Religion & Peacebuilding: Actors & Activities


Religious actors

Three types of actors need to be distinguished:
  • Religious authorities who play the role of spiritual leaders and occupy a position of authority in a religious organization or community;
  • Traditional spiritual leaders who do not belong to an organized religion but play a spiritual role, often more localized to a specific community; and
  • Members of religious communities who have been influenced by a religious community and "who are acting with the intent to uphold, extend, or defend its values and precepts."1

Faith-based NGOs

Faith-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are non-state actors that have a religious or faith core to their philosophy, membership, or programmatic approach, although they are not simply missionaries.2 An important distinction has to be made between local and international faith-based NGOs but, unlike secular international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), these generally have existing channels for communication and collaboration in the field and ready-made constituencies. According to Susan Diklitch and Heather Prince, "Faith-Based NGOs can tap into domestic church groups and congregations, who thus provide these NGOs with access to a grassroots forum. More importantly, the church, especially in Africa, holds a position of reverence, moral legitimacy, and influence, although churches and faith-based organizations have also sometimes fallen into corruption."3

Some of the key international, non-missionary faith-based NGOs include the Aga Khan Foundation, American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), B'nai B'rith International (most widely known as Jewish Humanitarian), Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF), Catholic Relief Services (CRS), Islamic Relief Worldwide, Mercy Corps International, Lutheran World Relief (LWF), the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), and World Vision. They work in a large number of countries on different continents. Starting as organizations that focus largely on development issues and international aid, some of them (particularly the Christian NGOs) have gradually positioned themselves as forces for building peace in specific local contexts. Some experiences, such as in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia, have deeply affected the orientation of these organizations, pushing them further into peacebuilding work.

Other faith-based NGOs have been more specifically involved in faith-based diplomacy. This is the case with the Community of Sant'Egidio, the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD), and the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE). ICRD was founded by Douglas Johnston, one of the pioneers of faith-based diplomacy, and has been doing work in faith-based diplomacy in Sudan, Kashmir, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere over the past 10 years or so. IGE works on religious freedom.

The Community of Sant'Egidio began in Rome in 1968 at the initiative of a young man who was then less than 20 years old, Andrea Riccardi. He gathered a group of high school students, like himself, to listen to and put the Gospel into practice with a specific orientation to service to poor people. In the last 10 years, the Community of Sant'Egidio has become increasingly well known on the international level for the contribution of some of its members as facilitators or mediators in the Mozambique and Guatemala conflicts, as well as in a number of other conflicts in Africa and the Balkans. This commitment was preceded by the International Prayer for Peace initiated by Pope John Paul II in 1986 and continued by Sant'Egidio every year since then. These gatherings led to further involvement, including the Platform for a Peaceful Resolution of the Algerian Crisis, which was a direct consequence of meetings that occurred in that context.4

Interreligious and transnational movements

Interreligious and transnational religious movements are another type of contributor to religious peacebuilding. According to R. Scott Aplleby, "Whether their major contribution lay in the provision of neutral and secure space for talks, active mediation, advocacy, education, or in serving as a liaison to external governments or relief agencies, one striking advantage of such movements [is] their ability both to build on and transcend local and regional variations in religious belief and practice."5

As the sampling of movements below suggests, these networks have multiplied as people from different faiths have recognized the importance of communication in facilitating interfaith cooperation and ending religion-based violence. It is important to stress that this list is not intended to be exhaustive.6

The International Network of Engaged Buddhists has trained Buddhist peacemakers in Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, overcoming barriers presented by the national and historical schools of Buddhism in the region.

The Institute for Interreligious Dialogue (Iran) works for greater understanding among different religious faiths. It does so in part by maintaining a library with resources on different religions and sponsoring language classes for those interested in studying Islam. It holds monthly meetings and is involved in local and international conferences to promote knowledge of other religions.

The Institute of Interfaith Dialog (IID) works to bring together representatives from different faiths around the world to promote understanding. By promoting learning about other faith traditions, it aims to build understanding of ones own faith. It also promotes efforts at religious education to eliminate ignorance.

The International Council of Christians and Jews (ICCJ)is an umbrella organization of Christian-Jewish dialogue organizations in nearly 40 countries around the world. The dialogues were initially in response to the Holocaust. Recently, ICCJ has been pursuing dialogue with Muslims. The organization holds annual conferences, as well as ad hoc consultations.

