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Health, human rights experts call for “safe spaces” in churches

EXPERTS IN health and human rights from around the world gathered in Geneva 16-18 January to ponder a question: How can churches create "safe spaces" where people can learn and discuss sensitive issues without fear of judgment?

"We need to have open and inclusive dialogue on mental and physical health issues, so that we can create safe spaces, where communities can express their concerns in an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust," said Dr. Elizabeth Vadakekara, of the Medical Mission Sisters in London, based in India.

The World Council of Churches’ (WCC) Health and Healing program, the Women in Church, and Society and Youth in the Ecumenical Movement brought together 25 participants representing churches and religious agencies with experience in a variety of fields, including healthcare delivery, gender issues, human rights, advocacy against gender-based violence and HIV/AIDS.

They discussed a wide spectrum of issues, ranging from mental health, cancer and death, to stigma associated with diseases and sexuality.

Case studies were shared and participants analyzed the complexities and difficulties communities face in dealing with health issues.

The participants raised various ethical and theological perspectives on dealing with the creation of safe spaces.

They saw the potential for education and training in existing church settings, which include groups for youth, women and men, Sunday schools, seminaries, interdenominational and inter-religious spaces.

Participants proposed an analytical framework for self-assessment in communities and churches.

They also proposed guidelines to help faith communities to become inviting, inclusive and mutually accountable.

Nicqi Ashwood, of the Caribbean and North America Council for Mission in Jamaica, applauded the effort. "Churches have to be a space where the disfranchised can be supported with compassion, and a process of positive transformation is possible," she said.

Organizers say the dialog will continue at the WCC 10th Assembly, in Busan, South Korea in 2013.