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Faith's unbreakable force

As Sierra Leone takes courageous steps in peacemaking.....

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 23, 1999


As Sierra Leone takes courageous steps in peacemaking after almost a decade of civil war, the country's religious leaders have united to help end the conflict and lay a foundation for national reconstruction.

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West Africa, some outsiders have asserted, is a region collapsing in chaos and thuggery. Indeed, two nations - Sierra Leone and Liberia - have endured years of the "most brutal warfare in the modern world," in the words of Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, Sierra Leone's democratically elected president. Atrocities by bands of rebels have left thousands killed, maimed, and homeless. Hundreds of children have been kidnapped and turned into soldiers or sex slaves.

But like the diamonds gleaming out of the dark precincts of that country's mines, faith has shown itself to be an unbreakable force. "Sierra Leone has survived as a nation through faith - faith in God and in the principle of democracy," President Kabbah says, although "that faith has been aggressively challenged."

That faith took concrete form when Christian and Muslim leaders joined together in the Interreligious Council (IRC) of Sierra Leone, not only to console their flocks and help those who had been harmed, but to take courageous steps in peacemaking. Their example illustrates the impact religious leaders can have by voicing shared moral concerns and acting on their values in times of crisis. It's a story being played out, too, by the Interfaith Task Force in Liberia, and in other African countries.

Kabbah and IRC members shared their experience in shaping a fragile peace in their war-scarred country at last month's assembly of the World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP) held in Amman, Jordan. The IRC is a "national chapter" of WCRP, a global organization that promotes collaboration across faith traditions to solve common problems. WCRP is actively engaged in conflict resolution and peacebuilding in the Balkans and Indonesia as well as in Africa.

"We have been able to do what we have done because of religious tolerance," says the Rev. Alimamy Koroma, co-secretary of Sierra Leone's IRC.

"Tolerance is part of our culture down to the village level," says Roman Catholic Archbishop Joseph Ganda. "Extended families include members of different faiths." Kabbah himself, for example, is Muslim and his wife Catholic. "We have gold and diamonds, but we are proud we have this other national resource, religious tolerance," Kabbah says.

The IRC was created in April 1997 to strengthen citizenship in the brand new democracy, under threat from rebels in the countryside. But one month later, a military coup overthrew the year-old Kabbah government and the junta joined forces with the rebels.

"We informed the coup leadership that the IRC called for the government to be restored," says Haja Mahdi, leader of the Council of Muslim Women. "The military leaders tried to coerce us to conduct a religious service with them," Mrs. Mahdi adds. "We declined." It was a bold step at a time that hostilities were causing a mass exodus of people to neighboring countries.

Despite threats, 'we chose to stay'

"There was good reason for us to leave the country because of threats and harassment," says Mr. Koroma. "But we chose to stay and to try to inspire hope among our people."

"We learned that being willing to take risks is very important," Mahdi says. Since then, IRC members have taken risks under highly volatile circumstances. Archbishop Ganda was taken hostage at one point, but managed to escape.

Armed forces marshalled by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) restored the Kabbah government, but rebel troops continued to terrorize the countryside. And in January 1999, the rebels invaded Freetown, carrying out a savage reign of terror in the capital. In addition to ministering to a traumatized populace and providing aid to the injured and those displaced from their homes, the IRC sought to open lines of communication with all parties.

"They did an outstanding job," Kabbah says. "They went into the bush and sat on the ground with rebel forces."

Women members went too, hoping to win the freedom of child soldiers. "I talked to the rebels as a mother," says Mrs. Saimihafu Kassim, IRC treasurer. Some of the rebels, she adds, asked her to pray for them. In a goodwill gesture in response to IRC efforts, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) released 53 children.

RUF leader Foday Sankoh urged the IRC to take the process further, to facilitate discussions between rebel factions in the bush as well as with the United Nations.

Meanwhile, the international community was urging Kabbah to take the "extraordinarily painful" step of negotiating with the rebels. "The Sierra Leone society was divided on the need for a cease-fire," says Francis Okelo, the UN secretary-general's special representative. Some wanted ECOMOG (ECOWAS forces) to keep fighting the RUF until a victory, he says, "but we felt a military victory was not possible."