By Carolynn Kulecho
It's difficult to go to the polls when you've encountered political violence before, in my personal experience. Fear of what may result from the ballot box drives mistrust among neighbors and divides communities. You prepare for the worst. You stock up your house with food, tell your children to stay home, and contemplate whether or not to vote. You understand that it is your country and your civic duty, but that vote could cost you so much. So you ponder over it, just a bit longer.
That was my story a few years ago. Today I can tell a different story, one where people got a chance to vote in peace, and religion played an important, positive role.
Every day when we read the news, we are reminded of the harm that is done in the name of religion. Violence, like the terrorist attack on Westgate mall in Kenya or the fighting in Syria, echoes of religious extremism. It is easy to forget the positive role that religion plays in the lives of billions of people around the world, giving courage, strength, and a sense of community. There is a moral authority in religion which can sway political leadership across dividing lines. This moral authority places religious leaders in a unique position, to play the role of society's conscience by encouraging peace and unity in trying times.
In 2008, election violence in Zimbabwe caused property damage, rioting, internal displacement, and death. Zimbabwe needed respected leaders to advocate for peace.
Zimbabwe is a religious country. Eighty-four percent the population are Christians, divided into four major denominations. This established religious framework cuts across political barriers, giving religious leaders the moral legitimacy and unique positioning to serve as agents of peace.
In the 2013 elections, religious leaders stepped up into a sensitive situation and used their moral authority to promote participation and non-violence. They shifted the focus from remembering in fear what had happened in 2008 to looking forward with hope and determination toward a better future. Why did they step up?
I work for Search for Common Ground, an international conflict resolution and peace-building NGO in 35 countries across Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and the USA. Our team in Zimbabwe, started in 2010, focuses on promoting a culture of non-violence after years of insecurity and conflict.
In preparation for Zimbabwe's 2013 elections, Search seized the opportunity, reaching out to religious leaders across denominational divides. We formed a partnership with the umbrella organization The Zimbabwe Heads of Christian Denominations (ZHOCD), a network of four main Christian organizations, representing approximately 80 percent of Zimbabwe's population with regards to religious affiliation. With over 8 million members, ZHOCD enabled us to bring diverse representation and perspectives to the non-violence campaign.
Together, SFCG and ZHOCD created a multi-media campaign using radio and TV public service announcements to promote non-violence and a focus on a brighter future. Religious leaders from across the spectrum -- race, gender, denomination -- joined together to release a 12-point prayer plan showing solidarity for peace. The plan addressed a number of fundamental human rights and democracy issues including respect for election processes by political leaders, freedom of association, and equal access to media for all political parties. The leaders elevated nationhood above political affiliation while remaining objective and not condemning state institutions. The PSA reverberated across the country, catching the attention of people from all backgrounds.
Search made sure to build on ZHOCD's agenda for promoting peace during and after the elections. That's because we believe in using local solutions to prevent and end violent conflicts. Through mutual trust, we ensured this greatly influential organization was not seduced into partisan bickering but instead emphasized a national identity and social responsibility.
Together, we reminded each Zimbabwean, regardless of political or religious persuasion, to take responsibility for peace. The religious leaders, though not perfect, must be recognized for their role in the peace process. I hope this can be an example for other countries, where religious leaders can use their position and moral authority to advocate for cooperation and peace.
Carolynn Kulecho works for Search for Common Ground in Zimbabwe. Learn more about their work at www.sfcg.org. This post courtesy of the Skoll Foundation and Huffington Post's Social Entrepreneur's Challenge.