Tuesday, April 6, 2004

In 1946 a group of Swiss, at great personal sacrifice, bought the rundown Caux Palace Hotel above Montreux as a place where the combatant nations of World War 11 could meet.

Author and journalist Michael Henderson introduces the Caux Centre, in Switzerland
Under the above headline this article appeared in Common Ground, the Journal of the Council of Christians and Jews (2004 Number 1)

In 1946 a group of Swiss, at great personal sacrifice, bought the rundown Caux Palace Hotel above Montreux as a place where the combatant nations of World War 11 could meet. It was the fulfilment of a thought a Swiss diplomat Philippe Mottu had had three years earlier: If Switzerland were spared by the war, its task would be to make available a place where Europeans, torn apart by hatred, suffering and resentment, could come together.

Mottu and the other Swiss were associated with a worldwide work for reconciliation which was then called Moral Re-Armament (MRA) and is now known as Initiatives of Change (IofC).

Renamed Mountain House, this distinctively turreted building is set in restful grounds with a panoramic view of Lake Geneva and the peaks of the Dents du Midi. Since 1946 it has been host to several hundred thousand people from all over the world, many of whom met across contentious divides - whether it be Turks and Greeks from the two sides of the green line in Cyprus; Muslims, Christians, and Jews from the Middle East, or Cambodians attempting to move beyond the killing fields.


From the outset when Germans and Japanese were welcomed as equals at Caux, the emphasis has been on bringing people together in a non-threatening ambience, focussing on future possibilities rather than on apportioning blame for the past. The heart of its philosophy is the notion that if you want to bring a change in the world, the most practical way to start is with change in yourself and your country. Caux fosters the practice of taking a time in quiet, alone or in community, helping each individual find for himself or herself the right course of action. Even as sessions deal with tough world issues the concept of wanting the best for the other person takes precedence over the results, whether political, social or economic.

In plenary sessions formal presentations are kept to a minimum and participants are encouraged to share their experiences briefly. Rabbi Marc Gopin, from George Mason University, observes, ‘Hearing the public testimony of parties to a conflict at Caux is critical to its conflict resolution process. Empathy is evoked by the painful story of the other party, and, in this religious setting, both parties refer to God’s role in their lives. This, in turn, generates a common bond between enemies that has often led, with subtle, careful guidance, to more honest discussion and relationship building.’

The conferences are divided into ‘communities’, smaller groups where people can get to know each other better, a way preferable for those who are intimidated by large meetings. The running of the centre is largely done by volunteers and conference attendees and this is itself a vital part of the Caux experience. Gopin describes how his opportunity to do kitchen duty with Muslim students created a bond: ‘The shared work, the levelling of social distinctions, the shared new experience that leaves behind old stereotypes and prejudices as we shared a new task and challenge together, the deflection of conversation away from, temporarily, the hard issues and towards filling the salt shakers. All of these things helped to transform the relationship of enemies’.

At a session marking the 50 th anniversary of the Caux conferences participants included the Dalai Lama, Cardinal Koenig from Vienna, the Rev Heinrich Rusterholz, President of the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches, Dr Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, and Dr Zaki Badawi, Chairman of Britain’s Imams and Mosques Council. The Dalai Lama, who has twice spent time in Caux, encouraged its organisers to use the facilities to bring the representatives of different faiths together. If the past century was characterized by war and bloodshed, he said, the coming century should be a century of dialogue.

Sometimes the sessions are public, sometimes private, as for instance when in July 2002 a Caux Dialogue for senior Muslims and non-Muslims was convened by Prince El Hassan bin Talal, Professor Rajmohan Gandhi and Dr Cornelio Sommaruga. In a joint report issued afterwards participants reaffirmed: ‘There can be no peace among nations without peace among religions and no peace among nations and religions without dialogue. There can be no peace without justice, and no peace without forgiveness and compassion, and no true forgiveness is possible with mental reservations.’ Gandhi said that adherents of each faith are responsible for its image: ‘This image does nor depend merely on the ideas of its founder, or on a golden age in its past history, but on the lives and actions of these adherents today.’


French Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel once wrote of the ‘decisive encounters’ which are a feature of Caux. These continue, whether it is Muslim and Christian militiamen from Lebanon, national figures from Japan and Korea, or rival clansmen from Somalia . Recalling his own experience in 2003, Israeli Yehezkel Landau, of Open House and now Hartford Seminary, says, ‘Caux is a holy place where miracles of transformation happen, where the Spirit which animates the universe and reveals itself to us in love moves people's hearts in the direction of healing and hope.’

The overall title of the 2004 series of international conferences in Caux (8 July-19 August) is ‘Narrowing the gap between ideals and interests.’