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How faith can help — and hinder

13 June 2014


Spotlight:  Reverend Nicolas Guerokoyame-Gbangou, Archbishop Dr Onesphore Rwaje, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, Rt Hon Nicky Morgan MP, Shulamit Ambalu, Shahin Ashraf, Hon Julia Duncan-Cassell

Spotlight:  Reverend Nicolas Guerokoyame-Gbangou, Archbishop Dr Onesphore Rwaje, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, Rt Hon Nicky Morgan MP, ...

THE part played by faith leaders came under the spotlight at a session organised by We Will Speak Out, a campaigning coalition of churches and faith-based charities (Feature, 11 April).

The discussion was chaired by Nicky Morgan, Minister for Women. One of the members of the panel, Shanin Ashraf, the Muslim chaplain to Birmingham University, said that clerics and religious leaders had to use their moral influence to uphold the rights of women and girls.

"Faith leaders should also engage men and boys on gender equality and gender-based violence. All religious leaders need to be trained up as ambassadors against sexual violence in conflict," she said.

The Revd Nicolas Guerekoyame-Gbangou, president of the Evangelical Alliance in the Central African Republic, told the audience how two years of war in his nation meant that faith leaders, Christian, and Muslim, were the only line of defence left.

"The state has disappeared, the army has disappeared; only those who remain on the ground are faith leaders," he said. "These religious leaders are protecting the general population, particularly women and young girls, because most men have fled the country."

Another contributor, Rabbi Shulamit Ambalu, a congregational Rabbi in London, said that faith groups needed to confront the "unspeakable" truth that sometimes religious teaching was at the root of the shame that surrounds rape.

She said: "We teach that women's bodies are the guardians of family purity [so] when she loses that through rape she is shamed and blames herself." Religious institutions had at times "heaped humiliations and helplessness" on victims.

"We have to take that language of shame and change the discourse by teaching our children that we are made in the image of God, that our physical and emotional integrity is one. To say to people: 'You are loved. We will not cast you out of our community. The shame does not belong to you.'"

Ms Ashraf said that it was important for faith leaders to acknowledge that religious texts and teachings can be a roadblock as well an aid to healing for survivors.

Religious leaders needed also to stop hiding behind culture and tradition and properly condemn sexual violence, said Julia Duncan-Cassell, the Liberian Minister for Gender Development.

"Culture and tradition is good, but it can be modified when it comes to protecting the rights of women and children," she said.

Another key part that churches could play was to build pressure on governments to uphold their anti-sexual violence commitments.

Ms Duncan-Cassell told the hall that, if the international conventions on war-zone rape were taught in every church, synagogue, and mosque, believers could "hold the government's feet to the fire" on their obligations.

This was endorsed by the Archbishop of Rwanda, the Most Revd Onesphore Rwaje. Besides dealing with the practical side of the problem and treating the symptoms, the Church must also confront the root causes of sexual violence, he said.

"We have to prevent by playing our prophetic role. To speak with those who are causing the problems and also to predict if we don't stop this, what will be the consequences of dehumanising a human being. The Church is a sleeping giant. Let us get up and speak out."

On Wednesday, Mr Hague and Ms Jolie launched a new international standard on investigating and documenting war-zone rape, in an effort to end the perceived impunity.



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