Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Religion and International Peacemaking

Religion and International Peacemaking

Of the many facets to the relationship between religion and domestic and international politics, I want to devote most of my attention today to the role of religion in international peacemaking.[1] But even as I focus on this positive aspect, it is not my intention to misrepresent or ignore the role that religion often plays in fomenting international conflict.

As a glance into the literature readily confirms, it is all too easy to cite instances in which religion has contributed to or exacerbated conflict around the world.[2] And yet considerable confusion remains about the precise nature of the relationship between religion and conflict. Analysts are often tempted to contend that ancient religious hatreds generate conflict, but the causal chain is often too complex and subtle for such a facile conclusion.

The civil war in Sudan, for example, has lasted longer and cost more lives than any other in the world today. It is often described as a war over religious differences between Christians and Muslims, or as an effort by Christians to counter Islamic domination. Religion is clearly a factor in this conflict, particularly since Khartoum is governed by an Islamist regime bent on imposing sharia (Islamic law) and embedding Islam in the constitution. But the war long pre-dates this regime, which only came to power in 1989. Throughout the conflict religion has played a role, but it has more often been used as a surrogate for a cluster of other factors. The war is largely a struggle over whether Sudan sees itself as Arab/Middle Eastern or African, with northerners looking north and east and southerners looking south. Northerners speak Arabic as the lingua franca, while southerners are more likely to use English. More insidiously, some northerners believe themselves to be racially superior, but use supposed religious superiority as a cloak behind which they mask their racial prejudice. In turn, many southerners view Islam as the instrument of their subjugation.[3]

Similar complexity characterizes Ivory Coast. In October 2000, the Christian-dominated Supreme Court there disqualified all the Muslim candidates for president. After Muslims protested the outcome of the elections, Christian youths massacred 57 Muslims— a shocking act in a country in which Muslims probably outnumber Christians and which had been for twenty years after independence a model of ethnic and religious tolerance. An uninformed observer could readily jump to the conclusion that Ivory Coast is threatened by religious war. But religion qua religion is not the most fundamental source of conflict. Most Muslims live in the north, most Christians in the south. Moreover, many of the Muslims immigrated over recent generations from countries on Ivory Coast’s northern borders. To gain electoral advantage, key southern politicians stoked animosity toward foreigners and Ivorians of foreign heritage. This translated into animosity toward northerners and Muslims, not because of their religion per se, but because of their place of residence and national origin.

The recent imposition of sharia in several northern states of Nigeria has resulted in religious riots and the killing of hundreds of Christians and Muslims. Religious hostility has escalated in recent years in part because of the stridency of religious discourse by fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Muslims, often encouraged by foreign missionaries. But the more basic divide is again geographical. Since most Muslims live in the north and most Christians in the south, regional/ethnic divisions turn into religious divisions. Northern governors imposed sharia as a way to retaliate against Nigeria’s new president, a Christian from the south, who they feel has not been sufficiently responsive to their demands.

Variations on these three cases can be found all over the world. But even though religious difference may not be the direct cause of conflict in the manner suggested by superficial observation, religion has all too often contributed to strife.

Less obvious and less well known is the contribution that religious actors and faith-based organizations can make— and have made— to international peacemaking. The growing literature on this subject is at last beginning to illuminate the potential for future contributions of faith-based organizations to international peacemaking, and several important books have appeared within the past six years.[4]

Earlier interest in this topic focused on religious figures serving as mediators or providing good offices to bring warring parties into negotiation. Examples include the British Quakers, who carried messages between parties in the Nigerian civil war, and the mediation undertaken by the World Council of Churches and the All Africa Conferences of Churches, which brought about a temporary termination of the Sudan civil war in 1972. Through such involvement, these organizations were being faithful to their religious commitment to promote peace. Their effectiveness derived in large part from their even-handedness, discretion, and ability to honor the interests and needs of all parties. In Nigeria, the Quakers sacrificed any public recognition in hopes that carrying out their work in secret would contribute to success. In addition, their religious identity accorded them the respect that enhanced their effectiveness. The energetic but self-effacing peacemaking role played by the Imam of Timbuktu in West and Central Africa follows the same pattern. While he has not undertaken sustained mediation, he serves as an important communication link and adviser to both Christian and Muslim leaders on matters relating to conflict and peace.

