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U.S., West African Interfaith Leaders Vow to Consolidate Region’s Peace Efforts

“Liberian Vice President Boakai Tells Monrovia Conference, Peace Depends On People Seeing Improvement in Their Lives

By Church World Service

NEW YORK – Interfaith leaders from the United States and West Africa meeting this week in Liberia vowed to work together to monitor government activity, work toward justice and equality, and minimize corruption in West Africa to help achieve lasting peace in the region.

The action plan concluded a three-day international conference held in the capital city of Monrovia, aimed at raising the visibility of peace efforts by the religious community and consolidating those peace efforts in fragile, post-conflict Liberia and other Mano River Union countries.

The gathering, keynoted by Liberia's new Vice President, Dr. Joseph N. Boakai, was the first international conference held in Liberia since the recent election of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. It also attracted participants from the diplomatic community, civil society, and non-governmental organizations.

"It is time for creative strategies that will take us to the next level," said the Rev. John McCullough, executive director of United States-based global humanitarian agency Church World Service. Church World Service and the United States Catholic Mission Association co-sponsored the event.

African and supporting U.S. interfaith leaders agreed to a strategy of organizing around country-specific action programs for Mano River Union countries Liberia, Guinea-Conakry, and Sierra Leone and around overall programs for the entire Mano River region.

Church World Service's McCullough said inter-religious councils in each region will spearhead grassroots campaigns to reach out to communities for the purpose of ensuring citizens a voice in peacebuilding efforts.

The councils also will work with national reconciliation groups attempting to heal the wounds of wars that have ravaged the region. Regional faith leaders committing to the initiative included Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, and Baha'is.

Set against the backdrop of renewed hope in a country that just this week inaugurated a democratically elected president, Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson, after decades of civil war, the conference challenged participants to work across denominational lines and to confront pressing issues "with impunity."

McCullough said that in addition to addressing issues of good governance and regional cooperation, the faith community must deal with "the lingering hurts and pains of a people who have suffered too long."

The sentiment was echoed by Boakai in his keynote address. The vice-president pledged "overwhelming support" for peace consolidation efforts but cautioned that those who feel "left out of the political process" must see improvements in their lives if there is to be a lasting peace.

The groups also agreed to focus on the roles of youth and women in consolidating peace.

The conflict-ridden Mano River region is a focal point of NGO Church World Service’s current Africa Initiative. CWS and the Fellowship of Christian Councils and Churches in West Africa (FECCIWA) will collaborate in monitoring peace consolidation efforts in the overall West Africa region.

FECCIWA Secretary General Baffour Dokyi Amoa, who led a conference discussion on the role inter-religious councils in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea play in peacekeeping and conflict management, expressed delight at the prospect of councils following up with work in their respective countries.

"I was very excited that people from different organizations and backgrounds could share ideas and recommendations and finally commit to carrying out these concepts and specific actions at national levels," he said.

The agreements come at a critical time for the region. Liberia has seated its new president, the first woman ever elected to lead an African nation. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf replaces ex-president Charles Taylor, who was forced into exile in Nigeria in 2003. More than 250,000 people were killed in Liberia's civil war and thousands more were displaced. One month ago, United Nations peacekeepers left neighboring Sierra Leone, pledging to help the government and people recover from a brutal civil war that left at least 75,000 people dead and thousands more maimed.

"The sense of unity and common purpose was inspiring," says the Rev. William Dyer, executive director of the Washington, D.C.- based Africa Faith and Justice Network. Reflecting on the interactions between people from different countries and different faiths traditions, Dyer, a member of the Roman Catholic missionary order Society of the Missionaries of Africa, adds that "the openness and acceptance of each other and the willingness to walk together is very encouraging" for the prospect of peace.

The timeliness of the faith community's coming together around efforts to maintain a still-fragile peace in the region, was underscored in remarks by European Union Representative Godfrey Rudd. One of several public officials who attended the conference, Rudd urged closer adherence to principles of the Bible and the Koran.

"You cannot consolidate peace without talking about reconciliation," said Moses Ole Sakuda, associate director of Church World Service's Mission Relationships and Witness program. "The fact that all these people were in one room talking is an important step toward reconciliation, which will lead to consolidation."

Determined to confront neglect and corruption by public official, participants also agreed that the inter-religious council in each country would hold a biennial forum for the faith community and civil community to determine whether their legislative and judicial officials are acting in a manner that promotes peace.

"Civil societies and faith bodies aren't going to sit on the fence," declared Amoa. "They're going to take their roles and civil responsibilities very seriously," by speaking out if they determine that the government is not acting in the best interests of the people.

A U.S. delegate, Susan Sanders, minister and team leader for global sharing of resources for the United Church of Christ, came away convinced that the global community of faith must actively support those efforts by West Africa's faith community. "We in the wider church must accompany our sisters and brothers on this long walk and be advocates for the continued engagement of the international community in rehabilitation and restoration efforts," said Sanders.

The gathering represents the culmination of a process started in 2002 when Church World Service accepted an invitation from ecumenical groups in the Mano River Basin to come to West Africa to support them in peace building efforts. In March 2003, Church World Service invited the Mano River Basin religious leaders to the United States, where they met with policy makers at the United Nations, the White House, the Department of State, and on Capitol Hill, warning the U.S. and international bodies of impending crisis in Liberia.

The interfaith delegation from the United States, led by McCullough and Sister Rosanne Rustemeyer, a former executive director of the United States Catholic Mission Association, included representatives of Protestant denominations and Catholic missionary orders. The West African delegation included Christian, Islamic, and Baha'i representatives from Mano River Union countries.

The conference was hosted by the Liberian Council of Churches and co-sponsored by Church World Service and the U.S. Catholic Mission Association under the banner of the Continuing Committee on Common Witness, formed by the two groups as a forum for ecumenical dialogue on mission issues. This is the first such event the committee has held outside the U.S. and the first time it has included international ecumenical partners.

Other members of the U.S. delegation were Luke Asikoye, associate for international disaster response, Presbyterian Church (USA); Rita Tams Redfield, Anglican and Global Relations Office, Episcopal Church USA; Moses Ole Sakuda, associate program director, Church World Service; Rev. Michael Montoya, executive director of United States Catholic Mission Association; Rev. William Headley, counselor to the president, Catholic Relief Services, USA; William Dyer, executive director, Africa Faith and Justice Network; and Sister Rosanne Rustemeyer, School Sisters of Notre Dame and former executive director of United States Catholic Mission Association

Signators to a final conference document urging "religious and traditional leaders to continue playing their role of being proactive on social issues" included Liberian Council of Churches, Church World Service, United States Catholic Mission Association, Fellowship of Christian Councils and Churches in West Africa, All-Africa Conference of Churches, Africa Faith and Justice Network, National Muslim Council of Liberia, Inter-Religious Council of Sierra Leone, Christian Council of Guinea, Federation of Liberian Youth, Christian Council of Gambia, West Africa Network for Peace Building, Association of Evangelicals of Liberia, Stella Maris Polytechnic, World Conference on Religions for Peace, Catholic Relief Services, National Muslim Council, Inter-Religious Council of Liberia, Council of Churches in Sierra Leone, Ecumenical Women Organization of Liberia, Eminent Persons Ecumenical Program for Peace in Africa, Press Union of Liberia, University of Liberia, and Foundation for International Dignity.

Church World Service is the relief, development, and refugee assistance agency of 35 Protestant, Orthodox, and Anglican communions in the United States.

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