Why religion is important in conflict prevention

David Saperstein
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In recent years, much foreign policy attention has focused on the role of religion in contributing to strife across the globe. In many fragile states, such as Myanmar, Congo and Sri Lanka, religious divisions do exacerbate strife, even where religion may not be the root cause of the conflict. Religion, however, can play an important role in peace-making and conflict prevention and resolution.

Religion connects with peace in four major ways:

  1. The ideas of human dignity and the common humanity of all, derived from the notion that all are created in the image of the Divine, are foundational to true peace. Religious concepts of redemption and forgiveness underpin key post-conflict reconciliation efforts, providing resources to help societies heal the shattering consequences of war.
  2. Interfaith protests often focus attention on peaceful forms of resistance to oppression and injustice. Think of the religious denunciation of the practices of apartheid and segregation as sins, or religious efforts to halt ethnic cleansing in Darfur.
  3. Religion represents influential civil society communities and institutions, often seen as representing unifying values that transcend disputed issues; they are often among the most stable, most trusted entities in crisis venues, capable of contributing to mediating disputes. Think of the accomplishments of groups like the Community of Sant’Egidio’ among whose achievements include successfully brokering the 1992 peace agreement in Mozambique after 30 years of civil war. Other examples are interfaith reconciliation efforts in South Africa, Muslim-Christian coalitions in the aftermath of the Balkan conflicts and ecumenical Christian efforts in Colombia.
  4. Local and international religious entities play a large and often unappreciated role in promoting education, delivering health care services and addressing poverty, all of which create conditions of hope, support to the needy and stability; conditions without which peace cannot flourish.

In almost every conflict region in the world, interfaith efforts have contributed to resolving or avoiding disputes, as well as improving the conditions of millions caught up in civil strife. However, there are limitations to the successes, impact, or consistency of these interfaith endeavours. Too often, their voices are drowned out by the raucousness of strife, cannot gain political traction, and are not a determining factor as such crises play out.

All these interfaith efforts, from Africa to the Middle East to East Asia, do so much good at the micro level, yet rarely are they able to truly change the short term destiny of countries caught up in civil war or regional strife.

Despite these limitations, it is often the very existence of interfaith groups that inspires or encourages others to move in the direction of peace, mutual cooperation and reconciliation.

Saturday, 21 September was International Day of Peace, it is fitting to remind political, business, cultural and religious leaders the greatest gift religion, at its best, has given to humanity – the vision of the infinite potential of humankind under the conditions of peace.

Author: Rabbi David Saperstein is Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and a Member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Role of Faith.

Image: People are seen holding a lamp in prayer REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri.

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