BERLIN (IDN) - Whether it goes down in the history of the United Nations as a milestone or not, the world body's "refugee agency" UNHCR has taken a significant step by acknowledging that when natural disasters and violent conflicts uproot entire communities and hope is slipping away, faith is the last straw at which the displaced and the forlorn clutch.
For the first time in its 60-year history, the UN agency availed of its three-day 2011 annual consultations with NGOs in Geneva to focus one full day on the activities and experiences of Faith Based Organisations (FBOs) from around the world.
The purpose, said the UNHCR, was "to develop a better understanding and appreciation of the nature, scale and impact of FBOs' efforts to provide protection," and "to consider how UNHCR and International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs) might improve partnerships with local and national FBOs that build on their protection strengths."
With this in view, the opening panel on June 28 drew together four national FBOs working in conflict and disaster-affected countries in different regions, from different faith backgrounds – Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist – to consider what strengths faith based organisations have in protection and what protection roles they are best placed to play given their unique community relations.
The panel was joined by Humanitarian Forum Indonesia's director Hening Parlan, Sudan Council of Churches, Emergency Relief, Rehabilitation and Development Agency (ERRADA) director Dr. Kediende Akec, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society/South America regional director Enrique Burbinski, and Japan's Soka Gakkai's Peace Committee director Kimiaki Kawai.
Explaining the rationale, the UNHCR argued in a background paper handed out to participants: "While faith plays a major role in the lives of those at risk or those affected by conflicts and disasters, Western humanitarianism has been largely shaped by secular values, which tends to overlook or downplay the influence of faith, or worse still, treat faith with scepticism and caution, delegitimising the role of faith outside the domain of private belief."
It added: "Faith, however, not only runs deep in the veins of conflict and disaster affected communities, but it plays a major role in their lives. It helps people cope with trauma; it validates their humanity and informs their decisions, and it offers guidance, compassion, consolation and hope in their darkest hours."
The UNHCR further argued: "Whether in the midst of popular uprisings or natural disasters and violent conflicts around the globe – from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Sudan, Somalia, Burma and the Philippines – faith and local faith-based organisations play a critical role in the protection of affected communities."
This view is shared by Hirotsugu Terasaki, executive director of the office of peace affairs of Soka Gakkai International (SGI), who accompanied Kawai to the UNHCR annual consultations: "FBOs are in a strong position to contribute to empower surviving people to engage themselves in relief activities which makes them effective and sustainable."
The Buddhist organisation, backed by its members throughout Japan, was quick in emergency response to the March 11 unprecedented quake of magnitude 9, followed by a record-high tsunami approximately 30 minutes after the earthquake. The tsunami damaged the nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture causing the meltdown and subsequent problems.
Kawai told over 200 participants in the UNHCR's opening panel that as of June 22, the death toll had reached over 15,000, with more than 7,000 still missing, and over 110,000 living in shelters or temporary housing.
"Many villages and towns of the affected region have been completely destroyed," he said, adding: "As of June 5, as many as 390,000 individuals volunteered for relief activities. So did a range of groups including religious organisations. My organization is among them. A large number of Soka Gakkai members live in the affected region itself, and we have community centres in most of the towns."
In an interview during a visit to Berlin on way to Tokyo, Terasaki said, he had visited the disaster-affected areas in the Tohoku region. "On that occasion, I heard so many SGI members who have been affected by the disaster say how much they were encouraged by SGI President Ikeda's messages sent to them such as no hardship can destroy the treasure of the heart. I think the unique role FBOs can play and contribute is the power of encouragement firmly grounded on/that they can provide based on their views on life and the spiritual values."
Kawai told the UNHCR annual consultation participants that local chapters of Soka Gakkai Japan had carried out relief activities to respond to the most urgent needs. The organisation's community centres served to provide evacuees with shelters and relief supplies.
"Forty-two of the centres in the Tohoku region as well as in Ibaraki and Chiba Prefectures accommodated about 5,000 people. Some members' homes were also used to accommodate local evacuees and as relay points for distributing relief supplies," Kawai informed.
Soka Gakkai also provided relief supplies to general evacuation shelters. "Our community-based network facilitated these relief activities for the people too who were not directly hit by the disaster, but whose living conditions were highly affected in this complex and insecure environment. Great needs were apparent, due to the complete destruction of infrastructures in many populated areas."
It is an open secret – revealed also during the UNHCR consultations with FBOs – that there are often tensions between Christian and Muslim faith based organisations. Asked whether a Buddhist organization like SGI could play a role in bridging the two for a common cause, Terasaki did not rule out such a possibility.
He said, the question reminded him of what SGI President Ikeda once said: "When there are complicated historical backgrounds, there are cases at times where one on one dialogue is difficult. In such cases, by adding one more party, it will make a 'tripod' serving as a foothold for dialogue. In all senses, Buddhism exists by dialogue and teaches the value of creatively coexisting beyond differences."
From that viewpoint, he said: "I believe SGI can contribute to fertilizing fora for dialogue. I think this year's UNHCR annual consultation with NGOs offered a good opportunity enabling various FBOs including SGI to interact and find new perspectives from each other. What is important is to continue creating such opportunities for dialogue to deepen discussion."
All the more so, because as UNHCR chief António Guterres said on June 28:"Since the beginning of the year, we have witnessed a multiplication of crises, many of them totally unpredicted, with a significant impact on the displacement of people. But (at the same time) old crises seem to never die."
2011 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters