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Niwano Peace Prize Awarded to Ugandan Interfaith Organization

By Niwano PEace Foundation

The Niwano Peace Foundation has awarded their twenty-first Peace Price for 2004 to Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Iniziative (ARLPI), a multi-faith peace group which for the last seven years has been seeking a peaceful resolution to the 18-year old war that affects Northern Uganda.

The award ceremony will be held in Tokyo on May 11. It will be attended by ARLPI representatives of its four religious denominations: Archbishop John Baptist Odama, of Gulu Catholic Diocese and current chairman of the group; Anglican Bishop Nelson Onono-Onweng, of Northern Uganda, the Acholi Khadi Shiek Musa Khalil and the head of the Orthodox Church in Acholi Fr. Julius Orach.

It is the first time that this price has been awarded to an African organisation by the Niwano Foundation. The institute, based in Japan, was established in 1978 by a lay Buddish Association, "to honour and encourage those who are devoting themselves to interreligious co-operation in the cause of peace". Previous recipients include: Archbishop Helder Camara and Cardinal Paulo Arns of Brazil, the Corrymeela Community of Northern Ireland, the Community of Sant?Egidio, Rev. Elias Chacour of Israel and Bishop Samuel Ruiz of Chiapas, Mexico. The prize includes 20 million yen, which ARLPI has already decided it will use to build a Peace Centre in Gulu.

Acholi Religious Leaders? Peace Initiative?s origins can be traced to July 1997, when Christians from the two main denominations and Muslims in Kitgum came together to pray and advocate for peace in Northern Uganda. Similar initiatives started in Gulu at around the same time. From these experiences, ARLPI was formally inaugurated in February 1998. Its first chairman was Bishop Nelson Onono-Onweng. Ever since, ARLPI has established a network of peace committees in the main centres throughout the Acholi sub-region. It has also mediated in violent conflict between the Acholi and their Jie neighbours, and also between Teso and Karimojong rural communities.

Throughout its existence ARLPI has consistently documented facts about the war and advocated for peace and human rights in national and international fora. In 2001 it published a detailed report where it called for the dismantling of the displaced camps in Acholi and the following year it assessed the mixed success of the Amnesty Law. This advocacy effort has not been made only in writing documents, but also in actions in clear support of the most vulnerable victims of the conflict, as it happened at the end of June 2003 when the religious leaders spent four nights sleeping in the cold streets of Gulu together with the thousands of child night-commuters who every night seek safety in the town. Also, every year at the end of December ARLPI organises peace rallies and prayers in the main towns affected by the war, helping people to express their deep desires for an end to the violence. In 2002 it also started the Acholi Education Initiative, a bursary foundation to help several hundred student orphans in secondary schools.

But it is its effort to mediate between the Government of Uganda and the rebel group Lord?s Resistance Army (LRA) that has won ARLPI international recognition as the voice of the suffering people of Northern Uganda. Some discreet contacts with LRA officers during 2001 led to some of them laying down their arms and taking advantage of the current Government Amnesty. In 2002, soon after the launching by the Ugandan Army of the "Operation Iron Fist" inside Sudan — a move publicly opposed by ARLPI — some of the main religious leaders together with some traditional cultural leaders, after getting the Government's consent, started meeting with the LRA top commanders in the bush in an effort to be a bridge between them and the Government of Uganda so that peace conversations could take place. Twenty-one of meetings of this kind have taken place, often amid high risks, misunderstandings and threats. Despite all these trials, ARLPI's position about a peaceful end to the conflict has remained firm.

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