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The power of inter-religious cooperation to transform conflict.

Religion sparks violence and impedes efforts to address global problems like terrorism, according to many. Reality is more complex. Religious networks are also working to eliminate terror, prevent and mediate violent conflicts, and aid the world's most vulnerable populations. Secular societies are undergoing a fundamental shift in their attitudes toward religion and beginning to tap the vast social, moral and spiritual resources of religious communities to tackle the most critical global problems. The World Conference of Religions for Peace, the largest coalition of the world's religions committed to common action, is playing a key role in this transformation.

Throughout history and in modern conflicts, violent conflict is often considered synonymous with religious conflict--Jews and Muslims in Palestine, Muslims and Orthodox Christians in the Balkans, Hindus and Buddhists in Sri Lanka, the Judeo-Christian "West" and Muslim extremists in the war on terror. While religious intolerance and extremism are a frequent source of conflict, religion is more often the convenient scapegoat for underlying political and economic tensions.

It is too easy to dismiss religion as a source of conflict without considering the demonstrated capacity of different religious communities to work together to promote peace. In some of the most intractable conflicts around the world, religion is part of the solution, not part of the problem.

No form of cooperation has greater potential to improve conditions for more people worldwide than the cooperation of the world's religious communities. Of the world's six billion people, five billion identify themselves as members of religious communities. The capacity of religious communities to meet the challenges of our time is a vast untapped resource.

Religions for Peace has developed a unique method and builds effective mechanisms--inter-religious councils--specifically designed to help religious communities to cooperate together in the work of transforming conflict.

The work of Religions for Peace relies on a deceptively simple, yet powerful, recent advance in religious creativity. Many religious communities have opened the door to effective religious cooperation by becoming bilingual. (1) Every faith has its own primary language that defines the religious community. But primary religious language is not a language for engaging other religious communities or the public. Representatives of religious communities are now also learning to speak in public language. A shared public language provides a medium to clarify agreements and differences on important moral issues, and serves as a basis for cooperative action. Becoming bilingual allows religious communities not only to speak a common public language, but also to act on issues of common concern. Working together is an opportunity for religions to creatively and faithfully re-express their own tradition in a common language for a common purpose.

Once religious communities are able to become bi-lingual, retaining their respective primary languages even as they learn to use public language together, the stage is set for forms of multi-religious cooperation that can contribute powerfully toward the resolution of conflict. The use of two languages facilitates a dual use of the vast social infrastructures, the moralities and the spiritualities of religious communities. On the one hand, a primary language is used by a religious community to build and advance the transmission of its respective traditions across time. On the other hand, the use of public language by this same community opens up these same resources to a unique and highly focused intention to serve the common good through partnerships both among different religious communities and other stakeholder groups. Public language is the language of cooperation, and cooperation is essential to the resolution of conflict.

I. Method: Engaging Religious Assets to Transform Conflict

When the collective assets of religious communities are coordinated and mobilized as multi-religious assets, their effectiveness and values as problem-solving tools grows exponentially. As no single state can act alone to meet the needs of the entire international community, no faith acting alone can address today's global challenges. Religious communities are advancing their own form of multilateralism through effective cooperation on critical global problems.

The World Conference of Religions for Peace, the largest coalition of the world's religions committed to common action, has developed a unique method designed to help religious communities become bilingual, unleash their hidden assets and work together to transform conflict and advance human development.

The method is practical and open to continuous creativity. At its simplest, it involves assisting religious communities to correlate a given problem or challenge with their capacities for action. This method, while simple, is powerful. When applied, it discloses large, often hidden or underutilized capacities for action that lie within the reach of religious communities. Importantly, the method also makes clear what kind of capacity building is needed to better equip religious communities for more effective cooperation.

Religions for Peace mobilizes the underutilized assets of religious communities by closely analyzing specific problems, such as violent conflict; making an inventory of available religious assets; matching religious assets with problem-solving roles; defining roles for religious leaders and communities; building the capacity of religious communities to act together; and unleashing common action.

Stages of Conflict and Corresponding Roles (2)

No two conflicts progress in the same way, yet there are identifiable stages through which most social conflicts progress:

* In the latent-conflict stage, the conditions of conflict--injustice and gross imbalance of power--are present in the system but have not yet surfaced.

* As the awareness of injustice and power imbalance grows, the latent conflict erupts into outward expression through confrontation. Through advocacy, nonviolent activism, or violence, the parties actively contend in the pursuit of their interests and cause.

* As weaker parties mobilize and gain in strength and power--and are therefore able to represent their interests on a more equitable basis--negotiation becomes possible.

