Belfast, 26th September 2006
The Conference of European Justice and Peace Commissions is
a Catholic network dedicated to the promotion of Human Rights,
Peace, Reconciliation, Integrity of Creation and Justice.
At this time the Conference is made up of twenty-nine national
commissions from all over Europe.
We are present in Belfast to learn from and
be exposed to the effects of the long lasting conflict which
has been lived in Northern Ireland. During these days we have
met victims, community and church leaders and listened to
their experiences from their different perspectives. As a
church body it is important for us also to reflect on the
particular impact of religious organisations in this conflict.
In order to give a clear sign of peace and reconciliation
we joined with the Methodist Community in Forthspring for
an ecumenical prayer service at the close of our meeting.
We also celebrated with the Catholic Community here in Belfast
by sharing in the Sunday Eucharist at St. Peter’s Cathedral.
We will link all the experiences we have had with the local
contexts in our home countries and therefore we make commitments
for on-going action which are stated below.
Our intention has been to give a concrete sign
of solidarity to all those in Northern Ireland who are committed
to a peaceful settlement of the conflict, especially to the
victims of that conflict. Our hope in organising this meeting
has also been to make a contribution to the peace-process
in Northern Ireland and to live out our identity as a learning
Our experience in Belfast in terms of the lessons
we have learnt and the challenges that we have heard:
Religion and Conflict
The conflict in Northern Ireland is about territory, social
injustice and inequality in participation in the political
process. It is a sectarian conflict. It is not about religion,
but there is a very religious dimension to the conflict. Religion
is part of the problem. Belonging to a Protestant or Catholic
group seems to be a key factor along with political aspiration
in building identity.
But religion is also part of the solution, offering
a resource from within the community of Northern Ireland on
its path to sustainable peace. There is a specific role for
religious leaders as well as community based actors. As churches
we have the possibility of exploring a ‘new body language’,
in other words, a way of relating that cannot be expressed
in words alone but emphasizes the warmth of community. This
might enable a more direct communication based on inter-personal
relationships and not on the orchestrated interaction that
too often characterises the political discourse.
Reconciliation is at the heart of Christianity.
It is a gift of God to all people because all are created
in His image and likeness without exclusion. As Christians
we too must reach out to all people. But we have also learned
that it is of tremendous importance to develop a nuanced language
of reconciliation. We are convinced that a prescribed approach
which limits the understanding of reconciliation is counter-productive
and tends to underestimate the experience of victims. There
is a need to seek a deep understanding that is not based on
a false ‘agreement’ but rather on mutual respect.
Although truth may be hard to find in conflict, it must be
acknowledged in the pain and loss of those who are victims.
In hoping for a new future we must be confident in our faith
which affirms that ‘Christ takes the inevitability out
We were impressed by the many activities in
the communities and across the communities; opportunities
for dialogue, healing and reconciliation. People want change.
There is still violence and hatred, sometimes obvious, sometimes
hidden, but it has been encouraging to meet so many people
with a passion for peace.
We have learnt that violence has been reduced in Northern
Ireland. But it may be that it has only been translated into
a political framework that does not reflect the day to day
reality of people’s lives. They therefore live segregated
lives separated by the so called “peace walls”.
Possibilities to get to know each other and to correct stereotypes
are limited in this situation. It is easier to project feelings
of frustration and anger on our neighbour when we do not have
the chance to build personal relationships. In this reality
both sides feel victimised by the other.
As part of this dynamic identity is defined
by reference to ‘conflictual otherness’. This
means that the other is viewed as an enemy and not as a neighbour.
Thus group identity is confirmed by difference – different
religion, church, symbols, traditions, songs, sports, colours,
pictures, ‘histories’ – rather than the
hope of a shared future where our symbols are signs of unity.
The first step to overcome segregation is the
willingness to take the inner journey of reconciliation, also
with the other whom we have seen as ‘enemy’. Peace
comes from the relationships we build, especially when we
look beyond our own mindset. Education for example can be
an opportunity for such broadening of perspective. There is
a high cost in maintaining the status quo of segregation;
friendship cannot be built, the values of others cannot be
appreciated, respect for diversity does not grow to enrich
our lives. Social and economic growth is also impaired in
a segregated society. Walls can bring a ceasefire, but not
peace and development. People have to overcome walls also
in their minds and hearts.
Migration in the context of sectarianism
Many of those to whom we listened highlighted both the dangers
and opportunities presented by the new diversity resulting
from migration into Northern Ireland.
There is a danger that sectarianism can turn
into an ‘ugly racism’ as those who are accustomed
to separating from the ‘other’ turn their frustration
on the new communities who are often the most vulnerable in
We believe on the other hand that migration
can offer an opportunity to broaden our view and free us from
the narrow vision of sectarianism that divides and excludes.
Recognising the human face of the ‘stranger’ is
essential to the Christian call of hospitality.
The commitments we are compelled to make in
solidarity with those with whom we have met in Belfast:
· We will work for honest and real dialogue
between communities, from a faith perspective that is unafraid
of acknowledging the unhelpful role that we may have played
at times in the past.
· We will call for continued funding to cross-community
action projects and communities especially at the European
· We will continue to work against segregation in each
of our countries and societies especially speaking out against
all walls that are erected, symbolic and otherwise.
· We will emphasize and promote understanding of difference
and giftedness of the ‘other’, especially the
migrant communities that come to live in our countries
· We commit ourselves to pray for the victims and perpetrators
of each community that they would discover the opportunity
and courage to build new relationships that are based on and
are the fruit of mutual respect.
We would like to express our gratitude
to all those who have facilitated our encounters in Belfast
especially the Irish Commission for Justice and Social Affairs,
those groups who have taken the time to meet with us and share
so profoundly their often painful experiences and those speakers
who have shared with us their insights.