Building Bridges Across Faiths

The importance of freedom of religion and belief

Written by Mengistie Rebsso and Nadia Vermaak 

‘Today when we were coming from Nineveh, the checkpoint officer asked who we were, and we said one Kakai, one Yezidi, Christians and Shabaks. The officer was shocked to hear of so many ethnicities and religious groups travelling together.’ A participant in the JISRA consortium in Iraq.

In many parts of the world, discrimination, misunderstandings, power struggles and intolerance lead to religious violence. This has a devastating impact on local communities, especially people living in poverty. 

The Joint Initiative for Strategic Religious Action (JISRA) – named after the word jisr in Arabic, which means ‘bridge’ – promotes peaceful and just societies by encouraging freedom of religion and belief. It is a partnership of 50 civil society organisations across Ethiopia, Indonesia, Iraq, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria and Uganda. 

JISRA partners use a community dialogue approach that encourages people from different faiths to have honest conversations, identify common problems and find common solutions. As a result, the participants develop closer relationships with each other, as well as gaining the skills they need to help address tensions in their communities.

Yordanos Asnake, a Christian in Ethiopia, says, ‘The workshops changed my understanding of the Islamic religion, and dramatically improved my relationships with Muslims. I now understand more about the contribution of all faith actors to peaceful coexistence in our community.’

Engaging young people

Young people can be easily overlooked in peacebuilding processes, but they have a vital role to play. JISRA activities to increase the involvement of young people include sporting events and camps where youth from different faiths can make friends, discuss their beliefs, share their challenges and identify ways to live peacefully together. 

Meseret Tadesse used to be involved in violent youth protests in Ethiopia, but now she sees things differently. She says, ‘In our culture, ethnic and religious conflicts often become violent. Thanks to JISRA training, many young people like me are realising that non-violent communication is the best way to develop a culture of peaceful coexistence.

‘In my school, two religious groups got into a conflict, and I was able to help. First, I talked to those from the Muslim side, and even though I am a Christian they accepted my logic of reconciliation. I then talked to the Christian group. Finally, I brought them together and helped them to forgive each other and discuss their issues openly.’ 

‘Long-lasting peace cannot be achieved without women.’

Gender equality

Long-lasting peace cannot be achieved without women. But gender inequality in families and communities often makes it difficult for women to become fully involved in peacebuilding activities. JISRA partners are working to change this through training events and conferences involving both men and women. 

Haleemah Ahmed is a gender and peacebuilding advisor with the Development Initiative of West Africa. She says, ‘We have seen the notable role that women can play in peacebuilding processes around the world. It is important that they are at the forefront of activities and that their voices are heard.’

After attending a JISRA workshop on gender equality, Mr Modibo, a Muslim leader in Mali, now agrees with Ms Ahmed. He says, ‘Honestly, the workshop touched me and opened my mind. As the head of the family, with all my authority, I had no great regard for my wife. Now I am more respectful towards her and, remarkably, she respects me. There is such a harmony in my family that did not exist before. I cannot believe it.’

Faith leaders

Interfaith dialogue between influential faith leaders is helping to build trust and enhance religious tolerance and understanding. 

Ali Thiam, a member of the High Islamic Council of Ségou in Mali, says, ‘All my life, I never imagined that there could be any collaboration between Christians and Muslims in this country. With all these activities, we have great hope that peace can and will reign in our country.’ 

Mr Modibo adds, ‘I dared not have too close relations with Christians. For me, a good Muslim should not build relationships with people of a different faith. But now I have so much respect for other people, including non-Muslims. From now on, even our grown children will be at peace with other religions.’

The JISRA project is funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and coordinated by four international peacebuilding organisations: Mensen met een Missie; Tearfund UK and Tearfund Netherlands; Faith to Action Network; and Search for Common Ground, with support from technical partner Network for Traditional and Religious Peacemakers

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