Religions for Peace (World Conference of Religion for Peace) is the largest international coalition of representatives from the worlds major religions dedicated to promoting peace. Its initiatives include programs on peace education; women, faith, and development; the Global Women of Faith Network and the Global Youth Network; and conflict transformation. Some recent initiatives of Religions for Peace include: building a new climate of reconciliation in Iraq; mediating dialogue among warring factions in Sierra Leone; organizing an international network of religious women's organizations; and establishing a program to assist the millions of children affected by Africa's AIDS pandemic, the Hope for African Children Initiative. Religions for Peace brings together hundreds of key religious leaders every five years to discuss urgent world issues.

United Religions Initiative (URI), created in 2000, has thousands of members representing over 100 religions, spiritual expressions, and indigenous traditions in more than 50 countries around the world. They are working to build solidarity and facilitate the spread of best practices to build cultures of peace. The centerpiece of URI is Cooperation Circles, which are regional or virtual teams made up of diverse members who identify concerns and articulate a vision of peace.

Non-religious actors supporting the role of religion and religious actors in peacebuilding

  • Program staff and managers from secular NGOs collaborate and forge partnerships with religious actors and communities, supporting their work (including by advocating and monitoring the rest of religious human rights). A recent example is the International Rescue Committees Religious Scholar Exchange in Afghanistan, a meeting of Afghan religious scholars to discuss the relationship between Islam and international human rights instruments.7
  • International development organizations, such as the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), are beginning to seek out religious networks for their ability to reach large numbers of people and their formidable capacity to effect change. The structures may be part of a network or an association of faith-based organizations, or are less formal.8 The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is also involved in the education dimensions of the work, in particular through its Interreligious Dialogue Program.9
  • At the United Nations, high-level interreligious events are regularly organized in relation to peacebuilding. (Go to international conferences)
  • Granting agencies and foundations provide financial support to religious actors and faith-based NGO's activities.
  • Government officials.
  • Scholars develop theories and techniques, and support cross-cultural and interreligious dialogue. Theologians and ethicists probe and strengthen their religious communities traditions of nonviolent militancy.10 (Go to education and training: academic institutes)

Bottom-up and top-down approaches to religious peacebuilding

John Paul Lederach has emphasized the importance of distinguishing between three broad categories of actors: elites (people in top-level positions who have the potential to influence widely the groups ideas, practices, and values); mid-level people whose occupations are thought to have influence over smaller groups of people, in a more personal way (such as local clergy and teachers); and grassroots participants or activists.11

Scholars and practitioners do not always agree on which category of actors is likely to be the most influential. Marie Fitzduff notes, "In some cases influential leaders have opened the gate to greater respect and appreciation for difference. In other cases it had been leadership from the grassroots that has gradually enabled the institutional churches and religions to move into a more inclusive mode."12 Lederach himself has suggested that the mid-level leaders are best positioned to lead long-term peacebuilding efforts. They have greater flexibility of movement and are more numerous than top-level leaders, and they are connected to a wide range of individuals in the conflict settings through their work and professional associations. Within the religious community, the mid-level leaders are the highly respected monks, priests, ministers, ulema, rabbis, and others who serve as heads of regional religious bodies (e.g., synods or dioceses), as representatives to ecumenical, interreligious, or civic bodies, or as pastors of local prominent congregations.13

In practice, as in other aspects of peacebuilding processes, both bottom-up and top-down approaches are equally important and need to be balanced according to the specificities of each context.

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This section focuses on activities and components that specifically support religion and religious actors to develop their contribution in peacebuilding. Four main types of activities can be distinguished:

  • Education and training programs;
  • Support to local faith-based NGOs;
  • Interfaith dialogues and programs; and
  • International conferences.

Education and training

Various institutes and faith-based NGOs focus on training in peacebuilding and conflict resolution from a religious perspective, or on targeting a specific audience of religious groups. Different kinds of trainings and academic efforts are developed within that context:

  • Reconciliation training;
  • Academic institutions developing peacebuilding theories and training from a religious perspective;
  • Targeting school teachers;
  • Special programs for female religious leaders; and
  • Special programs for youth.

A selection of organizations engaged in these activities is presented here, but it should be noted that this is not an exhaustive list. It instead aims to give a sense of the range of programs being implemented.

Organizations such as Catholic Relief Services, United Religions Initiative, and Religions for Peace have focused their attention on reconciliation training. Some of them give priority to promoting reconciliation among religious groups. Other organizations, like the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, a Washington, DC-based NGO, have "facilitated cooperation among the next generation of leaders in the Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist regions of Kashmir through a series of faith-based reconciliation seminars."14

Various organizations support a larger conception of reconciliation. Catholic Relief Services, for example, recognizes "a longer-term process of overcoming hostility and mistrust between divided peoples . . . and of promoting the consolidation of constructive social relations between different groups of the population, including parties to the conflict."15 The organization helped finance and lent expertise to the formation of Caritas Internationals Working for Reconciliation: A Caritas Handbook.[96]

Organizations such as the Gandhi Peace Foundation, the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, and Nonviolence International are particularly involved in training in non-violent action.

