June 23, 2014

​Faith Leaders Work to End Sexual Violence

 ©2014 Religion News Service

Religious leaders from across Africa and
England came together in London on June 11 to discuss the role clergy
should play in preventing and responding to sexual violence.

The panel was part of the three-day Global Summit
to End Sexual Violence in Conflict co-chaired by Angelina Jolie, the special
envoy for the U.N. high commissioner for refugees. Jolie made an unannounced
appearance before the event, causing attendance to surge and preventing several
dozen participants from entering the crowded conference room.

In a pre-recorded video message, Archbishop of
Canterbury Justin Welby started the session by describing some of the positive
developments he observed firsthand on a recent trip to the Democratic Republic
of Congo.

“Historically there has been a culture of
impunity,” he said. “Faith leaders are challenging that culture fiercely and
saying that rape and sexual violence in war is absolutely unacceptable and will
result in consequences.”

Clergy from England and a range of states in
Africa championed Welby’s message.

“Religious leaders are a tremendous moral and
spiritual influence and they have a unique understanding of their own
communities,” said Shahin Ashraf, the University of Birmingham’s Muslim
chaplain and an activist for gender justice. She cautioned that while religion
can be part of the healing process it can also be part of the problem “when
people aren’t properly informed about religious texts and debates.”

Rabbi Shulamit Ambalu, a Jewish leader in London,
said faith leaders must “speak the unspeakable” and actively support women and
men who have suffered from sexual violence, a crime she described as both
physical and spiritual.

“When a woman who is taught that her body exists
to guard the family’s purity is raped, she is then shamed, internalizes that
shame and blames herself,” Ambalu said. “If religious institutions suppress
that — or even, God forbid, cause that — then we heap humiliation and
helplessness not just on women but on boys and men who might also be the
victims of rape.”

Archbishop Onesphore Rwaje of the Anglican Church
of Rwanda nodded in agreement. “We have to prevent sexual violence by playing
our prophetic role,” he said. “The church is a sleeping giant. Let us get up
and speak out.”

The Rev. Nicholas Guerekoyame-Gbangou, president
of the Evangelical Alliance in the Central African Republic, said
that to overcome conflict, religious leaders must be fully integrated and
involved in the peace-building process.

A closed session of government representatives
will convene Thursday to discuss implementing recommendations raised in the
public session.