Russia

Chechenya: Two religions, one purpose

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Islamic Relief (IR) has reconstructed a secondary school in Grozny with CAFOD funding. As the capital, it suffered most damage during the two wars between 1994-96, and from 1999 onwards

Michael Eccles, IR regional programme officer for Eastern Europe, visited the school last year. "It is amazing to see how it's all beautifully clean, repainted and decorated with new posters," he says. "The families of the children provided the school books and the pictures themselves.

"Once they had a new clean building with new windows, they actually wanted to make it better themselves and took on this initiative. That's very rewarding."

As Islamic Relief used to provide hot school meals in Grozny, it could easily link up with schools that needed help. It is working in collaboration with the Ministry of Education.

Islamic Relief also runs after-school activities such as cooking, chess, English, traditional Chechen dancing and organises inter-school sports activities.

CAFOD and Islamic Relief working together

Michael has been working for Islamic Relief (IR) for just over two years and CAFOD has been supporting its work in Chechnya and Ingushetia since 2002. CAFOD has also funded two health clinics in refugee camps in Ingushetia, showing the potential benefits of interfaith projects.

In September last year CAFOD supported IR's work during the school siege in Beslan in the Russian republic of South Ossetia. IR sent an aid convoy four days after the siege began.

It provided food and necessities to Beslan's hospital, which was unable to cope with the sudden influx of patients. As well as providing essential medicine and food, IR donated three of its ambulances that were being used as health clinics in Ingushetia.

Overcoming prejudice

"It was quite significant for Islamic Relief to help in Beslan," says Michael "because the local population is mostly Christian. It was actually very hard for our staff because the hostage-takers were initially described as Muslim extremists, although it was never proven (who they actually were, or where they were from).

"So when people realised our staff were Muslims, they said "What are you doing here? You did this to us." You can't imagine how painful it must be to be told this when you're just there to help.

"I hope that they realised then that for Muslims to come along and help must have been a positive thing for them.

"Anyway we battled on and this year we are involved in another project there to help provide equipment to children dealing with post-traumatic stress."

Interfaith working

Until recently Michael was the only non-Muslim working at the Islamic Relief headquarters in Birmingham. Now there are three of them.

"People often ask me why I work for them" he says "but for me it was important to be involved in a faith-based organisation because once you take away the way you worship, many of the other beliefs are very similar between Christianity and Islam.

"Although there are some things I strongly disagree with in Islam, there are many things that I wholeheartedly agree with."

Both CAFOD and Islamic Relief have benefitted from their relationship.

"It can legitimise Islamic Relief in a Catholic country or CAFOD in an Islamic country," says Michael " It can give you a contact or a way in the door that you might not have had because people would be too suspicious. But if we say we work with CAFOD, they think Islamic Relief must be ok and vice versa.

"It's also good to compare how the organisations are run. We can learn from CAFOD and I'm sure CAFOD can learn from us too."

Reaching out

Jamal Belke, has been working for Islamic Relief for three years and is the regional programme manager for the Middle East and North Africa. He says that his experiences of interfaith working transcends any kinds of boundaries based on religion.

"Previously I was country director in Albania, a country where Islamic Relief has a number of non-Muslim employees and beneficiaries. Some of our programmes took place in predominantly Christian villages.

"It's something that at times we might be criticised for amongst Muslim communities but for Islamic Relief it is very important not only to talk about efforts towards bridge building, reaching out and being part of a larger community outside Islam but really to demonstrate that, to help a person in need -- a widow, an orphan, someone traumatised by warfare.

A shared belief

"It goes beyond a person's religion. Many of us do not have a choice of the religion we're brought up in; none of us had a choice in who we were born as and where we were born.

"We are all children of God. It's really good to see this shared belief being acted upon in this day and age when religious issues are again being used to justify aggression by a lot of different people."

The partnership agreement and shared initiatives between IR and CAFOD extend boundaries, working in Christian majority countries and Muslim majority countries. This has its benefits.

"It allows each organisation to have an easier time in serving those in need in countries that they may not traditionally be seen as being able to have a presence or to make some sort of impact on the ground," says Jamal.

"That is very important whether its working in the Caucasus or helping those in the Bam earthquake in Iran. Hopefully CAFOD and IR will continue working closely together in the future."