A Safer Space for Faith: Advocacy Training for Religious Liberty Activists

The Religious Liberty Commission of the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) conducted a 3 day residential workshop for 19 advocates of Religious Freedom at the Avani Kalutara Resort.  The workshop was conducted in partnership with the Minority Rights Group. The workshop which commenced on 23 May, 2016 focused on training the participants in methods of advocacy and lobbying for Religious Freedoms and inspiring them to use creative mediums  for their campaigns.

The session  which initiated the workshop was an activity-based programme aimed at teaching the participants at the very onset of the workshop  the importance of creating  practical strategies for campaigns and the importance of networking and communication. The session was filled with laughter and proved to be an ideal opportunity for the participants to get to know one another. At the introductory session which followed, the NCEASL addressed the issue of violations of human rights especially with regard to Religious Freedom in Sri Lanka. The legal provisions and limitations towards enjoying the Freedom of Religion or Belief were also discussed together with the trends in violations of Religious Freedoms of minorities. The NCEASL emphasised on the importance of thereby documenting the violations of Human Rights and taking appropriate measures of advocacy to address such violations. The participants were interested to learn that the Freedom of Religion or Belief is important as a basic Human Right because it also ensures that other fundamental rights too are safeguarded. Leading Human Rights activist, Ruki Fernando facilitated the session which followed that went on to elaborate on mechanisms made available by international bodies which promote Religious Freedom and how one could utilise these mechanisms in lobbying for the Freedom of Religion or Belief. This session which continued the next day too, emphasised  the importance of a clearly formulated plan, the significance of documentation and how these could contribute positively towards the process of advocacy and lobbying. The participants found Fernando’s use of examples and advice drawn from personal experiences very  useful.

Recognising the role of technology and new media in documenting and lobbying for Religious Freedom,  the NCEASL invited Arul Prakkash from Witness to conduct a session on using video for documentation and advocacy. The participants learnt best practices to be followed for their safety and the safety of the subject. They were also instructed on how they could use their smartphones to record evidence and were given pointers on how to capture good video footage, which included tips on framing. The participants were also given a chance to put their learning to the test through a practical exercise. The participants who worked as groups for the assignment, produced a short film on a problem they identified in the area where the workshop was held. This included video interviews with affected parties as well as the editing and production of the videos on their computers.

Furthermore, the NCEASL also organised special sessions which were aimed at inspiring the participants on innovative and creative ways in which they could conduct their advocacy campaigns. Sampath Samarakoon, the editor of Vikalpa conducted a session on the use of social media for advocacy. Samarakoon elaborated on  the dynamic nature of social media platforms which advances and evolves regularly. He also advised the advocates on what digital platforms are most popular and suitable for advocacy campaigns, weighing the strengths of using digital platforms against the limitations of traditional methods. Photographer, Researcher and Blogger, Halik Azeez followed with a session on visual storytelling, where he shared his ideas on how the use of compelling visual content could impact a campaign. Azeez reflected on his own creative campaign against Islamophobia to enthuse his audience to use available digital platforms and creative means to build their own campaigns.

A small grant of GBP 1250 was to be given to selected proposals submitted by the participants so that they could conduct a campaign for promoting Religious Freedom. A panel discussion too was held in order to give the participants a chance for clarifications. The discussion was a perfect opportunity to mentor and guide the participants in formulating their advocacy plans. The panellists at the discussion, Yamini Ravindran – the Legal and Advocacy Coordinator of the Religious Liberty Commission of the NCEASL, Godfrey Yogarajah – the General Secretary of the NCEASL and Ruki Fernando, helped the participants identify issues curtailing the Freedom of Religion or Belief and thus plan their campaigns. The participants also received an opportunity to discuss their ideas in groups before presenting their campaigns to the NCEASL. The participants’ ideas varied from campaigns to promote tolerance and coexistence among different religious groups to lobbying for the rights of religious minorities.

Sarah George who is a lawyer by profession, wants to make a difference for the sake of religious minorities who face discrimination. Even though she mostly handles civil cases, this programme has helped her identify issues which she feels she should address. “At this programme we learnt that there is no proper documentation of incidents against religious minorities” said Sarah, who went on to talk about the destruction of a place of worship belonging to a minority religious group which she had come to know about. “We hope to find out more about this problem and research into similar incidents taking place in the North and East. We will be using video to document such incidents” explained Sarah who, with two other participants, has chosen this cause for their campaign. Her participation at the workshop has convinced Sarah of the importance to campaign for the rights of religious minority groups “As a lawyer, I have the academic knowledge I need but I didn’t know how international bodies like the UN function. I wasn’t familiar with advocacy methods. The sessions at this training programme taught me how to practically conduct an advocacy campaign” expressed Sarah. She was very glad for the opportunity to participate in this programme which has taught her so many new things such as video documentation. “I have participated in advocacy trainings before but this programme which was spread over 3 days was more useful for me.”

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