Religion and Peace

Eric Brahm

September 2005

We are bombarded on a nearly daily basis with news stories that portray religion as a cause of seemingly intractable conflict the world over. Some, in fact, trace the view of religion as a source of conflict all the way back to the religious wars that ravaged seventeenth century Europe.[1] What does not attract attention is the peacebuilding power of religion. This contribution is often overlooked, in part, because the secular media rarely pays attention to the role of religious peacemakers because their work is often not dramatic enough. However, all of the world's major religions have a significant strain emphasizing peace.[2] Religious leaders and workers have proven to be key civil society actors in many efforts to resolve conflicts, serving as intermediaries or "Third Siders" or helping to facilitate reconciliation. This essay explores some of the ways in which religion has played a positive role in mitigating conflict and offers brief profiles of a few such organizations.

Relief/Humanitarian Assistance

Additional insights into religion and peace are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

Motivated by a desire to help those less fortunate, many religious-based NGOs are involved in humanitarian assistance. The desire is to relieve suffering, whether due to natural disaster or man-made calamity. Many are also engaged in longer-range development projects. At times, however, these projects have the unintended consequence of creating or exacerbating conflict.[3] That problem, combined with a growing recognition that peacebuilding will aid in the sustainability of humanitarian assistance and development programs, this has led quite a number of these organizations to build peacebuilding components into their work. Humanitarian assistance programs can also help peace by promoting poverty reduction and addressing economic inequality. They may also support the development of civil society organizations that provide venues for peaceful participation and conflict management. A few prominent examples include the following.

American Jewish World Service []

The AJWS began in 1985 with a mission of working to alleviate hunger, disease, and poverty around the world. In doing so, it draws upon notions of social justice in Jewish tradition. At present, it makes grants to hundreds of grassroots organizations around the world and hundreds of volunteers participate in projects each year.

Catholic Relief Services []

American bishops created the organization in 1943. Inspired by the Gospel tradition, Catholic Relief Services aims to assist the poor and disadvantaged in pursuit of justice. It does so both through direct assistance and in supporting the development of local capacity. Catholic Relief Services has a global network of offices in nearly 100 countries around the globe.

Mercy Corps []

Mercy Corps has been working since 1979 to provide emergency relief. It also supports the development of sustainable communities through assistance in areas such as agriculture, economic development, health, housing, infrastructure, as well as capacity-building amongst local organizations. The organization also spearheads efforts to manage conflict peacefully and encourage citizen participation and accountability.

World Vision []

World Vision is an ecumenical Christian relief and development organization that has recently recognized the importance of conflict prevention and peacebuilding in both making its relief services obsolete and making its development efforts sustainable. It does so primarily at the community level. "World Vision's research reveals that participatory processes to identify community needs and to promote community development can help prevent violent conflict. These planning processes contribute to peace through bringing community leaders together across ethnic/religious divisions and through intermixing groups that oppose each other."

Faith-Based Mediation/Intervention

Motivated by religious goals of seeking peace, religious leaders and faith-based NGOs have frequently played prominent roles as mediators or other forms of intervention in conflict scenarios. Some religious figures have been able to use their positions of authority to work toward peace and to forward the cause of justice. Pope John Paul II, for example, played a prominent role in Lebanon, Poland, and Haiti. As respected members of society, individual national religious leaders have often been at the forefront of efforts to deny impunity and bring an end to fighting. For instance, local bishops have served as mediators in civil wars in Mozambique, Burundi, and Liberia. The All Africa Conference of Churches [] brought a temporary end to the Sudanese civil war in 1972 in part through prayer at critical points in the negotiations and by invoking both Christian and Muslim texts. Under many Latin American dictatorships in the 1970-1980s, the Catholic Church was able to criticize the lack of human rights. In Brazil, members of the Church worked with the World Council of Churches [] to conduct a private truth commission of abuses under the military government. Some have pointed to the role that Buddhism can play in building peace in Cambodia as it is the only institution respected and trusted by all segments of society.[4] These efforts, however, often do go unrecognized, particularly the important efforts of individuals and groups engaged in Track II diplomacy and working at the grassroots level.

