How I Learned to Appreciate Religion’s Role in Building Peace

By: Prithvi Iyer

Bosnia and Herzegovina is not a place I had ever pictured myself visiting. This small country in the Balkans had quite simply never captured my imagination. Its allure was less obvious to me, unlike that of western European countries such as France and Switzerland that are often romanticized in globalized pop culture. 

But thanks to a student trip made possible by the University of Notre Dame and Peace Catalyst International, I recently visited the country—not as a tourist, but as a student of peacebuilding who gained a new appreciation for the role of religion in peace processes and reconciliation. 

In preparation for this trip, I spent time acquainting myself with the dynamics of the conflict between Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks. While this preparation was key, no number of readings could have prepared me for what I felt and learned by immersing myself in the world of the locals and their myriad experiences. 

New encounters challenge old perspectives 

Coming from India, I was not oblivious to anti-Muslim discrimination and its violent implications. In fact, my background provided me with an interesting comparative lens to process what local peacebuilders and students shared about the nature of violence taking place in Bosnia, especially during the war of 1992. I always thought that South Asia’s experience of discrimination and the relative ambivalence of the international community was exacerbated because the region’s population is non-white. But as a local aptly explained to me, after the breakup of Yugoslavia, being a Muslim in Bosnia has meant facing prejudice and oppression—a reality that white skin or blue eyes cannot protect against. The sobering inference I drew was that anti-Muslim prejudice can exist independently of racism. 

The trip also provided me with experiences that challenged my worldview. For one, visiting Srebrenica, the site of a historically significant massacre, and seeing the detailed ways in which each life lost was documented and memorialized was unlike anything I have ever seen. Despite experiencing wars and losing many lives to conflict, India does not have similar memorials that document violence by providing it with a physical and tangible manifestation. This prompted me to wonder how narratives around victimhood in my own country may be obscured by the lack of efforts to memorialize these tragic events. 

Sarajevo’s city cemetery is pictured.

Upon contemplating how Bosnians grapple with memories of wars and the existence of memorials, I found the ways cemeteries were constructed in the middle of the city of Sarajevo to be especially fascinating. Rather than hiding these sites from view or constructing them on the outskirts of the city, planners ensured cemeteries in Sarajevo served as an integral part of the overall landscape. Our Bosnian guide told us that this was to encourage Bosnians to confront and celebrate lives lost rather than shy away from it. Children play in these cemeteries and are not scared to run through the acres of green grass that occupy these traumatic spaces. By integrating memorial sites into the visual spectacle of Sarajevo, the city’s residents ensure they will never forget the lives that have been lost. At the same time, they do not view death with something to repress, but rather something that should be confronted and normalized; to me, that is a beautiful sentiment. 

My experiences in Bosnia and Herzegovina also made me introspect and critically examine the ways in which I think about religion. Most of the students in this trip had religious affiliations and the conflict in the country necessitated an understanding of religion and how they shape narratives of victimhood. Meeting local imams, priests and visiting key religious places in the country was an eye-opening experience for me. I learned that despite not having a religious affiliation, I still must empathize and put myself in spaces that constructively engage with the idea of faith. Conversations with my roommate (a devout Muslim from Pakistan) and local Bosnian students taught me that religiosity is not necessarily a deterrent to peacebuilding and often, is a crucial component of reconciliation work. 

I returned from this trip not converted by religion, but having formed a deep appreciation for the place of religion and faith in healing societies fractured by identity conflicts. 

Letting go of my own biases regarding institutionalized religion and delineating the oppressive potential of religion from its peaceful dimensions (which provide a bulwark against systemic injustices) had a profound impact in reshaping my own belief systems. I learned about how different denominations in the church can have varying approaches to inter-faith dialogue and peacebuilding. Meeting a Franciscan priest who spoke about how he has many atheist friends challenged my own stereotypes about religious people being closed-minded. I returned from this trip not converted by religion, but having formed a deep appreciation for the place of religion and faith in healing societies fractured by identity conflicts. 

Learning from others’ stories

I would be remiss to not mention the people I met and the value of the interpersonal connections I formed on this trip. Exploring the rich cultural history of Sarajevo with local students who quickly felt like good friends was deeply enriching. Beyond conversations around the conflict we were learning about, I was intimately familiarized with daily life in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the ways beauty can be found amid divisions and violence. Seeing people marred by conflict still live life with unbridled optimism taught me that societies can respond to historical cycles of violence with calls towards peace and reconciliation. 

