Coventry-led research brings faith groups together on conflict prevention

6 November 2014

Stories of war and violent conflict are never far from our minds, or from the media. Whether it is civil war in South Sudan or turmoil in the Middle East, the results can be devastating.  

From 5-7th November 2014 Revd Andy Bowerman, Co-Executive Director at the Anglican Alliance, Laura Payne from Coventry University, Professor Alp Özerdem and Professor Alan Hunter of the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, are presenting findings from a research project looking at the role of faith groups and faith-based organisations in conflict prevention and early warning.

The project is being led by Coventry University and is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). It brings together an influential network of the Anglican Alliance, Coventry Cathedral, the Office of the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace, and academics from Coventry University’s Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations.

The aim of the project is to investigate the role of churches and other faith groups in helping to spot early signs of tension and violence and stop it from happening. It looks to see what scope there is for improving the work that churches and faith groups do to help prevent violence and how this can be supported.

Observations are being presented in Coventry and at Lambeth Palace in London to an international consultation of church leaders from Africa, Asia and the Pacific in order to collaboratively generate the project’s research findings.

Andy said: “Representatives from churches in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan, Kenya, Solomon Islands and Nigeria are all attending. We’re bringing them together to answer some of the pressing questions the research visits have raised, and we’re also inviting a wider group of senior leaders from government, international organisations, charities, the media and faith groups to join us at Lambeth Palace on the final afternoon, to present what we have found and hear their views about what they think could work and how they could get involved in supporting local faith groups on the front line of preventing violence.”

One and half billion people live in countries affected by conflict, and they are three times more likely to be undernourished. The World Bank believes the cost of the average civil war to be more than 30 years’ worth of GDP (a measure of national economic output). Conflict is more than costly. It is development in reverse.

Churches, mosques and other local faith groups are often the first responders during times of conflict and crisis. They provide emergency relief and shelter to the displaced. They provide safe space to share and listen, to seek understanding, healing and reconciliation. And they continue to provide schools, hospitals and other essential services to local people, maintaining a sense of normalcy as much as possible. Often their leaders can become trusted peacemakers.

Faith groups normally have deep roots in their communities and wide support networks that stretch around the world. They have an open-ended commitment to local people and provide a local response to local problems. And they know the culture and customs of their community.

And if faith groups can respond to conflict then perhaps they can also help to prevent it. That is the concept being investigated in the research project, which investigates the role of churches and other faith groups in helping to spot early signs of tension and violence and stop it from happening. It looks to see what scope there is for improving the work that churches and faith groups do to help prevent violence and how this can be supported.

As part of the research, Andy, Laura Payne & Professor Alp Özerdem travelled to Nigeria and Solomon Islands with the partners from the Anglican network of churches. 

Laura said, “We chose Nigeria and Solomon Islands as the case study locations because they are so different. Nigeria is a huge country, with quite an even split of Christians and Muslims. The Solomon Islands is a collection of islands which has a population that is recorded as being around 97% Christian. During our visits to these countries we wanted to find out what the church has been able to do when violent conflict breaks out and where opportunities were taken and missed.”

Conflict in Solomon Islands broke out in 1998 over access to land, employment and other opportunities in the capital of Honiara, on the island of Guadalcanal. This was partly driven by growing migration from the neighbouring island of Malaita. The church played a big role in the resolution of this conflict with the Melanesian Brothers, or monks, at the heart of the resolution.

Laura said, “The Brothers were vital in providing much-needed humanitarian support. They provided security at ports and airports so that vital supplies could be imported. They provided safe transport for evacuees and collected weapons to help restore peace, disposing of them at sea. They camped on the front line between the militants for months, refusing to give up on the young men so much like themselves. Seven of the brothers were killed by one of the militia leaders, accused of being spies when they went to talk about possibilities for peace.”

In Nigeria the research focused on the middle belt of the country which comprises a mix of religions. It’s a volatile area, with many intersecting conflicts and sporadic fighting and rioting that has taken on a religious tone over time. Churches and mosques have been destroyed, blown up or burnt down.  Here the researchers worked with local organisations including the Justice, Development and Peace Commission/Caritas. Established by the Catholic Church, it was set-up to address justice, peace, development and human rights challenges. The organisation has organised peace committees in many local areas, usually comprised of 15 local people from a range of backgrounds who could be the eyes and ears of the community, monitoring interactions and raising the alarm in times of growing tension.

Laura said, “In Nigeria we saw these local committees in action. The peace teams worked well. They had clearly built up trust and understanding over time.”

Andy’s hopes for the research and the aims of the consultation in November are to share this learning on conflict prevention and bring together the best research strengths and the Church’s experience – and extensive network of over 85 million Anglicans – to progress peacebuilding in every region.

Andy said, “We expect that this research will contribute towards building the body of knowledge and tools which will help address conflict situations before they become violent. Where successful conflict prevention and early response mechanisms can deescalate conflict and serious social harms can be avoided. Damage to economies, infrastructure and social relations can be prevented. However, we will always need more long term solutions too. Often the only real way to prevent violence permanently is to build the levels of trust and fairness in societies and to address people’s grievances. When we can do this, our resources can be used for provided public services and improving quality of life. We can prosper in peace.”

In the picture: Coventry Cathedral’s ministry of reconciliation established the Cross of Nails Community, which today is an international network of over 170 CCN Partners in 35 countries committed to a shared ministry of reconciliation.