meant that the religious issues were more muted than in Northern Ireland, but Zoran Pajic and Asim Zubcevic showed by their interchange just how tolerantly multicultural the vanished society of pre-conflict Bosnia, symbolised by Sarajevo, must have been. Pajic insisted that it is still a tolerant society, but both speakers emphasised how inappropriate the rearrangement of that country on ethnic lines – imposed from outside by the UN’s policy, EU incompetence and the Dayton Accords – really is.

Can religious traditions resist identification with ethnic and national allegiances?

The fundamental question from an interfaith perspective is how religious traditions can resist identification with ethnic and national allegiances. It is only in the pain of confrontation that the religious component in people’s identities comes to light. On the other hand, there should be room for agnostics and atheists in the ensuing dialogue.

This exchange shed some valuable new light on the Bosnian conflict, especially in the challenge it poses to all involved in it to acknowledge the suffering caused and learn whom to forgive and how.

Faith-based Forgiveness
The dialogue-presentation on Northern Ireland by Eamon Stack and David Steers made the social and political parameters of the conflict dramatically clear. Eamon gave an excellent summary of the complexities involved in his proposal of a progress from conflict resolution through conflict management and conflict transformation to conflict redemption culminating in the ultimate necessity of forgiveness as the expression of a perspective based on faith. As David put it, the present juncture of political momentum and heightened hostility represents a kairos, a privileged time which must not be let pass.

Sr Anna astonished us with her account of how the integrated schools began as a parents’ initiative with exactly £36.11 to go on and her characterisation of the Women’s Coalition as “gravel in the shoes” of Unionist complacency.

Interfaith Interaction in Northern Ireland
Not many are aware of how far the interfaith dimension is already present in Northern Ireland, which made the contribution of Shaunaka Rishi Das of the Interfaith Forum all the more significant. There was perhaps insufficient time to develop this aspect and come to grips with the precise task facing the religious traditions together in situations of conflict, regardless of whether or not they are involved in actual antagonism or violence. How can they deal with the historic grievances with which they tend to be identified (eg. in conducting funerals for those killed in the fighting)? How does their interaction result in practicable measures for resolving, managing, transforming, even ‘redeeming’ the conflict? How can they motivate people to go down the difficult road of repentance and forgiveness which alone leads to reconciliation and healing? Perhaps the assumption implicit in the conference title – that religions can ‘halt’ conflict – is unwarranted, but surely not the expectation that they can ‘heal’. There is plenty of scope here for further collaboration under the auspices of IIC. Research into the relationship between religion and violence – and the effects this has on the relationships between religions themselves – is a matter of urgency in today’s world.

Dr John May
Irish School of Ecumenics

Compassion Can Cross Boundaries

The award to the Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland, which works for peace and reconciliation there, of the Niwano Peace Prize by a Japanese lay Buddhist movement, called Rissho Kosei-kai, was a wonderful example of the friendship and compassion between people of different religions, which can cross all boundaries. The award showed that whilst work for peace needs to be in particular situations, our compassion should have no limits. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “We should act locally, but think globally”, as the Rissho Kosie-kai have shown in several of their awards.

Corrymeela provides a space where Protestants and Roman Catholics, especially teenagers, who are caught up in the troubles, can cross boundaries and meet together. They are encouraged to ‘tell their story’, but there is no pressure to speak. If they do so, they are not interrupted. Some have had parents or a close family member shot, but as they tell their story to ‘members of the enemy community’, they find the other listening and sharing their grief. Common humanity and compassion has overcome the prejudice and hatred of centuries.

At the end of the time together, there is a chance to pray. On one occasion, the prayer leader asked if, in the silence, anyone had a particular person for whom they wished the group to pray. One girl responded. “I would like you all to pray for a man in prison tonight. He is very worried and his family is also very worried. He is about to receive his sentence. I would like it if you prayed for him”. Afterwards, as she left, one of the community asked her if she would like to tell him for whom they had been praying. She said, quite simply, “he’s the man who murdered my father”.

The announcement of the award was made at a Forum held at the Reform Club, by courtesy of Sir Sigmund Sternberg. The event was hosted by the International Interfaith Centre. Speakers included Mr Yoshihiro Ohno, General Secretary of the Niwano Peace Foundation, who announced the name of the prize winner; Dr John May of the Irish School of Ecumenics, Dr Philip Potter, Former General Secretary of the World Council of Churches and Rev Trevor Williams, Leader of the Corrymeela Community. A message of greeting was received from the Japanese Ambassador.

As all the speakers shared personal experiences and as, in the spirit of Corrymeela, no one was interrupted, it was a deeply moving afternoon and an affirmation of the hope that underlies interfaith work that patient and compassionate listening can break down centuries of prejudice and hostility and is an effective means of reconciliation.

Rev Marcus Braybrooke

Book Review


Maurice Ryan, 1996, £6.95, pages 169, 64 colour illustrations. Copies from: Stranmillis College Learning Resources Unit, Stranmillis College, Belfast BT9 5DY.

Tel: 01232 384313

This directory looks at the Jewish, Bahai, Muslim, Hindu, Chinese, Buddhist and Sikh communities represented in Ireland, giving a history of their development, information about their practices, contact addresses and illustrations of listed mosques, gurdwaras, mandirs etc. It also includes a chapter on interfaith developments in Ireland with details on the Northern Ireland Interfaith Forum and other relevant groups which include multi-faith and multi-cultural issues on their agendas. The Northern Ireland Interfaith Forum sponsored the inclusion of Fr Eamon Stack at the recent IIC conference on The Place of Dialogue in Halting and Healing Conflict.

This is a good resource book, well produced and accessible, for anyone interested in the wider ecumenism in Ireland. Its inclusion of all major faith communities into the Irish situation might be a useful encouragement to broader reflection.