Tuesday, April 26, 2016

PEACE BUILDING IN EGYPT

CAN'T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG?
credit: CRS

Michael Holmquist is a seminarian for the Diocese of Colorado Springs.  He currently studies at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. 

When he read on my blog last October that I was coming to Rome, he extended a friendly and welcoming hand. He took me for coffee, arranged for a spot on a coveted Scavi Tour, cajoled his seminarian friend Kevin from the Boston area into giving me a stupendous personalized individual tour of the sanctuary of St. Peter's (we all stood in line for a couple of hours which was no real hardship for me, but for those two, who have toured the sanctuary countless times, I'm sure it was another matter), and on one of my last days there, got me into a hidden treasure: the convent of Santa Brigida a Campo de'Fiori.

His diaconate ordination is set for this fall on Sept. 29th. Kevin will be ordained as a deacon that day, too.

Recently I received an email from Michael that read in part:

"This past Easter, I went on a Global Fellows trip with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) to Egypt to see their work with refugees and with peace building.  It was a powerful experience for me, particularly with their work for peace building between Christians and Muslims. The message of this community's desire for peace, particularly as Muslims, is something that I really want to help spread, particularly with the more recent divisive rhetoric that has spread in our culture in the US."

He also attached a piece he wrote about his experience that he hopes will run in several venues, and that he offered to share with us..

Here it is:

The week after Easter, I found myself in the choir loft of an Anglican Church in Al Odeysat, a small village in Upper Egypt, surrounded by community leaders of the village, including Christians, Muslims, men and women, clergy, and teachers.

Each year Catholic Relief Services (CRS) partners with the Pontifical North American College in Rome to take a group of seminarians to, see the work of the US Catholic Church overseas. This year’s trip was to Egypt, where CRS has been working since 1956. This day we were visiting a village where CRS had been a catalyst for peace in a place where faith-based segregation had led to distrust and division in the community.

Historically, Christians and Muslims have coexisted in Egypt for centuries, but political upheaval in 2011 led to increased distrust among communities, deteriorated relations, and even violence including the burning of homes, places of worship and even killings. Faith-based segregation has prevented peaceful coexistence, particularly in Upper Egypt.

“We always knew we had the energy to work for peace, but we didn’t know where to start,” explained Mohammed, a math teacher in a village we visited. Mohammed a Muslim, is one of over 80 community leaders from three villages who are participating in a CRS project called “Brokra,” which in Arabic, means “tomorrow.” The project teaches community and religious leaders about how to promote peace and religious tolerance locally.

Promoting religious tolerance among groups accustomed to fighting might seem like an impossible task. However leaders are encouraged to promote change through manageable local initiatives. One example of such an initiative is the creation of inter-religious soccer leagues. When a team wins, the entire village celebrates. Inter-religious outings are another example of local peace building efforts. Religious leaders from different faiths appear together in public spaces to model the changes they hope to see among the community. And mothers will visit other families to discuss promoting peace and religious tolerance in the home by using more religiously inclusive language. These initiatives empower women and youth to be leaders in the work for peace.

Mohammed told us that on the morning that I met him, two boys—one Christian and one Muslim--had gotten into a fight. Fortunately for them, Mohammed quickly defused what could have become a volatile situation. However, using what he learned through CRS, Mohammed sat down with both sets of parents and encouraged an apology. In turn, everyone reconciled and there was no further violence.

Work for peace costs, just as love costs, because it takes us to the peripheries, outside of our comfort zone; it asks us to change. During our conversation, a Muslim woman said that before this project she was scared to enter a church; a Christian man admitted that he was just as afraid to have a Muslim enter his church. But here we were, Catholics, Anglicans and Muslims, men and women sitting together in a church.

A Muslim man told us “Please go home and tell others what you have experienced. We are like you. We want what you want. We want peace; we want a better future for our kids; we want an end to religious extremism. Please, please, tell people we want peace.”

They acknowledged that there was still work to be done, but there was a palpable pride and love in what they had accomplished. Jesus told us “Blessed are the peace makers.” It was inspiring to see the profound respect CRS has in working with communities and individuals. Their work for peace is based in the dignity of every man and woman, knowing that they are made in the image of God. This work allows each person the ability to grow and flourish in a safe and health community where each person is respected.


NEW FRIENDS
credit: CRS

BLESSED ARE THE PEACE-MAKERS
credit: CRS

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