Some academic institutes focus their effort on developing peacebuilding theories and training from a religious perspective. This is the case with the Plowshares Institute, which has been conducting faith-based training in several countries for nearly 30 years. The purpose of their peacebuilding training is to equip participants with skills of conflict transformation from a spiritual and moral perspective. Using as a foundation their extensive work in South Africa, based at the Centre for Conflict Resolution at the University of Cape Town, they joined their colleague Ron Kraybill of Eastern Mennonite University to develop a training manual, a leaders' guide, and a video titled "Peace Skills for Community Mediators." In South Africa, the Plowshares Institute joined four other South African NGOs to train 1,400 grassroots leaders. According to David Smock, "In multi-faith contexts the trainers use sacred texts; Muslim, Jewish, and Christian participants work collaboratively on the Koran, the Hebrew scripture, and the New Testament. In these situations, the spiritual dimension is central to the training process. The overarching purpose is to promote empowerment and recognition of the worth of those considered to be the enemy, as well as equipping the participants to solve their own problems."16

The Center for Peace and Justice at Eastern Mennonite University and the Kroc Institute play a leading role as academic institutions where peacebuilding and religion and peace are central priorities on the research and education agenda. Another example is the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which has conducted more than 35 conflict resolution seminars for religious groups in various parts of the former Yugoslavia.

Another example is the Tolerance Project, at the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs at Boston University. It is designed to identify and explore the resources for tolerance and religious pluralism intrinsic in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, with a particular emphasis on the relevance of these resources to educational practice. Its programs aim to reach out equally to religious academicians, practitioners such as program managers and teachers, and local grassroots activists. The project is implemented in three sites: Berlin, Sarajevo, and Jerusalem, with adaptations to fit each areas specific context (for example, a Christian Orthodox/Islamic emphasis in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina). Each program involves teacher training and the distribution of handbooks on interfaith tolerance in religious schools. In addition to applied educational approaches, the Tolerance Project has held academic conferences on the subject of religion and tolerance, and has published conference proceedings in several languages. It is designed to enhance the development of arguments for tolerance from within religious contexts and traditions and, most importantly, within religious pedagogic institutions.17

Other existing initiatives include the International Network for Inter-Religious and Inter-Cultural Education (INIRICE), based at the University of Warwick. It was established in 1994 with the aim of promoting links between Southern African and Northern European research groups working in fields connecting religion and education in culturally diverse democratic societies.18 The University of Montreal Youth in Peace Education (YPE), an international, interfaith, and inter-generational project similarly aims to assist peace educators worldwide by providing online resources for interfaith curriculum development.

UNESCO's Interreligious Dialogue program is also among the initiatives that play a role in the field. In March 2006, it launched the network, UNESCO Chairs of Interreligious Dialogue for Intercultural Understanding. This network is a partnership between international academic centers recognized for their expertise in this field. It will bring together professors, researchers, and specialists of the history of religions who are personally committed to the achievement of interreligious dialogue. The network will allow students, researchers, and professors to benefit from a broad range of teaching that is at once secular, multi-religious, and inter-cultural.19  Go to case study: Ex-Yugoslavia

Other grassroots interfaith initiatives are aimed specifically at schoolteachers, whose influence is primarily on the next generation. Adina Shapiro, an orthodox Jew who gained some publicity a few years ago as an Israeli teacher at the Hope Flowers School in the West Bank, concentrates her energies now on the Middle East Children's Association (MECA), which she founded and co-dire

cts with her Palestinian colleague, Ghassan Abdullah. The teachers and school principals in their workshops are encouraged to bring pluralistic awareness and commitment to their students. Shapiro reports that the organization's "major focus [is] on how to cope with trauma and tension, in our individual lives and as teachers in schools. This combination of professional healing and personal development is what the educators need now. It is not explicitly 'education for peace' but the long-term result is the forging of a common society based on mutual understanding and respect. Meeting with each other, even in Turkey, is vital for both sides now. The teachers need to keep their hope alive so that they can convey that spirit to their students. Otherwise we are all trapped in a dead-end situation."20

