Bridging religious denominations in Norway
In 1991 the Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue invited representatives from all religious denominations in Norway to come and talk about what they have in common. Norway has always been a fairly homogenous country, but this began to change in the 1960s. Norway has a state church, which is in a sense a symbol of ethnic and religious homogeneity. The various religious denominations that came together decided that something they all have in common is their dedication to human rights.
In 1996 the project produced a book about religious and human rights in Norway. The Nansen school is happy to have been able to provide the space for this dialogue to take place because it was so important. To this day the interfaith dialogue in Norway is very strong. There is even an interfaith advisory committee that makes recommendations to the government.
Connecting with the Balkans
In 1992 Lillehammer was busy preparing for the 1994 Olympics when war broke out in the Balkans. Thousands of people were killed. Sarajevo had hosted the Olympic games 10 years prior so Lillehammer felt a special connection to the conflict and decided to start a solidarity campaign. The campaign lasted from 1992-1995. Over 70 million Norwegian Kroner ($1.2 million US) was collected, along with blankets and medical supplies. Additionally, the people of Lillehammer helped to rebuild hospitals in Sarajevo that had been destroyed in the war.
Our speaker visited Sarajevo for the first time in 1994 and had never been to a war area before. He was struck by what he saw and reminded that war typically starts from above, but that peace needs to come from down below.
After the war ended 14 people who were fighting each other came to the Nansen School to engage in dialogue. When they arrived, they lacked glasses and hadn’t received medical attention in years but were going to sit down and talk about how to make peace.
For three months they ate together, skied together, shared dorms and when they left, groups that had previously opposed each other strongly were talking and agreed that the peace work of the Nansen Center must continue. Since 1994 eighteen thousand people from the Balkans have been to the school to do dialogue work. Some have even returned home and founded their own dialogue centers where they work for reconciliation among the various ethnic groups that have historically been in conflict with one another. With an Olympic site that was transformed into a gravesite during the war and 40-50% unemployment rates, there is a lot of work to be done, but people are hopeful.
In the dialogue sessions each group typically gets one hour to talk about how they feel. As they talk, the other group is silent and listens. Then the tables turn. The goal is to break down the frames that form people’s way of thinking. A few years back there were two young people in a dialogue session and through conversation they learned that they had been on the same hillside shooting at each other during the war. In the end they cried, embraced and said “I’m glad I didn’t hit you.” Dialogue works to put a human face on the “other” in a way that nothing else can really do.
The Center promotes different ways of communicating for people who aren’t able to express themselves very well through spoken words. Painting, writing and games are included in the dialogue exercises. In the end of the day, if there is a lot of animosity between groups the center feed everyone fish pudding. That way, everyone is united over their hatred for the fish pudding and put their angst towards each other aside.
The Center is beginning to work with Palestinians and Israelis, but it’s still difficult to get them to show up in the same room.