The international mediation and peacemaking undertaken by Sant’Egidio, the lay Catholic organization based in Rome, is probably the most remarkable case of positive involvement. Sant’Egidio was the critical catalyst and facilitator for the peace agreement that ended the Mozambique civil war in 1992.[5] It has subsequently played constructive roles in peace processes in Kosovo, Algeria, Burundi, Congo and elsewhere. Many elements of its approach to peacemaking are not explicitly religious, but its religious motivation is always evident. In describing its role in Kosovo, one of its chief peacemakers has written, “Sant’Egidio’s motivation for engagement is central to its effectiveness. The members of the Community of Sant’Egidio have a strong sense of responsibility to those in pain and suffering, especially the poor. The Community also has a profound appreciation for its own weakness. The caring attitude that Sant’Egidio exhibits toward the less fortunate around the world opens the opportunity for person-to-person contact. Beyond the commitment to personal relationships with those in need lies the strong conviction that peace comes through dialogue and understanding. As a Christian foundation, Sant’Egidio believes that peacemaking is an essential part of its mission, requiring of it patience and commitment to long-term engagement.”[6] Moreover, Sant’Egidio’s credibility as an interlocutor derives in significant measure from its selfless work on behalf of the poor in Rome and elsewhere.

Interfaith dialogue is a uniquely religious approach to peacemaking, and particularly suited to countries torn by religious conflict. For example, the Inter Religious Council in Bosnia, whose original formation was aided by the New York-based World Conference on Religion and Peace and the U.S. Institute of Peace, is currently playing an impressive role in promoting dialogue among Serbian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim Bosnians. Interfaith dialogue in all parts of the former Yugoslavia has also been facilitated by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (orchestrated by the Rev. David Steele) through interfaith training in conflict resolution for both clergy and lay people. The current ethno- religious tensions in Ivory Coast could possibly be ameliorated by dialogue between the Muslim Council and the Roman Catholic hierarchy in that country. In the Philippines, the sustained interfaith dialogues organized by Catholic Relief Services between Muslim and Catholic clerics in Mindanao may help resolve secessionist conflict there.

Mediating and facilitating interfaith dialogue in conflict zones are the most obvious ways for religious organizations to promote peace. But these roles only touch the surface of their potential. Writing from the perspective of Judaism, Rabbi Marc Gopin explores several areas worthy of further exploration, which are also relevant to other faith traditions. Building on the concept of aveilus, Gopin writes, “It would be powerful indeed if groups of Arabs and Jews, perhaps aided by sympathetic Western Christians— who also have a key role in causing and healing this tragic conflict— would begin, in detail, to mourn what was lost. They must begin to visit the dead together, to bury them together in symbolic ways, to memorialize lost lives and lost homes… . One cannot really escape the morass of deadly conflict and discover life again after death without this kind of healing of memory.”[7]

As a means of bringing Palestinians and Israeli Jews closer to resolution, Gopin recommends unilateral gestures from each. “It would take repeated gestures of religious Israelis making donations to the upkeep of mosques before it would sink in that there were many religious Israelis who did not see all Muslims as enemies. It would take repeated Palestinian offers of condolences, visits, and gestures of comfort toward Israeli victims of bombs for it to sink in that not all Arabs wanted those bombs to go off… . The methods that I suggest here could gently move people toward the moderate middle, which would in turn, provide the political space for leaders, religious or secular, to make the necessary compromises.” Gopin further explores confessions, apologies, and restitution in “order to free everyone to develop a new sense of self, to mourn the past together with the victims, regularly, in order to foster a new future.”[8]

Gopin’s effort to extract recipes for peacemaking out of Jewish theology and scripture suggests that different faith traditions might identify their own distinctive prescriptions for peacemaking. But it will not always be easy to identify distinctive styles. For instance, Catholic peacemaking ranges from Vatican diplomacy to Sant Egidio’s mediation to the interfaith dialogue in Philippines.

Within some faith traditions, however, certain characteristics are clearly discernible. Mennonite peacemaking, for example, has deep roots in the peace church/pacifist theology of the Anabaptists, and has been further refined by practitioner- theorists such as John Paul Lederach. The Mennonite approach is unassuming, low key, and entails a long-term commitment even in the face of modest results. (Mennonites have been active in Northern Ireland for more than twenty years.) Mennonite peacemakers are expected to reside in the zone of conflict and become immersed in the culture and history, in order to understand the sources of conflict and possible indigenous avenues to peacebuilding. In turn, Mennonites emphasize careful listening and the use of local resources (personal, cultural, and institutional) as bridges to peace. A fundamental principle of Mennonite peacebuilding is that it should be principally aimed at the lower and middle strata of society, reflecting the conviction that elite-level negotiation, although important, can never build a lasting peace without societal transformation. The Quaker author Sally Engle Merry contrasts the elite-level mediation that characterizes Quaker peacemaking with the Mennonite approach, which is rooted in “sacrifice of self, listening and learning, being with, taking on the suffering and persecution of others, and putting the self in danger.”[9]