One anecdote that captures this beauty is my conversation with Mirela, a local Bosnian peacebuilder working with us on this trip. She spoke of how her childhood was snatched from her because of the genocide during the Bosnian War. But rather than letting that traumatic experience characterize who she is, Mirela still exudes a sense of humor and zest for life that is deeply inspiring. She told me how being a young mother now is her way of re-living her childhood. This ability to find avenues for fulfillment despite a history of trauma challenged my perception around what living with trauma should or can feel like. Conversations with amazing women like Mirela and with college students showed me how people are spearheading a push towards normalizing relations and looking beyond differences. 

As I return to the United States and continue my education in hopes of aiding peacebuilding efforts, I am aware that these reflections and lessons can quickly evaporate as I get consumed in my next project or the next context in which I work. While I can’t predict the future, this trip, and the transformation it has forged have not been merely academic. My learning has been personal and affective, and has had spiritual dimensions. I eagerly hope this is the first of many visits I can make there, and I hope more people at the Keough School and beyond get to experience the richness Bosnia and Herzegovina has to offer.

Top Photo: Prithvi Iyer enjoys a hike during a recent student trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The View from Vichy: Gaining Insights on France’s Contested Holocaust History

By: Emma Jackson

The name “Vichy” carries a lot of baggage. Some think of the expensive skin care brand or the historic thermal spa city frequented by Emperor Napoleon. Others immediately think of the pro-Nazi collaborationist “Regime de Vichy” and “État Français” that existed from 1940 to 1944.

Vichy is a small city in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of central France. It was recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the category of Great Spa Towns of Europe. So naturally, at the time of my recent three-week stay during a university break, this element of Vichy’s identity was prominently marketed. 

Vichy, France

Supported by an Advance Language Training grant from the Keough School’s Nanovic Institute for European Studies, my time in Vichy helped me improve my French language skills and dig deeper into the city’s complex history.

Some historical background

After the Nazis invaded France in 1940, France and Germany signed an armistice that effectively split the country into two zones: the German military occupation zone and the so-called “unoccupied” or “zone libre” (free zone). Following the armistice, a puppet government was quickly formed within the zone libre in Vichy from an agreement between Hitler and French Great War hero Marshal Phillipe Petain.

A memorial in Vichy to Jewish victims of the Holocaust who were deported from Vichy, France during the Second World War.

While there is still some disagreement in France over the role of the Vichy Regime in the persecution of European Jews, recently declassified documents confirm that rather than acting out of self-preservation, the Vichy collaborationist government was a willing participant in the Holocaust. The Vichy government initiated anti-Semitic policies, such as removing Jews from the civil service and seizing property, even before the Nazis demanded their cooperation. It also willingly carried out large-scale arrests and deportations: some 77,000 Jewish French citizens and refugees were sent to death camps.

While researching this history, I found that France remains divided over the role of the Vichy government and there are multiple interpretations of the level of collaboration and the severity of the government’s crimes. In Vichy, there stands a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, but even this epigraph displays lower deportation numbers than official estimates. It also only mentions “Juif étrangers” (foreign Jews), brushing over the fact that Vichy France also arrested and deported Jewish French citizens.

Town Hall in Vichy, France

In recent news

A far-right candidate for the recent 2022 French elections, Eric Zemmour, a French Jew, has made some controversial statements about the Vichy government. For example, he claims that by first deporting foreign Jews to Germany’s death camps, Petain helped “save” French Jews. Zemmour was recently convicted and fined for racist hate speech against unaccompanied child migrants, describing them as “thieves, rapists, and murderers,” and is known for his incendiary remarks and staunch anti-immigration, anti-Islam rhetoric. 

Zemmour and other right-wing politicians favor protectionist policies and are generally “Eurosceptics” (that is, critical of the European Union). There are some interesting similarities with the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party in Germany—founded by Eurosceptic former members of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU)—which is now regarded as Germany’s anti-immigration party. 

While this visit was my first time in France, I quickly realized that far-right political parties in France promote similar agendas to far-right parties in Germany.

During the weeks I was in France, the country had taken over the European Union’s rotating presidency for six months starting in January 2022. One day after France’s presidency began, the government removed an EU flag that had been attached to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and had attracted criticism and protests from right-wing politicians. Marine Le Pen claimed that “replacing the French flag at the monument was an attack on the country’s identity,” and Zemmour called it an “outrage.” Before my flight to return to the US, I stayed in Paris and walked by the Arc de Triomphe and other major attractions. Interestingly, while the flag was removed, the Arc de Triomphe, the Tour Eiffel, the Notre-Dame de Paris, and the Hotel de Ville (City Hall) were all lit up with the EU flag’s distinctive blue and its gold stars.

