Injecting Morality in Conflict: The Role of Religious and Interreligious Actors in Peacebuilding and Policymaking

By: Mohammed Abu-Nimer

February 22, 2017

The Vatican and Peacebuilding: Exploring the Church's Role in Conflict Resolution

The recent polarization in many parts of the world has motivated policymakers and religious institutions to begin taking more seriously the potential constructive role that religion and its various agencies can take in responding to violent extremism and in contributing to building stronger social cohesion in divided societies. The Holy See has acted as mediator or helped facilitate negotiations in peace talks in the past. While many secular policymakers may be reticent to incorporate a role for religion in peacebuilding, numerous local, national, and international bodies have begun to do so, contributing to a growing phenomenon. Various agencies in the European Union and United Nations and intergovernmental donors such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID); the Department for International Development (DFID); and Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) have begun engaging in partnerships with organizations such as the International Dialogue Centre (KAICIID) who can assist them in engaging local religious agencies in their programming. Obviously, faith-based development and humanitarian relief organizations have been working to promote diversity, pluralism, and peacebuilding for at least two decades.

Thus, these communities of practice have moved from denying and avoiding the inclusion of religious leaders and institutions to exploring the relevancy and feasibility of engaging religious leaders in their operations. There are a number of lessons that can be learned thus far from the experience in advocating for a greater engagement of religious leaders with both policymakers and their agencies, and the possible role in peacebuilding:
  1. Most of the world’s population adheres to one religion or another, underlining the importance of faith in the lives of locals and their communities. Religion and the respective leaders are often viewed with respect and trust, creating an array of possibilities to strengthen processes within the population by incorporating religion. The Vatican’s involvement in brokering peace talks in Venezuela sets a strong example of a desire for peace, which could be spread and gain greater support among local Catholic communities. However, there is a lack of understanding of the need for engaging religious actors due to the fact that most organizations operate within secular governance frameworks, and their managers have not been trained to be aware of the need to engage religious leaders. Thus, when they design their programs, they tend to build partnerships with secular civil society groups who share the same secular ideological assumptions of promoting diversity, human rights, and sustainable development. By failing to engage religion, policymakers and peacebuilding practitioners are failing to tap into a vast resource that could help achieve peace.

  2. Religious leaders and institutions are the gatekeepers of theology for their respective religions. While religion is often accused of inciting violence, all religions have strong theological narratives that support peace. Engaging religious leaders and institutions can help promote spreading messages of peace and non-violence to the populace. Unfortunately, a fundamental resistance to engage religious leaders remains an obstacle. Such tendencies exist especially among those policymakers who identify as secular and believe that religion should be confined to their primary function of providing theological and spiritual services to communities—and that any engagement beyond these parameters constitutes a violation of the separation of church and state, without realizing the potential support that theological narrative can provide in peace processes.

  3. Keeping in mind the organizational structure of religious institutions, the Vatican’s actions are important in setting an example for Catholic institutions. The hierarchical and authoritative nature of many religious institutions can be a unique feature that often affects the capacity of participants and partners from fully engaging with policymakers and development agencies without the full endorsement of their highest authorities. Thus, the involvement of the Vatican displays the endorsement of peace by the highest religious authority in the Catholic Church, which in turn would give way for the endorsement of other religious leaders within the Church.

  4. Despite this recognition of the importance of the role of religion by peacebuilding practitioners and policymakers, there is still the need to help religious actors and institutions see themselves in a broader role. Similar to the above challenge among policymakers, often traditional and conservative religious agencies continue to see their role as confined to providing religious and spiritual guidance to their followers; therefore, they tend to avoid engaging in their communities' social, political, or “earthly affairs.” When the Vatican gets involved, it is, in essence, exemplifying what kind of role religious leaders might play in “earthly matters.”

  5. The Catholic Church and its various institutions have played significant roles as peacemakers in a number of conflicts—such as in Zimbabwe and the final negotiation to insure political transition. Thus, this more recent intervention illustrates that the Church has a moral responsibility to act as an impartial third party, especially in a context where its credibility is not questioned by any of the parties.
While numerous challenges exist, it is essential to recognize the importance of the recent mutual collaboration and outreach to interreligious and intrareligious agencies of peace and dialogue by policymakers (reflected in the numerous conferences, training workshops, and research projects being held or launched around the globe in concerted efforts to counter violent extremism and prevent violence in the name of religion). The Vatican intervention—even though it might not produce immediate political agreement—is a positive step toward empowering other religious institutions to offer their efforts to diffuse political tension and deadlocks in negotiation. Positive moral values are often sacrificed by parties who choose to use violence to solve their problems; a religious institution should be the agency that re-injects these positive moral values in confronting the destructive dynamics of conflicts. This can, indeed, develop into an historical shift in the national and global strategies of responding to social, economic, and political problems, especially if religious and interreligious peacebuilding agencies are capable of sustaining their efforts and engaging wider audiences beyond their already committed followers.
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