While high-profile mediation by organizations like Sant’Egidio capture public attention and on occasion prove productive, faith- based organizations are more likely to have a positive long-term impact by nurturing local capabilities in zones of conflict. The Mennonites have had success with this approach in Colombia and have instituted a remarkable training program for leaders from zones of conflict, which they conduct at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. The U.S. Presbyterians have significantly enhanced the peacemaking capacities of the New Sudan Council of Churches, particularly in promoting ethnic reconciliation in southern Sudan. The World Conference on Religion and Peace has also institutionalized interfaith collaboration and dialogue in such countries as Bosnia and Sierra Leone. With encouragement and financial support from the U.S. Institute of Peace, the Rev. David Steele helped organize new institutions in Bosnia and Croatia to sustain the interfaith dialogue and the training of religious bodies in conflict resolution.

In highlighting some of the success stories of faith-based organizations in international peacemaking, I do not want to convey too positive a picture. Even the Sampson and Lederach volume on Mennonite peacebuilding does not report many notable successes. Practitioners in this field still have much to learn, and some of the situations they confront are intractable. Many of their religious partners in zones of conflict are too weak to launch demanding initiatives. Often, Americans offer more by way of enthusiastic commitment than well-tested skills. Moreover, religious organizations do not command the diplomatic or military leverage that official diplomacy, whether bilateral or multilateral, can provide. The success of Sant’Egidio in Mozambique was largely due to its recognition of the limitations of its own expertise and institutional capacity. It therefore assembled a mediation team that engaged the governments of the United States and Italy, as well as the United Nations and even corporations. In criticizing the work of Sant’Egidio and other private actors in Burundi, Fabienne Hara has written, “Can the Sant’Egidio-sponsored accords be taken seriously by the warring factions if no serious commitment exists on the part of the international powers to enforce a cease-fire? The political independence and the flexibility enjoyed by agents of parallel diplomacy are their strengths but also their Achilles’ heel.” She goes on to warn that allowing private agencies to become de facto representatives of the international response to crises “presents the grave danger of eroding the responsibility of states to intervene.”[10]

To conclude, faith-based organizations must build on their special capabilities and perspectives while also recognizing and taking account of their limitations. Their successes are likely to be much greater, if less trumpeted, if they build up indigenous religious organizations as counterparts, help strengthen local capacities, foster interfaith reconciliation, and promote societal transformation through theologically rooted efforts to help enemies recognize the humanity they share.


[1] For a series of discussions on religion and world affairs, see for instance the Spring 1998 issue of Orbis, which is devoted to the topic.

[2] David Little, Ukraine: The Legacy of Intolerance (U.S. Institute of Peace, 1991). David Little, Sri Lanka: The Invention of Enmity (USIP, 1994); Scott W. Hibbard and David Little, Islamic Activism and U.S. Foreign Policy (USIP); Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (University of California Press, 2000); Mark Juergensmeyer, The New Cold War? Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State (Oxford University Press, 1994); Michael A. Sells, The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia (University of California Press, 1996).

[3] Francis M. Deng, War of Visions: Conflict of identities in the Sudan (Brookings, 1995), p. 446ff.

[4] The earliest of these books is Douglas Johnston and Cynthia Sampson, eds., Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft (Oxford University Press, 1995). See also Marc Gopin, Between Eden and Armageddon: The Future of World Religions, Violence and Peacemaking (Oxford University Press, 2000); Scott Appleby, The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence, and Reconciliation (Rowman and Littlefield, 2000); and Cynthia Sampson and John Paul Lederach, eds., From the Ground Up: Mennonite Contributions to International Peacebuilding (Oxford University Press, 2000).

[5] Cameron Hume, Ending Mozambique’s War: The Role of Mediation and Good Offices (USIP Press, 1994).

[6] Roberto Morozzo della Rocca, “Community of Sant Egidio in Kosovo,” in David Smock, ed., Private Peacemaking (USIP Press, 1998), p. 15.

[7] Gopin, pp. 173-74.

[8] Ibid., 186-87, 190.

[9] Merry in Sampson and Lederach, p. 217.

[10] Fabienne Hara in Chester Crocker, Fen Osler Hampson, and Pamela All, eds., Herding Cats (USIP, 1999), pp. 150, 151.