Executive Report of the UPF Geneva Track 2 Consultation on the theme:
Toward Peace and Reconciliation in Syria: The Significance of Religion, Faith-Based Organizations and Civil Society
Geneva, Switzerland
January 23-24, 2014

The humanitarian disaster which is Syria’s civil war continues. As the United Nations and world powers struggled to bring the two sides to dialogue first in Montreux, then in Geneva, the Universal Peace Federation convened a parallel “Track 2” conference of civil society and faith-based organizations. This was an explicitly “soft power” approach, designed to complement and indeed support the vital “hard power” efforts on the other side of Lake Geneva. It was also a multi-faceted approach, including the voices of women, young people, faith leaders, NGO representatives, and civil society at large. They told us of ending the violence in Northern Ireland, of women’s organizations teaching non-violence in and around Syria and of UNICEF’s efforts for child protection. We saw differing perspectives on the conflict, and we saw Sunni and Shia breaking the mould to jointly oppose violence.

Held at the United Nations on Jan. 23 and at the Geneva International Conference Centre the next day, the conference was able to draw on a wide range of speakers thanks to the active involvement of the conference co-sponsors: the Fribourg Peace Forum, the Inter-knowing Foundation, the Geneva Interfaith and Cultural Alliance and the Women’s Federation for World Peace.

This conference built on previous work with a view to more closely engaging the primary players in the peace process. UPF’s recent conferences in Amman and Jerusalem called on UPF specifically to convene a Track 2 conference in Geneva at the time of Geneva II. Channels were set up to ensure some two-way communication between the two events. These included a direct report from a participant in Montreux, a message of support from the secretary general of the Arab League, and both calls to and side meetings with the key UN negotiators.

Interfaith and intrafaith

As he introduced the first session, UPF’s president, Dr. Thomas Walsh, referred to the Federation’s long record of interreligious dialogue in the interests of mutual respect and cooperation. “We have strongly advocated a rapprochement between the three Abrahamic faiths, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, who share a common meta-narrative that draws upon deep spiritual resources that are shared. Building better bonds of appreciation and cooperation can go a long way towards promoting peace. We have also worked on intra-religious dialogue, tackling the very real divisions within each of these traditions.” Rev. William McComish, president of the Geneva Spiritual Appeal and dean emeritus of the Cathedral of St. Pierre, welcomed everyone to Geneva. Admitting that he was horrified by the complexity of the Syrian situation, he reminded us that civil wars do end. “To end the suffering, I believe we must try, no matter how much it costs us.” The solution must be not only political but also spiritual. He read to us the text of the Geneva Spiritual Appeal, invited us to an interfaith prayer service at the cathedral the following evening, and ended with these words: “For those who are troubled by this appalling war, taking our anguish to God in prayer is not the only thing, but by far the best thing that we can do… Let us dare to hope.”

Another voice of hope came from Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations. “Yesterday we spent a day in Montreux to give a signal to the world that at least 40 governments want to be of support to Syria in trying to find a solution to the current conflict.” He stressed the value of even beginning to talk and the need to find areas of common interest. After listing key priorities such as the need for a ceasefire and immediate humanitarian assistance, he added: “There is also a need for the heart to be open so that they will listen to each other, which is where prayer is an important component; and listening, valuing the dignity of the other person.” The archbishop spoke of a consensus among religious leaders that there is no military solution, referring to recent dialogue meetings, one in Rome, attended by UPF’s president, the other at the World Council of Churches in Geneva, with participants from Syria. “I came away last night with a little hope: despite the great differences, people do want to meet.”

Professor Adrian Holderegger, professor of moral theology and ethics at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, asked how religions can coexist peacefully in a situation of conflict. He stressed the importance of finding a common base and sees that as present in key aspects of the Abrahamic faiths, in particular the respect for the dignity of the human being and the element of reconciliation. “The human values expressed in human rights have strong roots in religion and can achieve a wide consensus among people of different convictions.” Shadi Ammane, a Syrian from Collectif Jasmin in Geneva, repeated the words of a four-year-old Syrian boy dying from a bombing: “I will report all this to God.” Shadi heard in those words a broken faith in humanity but a trust in God, the only guarantor of peace. “We have to act to save a generation... Religion serves to raise people not to look at God but to see God in all things.” The Rt. Rev. Riah Abo El-Assal, former Anglican bishop of Jerusalem, spoke of his proposal for a dialogue in music between Palestinians and Israelis. As for bringing peace in Syria, “Don’t leave it to the politicians,” he told us, adding: “Even here, we’ve been too judgmental. To be a bridge, don’t take sides, but don’t close your eyes to injustice done. We cannot view the other as an enemy. Our task is to kill the enmity while recognizing the other as different.̏”