Mediators who are motivated by their faith may face challenges unique to their perspective.[5] It is very difficult to work with those who the faith-based mediator may believe to be morally wrong, if not evil. Furthermore, the mediator may be tempted to abandon their neutral position for ‘an eye for an eye' attitude, should they or their loved ones be threatened. The supreme challenge, although this is by no means unique to mediation, is to find God in others. One advantage they appear to have is their persistence and commitment. Studies have suggested that faith-based NGOs in Bosnia and Herzegovina have helped overcome conditions that fueled the conflict by bringing people together for such varied projects as soup kitchens, building homes, and organizing choirs. The long-term commitment of these NGOs, these studies find, have contributed to reconciliation.[6]

Some examples of faith-based organizations that engage in mediation or related interventions include:

Quakers (The Religious Society of Friends)

Quaker theology is committed to nonviolence. They began providing relief services in the 1960-1970s and had also gone so far as to sponsor conferences for disputants. Their 1984 involvement in the Sri Lankan civil war, however, led the Quakers in a new direction, namely providing mediation. They came to Sri Lanka hoping to learn more about the conflict, determine if there were development projects they could support, and share their experiences with similar conflicts elsewhere.[7] As the conflict became clearer, the Quakers concluded that mediation might have been beneficial, but no one was filling the role. From that experience, a number of lessons emerged. One was the importance of operating transparently and observing strict neutrality. The Quakers were very concerned about becoming the center of attention. They demanded that their role as intermediary be kept quiet. In their view, their effectiveness depended on not being seen as part of the conflict. In fact, they emphasized their powerlessness in the situation so as to impart on the parties that they had no interest in the conflict. For similar reasons, they refuse to set deadlines for the disputants. In Sri Lanka, they also repeatedly reaffirmed with the sides that their presence was still seen as useful.

The Anabaptists/Mennonites (Peace and Justice Support Network of Mennonite Church USA)

The Mennonites have also become active in peacemaking efforts.[8] Their belief in nonviolence dates back to their origins during the Reformation in the 1500s. The experience of World War II challenged the beliefs of many American Mennonites who shifted from conscientious objection, which was common in World War I, to participation in non-combat roles. After the war, Mennonites continued in similar roles. Their post-war work in providing relief after natural and manmade disasters led some to suggest that they should focus on the root causes of the crisis. By the mid-1970s, the Mennonite Conciliation Service (MCS) had been established to provide mediation in domestic and international contexts. For example, Mennonites worked in South Africa from the 1970s up to the end of apartheid. While identifying with the oppressed, they also reached out to the Afrikaner community.[9] Later innovations included Christian Peacemaker Teams and International Conciliation Service. Mennonite peacebuilding is distinguished by a number of factors:[10] they are careful not to take control of the process from the parties; they focus their efforts on the grassroots level; they commit to serve as witness and stand with the oppressed; and a determination to commit to long-term involvement should the parties desire it.

Plowshares Institute

The Plowshares Institute, based in the United Methodist Church, has spent three decades conducting faith-based peacebuilding training around the world. Their goal is to impart conflict transformation skills from a spiritual and moral perspective. In South Africa, the Plowshares Institute has worked with four other South African NGOs to bring together leaders from opposing sides in order to train them to facilitate communication and cooperation across social divides. In total, they identified some 1400 grassroots leaders in South Africa. The grassroots leaders were first trained to see conflict as an opportunity for systematic change and to build relationships that help transform conflict. Before South Africa's 1994 national all-race elections, Plowshares brought together South African police and anti-apartheid activists that had been mistreated by the police in order to challenge stereotypes and facilitate collaboration through such methods as cross-role playing, in which those on opposing sides adopting and advocating their opponents' points of view.

World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP) 

The World Conference of Religions for Peace was founded in 1970 as a venue for dialogue amongst the world's religious leaders to identify common concerns, formulate plans of action, and articulate a vision of the future. Amongst other things, WCRP has mediated dialogue among warring factions in Sierra Leone, worked to advance reconciliation in Bosnia and Kosovo and to assist the millions of children affected by Africa's AIDS pandemic.

Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR)

The Fellowship of Reconciliation is an interfaith organization that recognizes the essential unity of all creation, works toward a just and peaceful world, and recognizes the transformative potential of religion in realizing such a vision. Founded in 1914, the organization now has branches in 40 countries. In one example of FOR's work, in 1984 the Little Sisters of Jesus in the Philippines asked FOR to train Filipino civil society leaders training in the theory and practice of active nonviolence because they feared the country was headed for civil war.

Community of Sant'Egidio

Sant'Egidio, a Rome-based Catholic lay organization, has made significant contributions to peace processes in such far ranging places as Mozambique, Burundi, Congo, Algeria, and Kosovo through a peacemaking approach that is deeply rooted in Catholic tradition and theology.[11] Andrea Bartoli, a member of Sant'Egidio describes their work in Mozambique in his interview with Beyond Intractability's Julian Portilla.

