The serene air of the Metta Karuna Reflection Centre in Siem Reap is being stirred up. It is buzzing with the voices of young Christian leaders from Asia who believe that by engaging in interfaith dialogue, they can help bring justice and peace to Asia, a region where religious plurality can be both a blessing and a challenge.
Their journey will not be easy.
Representing fifteen different Asian countries, these Christians are grappling with knotty questions related to interfaith encounter and dialogue. Some of these concern the use of religion for political control, abuse of power, religious violence and communal conflicts, as well as the self-understanding of faith communities vis-à-vis the “other” in Asia’s pluralistic societies.
Indeed the issues they face are manifold.
The young Asians have been brought together by the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Cambodia, from 8 to 21 June, at the Metta Karuna Reflection Centre in Siem Reap, addressing the theme “Together towards Justice and Peace: Walking the Talk in a Multi-Religious World” in a programme called Youth in Asia Training for Religious Amity (YATRA).
Among the YATRA participants, 25-year-old Simi Thambi, from the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar, India, says that living with people of different faiths comes naturally to the Asian subcontinent.
As a teenager, Thambi grappled with popular concepts, such as that heaven is only for the Christians. “This concept perturbed me,” Thambi says. “I thought if by such a standard someone like Gandhi cannot go to heaven, I surely do not deserve to go to heaven!”
In face of such questions, Thambi found her answers in a cashew nut – a crop that, like Christianity, came to her Indian state of Kerala from the West and started to grow.
While bouncing on the floor a cashew-nut she brought from home, Thambi tells her fellow YATRA participants, “Christian witness in a multi-religious world should be like this cashew-nut, strong like the shell of a cashew nut, giving life from within like a seed and as a fruit holding the promise of nourishing others.”
“With strength of our faith, we can give life to interfaith dialogue and address the issues that concern us, while promoting respect and acceptance of other faiths,” she says.
Engaging in interfaith dialogue, making a difference
Manda Andrian, a 35-year-old YATRA participant from the Javanese Christian Church (GKJ), spoke of the complex context in which inter-religious engagement becomes a challenge and an opportunity. She pointed out how easy it is to find mosques in Indonesia but not many churches. “As a Muslim majority country, our government hesitates in giving permission for building churches,” says Andrian.
Remembering the 2002 Bali bombings, Andrian warns of the threat of extremist violence even in a country like Indonesia, which has a tradition of inter-religious harmony.
Discrimination against the Ahmadiya community is also central to the struggles of religious minorities for equal rights, says Andrian.
She considers YATRA a “valuable opportunity” to share her experiences, as well as to learn how to effectively address these issues when she returns home.
A 34-year-old Sri Lankan YATRA participant, Yohan Krishnakumar from the Presbyterian Church in Kandy, says that Sri Lanka is generally perceived to be a Buddhist country only. “But if you observe the national symbols in the Sri Lankan flag, you realize that it actually promotes the spirit of embracing all religious communities,” he says.
“A certain perception of Christianity in Sri Lanka is misleading due to its association with a few churches, known for aggressively attempting to convert people. Therefore, the dialogue among churches, and with Buddhists and other religious leaders, is highly important to understand crucial issues like religious freedom, autonomy and harmony,” Krishnakumar explains.
Upon returning home, Krishnakumar hopes to use his knowledge from the YATRA training to strengthen interfaith dialogue initiatives within the National Council of Churches in Sri Lanka, as well as other church-related youth networks in Kandy.
“At YATRA I have learnt that rather than criticizing, blaming and attacking others, we must learn to understand other faiths and work together for the cause of justice and peace,” says Krishnakumar.
For Sunila Ammar of the Christian Conference of Asia and Kasta Dip of the India Peace Centre, instructors at the YATRA training, engaging younger people in interfaith dialogue is extremely important.
Dip, who conducted a session on “Interfaith Networking and Peace-Building” says that it is through mutual understanding that religious communities can come together for peace-building.
For Ammar, a significant aspect of dialogue is including perspectives based on “gender justice.” “This is important because in many religious communities women still struggle to make their voices heard and become effective agents of interfaith harmony,” she says.