Religious Contributions to Peacemaking: When Religion Brings Peace, Not War

Peaceworks No. 55
Published: 
January 1, 2006
By: 
Edited by David R. Smock

In the popular mind, to discuss religion in the context of international affairs automatically raises the specter of religious-based conflict. The many other dimensions and impacts of religion tend to be downplayed or even neglected entirely. The contribution that religion can make to peacemaking--as the flip side of religious conflict--is only beginning to be explored and explicated.

Introduction

The post-September 11 world is seized with the dangers of religious extremism and conflict between religious communities, particularly between two or more of the Abrahamic faiths: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. The threat of religious extremism is real and well documented. The connection between religion and conflict is in the process of being thoroughly explored, however, to the extent that hyperbole and exaggeration are commonplace. In the popular mind, to discuss religion in the context of international affairs automatically raises the specter of religious-based conflict. The many other dimensions and impacts of religion tend to be downplayed or even neglected entirely.

The contribution that religion can make to peacemaking--as the flip side of religious conflict--is only beginning to be explored and explicated. All three of the Abrahamic faiths contain strong warrants for peacemaking. There are past cases of mediation and peacemaking by religious leaders and institutions. For example, the World Council of Churches and the All Africa Conference of Churches mediated the short-lived 1972 peace agreement in Sudan. In South Africa, various churches were at the vanguard of the struggle against apartheid and the peaceful transition. The most dramatic and most frequently cited case is the successful mediation the Rome-based Community of Sant'Egidio achieved to help end the civil war in Mozambique in 1992.

Repeatedly citing these cases as the main points of reference distorts the reality of religious peacemaking. Most of the cases of religious or faith-based peacemaking are less dramatic in their outcomes. Also, religious peacemaking is becoming much more common, and the number of cases cited is growing at an increasing pace.

The field of religious peacemaking is also maturing. With more sophisticated reflections of its growing experience, a body of knowledge is developing. I made an earlier attempt to reflect on this experience in the book I edited titled Interfaith Dialogue and Peacebuilding (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2002). Some of the leading thinkers and practitioners in the field, including Marc Gopin, Mohammed Abu-Nimer, and David Steele, contributed chapters to that volume. The book contains an analysis of the keys of success in interfaith dialogue as a mechanism for resolving violent conflicts. It lifts up the unique elements of religious peacebuilding, with a particular focus on apology and forgiveness. It also emphasizes the importance of keeping issues of social justice front and center, so that religious peacebuilding does not merely make the participants feel better.

There are a number of other important contributions to this literature. When communal identities, particularly religious identities, are key causal factors in violent conflict, traditional diplomacy may be of little value in seeking peace or conflict management. Douglas Johnston, president of the International Center on Religion and Diplomacy, has identified conditions in several conflict situations that lend themselves to faith-based intervention:

  • religion is a significant factor in the identity of one or both parts to the conflict;
  • religious leaders on both sides of the dispute can be mobilized to facilitate peace;
  • protracted struggles between two major religious traditions transcend national borders, as has been the case over time with Islam and Christianity; and/or
  • forces of realpolitik have led to an extended paralysis of action.

Johnston also identifies the attributes that religious leaders and institutions can offer in promoting peace and reconciliation, including:

  • credibility as a trusted institution;
  • a respected set of values;
  • moral warrants for opposing injustice on the part of governments;
  • unique leverage for promoting reconciliation among conflicting parties, including an ability to rehumanize situations that have become dehumanized over the course of protracted conflict;
  • a capability to mobilize community, nation, and international support for a peace process;
  • an ability to follow through locally in the wake of a political settlement; and
  • a sense of calling that often inspires perseverance in the face of major, otherwise debilitating, obstacles.

By way of example, African peacemaker Hizkias Assefa, emphasizes the commendable role of religious leaders as an asset in peacemaking. Such religious leaders are particularly effective in working together for peace when they are from different faith communities. When the faiths explore and practice common values, such as justice and compassion, in public life, religious leaders can be an inspiration to others. Gerrie ter Haar summarizes Assefa's contention as:

"Bringing the spiritual dimension into the peacemaking process can create access to the more deep-seated, affective base of the parties' behavior, enabling them to examine critically their own attitudes and actions. People's conflict behavior is often based on more emotional considerations and thus may not be changed simply by rational negotiation processes and subsequent agreements. Cognitive decisions and commitments, he argues, do not necessarily translate into feelings and actions."

Religious resources are contained in the four main elements of which religions consist. Haar identifies these elements as: religious ideas (content of belief), religious practices (ritual behavior), social organization (religious community), and religious--or spiritual--experiences. These dimensions can all be used in the service of peacemaking. Two critical elements in religious life that are centrally important to peacemaking are empathy and compassion, and the value of tapping into these attributes is readily apparent in effective religious peacemaking.

The development of studies and practice relating to the connection between religion, conflict, and peace is paralleled by United States Institute of Peace (USIP) program development on religious peacemaking. In 1990, USIP established a program on religion, ethics, and human rights led by David Little, now a professor at Harvard Divinity School. That program focused on compiling case studies on the sources and nature of religious conflict in such countries as Sudan, Lebanon, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, and Ukraine. Several publications resulted from these case studies, including books on Sri Lanka and Ukraine regarding conflict between the faith communities. Overall, these studies viewed religion principally in terms of creating conflict.

