Friday, 07 January 2022 15:37

Learning From the Past and Preparing for the Future

Four orientation meetings were held for the Local Inter Religious Committee (LIRC) members in Beruwala, Negombo, Akurana and Weligama under NPC’s project Action for Religious Coexistence (ARC).

The project seeks to create and strengthen sub-national platforms in targeted areas and state structures that contribute to pluralism based coexistence. Through the capacitation of religious leaders, community leaders, state administration and community police units, there would be motivation to counter challenges and advocate for pluralism, equity and justice as the foundation for coexistence.

The project is expanding the engagement and the contribution of the Collective Engagement for Religious Freedom (CERF) project that has running since 2017 and targets the engagement of multiple sectors including religious leaders, state officials, community policing units and youth to sustain the space for religious freedom within the framework of pluralism and rule of law.

The orientation meetings enabled LIRC members to reflect on the results of the CERF project while planning the future initiatives of the ARC intervention. The reflection tree was created by LIRC members to review the progress of the CERF project and discuss ways to expand the role of LIRCs.

LIRC members pointed out that the commitment and support of NPC and partner organizations contributed to achieving results. They listed the support of the Divisional Secretariat, donor agency, religious institutions, police stations, government officers, resource persons, religious leaders and journalists in carrying out different activities.

It was revealed that religious extremism, violence and misunderstanding among ethnic and religious communities, hate speech, the Easter attacks and the influence of the media and politicians weakened the religious coexistence. Participants identified how they addressed community level disputes through mediation and influence.

Participants discussed how they found solutions to address identified issues while working with the different communities. In terms of mediating, LIRC members said that capacity building training and awareness programmes had enhanced their mediation skills and skills on empathy and how to eradicate mistrust, hate speech and misconceptions among religious communities. Some said the Covid-19 relief assistance had supported people and strengthened LIRC relations with grassroot communities.

Negombo LIRC identified the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of the project. Maulavi M. Iqbal from Beruwala explained the importance of inclusion in establishing religious freedom and how LIRC initiatives have ensured inclusivity in his area. “There is a significant change in our area because of this intervention. Religious freedom is better and as a minority community we feel that we are included in the process. The inclusivity factor has improved,” he said. Addition to that B.A. Salman Maulavi from Negombo said, “We have built own identity as Negombo LIRC. Through this activity, we were able to reflect on the journey we have come on.”

In the reflection sharing session, each participant was asked to present three things that they learnt by being a member of the LIRC and one unforgettable memory of the past four years. “The LIRC has brought together active people for a sustainable engagement to ensure peace in our area. We have become a powerful group with trust and understanding that we have built among ourselves and in our communities,” Wepathira Indarisri Thero, Secretary of the Buddhist Monks Association in Weligama, said.

“It was only after being a member of the LIRC that I made Sinhalese friends; until then they were strangers to me. Although we worked in the same office, we never spoke but now because of the LIRC I have friends from other religions. I learnt how diverse we are and how to respect diversity. It was only after joining the LIRC that I understood the rituals of different religions. I am ready to take the message to my community,” M.M.F. Mueeza, a Muslim Affairs Officer at the Divisional Secretariat in Weligama, said.

Sepalika Dharmadhasa, a Grama Niladhari Officer from Weligama, revealed an instance where the Muslim community had organized a dansala to celebrate Vesak, adding that it was the first time the Muslim community in Weligama had carried out such an initiative, which was an achievement of LIRC engagement in her area.

M. Ramzy Mohomed, a Muslim community leader from Weligama, appreciated the fact that the ARC project had given priority to youth. He thought that youth engagement was necessary for creating a pluralistic society. “It is good to know that the project works with youth. Cultural and entertainment aspects should be considered when planning interventions with youth,” he said.

Sunil Basnayaka, a Community Coordinating Officer at the Weligama Police Station, emphasised the importance of engaging the state sector in working on strengthening religious freedom. He anticipated that the project would make a change at national level through the links with state institutions.

Under the CERF project, NPC carried out a partner review meeting where the project team reviewed the progress of the project with the coordinators from district partner organizations through several activities.

Participants discussed the results that were achieved through the initiatives that taken so far. Several local and government authorities had been supportive in creating the LIRC platforms including Divisional and District Secretariats, the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms, Ministry of National Integration and Office for National Unity and Reconciliation as well as Community Policing Units.

NPC’s Covid-19 relief work had resulted in connections with government institutions and created a strong network with central and local government authorities. Support was also received from religious leaders, the media, resource persons and donors.

Participants were satisfied with the results of the project, which had taken action to ease tensions after the Easter Sunday attacks. They praised the close relations that LIRCs had developed with communities with their contribution and mediation to solve community religious disputes.

“We have made a great contribution and in the future we are ready to give our fullest support to the project. I am happy and satisfied with what we have done so far; let’s do our best to strengthen religious coexistence in the country,” said Fathima Josinka, Negombo District Coordinator.