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Lebanon forum participants
Lebanon – a centre for dialogue
Thursday, November 10, 2016
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Lebanon – a centre for dialogue

Participants at Beirut forum

Last week an international forum in Lebanon brought together political and religious leaders, academics and diplomats to explore how the country can become ‘a space for dialogue among civilisations and cultures’. Held at Notre Dame University (NDU) in Beirut, it was hosted by the University and the Lebanon Dialogue Initiative (LDI) in partnership with Initiatives of Change.

Bahije Tabbara, formerly Lebanon’s Minister of Justice, outlined the LDI’s aim of establishing Lebanon as a universal centre for dialogue, recognised as such by the United Nations. Expanding on this vision, NDU Vice-President Suheil Matar asked, ‘Can we become a country with a message that dialogue is stronger than arms, that pencils are stronger than bullets?’

William Zard Aboujawde, President of LDI’s Supervisory Board, said that in the midst of the hard times Lebanon and the region is going through, ‘our fate is to accept this challenge; our duty is to find and contribute to solutions’.

He was followed by Sheikh Malek al-Shaar, Mufti of Tripoli and North Lebanon, who described dialogue as ‘the art of listening’. It meant being prepared to accept what the other says and change one’s beliefs, he said, ‘as opposed to aiming to prove that we are right’.

John Bond speaking in LebanonInitiatives of Change worker John Bond (right) from Britain, who gave the keynote address, supported the Mufti’s approach. ‘The challenge is to create the trust which makes dialogue an encounter that changes entrenched attitudes. In my experience, if I am ready to admit my wrongdoing towards those with whom I dialogue, this helps create the conditions in which change is possible.’ He went on to describe how this approach had proved effective in several situations of tension and conflict.

‘Lebanon demonstrates that a pluralist society can work, even in a turbulent region,’ he said. ‘To make this country a place of dialogue will mean taking into your hearts the pain of the world’s disagreements. If you can do it, many people now in despair will find hope, and will live with immense gratitude for you.’

The forum then held a roundtable discussion with Edita Tahira, Kosovo’s Minister for Dialogue, and Marko Djuric, Head of Serbia’s Negotiations Team on relations with Kosovo. Their teams have met 200 times in Brussels in the past four years to negotiate on many issues of contention. Though many issues are still deadlocked, they have negotiated over 30 agreements, and they said that these agreements owed much to the personal respect they held for each other. The discussion was facilitated by William Habib, former Secretary-General of Lebanon’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Pieno Hiekha (left) and Zooni Dash

The final session heard from a panel of young people from five countries. Among them were Indian Initiatives of Change workers Zooni Dash from Odisha (left, along with Penuo Hiekha on her right) and Penuo Hiekha from Nagaland. They spoke of the division, unrest and resentment in Nagaland fuelled by its people's struggle for their political aspirations, and of their personal experience of overcoming indifference and hatred which has enabled them to help bridge the gulf of distrust