Tetiana Kalenychenko

Tetiana Kalenychenko

Interviews “The role of religion in peacebuilding is undervalued”

Tetiana Kalenychenko, an expert in religion and conflict resolution, in conversation with Yuliya Yurchuk on how religion can be an instrument in conflict transformation.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2021:3, pp 92-95
Published on balticworlds.com on October 8, 2020

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Tetiana Kalenychenko in conversation with Yuliya Yurchuk on how religion can be an  instrument in conflict transformation. Tetiana Kalenychenko holds a PhD with specialization in the sociology of religion, she is a lecturer at the National Pedagogical Dragomanov University, and an expert in conflict resolution and conflict transformation. Her research focusses on the role of religion in conflict transformation. 

You are both a researcher and an expert working with conflict resolution projects. You directly apply your academic knowledge to solving practical issues. Can you tell us more about your own position as a scholar and as an engaged citizen? Can we say that you are both an activist and a researcher?

“First of all, I wouldn’t say that I am a hundred-percent academic because now I am more engaged in projects outside academia than in work at the University. My work for NGOs occupies much more of my time than my work in academia. On the other hand, I cannot say that I am an activist. I think that I am very privileged to be able to combine academic work with projects outside academia. My knowledge as a researcher enriches the practice. I implement some theoretical ideas in practice and see how they work in the projects. The work with NGOs, on the other hand, gives food for reflection in my research. Coming back to the question whether I can call myself an activist: During the period before I became fully immersed in academia, before defending my PhD-dissertation, I would say that I was an activist. It was especially obvious during the Maidan protests. During the protests on Maidan I was a volunteer. Later in 2014–2015 during the conflict in Donbas I also volunteered and worked together with chaplains on the front line. I also helped families who suffered because of the conflict. I was very active in all the volunteer work. During that period, I would definitely call myself an activist.

“But in 2015 I started to work professionally in the civil society sphere. That was the point when I stopped being an activist. At least I cannot call my professional activities a part of civic activism. In my opinion, activists work for their idea voluntarily; they are not paid for their work. For me, this work became my profession. I studied conflict resolution and conflict transformation and now I am dealing with these issues professionally. I am not a volunteer anymore so I cannot say I am an activist.”

Do you see some tensions between your work as an expert in different projects and a lecturer at the University?

“I teach only part-time, mainly students who take distance-learning courses. I can be flexible with my time and devote most of my energy to different projects in NGOs. At Ukrainian universities, there is almost no time for research; almost all research activities are unpaid. In contrast to this, my analytical skills are needed and valued in the projects I work with. For instance, I am currently working with the US Institute of Peace within the Dialogue in Action project. They needed me precisely because of my dissertation topic (the role of religion in conflict transformation). I am happy that my research was needed, and people are interested in its further development. Within the project we cooperate with different ministries and other state institutions where I can see that the results of my research are applicable in practice. That is why the combination of academia and NGO seems perfect for me now. It is both interesting for me and needed by society.

“Because I am a professional working in the NGO I have access to people and information which would never be available otherwise. I am not a sociologist or an anthropologist who would come from outside, take an interview and leave. I am always in this environment that also is my research interest. Moreover, I am a part of it. I would never get this knowledge without direct experience. All my knowledge from academia can be applied here.

“The specificity of my work depends on the projects. I work as a trainer and dialogue facilitator. In these roles, my main task is to build up communication processes between different groups. Often these are different religious groups because I mainly work with religious actors. I learn a lot in the process of my work. I see that religion has great potential in conflict resolution because it can provide a platform, a safe space, for all parties involved in the conflicts, because all religions are ideally neutral and directed to the good of all members of the community.”

Can you tell more about these projects that your work depends on?

“A project I am involved in is linked to the Peaceful Change initiative. It is an international group of experts in conflict transformation who are working in Syria, Libya, Caucasus, Balkans and Ukraine. In Ukraine, I collected information about all the projects on peacebuilding: Who are the mediators and facilitators working in the country, what work is being done, which trends are visible in this work, which factors of escalation and de-escalation of the armed conflict can we distinguish. Together with Tatiana Kyselova and Dialogue and Mediation Research Centre we have even developed a special instrument for the evaluation of dialogue initiatives by different parties in the conflict. In Armenia, I worked with young people and developed a methodology for training future community facilitators and mentors. Now the people whom I taught are giving workshops to their own students.

I also work for the NGO Institute of Peace and Common Ground, developing methodological materials and conduct training courses for civil activists. We are working with the Ministry of Education of Ukraine on the project ‘Peaceful School’ which is focused on communication in schools based not on punishment but on dialogue and communication. We work with children, teachers, and parents.”

What role does religion play in those peacebuilding processes?