Sunni and Shia

Two Islamic leaders, a Sunni from Syria and a Shia from Lebanon, challenged the common perception that this is essentially a religious war, while also warning that extremists on both sides are working to polarize the situation. Dr. Mohamad Al Habash, former president of the Foundation of Imams and Khatibs in Damascus and former member of the Syrian parliament, now associate professor at Abu Dhabi University, denounced the (Sunni) extremists in Syria. “They represent no one but they have power and weapons,” he said. “What’s happening in Syria is not a move from a secular to an Islamic state. The last regime was good for Muslims. The problem was dictatorship, not distance from Islam. When Syrians unite, they will do away with these radicals.”

Sheikh Mohamad Ali al-Hajj has seen Syria’s troubles result in bombings and chaos in his country, Lebanon. What could have been a positive reformation of Syrian politics has now been hijacked by extremists. These extremists have benefitted Assad, making him look like a better option. Those same extremists, such as the Al Nusra front, have provided justification for Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria. Most Shia in Lebanon do not side with Assad. Yet, faced with the actions of Sunni extremists they find themselves choosing the lesser of two evils. Indeed, 90 percent of the Shia leaders in Lebanon are against Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria. What is more, the Shia leaders in Iraq are against Shiites allying with the regime in Syria. The real world center for the Shia is Najaf in Iraq. Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria may benefit Iran, but it is not the wish of the majority of Shia.

Dr. Habash supported the sheikh’s view. He said that Shia make up 50 percent of the Muslims in the region: this is not a small group. No wise person would welcome a Shia-Sunni conflict. To prevent the expansion of hatred, he said, we have to let people hear the moderate voice of the Shia.

The two leaders were also close in their analysis of the beginnings of the Syrian crisis. Sheikh al-Hajj described the “sickness” of the Arab world as three problems: dictatorial regimes, the chaos which replaced the Arab spring and the tendency of religion, especially Islam, to meddle in politics. Religion should be pure, safeguard human values and stay away from political interests. Dr. Habash said: “Who decided to launch this revolution? It has no leader. No people in office started it. People found themselves without freedom and decided to say no. It was not Islamic, not ideological. I stayed for a year. Every month the president told me it would be over in a month. I didn’t join the opposition. I tried to call for a third way. In the end I had to leave after an assassination attempt.”

Geopolitical perspectives

Our sessions gathered widely differing views both on the reality of the crisis and on potential solutions. Ambassador Sam Zakhem, former US ambassador to Bahrain, warned that arbitrarily replacing Assad would probably mean supporting Al Qaida affiliates and result in the mess we see now in Iraq. Ms. Patricia Lalonde from France, General Secretary of MEWA (Mobilization for Elected Women in Afghanistan), stated simply, “Assad will not give up.” Mr. Joseph Daher, introducing himself as a member of the Syrian political left, was quite pessimistic about people’s understanding of peace, but said, “If it’s not the end of the Bashar regime, it’s not peace.“ “With dictatorships,” he added, “there are no rights, despite the nice words in the constitutions.... The Syrian regime released the jihadists from prison and imprisoned the democrats.” Mr. Daher believes that the peace process will not work because all those involved are concerned for their own security, not with real peace for Syrians. An Irish peace activist who recently visited Syria urged us to respect the elected president, while a Syrian woman spoke of shelling, bombs and rape targeting primarily the Sunni community, with government militias deliberately promoting sectarianism as they attacked, shouting, “The Alawites are coming to kill you.”

There was strong agreement about the need to end the international interference. Rev. McComish described it as a surrogate conflict, “the Vietnam of the 21st century.” He has learned from Northern Ireland and Indonesia that peace is only possible when the inhabitants begin to dialogue among themselves – in this case, without Al Qaida, Hezbollah, the USA, Russia, France, Iran or Qatar. Lalonde said, “The foreign countries must stop their game.”