Some training programs specifically target religious women leaders. The World Conference on Religion and Peace (Religions for Peace) has developed specific programs and training, including a manual for religious women in peacebuilding.21 The organization established the Women's Mobilization Program in 1998 to promote the role of religious women in international development, peacemaking, and post-conflict reconstruction. In 2001, the program launched the first ever Global Network of Religious Women's Organizations. The network serves as a resource for women of all faiths. It helps them communicate and learn from each other and builds bridges between faith-based organizations and major international agencies. At present, the Global Network includes more than 700 Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, indigenous, Sikh, and Zoroastrian religious womens organizations. National and regional working groups replicate the training in their respective countries.22 Religions for Peace is affiliated with the Global Women of Faith Network Plan of Action 2007-2011, which is a "framework for strengthening the capacities of the Global Women of Faith Network and other religious communities to advance peace and promote just and harmonious societies."23 Go to Women and gender issues

Most religious and faith-based organizations have special programs for youth. For instance, the World Conference on Religion and Peace (Religions for Peace) has a Global Youth Network (with six regional interreligious youth networks) led by an International Youth Committee.24 United Religions Initiative also organizes specific workshops for youth on peacebuilding.25 Some organizations involved in reconciliation work pay particular attention to choosing participants from diverse religious backgrounds. Seeds of Peace is among them, organizing youth camps and making sure that various religious services (Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Hindu) are organized for all campers, offering them the opportunity to learn about one another's religion and traditions first hand.26

Support to local faith-based NGOs

Many training programs are complemented by support to the creation or development of local faith-based NGOs. This is a way to ensure the continuity of the work from a longer-term perspective.

Interfaith dialogues and programs

Renee Garfinkel suggests, "Interfaith dialogue brings people of different religious faiths together for conversations. These conversations can take an array of forms and possess a variety of goals and formats. They can also take place at various social levels, and target different types of participants, including elites, mid-level professionals, and grassroots activists."27 However, she notes, "It is not an all-encompassing concept: interfaith dialogue is not intended to be a debate. It is aimed at mutual understanding, not competing; at mutual problem solving, not proselytizing."28 Some faith-based NGOs, like the World Conference on Religion and Peace and United Religions Initiative, have a specific focus on promoting interfaith collaboration.

In his introduction to Interfaith Dialogue and Peacebuilding, David Smock lists a variety of ways interfaith dialogue has been organized and targeted:

  • High-level religious leaders (elites) have convened to speak collectively as advocates for peace;
  • Elite interfaith bodies have engaged in conflict mediation between combatants;
  • Grassroots participants have come together across religious divisions to promote cross-community interaction and to develop participants into agents of reconciliation;
  • Theological and scriptural similarities among hostile religious groups have been highlighted to mitigate the hostility engendered by theological differences;
  • Dialogue during conflict has been organized as a step toward ending the conflict, or, in the post-conflict period, as a step toward reconciliation; and
  • Conflict resolution training for an interreligious group has served as a vehicle for interfaith dialogue.29
Mutual tolerance is essential for conflict prevention and resolution, and interfaith programs are designed to increase tolerance between participants through encounters with one another in an atmosphere of relative security and mutual respect. These programs foster empathy, and help participants form real relationships and develop a more complex and sophisticated understanding of each other.30 Interfaith dialogue is generally perceived as an important, often proactive, means of minimizing conflict or transforming it through fighting ignorance and distrust.31 The aim is often to go beyond dialogue toward collaborative interfaith initiatives for peace. For instance, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (AJJDC) has helped organize former enemies in Kosovo, including Albanian Muslims, Serb Orthodox, Jews, and Protestants, to work together to rebuild seven Albanian mosques destroyed in the war.

Other projects include interfaith artistic programs. For example, the Pontanima Interfaith Choir was established to bridge religious and cultural differences in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was started by Catholic members (part of the Oci u Oci (Eyes to Eyes) initiative of the Catholic order under the Franciscans in Sarajevo) but has since grown to include Muslims, Orthodox, Jews, and unaffiliated persons. The choir sings music from all religious traditions in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In addition, Father Ivo Markovic, founder of the Pontanima Interfaith Choir, has endeavored to create programs that organize church and mosque visits for children in order to acquaint them with other religions of the country.32

In order to foster such concrete involvement and impact of interfaith programs, organizations, such as the World Conference on Religion for Peace (Religions for Peace), facilitate and support the creation of interreligious councils in post-war countries. They become involved in different initiatives to help end civil war and implement some key aspects of peace agreements. An example is obtaining the release of significant numbers of child soldiers, as in the case of Sierra Leone. Important contributions have also been provided by the Interreligious Council in Macedonia. These councils may also work regionally to promote peace. 33

In so doing, interfaith dialogue programs may resemble secular peacebuilding programs in some ways. In other ways, though, religious content and spiritual culture are infused throughout the programs, distinguishing them from their secular counterparts.34
We, as religious and spiritual leaders, pledge our commitment to work together to promote the inner and outer conditions that foster peace and the non-violent management and resolution of conflict. We appeal to the followers of all religious traditions and to the human community as a whole to cooperate in building peaceful societies, to seek mutual understanding through dialogue where there are differences, to refrain from violence, to practice compassion, and to uphold the dignity of all life.