“Religion is included in all these projects as one of the factors. But there are specific NGOs where religion plays a central role. These are the Dialogue in Action project, based on ‘Spirit and Letter’ and the Center of St. Clement at Kyiv Mohyla Academy. In these projects, religion is regarded as the main component in peacebuilding. We started our work on the projects there in 2016. It is interesting that different foundations find us by themselves and are willing to finance our activities. Here, religious actors are important players in all roles. We identified that in small communities, it is the religious actors who enjoy trust of the community and who have access to all the community’s members. We noticed that if we invite religious actors to our work with the community, then the work process changes. It becomes much easier to work. Moreover, we can see a transformation in group dynamics when we include religious actors in the peace transformation projects. We can clearly see that religious actors often do the same things that the NGOs do, so we simply bring them together. In these projects, we worked with Christians, Muslims, Jews, even neo-pagan groups, but most often with Christians of different confessions. We let them meet and find solutions for the better life of the community together. We also put a lot of energy into publishing. Recently we published a translation of a text by a Mennonite, who is one of the important theoreticians on peacebuilding and conflict resolution — John Paul Lederach, and another book of our friend from Balkans — Goran Bozicevic. We are trying to create a literature basis that enriches practice with theory.”

What is specific about Ukraine and what does Ukraine have in common with other countries in conflict situations?

“First, I should emphasize that the conflict in Ukraine is not a religious conflict. The particularity of Ukrainian situation, though, is that religion here is closely entwined with social and political life. This raises new questions about the potential of religions and religious leaders to influence peacebuilding and conflict transformation. Because religion is closely linked to other spheres of life, there are close connections between religious actors and political actors, communities, and business structures. Moreover, there is already an established image of religion. Such a deep penetration of religion in different spheres of life presents both risks and opportunities. Religious actors have contacts with practically everyone in society, which is why they can reach many people and present a platform for building a constructive dialogue. On the other hand, in order to present such a platform and a safe space, religious actors have to stay neutral. This latter part — staying neutral — is practically absent now. This is the problem that interests me most in my research right now. There is the concept of ‘insider mediators’ in conflict transformation research. These are the people who are peacebuilders in the very essence of their societal roles. They are the people to whom others come to solve their problems and conflicts. Very often these people are priests because people generally trust them. In Ukraine, though, the situation is too complicated. We have not only several religions or several confessions, we have several churches in one confession, which creates many communities within one community. This deepens the lines between narratives about the conflict and about the identities of parties involved. The churches often deepen the identity crisis that many Ukrainians feel after Maidan. This is fruitful ground for perpetuation of the conflict. In a way, people want to find some support, but they see that even the church is split and unable to give them this support. On the other hand, there are some attempts to develop a united approach to conflict transformation among churches in the Council of Religions of Ukraine, but these attempts are individual cases, rather than a concrete united initiative. These projects come from para-religious organizations, which are secular organizations with close links to religious actors (Eleos Ukraine as of Orthodox Church of Ukraine, or Caritas in the both Greek-Catholic and Roman-Catholic Churches, ADRA for Adventists etc). These are secular initiatives created by religious organizations. The people involved in these projects may be secular but the funding and organizational support comes from religious institutions too.

“If we compare the conflict situation in Ukraine with other conflicts, we can say we have a quite specific case. For instance, in the Balkan conflict, religion was an important element of identity, and religious organizations had concrete standpoints about the conflict. In Ukraine, the identities of the conflicting parties are blurred; the religious component is not strong. We deal mainly with the same religion, whereby the churches do not always express a united standpoint.

“The hybrid nature of the conflict in Donbas makes everything more complicated because this hybridity blurs the lines and definitions of the conflict. I personally know people who work in the church and try to serve the spiritual needs of their parishes, but the external circumstances influence the church even if we think about spirituality. If we think about the changes which the societies on the two sides of the conflict underwent during these five years, we can see that the gap between the people is growing. The economic, political and social conditions differ too much. Religion could create the platform for negotiations and dialogue, especially at grassroots level. It should be stressed that it is not only states that have to establish this dialogue. The dialogue should be built up from below. Let’s imagine that by some miracle the conflict is settled, the territories are back under the Ukrainian government’s control. How will life continue if the bonds between the people were cut? A lot of work will be needed to rebuild these bonds. Religion could help then. The fact is, though, that religious groups are split. The churches are split. So, this opportunity is mainly missed. The conflict revealed all the missed opportunities since Ukraine became independent. Suffice to say that we started speaking about Muslims only when it became trendy after the annexation of Crimea. Moreover, the Muslim community itself, which is not that numerous, is also split.”

Can you tell us how well the question of religion in conflict resolution is developed in the theoretical literature?

“The component of religion in conflict resolution is a rather new research field. Religion is often considered as an important element in the Islamic context but as my dissertation shows, there are different contexts where other religions are important factors in conflict situations. In Ukraine, we have a so-called ‘arbitrary’ religious conflict. That means that there is no conflict about religion as such, but there is a conflict about resources that involves religious actors. Here I mainly refer to the conflicts between different Orthodox churches and between different Muslim organizations in Ukraine.”

What do you think Ukrainian experts in conflict transformation can teach the world in regard to their own professional experiences?

“We have been developing our methodology and analytical frameworks for years and now we can see that the material we have is much more advanced than all the tools we had from the beginning of the conflict which were mainly ‘imported’. Ukraine is like a laboratory now. We can observe what can possibly happen in society when hybrid war becomes a reality, when post-truth and fake news set the daily agenda. I feel that we are in an experimental field and if we cope with the problems, we will set examples for others. We will be experts in survival strategies, so to speak. Our success will be a good sign for other societies.”

Note: This text is based on interviews conducted on September 18, 2019, and December 2, 2019.