There was concern and advice related to the success of the direct peace talks. Amb. Hussein Hassouna from Egypt, former ambassador of the Arab League to the UN, believes that there should have been a comprehensive ceasefire before beginning negotiations. Lalonde said that Iran should have been invited, since diplomacy means dealing with ugly realities. Hon. Anne-Marie Lizin, honorary speaker of the Belgian Senate, spoke for many when she said that that the opposition delegation was unrepresentative: it included no women and no Kurds. “Peace is easy,” she added, “when one side is clearly defeated,” but that is not the case here. For the talks to succeed, both the US and Russia need to be equally involved. Dr. Vladimir Petrovsky, a professor at the University of Moscow, said that the good news is that Geneva II has actually happened. We should avoid blaming the USA or Russia. We need both, and we also need Iran. “In our peace initiative in the South Caucasus, we asked both sides to consider their responsibility for human security and human development. We have to do the same here.”

Everybody, without exception, agreed that the first thing needed is a ceasefire. Dr. Leo Gabriel, a social anthropologist and journalist from Austria, pointed out that when Geneva I convened, there had been 15,000 deaths in Syria. “Now the figure is 120,000. Time is measured in blood.” There is no military solution.

The voice of women

Another person who noted the absence of women in Montreux was Ms. Mairead Maguire, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976 for her efforts for peace in Northern Ireland. Seeing her country on the brink of civil war, she led thousands of people, 90 percent of them women, onto the streets of Belfast calling for peace and an end to the violence. “There’s an arrogance in the attitude of killing to assert one’s viewpoint,” she said. “Today we have to ask those who refuse to sit down, ‘How many children will die in Syria today?’...In Northern Ireland we had to create a system to get women to the negotiating table. Once we were there, we stayed. When this side or that side walked out, we didn’t. We said: ‘We can’t leave because when we do people die.’ Religions have a message here: ‘Talk! Talk to your enemy! Talk to the human spirit in that person!’ These are long processes, but it is a great step that dialogue has begun.”

Dr. Wajd Zimmerman, president of the Association of Syrian Women for Democracy, is developing a network of non-violent communication and mediation on the Syrian border and inside Syria. Her work speaks for itself: a few months after conducting a seminar on non-violent communication in Turkey for 12 women, six of whom came from Syria, Dr. Zimmerman received a phone call from Leila (name changed) in Syria. Leila had been arrested for delivering toys to children and held for 11 weeks. She called Dr. Zimmerman to say: “Thank you for teaching me non-violent communication. It saved my life.” In 2012 and 2013 there has been a big increase in the level of violence in Syria. Dr. Zimmerman’s seminars develop empathic listening and teach women to express themselves without violence. She sees it as her contribution to social peace in Syria. After another seminar in Turkey, a young lady from Lattakia (Syria) told Dr. Zimmerman: “Before this course, I was still thinking of revenge. Today I feel much better knowing that we can learn how to live together in the future.” Dr. Zimmerman has received calls to conduct seminars in Aleppo and Damascus. All the participants appreciate the fact that the teacher is Syrian and shares their suffering. She added: “The approach must be Syrian, it must be bottom-up and it must start with listening. Top-down, foreign-imposed schemes are bound to fail.”

Mrs. Carolyn Handschin, international vice president of the Women’s Federation for World Peace International (WFWP), spoke of WFWP’s 17 years of women’s conferences for peace in the Middle East, of taking an international delegation of 600 women to Israel and Palestine, and of bringing a delegation of young women from Syria to meet with the president of the UN’s Human Rights Council. Several times during the conference she brought us back to our role in the process: “We (civil society) are not an afterthought!” Mrs. Handschin asked us to consider what we mean by peace: to end the fighting, or to build communities of peace? If it’s the latter, then we need representatives from the affected communities. We are concerned with people and part of our role is to create an environment of trust where people can speak openly.

Civil society

Civil society initiatives are already making a difference and have the potential to prepare for even greater changes. Dr. Gabriel asked how we can help the two sides overcome their differences and find a joint solution. He recommended that we look at the model of 59 Kurdish self-governing (but not separatist) communities. He explained his plans for a civil society conference in Vienna which will focus specifically on Syrians from both sides who are not directly involved in the leadership of either side.

