By Douglas M. Johnston
From Jan. 27-30, 2002, a reconciliation training seminar for 30 Christian and Muslim leaders was conducted under the sponsorship of the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy (ICRD), the Sudan Council of Churches (SCC), and the International People’s Friendship Council (IPFC). The Rev. Enock Tombe, General Secretary of the SCC; Dr. Abdul-Rahim Ali, representing the IPFC; and I co-chaired the seminar; and the Rev. Brian Cox, ICRD Vice President for Dispute Resolution Training, led the training.
About 18 Christian leaders and 13 Muslim leaders participated at the outset. Over the three days of the seminar, the ranks of the Muslims tapered off at times to about half that number, while the Christian participants generally held steady. Although the reduced number of Muslims was a disappointment, those who persevered were prominent in stature, including such figures as the head of the governing body of the ruling party, the Imam of the Ansar Mosque (the institutional locus of the largest and most powerful religious group in the country), the Director of Political Affairs in the office of the President, a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and a former Governor of the Northern Territories. In short, they were prominent personalities who wield considerable influence in the Islamic community. Also included among the participants were several women and next-generation leaders. A list of the participants from both communities is attached.
The seminar was a landmark effort for the ICRD in that it was the first such seminar in which both sets of adversaries have been present. Heretofore, these seminars have included either one side or the other (in any given conflict situation), but not both. Despite the fall-off in the number of Muslims, the experience was well-received all around and clearly contributed to establishing an atmosphere of reconciliation.
Among the lessons learned are the following:
- The event was postponed several times, which attests to the difficulty of finding a time and context that works well for both sides.
- It is more difficult to sustain the interest and continued participation of the side that holds the stronger hand in the conflict than it is for the side that doesn’t (i.e. the incentives for participating aren’t as great).
- Although the Muslim participation faded over time, they were more actively involved in the initial planning of the event (probably a reflection of the lingering skepticism among Christians that an effort of this kind can bear meaningful fruit).
- As the training progressed, there was a marked change of attitude among the Christians. They clearly valued the opportunity to interact with their Muslim counterparts on a heart-to-heart basis.
- The Muslim planners insisted on including a Sudanese response (both Christian and Muslim) to some of the ICRD presentations, a requirement that actually proved quite helpful in bringing the principles to life in a Sudanese context.
- The small group exercises elicited an enthusiastic response on all fronts. The final exercise, which involved wrestling with a hypothetical conflict situation (not dissimilar to that which exists in the Sudan), required joint problem solving on the parts of both communities. Their willingness to work together and the enthusiasm with which they did so provided a brief glimpse of the potential that exists for future cooperation.
- The strong commitment of both faith communities to submitting oneself to God provides significant common ground for faith-based reconciliation.
- The fall-off in Muslim attendees was less a matter of losing interest than it was of needing to attend to other business. For future efforts, this suggests a need to consider even more carefully the tradeoffs between:
- seeking influential participants and the fact that they are the most likely to be burdened with competing demands
- selecting a convenient location where interruptions are more likely vs. one that is remote and that will produce a captive audience. In this case, financial constraints precluded the remote option. We also knew that a remote site would make it more difficult to attract influential Muslims.
In addition to providing an enriching experience for those who participated, the seminar laid the groundwork for implementation of the 16 other recommendations that emerged from the November 2000 meeting of religious leaders and scholars (i.e. the Khartoum International Forum for Inter-religious Cooperation and Peace). Indeed, the spirit of the seminar carried over the following day in a stimulating meeting with Sudan’s Vice President, Moses Machar, in which the results of the training were reviewed and future steps were discussed.
ICRD Memorandum for the Record