From the outset, I was interested in studying the French language in Vichy because of the Régime de Vichy’s complicated and dark history from 1940 to 1944. Living in a city with this historical memory of the Holocaust and its dark legacy of faith-based discrimination and anti-Semitic policies informed my research on right-wing nationalism, Islamophobia, secularism, and the development of xenophobic policies in Europe. The recent news regarding the right-wing candidate Eric Zemmour, the widespread protests over vaccine mandates, and reactions to the EU presidency certainly made the experience more memorable and helpful for my academic research.

Emma Jackson is a master of global affairs student in the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame. During Notre Dame’s winter break, she undertook immersive French language training at CAVILAM Alliance Française in Vichy, France. 

Top photo: Emma Jackson in front of Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, which is lit with the blue background and yellow stars of the European Union flag.

Originally published by Emma Jackson at on June 03, 2022.

Peace Through the Eyes of Refugee Youth

By: Sophia Dianne C. Garcia

What does peace mean to you?

This question, though simple, can be one of the hardest to answer. I have learned in my classes and professional experiences that peace can be defined in many ways. It is shaped by multiple factors: experiences, culture, gender, and home country. Each person has their own perception of peace. 

Have you ever wondered what peace means for young people who had to leave their home countries to seek refuge and safety? Let me share with you my experience as an intern of Owl & Panther (O&P), a US-based organization in Tucson, Arizona. O&P offers opportunities for refugee survivors of torture and their families to find community, recreation, and solace through the power of expressive arts. The organization has three key main direct service programs:

  • Expressive arts
  • Community building
  • Engaging with nature

Currently, 76 individuals participate in O&P programs. On Thursdays from January to April 2022, the organization facilitated art activities and delivered donations for hundreds of Afghan parolees—Afghan Nationals who have been granted temporary entry into the United States through Humanitarian Parole.)

I am blessed to be involved in all O&P’s programs. One of the most memorable experiences I had was a peace essay-writing contest we organized. In February, I developed the contest for five O&P youth participants ages 16 to 19 years old. I mentored three of the youth in writing their essay. Each of them had unique perspectives and it was a meaningful learning experience. 

This internship is my first time working with refugees. Being a mentor took a lot of patience and perseverance. I worked hard to ensure participants enjoyed the process of writing their essays as much as or more than the final product. This is one of the main philosophies of O&P: process over product.

The poster for the Peace Essay contest
Andi Hammonds, program director of Owl & Panther delivering opening remarks during the Peace Essay Awarding Ceremony. Also pictured here is one of the youth participants and his mom.

Returning to the question at the beginning of this blog post, here are excerpts from the essays of all five participants on what peace means to them:

“. . . peace means the part where there is freedom. A kind of peace where there is no war; a place where there is no hate and aggression. Peace is needed wherever you are.”

“Peace is the path we take for bringing growth and prosperity to society . . . Peace is not the absence of chaos and problems, but it is the art to stay calm, focused, and united even in the middle of those.”

“I believe that providing education and eliminating poverty, inequality, and exclusions are the areas to work on to achieve peace both within and outside; from personal to interpersonal. And that can’t be done without a complete understanding and acceptance of ourselves and others. That is what peace is for me. It has many layers which are all interconnected. Where one cannot exist without the other.”

“Peace is about reaching our full potential as individuals, strengthening our faith and spirituality, and living in harmony with others. I am hopeful that one day, peace will reign in the world we live in. It is indeed the greatest thing in human life and the journey to peace begins with you and me.”

“From a very young age, I learned that it is essential to think about what peace means. Not only was it important for me to think about what peace meant on a more personal level, but what it meant on a global scale, because of the differences in experience for each person. With all the time I have spent contemplating what peace means, I have determined that peace is equality and is achievable through people striving to be accepting, humble, empathetic, and honest.”

This essay-writing contest gave me an opportunity to get to know these youth better. It became a window for me to have a glimpse of their experiences and their perception of peace. Truly, it has many levels. 

It has been five months since I arrived here in Tucson for my six-month internship as part of my Masters of Global Affairs program. I have learned so much about refugees, their experiences, and how O&P empowers them through its programs. It has deepened my understanding of peace as a process and there are many ways we can build it, including the use of arts. 

As the O&P youth reflected in their essays, being at peace with oneself, doing activities to stay calm and focused, taking part in raising awareness on issues that threaten peace, building genuine relationships with people, and the power of community are all essential in the journey to sustainable peace.

Donations for O&P programming participants

You may ask, what does peace mean to me? 

For me, peace is not just the absence of war, it is also the presence of justice and well-being. 

How about you? What does peace mean to you? It’s worth considering.

Standing in front of the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix during a 
Refugee Education Day event led by We Are All America, 
a refugee support organization.

Top photo: Art activity session with Afghan kids who arrived at Tucson in November 2021