Interfaith/Inter-Religious Dialogue

John Paul Lederach, amongst others, has cautioned against assuming that religious (or any other form of conflict) conflict can be avoided. Rather, conflict is a natural outgrowth of human interaction. Recognizing this, there are more or less effective ways of managing conflict. With respect to our present interest, interfaith dialogue would seem an important, often proactive means of minimizing conflict through fighting ignorance and distrust. At its core, inter-religious dialogue brings together those of different faith traditions for conversation. Dialogue can take a range of forms and have a variety of goals in mind. It may involve any level of participant from elites to the grassroots. Through discussion, groups and individuals may come to a better understanding of other faith traditions and of the many points of agreement that likely exist between them. As the short list below suggests, these networks have multiplied as people from different faiths have recognized the importance of communication to facilitate interfaith cooperation and to end religious-based violence. In his interview for Beyond Intractability, Mohammed Abu-Nimer talks about his work in Jewish-Muslim interfaith dialogues.

Institute for Interreligious Dialogue, Iran

The institute works for the greater understanding amongst different religious faiths. It does so in part by maintaining a library with resources on different religions and sponsors language classes for those interested in studying Islam. What is more, it holds monthly meetings and is involved in local and international conferences to promote knowledge of other religions.

Institute of Interfaith Dialog (IID)

IID works to bring together representatives from different faiths around the world to promote understanding. By learning about other faith traditions, it also builds understanding of one's own faith. It also promotes efforts at religious education to eliminate ignorance.

International Council of Christians and Jews

The ICCJ is an umbrella organization of Christian-Jewish dialogue organizations in nearly 40 countries around the world. The dialogues got going in response in response to the Holocaust. Recently, the ICCJ has been pursuing dialogue with Moslems as well. The organization holds yearly conferences as well as ad hoc consultations.

Muslim Christian Dialogue Forum (Minhaj-ul-Quran), Pakistan

Established in 1998, the organization has sought to promote equal rights for all religious groups within Pakistan. It emerged from Pakistan Awami Tehreek, Pakistani political party.

Society for Inter-religious Dialogue (SIDA), Indonesia

SIDA was a response to the lack of respect for other religious traditions and inter-religious violence in Indonesia in the late 1990s. It aims both the promote understanding and meetings as well as to fight against the hijacking of religious symbols for political gains.

United Religions Initiatives

Created in 2000, URI has thousands of members representing over one hundred religions, spiritual expressions, and indigenous traditions in more than fifty 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 the URI is Cooperation Circles, which are regional or virtual teams made up of diverse members who identify concerns and articulate a vision of peace.

[1] Raymond G. Helmick, S.J., "Does Religion Fuel or Heal in Conflicts? In Forgiveness and Reconciliation, Raymond G. Helmick, S.J. and Rodney L. Petersen, eds. (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2001).

[2] Henry O. Thompson, World Religions in War and Peace, (Jefferson NC: McFarland, 1988).; John Ferguson, War and Peace in the World's Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978); Homer Jack, ed. World Religions and World Peace: The International Inter-Religious Symposium on Peace (Boston: Beacon, 1968).

[3] Mary Anderson, Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support Peace or War. 1999 Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner Publishers.

[4] Catherine Morris Peacebuilding in Cambodia: The Role of Religion

[5] John Paul Lederach, The Journey Toward Reconciliation (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1999).

[6] Can Faith-Based NGOs Advance Interfaith Reconciliation? The Case of Bosnia and Herzegovina

[7] Deborah M. Kolb and Associates, "Joseph Elder: Quiet Peacemaking in a Civil War," in When Talk Works: Profiles of Mediators (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1994).

[8] Joseph S. Miller, "A History of the Mennonite Conciliation Service, Internaitonal Conciliation Service, and Christian Peacemaker Teams," in From the Ground Up: Mennonite Contributions to Internaiotnal Peacebuilding, Cynthia Sampson and John Paul Lederach, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[9] Robert Herr and Judy Zimmerman Herr, "Building Peace in South Africa," in From the Ground Up: Mennonite Contributions to Internaiotnal Peacebuilding, Cynthia Sampson and John Paul Lederach, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[10] Sally Engle Merry, "Mennonite Peacebuilding and Conflict Transformation: A Cultural Analysis," in From the Ground Up: Mennonite Contributions to Internaiotnal Peacebuilding, Cynthia Sampson and John Paul Lederach, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[11] Catholic Contributions to International Peace

Use the following to cite this article:
Brahm, Eric. "Religion and Peace." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2005 <>.

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