Source: Commitment to Global Peace, New York, August 29, 2000

International conferences

Religious and spiritual leaders from the major religious traditions and from different regions of the world have gathered to manifest their attachment to peacebuilding. Such a conference took place at the United Nations in New York in August 2000. The participants signed a "Commitment to Global Peace" and resolved to join together to address the pressing problems of conflict, poverty, and the environment.

In September 2006, a High-Level Conference on Interfaith Cooperation for Peace was organized by the Tripartite Forum on Interfaith Cooperation for Peace. The forum is an open-ended partnership among governments, the United Nations, and civil society. The theme of the conference was "Interfaith Dialogue and Cooperation for Peace: Contributing to Peacebuilding and Development." The conference was designed to provide an interactive tripartite dialogue that developed the theme. In October 2007, the first high-level dialogue on interreligious and intercultural understanding and cooperation for peace was held at the United Nations General Assembly. The World Council of Churches and the World Conference on Religion and Peace (Religions for Peace) are among the sponsors of such international gatherings.

1. Appleby, The Ambivalence of the Sacred, 9.
82 Diklitch and Prince, "The Mennonite Central Committee," 622.
3. Ibid., 622.
4. Communication with Andrea Bartoli (August 20, 2008).
5. Appleby, The Ambivalence of the Sacred, 224.
6. Eric Brahm, "Religion and Peace," Beyond Intractability (September 2005).
7. Kimberly A. Maynard, The Role of Culture, Islam, Tradition in Community Driven Reconstruction: The International Rescue Committees Approach to Afghanistans National Solidarity Program (New York: International Rescue Committee, March 2007), 5.
8. Douglas Johnston, "The Religious Dimensions of Peacebuilding," People Building Peace II.
9. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), "Dialogue."
10. Appleby, The Ambivalence of the Sacred, 212.
11. John Paul Lederach, Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1997), 39.
12. Fitzduff, "Civil Society and Peacebuilding," 12.
13. Appleby, The Ambivalence of the Sacred, 241-42.
14. Liora Danan, Mixed Blessings: U.S. Government Engagement with Religion in Conflict Prone Settings (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, August 2007), 8.
15.Appleby, "Disciples of the Prince of Peace?," 131.
16. Smock, Faith-Based NGOs and International Peacebuilding, 3.
17. CURA Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs, The Tolerance Project.
18. Warwick Institute of Education.
19. UNESCO, "Dialogue."
20. Landau, Healing the Holy Land, 29.
21. World Conference on Religions for Peace, Women of Faith Transforming Conflict: A Multi-Religious Training Manual (New York: World Conference on Religions for Peace, 2004).
22. Ibid., 12­-15.
23. World Conference on Religions for Peace, Religions for Peace Global Women of Faith Network Plan of Action 2007-2011.
24. World Conference on Religions for Peace, "Religions for Peace Global Youth Network."
25. United Religions Initiative, "Ugandan Youth Peace Building Workshop: Kampala, Uganda."
26. Seeds of Peace.
27. Garfinkel, What Works? Evaluating Interfaith Dialogue Programs, 1.
28. Ibid., 2.
29. Ibid.
30. Ibid.
31. This view is in the direct line of John Paul Lederach's vision of conflict transformation. See, in particular, John Paul Lederach, The Journey Toward Reconciliation (Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 1999).
32. Pontanima Interfaith Choir.
33. World Conference on Religions for Peace, How to Build an IRC (New York: World Conference on Religions for Peace, 2006).

34. Muhammed Abu-Nimer has published extensively on the role and importance of interfaith dialogue in the Middle East. See, in particular, Mohammed Abu-Nimer, Amal Khoury, and Emily Welty, Unity in Diversity: Interfaith Dialogue in the Middle East (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2007); Muhammad Shafiq and Mohammed Abu-Nimer, Interfaith Dialogue: A Guide For Muslims (Herndon, VA: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2007).

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