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A Leeds Member of Parliament from one of the most religiously diverse constituencies in Britain, two Nigerian ex-militiamen who used to lead rival gangs and now campaign for peace, a Lebanese civil rights lawyer from Beirut, and an Australian peace campaigner were keynote speakers at a weekend conference on trust-building, organised by Initiatives of Change, 14-15 June. Douglas O’Kane has sent this report.
It took place at Cliff College in Calver, in the Derbyshire Peak District, and the multicultural audience included participants from Australia, Eritrea, Romania, Russia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sri Lanka and the USA.
The ‘Conversations on trust-building’ conference focussed particularly on breaking down barriers between people of different ethnicities and faiths. Participants heard several incredible stories of how people have learnt to trust each in the most difficult of circumstances with effective results. Opening the conference, the Rt Hon John Battle, MP for Leeds West, who was Tony Blair’s ambassador to the faith communities in Britain, talked about his work with young prisoners and the difficulties of representing one of the UK’s most diverse constituencies. ‘There are 28 different languages spoken within a mile of my home,’ he said. ‘All the conflicts and the fights which are going on across the world are present on a smaller scale in that area. The local is global and the global is local. What we do in our local communities is as relevant as what goes on at the UN.’
Two of the best places in his constituency, he said, are a Cistercian Abbey dating back to 1152, where monks lived in silent reflection, and a category A prison for 1260 young offenders, 80 per cent of whom suffer from mental distress due to drugs, alcohol and illiteracy. He contrasted the hyperactivity of modern life with the silent contemplation of the monastery. Psalm 146, he said, urged us to ‘look after the orphans and widows and release the prisoners’. Battle told how he had got the agreement of the prison governor to hold weight-lifting training for a Downs Syndrome Club in the prison gym. On a visit to the prison months later, Battle had found the young prisoners mixing with the Downs Syndrome sufferers. This had alarmed him at first, but one prisoner told him that he liked hanging out with a Downs Syndrome person ‘because he is the first person who has listened to me’. ‘Who is liberating who?’ commented Battle. This had taught him the benefit of mixing people together whom society normally wants to contain. There was a need to help people to fulfil their lives ‘in trust and love’, he said, at a time when trust in society was being undermined by a ‘contract culture’ - even in nuptial agreements. The Nigerian speakers, Imam Muhammed Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye, told how during the early Nineties they were leaders of armed groups which fought in Muslim-Christian clashes in Northern Nigeria, but have since reconciled. They now campaign for peace and dialogue between the faiths. Their story is told in the independent documentary film The Imam and the Pastor narrated by former BBC correspondent Rageh Omaar. Despite each losing loved ones in the fighting, and Pastor James having his hand cut off, the two men are keen to encourage forgiveness and not let the errors of the past effect the future. ‘When you bring the mistakes of the past into the present that is when the bitterness begins,’ Imam Ashafa said. ‘Trust is the ability to re-humanise the other, to love without expecting anything in return. It is honesty of purpose put into action.’ Pastor James told the conference how it is possible to put aside historical differences. ‘We are programmed by history and what our parents teach us. But we can be de-programmed and re-programmed by spirituality. Trust is a lubricant of co-existence and relationships.’ At their centre for dialogue and reconciliation in Kaduna, they had identified 25 points of difference that individuals can hold, and were working on 16 models for trust-building.
Jean Brown from Australia, who is a leader of a women’s Creators of Peace initiative, spoke on the importance of trust in every aspect of life. ‘We can do anything on the bedrock of trust,’ she said. ‘The real weapons of mass destruction are a lack of trust, the unresolved injustices, the unhealed hurts, the un-faced prejudices hidden under the surface of every community on earth.’ See also 'Trust building conversations' address given by Jean Brown
Lebanese lawyer Ramez Salamé, from Beirut, told the conference about what he learnt from experiences trying to spread trust between Christians and Muslims during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990, and since then. Salamé said: ‘I learnt that by being totally honest with those I had previously thought of as my enemies I could begin to build up trust with them and begin to bring us closer together. Trust always involves some form of surrender... where there is trust, there is an absence of fear.’ The guest speakers held workshops to further discuss with the participants the issues of trust and dialogue between people of different faiths and religions. Event host David Curtis, from Initiatives of Change in Sheffield, described IofC’s work in the local area: ‘We campaign on a variety of issues such as women’s rights, helping people with addiction to alcohol and particularly we try to create interfaith dialogues. In Sheffield we work very closely with the Islamic societies to promote co-operation and understanding between the faiths.’ Abdool Kadir Gooljar from Sheffield, who is president of the Muslim Society of Britain, said: ‘I strongly believe that our work with Initiatives of Change is building a strong platform to bring love and peace between different faiths and build a better world for the children of tomorrow.’ Douglas O’Kane
Who we are: Initiatives of Change (IofC) is a world-wide movement of people of diverse cultures and backgrounds, who are committed to the transformation of society through changes in human motives and behaviour, starting with their own.
Purpose: We work to inspire, equip and connect people to address world needs, starting with themselves, in the areas of trustbuilding, ethical leadership and sustainable living.