By Eric Olsen
“NGO workers and grassroots activists experience in their daily work the positive role that religion can play in building inclusive societies,” said European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini at the launch of the EU Global Exchange on Religion in Society (GERIS) in Brussels in September 2019.
“Religion has to be part of the solution. But most importantly, I believe in so many places around the world religion is already part of the solution. In all continents, there are people of faith who have chosen the path of respect and coexistence—not in spite of their faith, but because of their faith.”
The two-year, EU-funded community-based global exchange initiative connects some 175 community leaders, faith leaders, scholars, and journalists from 55 countries to contribute to the global conversation on diversity and to share experiences of coexistence among diverse peoples across the globe. [Learn more about the GERIS Exchange Program]
Among six exchange programs organized for the two-year project, the “USA: Being a Minority” GERIS exchange program in December 2021 hosted some 20 representatives from 17 countries for site visits to Atlanta, Georgia, and Montgomery, Alabama, to explore historic faith-based efforts to advance civil rights in the United States.
In Atlanta, Global Peace Foundation Senior Program Specialist for Values-based Peacebuilding Gail Hambleton was invited to present an overview of GPF’s approach to peacebuilding, the importance of shared values in promoting social cohesion, and the role of faith communities and leadership as agents for peace.
From conflict to peace
Explaining the stages of peacebuilding, Ms. Hambleton said that peacekeeping, or measures by governments or military to separate people in active conflict, is a first step that can advance to peacemaking, or reaching an agreement or treaty between opposing groups through diplomatic negotiations.
“Yet governments, treaties, and diplomacy do not remove resentments and help those on either side who have been wronged or victimized to forgive,” she said. “Peacebuilding can help to prevent further conflict by fostering relationships of trust among people living in diverse communities, resulting in an environment in which violence is less likely to erupt.”
Peacesharing, a term originally coined by Belfast-based Co-operation Ireland, a GPF partner, is significant because it takes the struggles of a people and transforms it into a contribution or gift for the global community.
Ms. Hambleton explained how conflict based on religion, nationality, ethnicity, or other traits, reduces our essential human identity to limiting attributes that cause separation, division, and conflict. Group identification can easily reduce “nonmembers” to outsider status to be regarded with suspicion, distrust, or hostility.
“How do I understand and describe myself?” she asked. “It is a question that speaks to the fundamental essence of our identity. We all enjoy and even need a sense of belonging, which can include religious groups, professional organizations, sports teams, or political parties, to name a few. But the trouble starts when there is fear, a perceived threat, historical resentment, or exclusivity or superiority.
“The realization of shared values and our common humanity is profound and can actually bring perpetrators and victims to sit together at the peace table.”
“The resolution of identity-based conflict—the good news—is we have a shared human identity already, a spiritual and moral essence that includes all people as members of the human family.”
Ms. Hambleton movingly described moments that illuminate our shared human essence—a mother weeping over her child’s body, the miraculous rescue of a child buried in the rubble of an earthquake, emotions of joy, fear, grief—that transcend language and every cultural boundary.
“The realization of shared values and our common humanity is profound and can actually bring perpetrators and victims to sit together at the peace table,” Ms. Hambleton told the exchange participants. “Even lengthy sustained dialogue, and difficult conversations builds relationships. It takes time and commitment. Once a relationship has begun, trust begins to grow, and the hard work of negotiation and compromise can begin.”
Concluding her talk, Ms. Hambleton presented an overview of key GPF values-based peacebuilding projects:
- One Family under God Campaign, a Nigeria community-driven campaign engaging traditional rulers, Muslim and Christian clerics, and women and youth leaders to mitigate violent extremism.
- Cross-Community Reconciliation, in Montana, USA, to build trust, community resilience, and strengthen connections among native peoples and the wider public.
- PeaceHub Campaign, a self-directed workbook program to build social cohesion in the community and prevent hate crimes by credentialing a church, mosque, or other place of worship as a PeaceHub.
Dr Marika Djolai, a GERIS Team Leader and Senior Researcher at the European Centre for Minority Issues, thanked Ms. Hambleton for her presentation, saying the exchange visit “was so successful largely because of the context you provided.
“Your presentation and perspective helped all of us come to a greater understanding of the complex issue of peacebuilding. Your words allowed us to come away from this exchange visit with a much more nuanced and complete picture of the state of civil and human rights worldwide, and as the Team Leader for this project I cannot imagine a better outcome.”