Leading faith-based aid organisations are working closely together and playing a vital yet often undervalued role in alleviating suffering and tackling injustice around the world. That was the message for US policymakers as speakers from Islamic Relief, Catholic Relief Services and HIAS joined forces to address staff at the US Congress in Washington DC on September 12.
An invited audience from the offices of influential members of Congress gathered to hear reflections on the theme of ‘Faith on the Front Line’ – highlighting the important contribution of faith groups both in international relief and development and in responding to domestic needs in the United States.
The briefing was chaired by Jean Duff, Coordinator of the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities. In introducing the speakers, Jean pointed out that the 70 largest faith-based organizations in the US raised a staggering $6.8 billion for international aid and development in 2016 – more than 80% of this through private donations. She also highlighted the Ebola outbreak in 2014 as an example of the role faith leaders and faith-based organizations can play in coordinating action in local communities to educate the public and save lives.
Bill O’Keefe, Vice President for Government Relations and Advocacy at Catholic Relief Services (CRS), applauded USAID for funding an innovative interfaith project coordinated by CRS in the Central African Republic. It involves Islamic Relief, World Vision and Aegis Trust, with GHR, Microsoft and Palo University among its supporters. It has strengthened the platform for religious leaders on the ground to work together and “rebuild the fabric of society. He described the ongoing five-year project as an example of what faith-based organizations can achieve when they “reach across faith boundaries” in the challenging context of conflict.
“Where religion is used as a divider, you can’t just talk about peace,” Bill explained. “You have to put people in the situation where they have to work together on the problems they have in common and recognize their shared humanity.”
The project has nurtured peace building by providing practical support to impoverished Christian and Muslim families alike – through trauma healing and peace education workshops, youth vocational training, job creation and the development of small community enterprises.
Another speaker was Mark Hetfield, President and CEO of HIAS – the global refugee agency of the American Jewish community. HIAS is the world’s oldest refugee agency, established 130 years ago, and in that time its approach has evolved from “helping people because they are Jewish” to “helping people because we are Jewish”.
HIAS is one of nine national agencies – six of them faith-based – that are involved in resettling Syrian and other refugees in the United States. It is also partnering Islamic Relief USA in providing support including legal services to refugees on the Greek island of Lesvos – the first port of call for Syrians and others crossing the Mediterranean from Turkey.
“If you are going to stand up for human rights, you have to stand up for human rights for everybody, or it won’t work,” Mark said. He added that all faith-based organizations find parts of the world where it is more difficult for them to operate because of their religious affiliation, so it is important to work together to extend collective reach to those in need.
Islamic Relief’s speaker at the briefing was Naser Haghamed, CEO of IR Worldwide. “As a Muslim it is a privilege for me to serve the world’s largest independent Muslim organization,” he said. “As a humanitarian it is a privilege for me to stand alongside organizations from other faith traditions as we work together to build a better world. Whatever our faith, as humanitarians we are all committed to common goals – to easing suffering, upholding human dignity, protecting the most vulnerable and lifting people out of poverty.
“An important funder of Islamic Relief Worldwide’s work is the US federal government, through USAID and the Department of Health and Human Services. We cherish this funding because ultimately it comes from the American people and it has enabled us to save and change lives in Kenya, Ethiopia and the Central African Republic. It is also funding that has placed real emphasis on working in close partnership with secular organizations and other faith-based groups, including the International Rescue Committee, World Vision and Catholic Relief Services.”
Naser applauded Islamic Relief USA for its significant contribution to Islamic Relief Worldwide’s international programs and the role its trained volunteers play in responding to domestic emergencies such as Hurricanes Harvey and Irma and this year’s wildfires in California. “Islamic Relief USA prizes interfaith collaboration too, with partners such as Catholic Relief Services and HIAS and American Jewish World Service.”
He concluded by paying tribute to two Christian members of Islamic Relief’s staff who were murdered by militants in 2016 as they worked to establish a ground-breaking irrigation project in Kenya, funded by USAID. Bill O’Keefe then highlighted the bravery of two Muslim staff members who were killed by a bomb while guarding CRS warehouses in the Middle East.
“This is a story of our shared humanity that we ought to tell,” said Bill. “There are so many people of different faiths out there who want to live together in a life of service. We are swimming upstream against a variety of forces, but let’s keep swimming.”