A panel of scholars and practitioners meeting at Georgetown on Monday, April 23, explored challenges and new directions for peacebuilding, focusing on tangible lessons from different world regions that spoke to the importance of including and engaging religious actors.
The occasion was the visit to the United States by two experienced members of the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) team working on some of the world’s most intractable conflicts: Myla Leguro working in Mindanao, Philippines, and Shamsia Ramadhan in Kenya.
The event highlighted both challenges and progress in peacebuilding, centered on the rich experience that CRS has gained since it reoriented its strategic focus in 1996 following the tragic events of 1994 in Rwanda.
Establishing Religion’s Role in Conflict
Katherine Marshall, a senior fellow at the Berkley Center, opened the conversation by highlighting the diversity of perspectives on religion and conflict and common misunderstandings that stem from them.
“Even questioning how religion and religious beliefs are involved in conflict can raise hackles,” Marshall said.
Aaron Chassy, director of the Equity, Inclusion and Peacebuilding team at CRS headquarters, emphasized how central the peacebuilding mission is to CRS today and the organization’s determination to learn from experience. Both CRS speakers and commentators (Rebecca Cataldi and Martine Miller, conflict resolution specialists and trainers) returned repeatedly to the central, if often ignored, roles that religious actors play.
“Even in the conflicts that aren’t explicitly religious, religion is still involved,” observed Cataldi.
Religion and Reconciliation
While the precise roles that religious beliefs play as contributors to violence are rarely a simple matter, the panelists acknowledged its undeniable importance in many situations. But their main focus was on the critical roles that religious actors can play when it comes to resolving conflicts, and to preventing their recurrence.
Nell Bolton, a senior CRS advisor, highlighted a survey in Bosnia-Herzegovina that found that “75 percent of people think that religious institutions are important for the future of the country.”
Shamsia Ramadhan, who manages faith-inspired peacebuilding programs in Africa, highlighted the rationale but also the challenge for organizations trying to draw on the resources of religious communities to address conflicts: “How can we use the community force of religion for good, to bring positive and constructive change in society?” she asked.
A theme through the discussion was dialogue and organization on the community level. The group also focused on the responsibility of religious leaders to encourage collaboration with a variety of actors across faith traditions.
“An important step for interreligious collaboration is gaining knowledge of the other’s religion,” said Ramadhan. “This helps remove the stereotypes, fears, and uncertainties about people of other faiths that often impede the peacebuilding process.”
Bolton conveyed a sense of optimism about the ability of local religious leaders to initiate positive change because of their deep investment in their communities.
“We have to remember that religious actors are not just religious actors. They are embedded in their communities, they wear different hats, and we must capitalize on the multiplicity of those roles,” she said. “They don’t live in a removed spiritual realm–they too want safety, dignity, and better lives for their children.”
Bolton also discussed the ways in which young people can be engaged in their communities to promote peace and prosperity after conflicts end. She echoed Ramadhan’s sentiment that religious actors can serve as a counterforce to prejudice and ignorance, highlighting activities like touring religious spaces, which can help young people engage with those that are not like them in their communities.
“This is an area where we can integrate the development lense and put a strong emphasis on youth agency, giving young people opportunities for organization and action,” Bolton said.
Merging Grassroots and Top-Down Approaches
Youth activism and initiatives from local religious leaders are important examples of community organization, which this group saw as an essential component of conflict transformation. However, it is most effective when it comes alongside high-level collaboration and formal peace agreements. Myla Leguro spoke of a metaphor from the Philippines that conveys the point, through a traditional Filipino dish, bibingka.
“Just as to cook a good bibingka, there must be fire from above and fire from below; there needs to be both top-down and bottom-up organization and effort to truly transform a community where there was once religious violence,” she said. This symbolizes the vital importance of a combination of higher-level and grassroots organization in efforts to build peace.