Over the last six months I was honoured to participate in Cumberland Lodge’s Programme on ‘Emerging international Leaders Programme on Freedom of Religion and Belief (FoRB)’.
The programme aims to equip future leaders and opinion formers with the skills and insight necessary to drive debate, influence policy and build a powerful global network. It responds to the fact that around three-quarters of the world’s population lives in countries that restrict such freedoms or fail to protect them. Every year, 50 Commonwealth and Chevening scholars are selected and supported to gain an in-depth understanding of the importance of the freedom of religion or belief.
The application process involved answering six questions about what we felt were critical international contemporary issues and why, and our attitude towards team work, leadership and networking. I didn’t realize at that time that the programme’s three-weekend retreat would be one of the most exciting productive events of my life.
About Cumberland Lodge
I had heard about Cumberland Lodge even before I came to the UK. Founded in 1947, Cumberland Lodge in Windsor Great Park is an educational charity tackling social divisions by promoting creative thinking and inclusive dialogue. Historically, the Lodge was home to the Rangers of the Great Park, including Prince Christian and Princess Helena, daughter of Queen Victoria. King George VI broke with tradition and Cumberland Lodge was granted to a new educational foundation, established by Amy Buller, the author of ‘Darkness over Germany’, a book on Nazi sentiments amongst German students and academics in the late 1930s. This was the basis for the present-day Cumberland Lodge, whose patron is Queen Elizabeth II.
Sharing learning from the realities of conflict and violence
The first weekend of the retreat was in December 2017, with the theme ‘Understanding the importance of FoRB’, the second in February 2018 with ‘FoRB in Conflict’ and the third in April with ‘FoRB in action’.
The retreats were animated by distinguished academics and practitioners cutting across a variety of nationalities and expertise. They not only shared their experiences but patiently heard our questions and provided a vibrant platform for mature debates. We also had highly useful and interactive group discussions. These involved critical analysis of wide-ranging real-time situations like work place discrimination of converted minorities who were regularly coerced or harassed. The wearing of religious symbols and religion-based attire dominated such discussions. I was seeking an answer as to why across all major religions of the world, women are coerced to wear specific attires in daily life or during prayer times and not men? In another discussion I was shocked beyond belief when a Nigerian participant told us how one university run by a major religious group imposed a ‘virginity test’ on female students before awarding degrees! The key message of these discussions was that is it largely women who are the ultimate victims of religious intolerance.
I heard many moving stories from both facilitators and participants during the retreat. One member of the group who works in a conflict zone told the story of a ten-year-old boy, who after witnessing dreadful physical violence for years, hanged in a closed room who house mates of his own age. He was just imitating what he had seen. Some of the participants were from conflict zones such as Syria and Iraq. They told stories of gang rapes, child rapes, and violence unleashed in the name of law or religion. As someone from India, for whom such incidents are just ‘stories’ one reads of in the media, hearing these experiences first hand was very disturbing. I saw the terror in the eyes of the storytellers. They were seemingly outgoing, fun loving and friendly on the outside, but carried a heavy burden within them and had something vital, serious and critical to share.
Our numerous group discussions were marked more by listening than talking, more by understanding than arriving at conclusions. It is difficult to pinpoint a single take-home message from the retreats, but my understanding of the importance of the freedom of religion and belief has certainly widened considerably.
Graduation and opportunism
This year’s ‘graduation ceremony’ saw the Baroness Nicolson of Winterbourne as the guest of honour. The Baroness is colourful personality and is presently a peer of the Realm, a member of the House of Lords, and Chair of the AMAR International Charitable Foundation. She spoke eloquently on ‘Religious Persecution’.
In her speech Baroness Nicholson pointed out that religious persecution has driven forced migrations in fragile states down the ages and continues to do so. She presented the case of the Yazidi people in northern Iraq, whose suffering today is on an epic scale, and stressed that the resolution of all problems rooted in the victimisation of peoples must reside in justice and only an enforcement of rule of law could save them from perpetual subjugation and even extinction.
After her speech, I asked her if she might kindly arrange a visit to the House of Lords during a working day, for the entire cohort. She agreed gracefully! We all look forward for this opportunity to witness the proceedings of probably one of the most paramount pillars of democracy.
While we departed Cumberland Lodge, we all shared the feeling that this experience was a once-in-life time opportunity. We are particularly grateful to Principal Canon Dr Edmond Newell and the Educational officers Rachel Smillie and Alice Wigley. Both during the service in the Royal Chapel and during the graduation ceremony, I wondered how nice it would be if all my fellow IDS students were able to attend a retreat in Cumberland Lodge!
Clement Arockiasamy is a Chevening scholarship student currently studying for an IDS Master’s degree in Development Studies.