Peacebuilding with ordinary people

Solid alternatives to violence within the sphere of faith

October 4, 2016 | Web First
Henry Neufeld, Special to Canadian Mennonite

Julianne Funk is a peacebuilder. In Bosnia, the northern region of the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina. And at the University of Zurich, where she teaches religion as well as peace and conflict studies. Based in Zurich, she travels to Bosnia regularly.

A graduate of Wheaton (Ill.) College and the Katholieke Univeristat Leuven, Belgium, where she earned a doctorate, she became interested in the Bosnia-Herzegovina situation in the late 1990s while working at a Bosnian refugee resettlement program in Chicago. She was puzzled: How could religion be at the core of their violence?

Volunteering with the U.S.-based Church of the Brethren in Bosnia spawned her interests in the country and its recent troubled history. She speaks highly of Mennonite Central Committee’s work in the Balkans.

Funk, who spoke recently at Vancouver’s Menno Simons Centre, credits her Mennonite heritage of peacebuilding as a significant foundation for her work, meaning refusing to return evil for evil. “The strategy of considering ordinary, often powerless people, is inspired by a Mennonite belief that peace cannot be imposed,” she said.

Peacebuilding involves two key questions: How do we remember? How do we deal with the past? Working with local grassroots organizations, she fosters cooperation between groups and tries to move them from avoiding each other to collaborating. Mutual encounters, getting religious leaders together, relationship-building, sharing stories and facilitating dialogue are basic to Funk’s work in Bosnia.

Her research focusses on coexistence, trauma and healing. The Bosnian, Serbian and Croat divisions that resulted from the 1992-95 war are based mostly on religion. “In Bosnia, religion is seen as divisive and many peace initiatives avoid religious issues,” she said, adding, “‘[M]y religion denotes honour and yours is corrupt and menacing,’” is a common attitude.

“The conflict resulted in three losers and no winners,” Funk told the audience. “Religion was the key element in the conflict.” Mass violence and genocide were common; in one detention camp more than 8,000 men and boys were killed.

The war’s end brought a negative peace, she said. Negative, because relationships on the ground remain fragile and often hostile.

Funk attended a Bosnian mosque for a year. “I found community there. I experienced care from Muslims,” she said, explaining that Bosnian Islam is special and is very open to the “other.” In that, she feels it differs from Arab Islam.

The values of respect, honesty, fairness, kindness cross boundaries of religious traditions. “One Muslim believer told me . . . that it is not strange for him to be associated with Christianity; in fact, he sees his identity as partly Christian,” she said.

Most of Funk’s peacebuilding work with local non-governmental organizations involves localized, low-level religious leaders. “Peacebuilders need credibility, they must be authentic, trusted,” she said. “Their expertise is recognized. They tend to be locals. . . . They do not leave when the going gets tough.”

Rejecting the notion of a “quick fix,” her work results in small but solid alternatives to violence within the sphere of faith. “There’s a need to outdo violence with goodness, love and mercy,” she said. 

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