One of Episcopal priest Brian Cox's first challenges before leading a reconciliation workshop for Pakistani and Indian Kashmiris was to convince them he wasn't a covert CIA operative or embarking on a sheep-stealing expedition.
It's all part of the ministry, says Cox, a senior vice president for the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD), an independent, Washington, D.C.-based nongovernmental agency that seeks healing and reconciliation in a variety of global hotspots.
"I've had some pretty challenging people to go through, although eventually those who thought I was there to proselytize people apologized. Initially, too, amongst some of the separatist leaders, there was some suspicion that I might be CIA," recalled Cox, who is also rector of Christ the King Episcopal Church in Santa Barbara, California.
ICRD, through Cox, became involved in Kashmir about five years ago, seeking relationship with people from both sides of the Line of Control (LOC), which divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan. Once British-controlled, Kashmir has been the focal point of war and ongoing hostilities between India and Pakistan since 1947.
The LOC was established in 1972 during peace negotiations efforts but continues to separate entire villages and families as part of what Cox calls "an intractable identity-based conflict in which religion plays a key part in the communal identity."
The conflict's religious dimension is what uniquely enables ICRD's faith-based focus, he added. "Faith-based reconciliation is a different paradigm for addressing conflict in the world, because it represents a different lens than strict conflict resolution," he said. "In religious disputes, traditional forms of diplomacy often don't work. We have more of a holistic approach, which goes beyond trying to achieve a political settlement."
'Creating fresh world vision'
The emergence of religion as a major force in local and international politics paved the way, in some instances, for the ICRD's faith-based reconciliation ministry, said Cox, who arrived in Kashmir in September, 2000, with just a list of names and phone numbers and a whole lot of hope.
"It was a journey in faith," Cox recalled. "We started to contact people to advise us. Initially, I did a whole lot of relationship building, a lot of establishing trust, a lot of trying to understand the situation on the ground."
In addition to escalating tensions between Pakistan and India, both countries reject the option of Kashmiri independence. The situation on the ground included more than 400,000 Hindu Pandits living in squalid refugee camps near the capital city of Jammu and long-standing rivalries among Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs on both sides of the LOC.
"One of the most difficult things is getting beyond all the violence and creating a sense of hope," Cox said. "Some 70,000 have died in Kashmir either from the Indian Security Services or because of militants. There is a tremendous amount of pain and suffering in Kashmir and the people need hope. They need a fresh world vision for Kashmiri society. That's why we talk about faith based reconciliation as a moral vision for the society."
It's a familiar topic for Cox, who first felt called to reconciliation work while on sabbatical 22 years ago in South Africa during "the worst years of apartheid" and who has worked since on racial healing initiatives in Santa Barbara.
Ordained for 30 years and now a candidate in the March 18 election for Bishop of Tennessee, Cox has led workshops in more than a dozen countries, including Russia, Armenia and the eastern European countries, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Mexico, Kenya, Zaire, South Africa, India and Israel. Plans are currently in the works to develop a program in the Middle East, based in Syria.
On the domestic front, the ministry has expanded beyond his Santa Barbara congregation, to include establishment of reconciliation teams within the Los Angeles diocese. Those teams, in turn, have shared the ministry with others, including the Dioceses of Western Massachusetts, Northern Indiana and Ohio. Cox has used the faith-based method to attempt to advance the human sexuality conversation within the wider Episcopal Church.
"The paradigm we've operated on is win-lose advocacy which creates winners and losers and look at where we are," he said. "We need a new paradigm, a new culture for how we live together." He also plans a presence at the upcoming General Convention in Columbus this June 13-21.
For Cox, faith-based reconciliation departs from traditional conflict resolution methods by "creating a more pluralistic community within areas of hostility, by taking into account the deeper felt needs of people beyond their stated positions, needs like how to deal with issues of injustice, broken relationships and healing of societies."
Tahir Aziz, 36, a Muslim born on the Pakistani side of the LOC, says getting involved with Cox's faith-based approach involved transformation.
"Up until then, I considered India as an aggressor. Until then, I saw self-determination as the only possible solution for Kashmir," Aziz recalled. "But meeting Brian gave me a new idea. I realized that what I was saying was true but at the same time was a very one-sided approach which did not have a broader perspective. Especially since a lot of Kashmiris have been saying the same thing for more than five decades and it hasn't led anywhere. It hasn't brought peace in Kashmir, it hasn't solved the problem.
"Brian's ideas were different in that he was talking about the human dimension of the conflict and something deeper in terms of human relationships, and what role faith and religion can play, what role they have been playing in terms of creating conflict but at the same time what resources can be offered by religions to resolve the conflict irrespective of the nature of its political solution. So this was something very compelling. I kept thinking about it after he left and struggled with it and read more about it and then started changing my approach."
He participated in the five-year process of seminars which brought together Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist youth and other leaders and established reconciliation institutes in Kashmir, Aziz witnessed "a huge shift, a tangible transformation. It prompted people who started by defining the other side as aggressors or terrorists or militants to gradually move into words finding common threads and foundations and looking at deeper issues.
"It was a journey you could easily identify as marking changes in the hearts and minds of people. It was so powerful," he recalled. "On the final day, we drew an imaginary LOC and those who were from the Pakistani side and those from the Indian side were encouraged to come closer and to cross that line and embrace each other. There was a moment when we wept. It was so real. Something very powerful was hidden deep down somewhere, but it came out."
Cox said the goal is to empower participants to a common ground irrespective of their different religions and ethnic groups. The effects of the workshop are an "example where God is using extraordinary and unorthodox approaches to take the work of the Gospel into places to bring healing and reconciliation. I don't work through institutional church or religious structures but God is using other vehicles to open doors."
For more info on the Rev. Canon Brian Cox IV, or the faith-based reconciliation ministries, visit: www.reconcilers.net or www.icrd.org.