Dr. Noa Zanolli of the Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy introduced the importance of mediative thinking. She stressed the importance of teaching mediation skills on a broad basis throughout civil society. Such capacity building enables people to see new possibilities and perspectives. After defining a common vision, the training emphasizes the development of autonomy, respect, creativity and cooperation and a focus on the future. It is helpful to identify a common higher interest; in the case of war this might be the happiness of the next generation. When one participant asked her if this was really applicable to Syria, suggesting that a “truth and reconciliation commission” which deals openly with the past might be necessary first, Dr. Zanolli replied that these are parallel processes: “Some groups want to look towards the future. Others need to deal with the past first. In South Africa they spent a decade preparing broadly across society. Prepare for the future so you can engage in a constructive process. Much of the project in South Africa was preventive because society was prepared to work together.”

Mr. Shadi Ammane is a cultural mediator who runs the Jasmine Collective in which 1300 young people, mostly from Arab countries, invest their energy in informing young people about the world, helping them to feel and understand other viewpoints and guiding them to act effectively. “We don’t talk about politics or religion, but about human beings and spirituality.” They have sent messages to opposition fighters, showing how to avoid the use of arms wherever possible. One message reads: “What world are we building? Do we want to walk on blood or flowers?”

Dr. Tawfiq Shamaa represents the Union of Syrian Medial Relief Organizations, which unites 17 organizations, all of which provide medical help both inside Syria and on the borders. He spoke of the violation of essential values, highlighting the horrors of the humanitarian crisis but above all making a passionate plea for the separation of humanitarian matters from political concerns and agreements. “Linking the fate of the humanitarian crisis to the political agreement is in itself a crime against humanity.” Speaking as a medical doctor, he showed how starvation is being used as a weapon of war, how doctors and hospitals are being targeted and unarmed doctors and medical workers are being detained, tortured and killed. “Women and children must not be killed to be bargaining cards.”

Ms. Sabine Rakotmala is the deputy chair of UNICEF’s Child Protection Working Group for Syria. She initially spoke briefly, focusing on the importance of engaging youth. When pressed, however, she went into more detail: 800 interviews with refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey revealed huge levels of early marriage (the parents “cope” while the child, 13 or 14 years old, ends up as a slave to an armed man), a huge number of separated children, a huge amount of psycho-social distress (98 percent of the children showed symptoms of this – we’ve never seen such high figures), many boys (some as young as 14) recruited into armed groups, and many cases of rape in detention centers, in schools and at checkpoints. There is a huge normalization of violence. It is vital to engage youth in order to disengage children from fighting, give them a chance to have good memories and direct all their youthful energy in a positive direction.

Many of these young civil society activists were assembled by Mr. Hafid Ouardiri, president of the Inter-knowing Foundation in Geneva. “Young people are the ones who are able to change because it is their own interest. We are trying to build an interfaith community with the young people who come to Geneva from all over the world. Before anything else, we are all human beings.”

Interfaith prayers for peace at St. Peter’s Cathedral

The prayer at the cathedral seemed a most fitting ending to our conference. Rev. McComish had earlier invited is to take our anguish to God in prayer. Now we heard prayers for peace, for reconciliation, for an end to the violence and an end to war; from Geneva’s people: Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christians, Muslims, Jews and Baha’i. We read the Geneva Spiritual Appeal. We heard the music of the oud. From the Middle East, we heard a message and a prayer for all the people of Syria from Bishop Al Assal, who then asked us to greet each other with the sign of peace. We heard prayers in English, in French and in Arabic. Sheikh al-Hajj prayed: “We have come to this sacred church to pray to God to have mercy on us and for peace to spread everywhere, especially to wounded Syria.” Before offering a sung recitation of a few verses of the Qur’an, Dr. Habash said: “I have the honor to stand here in the house of God. I believe this temple shows us all that we are one family under God. God is One, but His names are many; reality is one, but its ways are many; spirituality is one, but religions are many.”

As we left the cathedral, we heard the news that the two sides had agreed to sit together the next day, face to face, for the first time.

For photos and recommendations, click here.

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