Friday, February 22, 2008
The United States Institute on Peace has released Special Report 201, Religion in World Affairs -- Its Role in Conflict and Peace. In the report, the Institute describes itself as "an independent, nonpartisan institution established and funded by the United States Congress [aiming] to help prevent and resolve violent conflicts, promote post-conflict peacebuilding, and increase conflict-management tools, capacity, and intellectual capital worldwide." The Institute maintains that it seeks to achieve these goals "by empowering others with knowledge, skills, and resources, as well as by its direct involvement in conflict zones around the globe."
The Special Report, prepared by the Institute's Religion and Peacemaking program, begins with the following summary of its contents:
No major religion has been exempt from complicity in violent conflict. Yet we need to beware of an almost universal propensity to oversimplify the role that religion plays in international affairs. Religion is not usually the sole or even primary cause of conflict.
With so much emphasis on religion as a source of conflict, the role of religion as a force in peacemaking is usually overlooked.
Religious affiliation and conviction often motivates religious communities to advocate particular peace-related government policies. Religious communities also directly oppose repression and promote peace and reconciliation.
Religious leaders and institutions can mediate in conflict situations, serve as a communication link between opposing sides, and provide training in peacemaking methodologies. This form of religious peacemaking garners less public attention but is growing in importance.
Interfaith dialogue is another form of religious peacemaking. Rather than seeking to resolve a particular conflict, it aims to defuse interfaith tensions that may cause future conflict or derive from previous conflict. Interfaith dialogue is expanding even in places where interreligious tensions are highest. Not infrequently, the most contentious interfaith relationships can provide the context for the most meaningful and productive exchanges.
Given religion’s importance as both a source of international conflict and a resource for peacemaking, it is regrettable that the U.S. government is so ill equipped to handle religious issues and relate to religious actors. If the U.S. government is to insert itself into international conflicts or build deeper and more productive relationships with countries around the world, it needs to devise a better strategy to effectively and respectfully engage with the religious realm.