Teaching tolerance, respect and understanding of the other, mobilizing people to support peace initiatives, and urging governments to assess the will of the people are important ways in which churches can help build peace and stability in South Asia. That was the main message from a 2-4 August workshop in Colombo organized by the World Council of Churches (WCC).
Focusing on current conflicts in the region and the role in them of religion, the workshop was hosted by the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka, and was attended by fifteen church leaders and representatives of civil society organizations from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. A workshop report reviews what churches have been, and should be, doing to achieve peace in each of the four countries.
In Sri Lanka, the peace process is at a "critical crossroads", the report notes. In February 2002, the government signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), but in April this year, the LTTE suspended its participation in the negotiations, while remaining "committed to a negotiated settlement".
"The position taken by the churches in the early stages that the conflict should be resolved on the basis of federalism and devolution of power and not through military means has proven to be correct, as the present negotiations are being held on that basis," the report observes.
Making the most of the current ceasefire, church groups have been visiting the North and East in an effort to promote a spirit of peace and tolerance among youth, the report notes. Prayer services for peace and reconciliation are being held; the national Christian council is working with Buddhist clergy to create a culture of non-violence; and several efforts to encourage a climate of tolerance are going forward at the local level.
According to the report, the churches in India and Pakistan should "make it clear to their respective governments that there are three parties to the dispute: India, Pakistan and the people of Kashmir. Kashmir should not be treated purely as a territorial dispute. It is essential to assess the will of the Kashmiri people."
Recent signs that both governments wish to resume normal relations - by restoring road and air links for example - have generated much hope. But the report explains that, because there is no effective regional mechanism to address tensions and conflicts, "vested interests and power brokers on both sides exploit the sentiments of the people and keep fires of hostility and violence burning."
In Bangladesh, "While there are no major ongoing conflicts, serious human rights violations by the security forces and armed groups are carried on against the indigenous people," the report notes.
The WCC workshop pinpointed two disturbing trends in South Asian societies in general: an "increase in incidents of religious intolerance and violence as a result of the negative impact of religion", and militarization, which it says is caused mainly by outside intervention, "the more so since the recent American-led war against global terrorism".
"Religion, instead of being a source of healing and liberation, has become a cause of dissension, disruption and destruction. It is essential that religious leaders of the major faith communities - Christian, Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist - invoke the teachings of their respective faiths to inculcate the spirit of tolerance, respect and understanding of the other in South Asian communities," the report warns.
It argues that militarization not only drains much-needed resources away from education, health care and communications, but that it has "also resulted in brutalizing these societies".
What the churches can do
The workshop offered a number of recommendations to the South Asian churches. On the role of religion in conflict, it urged them to promote peace and reconciliation with people of other faiths, to condemn "the (ab)use of religion by vested interests and political structures to divide people along caste and class lines", and to re-read "religious scriptures to bring out values such as tolerance and respect for diversity".
On building peace in the region, it recommended that churches support people-to-people contacts between India and Pakistan; participate in larger civil society initiatives to build bridges; campaign with civil society groups for liberalization of visa requirements, opening of trade relationships, exchange of cultural groups and peace literature; and observe a common day of prayer for peace and reconciliation in the region.
Responding to "the challenges that confront us as a community of concerned Christians", the general secretaries of the four national church councils on 4 August addressed a pastoral letter from the workshop to the churches in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka that summarizes their observations, analysis and recommendations (see below).
Warning that peace initiatives in Sri Lanka and between India and Pakistan are "a long and arduous journey that will require painstaking and consistent efforts", Rev. Ebenezer Joseph (NCC of Sri Lanka), Rev. Ipe Joseph (NCC of India), Mr Subodh Adhikari (NCC of Bangladesh) and Mr Victor Azariah (NCC of Pakistan) together called on South Asian churches to mobilize people to support these peace initiatives, and on churches elsewhere to "mobilize internationally in favour of the peace process in Sri Lanka and between India and Pakistan".
The letter appeals to the churches "to address themselves to the needs of the community in their desire for peace and reconciliation, in cooperation with one another and with people of other faiths and persons of goodwill."
"We must prove ourselves equal to the task and be signs of the presence of Christ as a source of healing in our nations and in our region at this critical juncture of our history," it proclaims. "Specifically we call on our peoples to witness to our oneness in Christ within the life of the church."