After David Little retired from USIP in 1999, the Institute decided to continue prioritizing religion in relation to international conflict and peace, but decided to shift the emphasis from religion as a source of conflict to peacemaking. This shift fully acknowledged the contribution of religion to conflict, but lifted up the peacemaking potential of religious leaders and institutions. Working with local institutional partners, USIP's Religion and Peacemaking Program has collaborated in religious peacemaking in Nigeria, Sudan, Israel and Palestine, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Macedonia, and Indonesia. The emphasis is on peacemaking when two or more Abrahamic faiths are in conflict. In some cases, USIP's efforts have focused on helping believers reinterpret their religious principles in ways that contribute to peaceful coexistence with adherents of other faiths.

This Peaceworks builds upon and goes well beyond the book, Interfaith Dialogue and Peacebuilding, which presented general principles to guide effective interfaith dialogue as well as profiles of some of the leading organizations in the field. This report provides a series of case studies addressing specific religious conflicts through a variety of methodologies. Some of the cases describe dramatic successes, like the Inter Faith Mediation Center mediating peace between Christians and Muslims in some of the most strife-torn regions of Nigeria. Others tackle some of the most intractable conflicts in the world, such as the Alexandria process among Muslim, Jewish, and Christian leaders working to establish a religious peace track in Israel and Palestine. The analysis of the Iraqi Institute of Peace shows how the organization has grappled with the most critical issues currently facing a religiously fragmented Iraq. Not all the cases presented here describe dramatic success stories, but even the less decisive cases provide experiences and lessons that are instructive for future religious peacemaking in other places.

All of these cases explore projects by organizations that have been USIP partners in religious peacemaking and have received USIP financial support. Two of the cases (Kashmir and Sudan) describe projects undertaken prior to the Institute providing financial assistance, but all the other projects have been collaborative efforts with USIP. Presenting these case studies describes some of the richest material on this topic and also illuminates the Institute's involvement in this field.

This is not an analysis about interfaith dialogue in the traditional sense of members of different faith communities meeting to simply tell their stories, share their religious convictions with each other, or seek common religious understanding. Rather, the cases presented here are stories of religious communities and leaders joining together to resolve religious conflicts that are at least partially rooted in religious conflict.

Religion in many parts of the world is contributing to violent conflict, although exaggerated in many cases. This is well documented and broadly accepted. Usually disregarded, however, are opportunities to employ the assets of religious leaders and religious institutions to promote peace. Traditional diplomacy has been particularly remiss in its neglect of the religious approach to peacemaking. The cases described in the following sections illustrate the creative contributions that religion can make to peace in places like Israel/Palestine, Iraq, Macedonia, Nigeria, and Sudan. As these cases illustrate, religious approaches to peacemaking do not provide a panacea, but can complement secular peacemaking productively. This Peaceworks is meant both to demonstrate the value of religious contributions to peacemaking, and to extract lessons about what is and is not effective.

The following sections describe and analyze religious peacemaking in Kashmir, Israel/Palestine, Iraq, Nigeria, Sudan, and Macedonia. Though all employ religious approaches, these cases illustrate several methodologies. The Kashmir case uses interfaith dialogue. The Israel/Palestine project describes an effort to develop a religious track to peace as a complement to diplomatic/secular negotiations. The Iraq example describes the establishment and operation of the Iraqi Institute of Peace to promote interfaith comity in that strife-torn country. The Nigeria cases describe training religious leaders in peacemaking, and mediating between Muslims and Christians successfully in Plateau State to end bloody conflict. The Sudan case describes both religious peacemaking between two ethnic groups in Southern Sudan and a project to improve Christian/Muslim relations in Southern Sudan. Lastly, the Macedonia piece describes efforts to establish an interfaith council to promote peace among Macedonia's faith and ethnic communities.

About the Contributors

Imam Muhammad Nurayn Ashafa is codirector of the Inter Faith Mediation Centre in Kaduna, Nigeria and coauthor of The Pastor and the Imam: Responding to Conflict (1999) with Pastor James Movel Wuye.

Brian Cox is senior vice president and Kashmir project leader of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy in Washington, D.C., www.icrd.org.

Emmanuel LoWilla is executive director of Reconcile in Kampala, Uganda, an organization affiliated with the New Sudan Council of Churches.

Paul Mojzes is professor and former dean at Rosemont College in Pennsylvania. Pastor James Movel Wuye is codirector of the Inter Faith Mediation Centre in Kaduna, Nigeria and coauthor of The Pastor and the Imam: Responding to Conflict (1999) with Imam Muhammad Nurayn Ashafa.

Daniel Philpott is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and is chair of the Task Force on Faith-based Diplomacy at the Council on Faith and International Affairs, www.cfia.org.

David R. Smock is the director of the United States Institute of Peace Religion and Peacemaking Initiative. Previously he served as director of the Institute's Grant Program and coordinator of Africa activities. He is editor of Interfaith Dialogue and Peacebuilding (2002).

January 1, 2006