* When a peace accord is reached and violence has ceased, the conflict moves into the post-accord or post-conflict stage of reconciliation and reconstruction.

Conflicts rarely progress through a tidy sequence of stages, nor pass through one stage at a time. Nonetheless, the conflict stages are analytically useful in identifying appropriate conflict transformation strategies. Identifying these stages allows us to identify key roles that correspond to these stages.

The conflict intervention role needed during a situation of latent conflict is education or conscientization, to raise the awareness of oppressed groups of the injustices and inequities that affect their lives.

Increased awareness then leads to demands by those groups for change in the system, moving the conflict to the confrontation stage. If the demands are rejected or ignored by those in power, is needed in support of those pursuing change through confrontation.

The change being sought requires a rebalancing of power in the relationship by which all those involved recognize one another in new ways and come to understand their interdependence. When on the basis of a redefined relationship the parties move to the negotiation stage, mediation is employed to facilitate the securing of a just and equitable peace.

If negotiations are carried out on the basis of a redefined relationship and a just and equitable peace agreement is produced, the many tasks of reconciliation and social reconstruction remain. Both the former and the latter efforts need to address the original power imbalances that contributed to the conflict.

Mobilizing Religious Assets

Analyzing conflict in this way, Religions for Peace helps religious representatives in zones of conflict to re-inventory their religious community's assets from the point of view of relevant stages of conflict and their corresponding problem-solving roles.

Religious communities possess large and uniquely important social, moral and spiritual assets for transforming conflict.

First, religious communities' mosques, churches, temples and other social structures are located in virtually every village, district and city. These social organizations range from regularly and frequently convened assemblies designed for worship and reflection to those specifically dedicated to educational, health, humanitarian, or communication missions. Spanning this remarkable panoply of institutions is a network of communication and action. The scale of religious infrastructure varies from country to country, but in most developing countries it is by any measure the most developed, inter-connected, and locally-led social infrastructure in existence, reaching from the smallest village to the capital and beyond. (3) Taken collectively, religious social structures represent significant channels for communication and action that, when engaged and transformed, enable religious believers to function as powerful agents of change in the transformation of conflict. In Liberia, for example, local parishes, mosques, women's organizations, and youth organizations are the only organizations with the capacity to peacefully reintegrate 40,000 child soldiers into their communities. Religious communities are familiar and trusted institutions that can provide social cohesion in the aftermath of violent conflict.

Second, religious communities have moral assets that build upon and unfold the great strengths of their spiritualities. Religious leaders are uniquely positioned to use their moral stature and influence to encourage mutual understanding within their communities. The moral assets of many religious traditions include much beyond the simple elaboration of a code of ethics. Also included are extraordinary mechanisms of inculcating moral visions by means of an intimate grammar of religious identity; provisions for engagement with tragedy, suffering and failure, as much as with moments of human success and authenticity; and a dynamic context for engaging new social challenges, with the advantage that these challenges can be examined in relationship to communal memory as it is preserved in a variety of traditions. Fundamentally, most religious moral traditions ask their members to judge others by the same standard as they would judge themselves. These standards can provide a moral basis for establishing a communal consensus regarding the need to address injustices and work for the non-violent resolution of conflict.

The spiritual assets of religious communities are, in the eyes of their communities, their greatest assets. Spiritual assets defy an easy description, and like all religious assets, they can be manipulated for sectarian or political purposes. But typically, spiritualities point to what is most elemental within religious visions regarding the meaning of human life. Spiritualities can provide to believers enormous courage and strength in the midst of situations of tragedy and human wickedness. They can make available the strength to bear the unbearable, the grounds for hope when all seems hopeless, and the possibility to forgive the unforgivable. Spiritualities can provide unique potential resources for reconciliation among and between conflicted persons and communities.

By looking at religious assets through the lens of problem solving roles, religious communities are able to define appropriate roles for their religious leaders and communities. Importantly, representatives of the different religious communities are themselves the principals in this creative re-examination of their communities. Religious communities can re-inventory their religious assets to identify the conflict transformation roles in which they can be the most effective.

This is a creative method. Religious communities were not formed originally to serve as agents of conflict transformation. Yet, it can be a profoundly faithful form of creativity insofar as our religious traditions are morally concerned about violent conflict. Representatives of religious communities work to discover how their faith communities' capacities can be engaged in transforming conflict, and how they can complement the work of other actors such as governments or elements of civil society.

When properly equipped, religious communities can use their considerable spiritual assets for dual purposes: religious schools can provide peace education in addition to religious instruction; religious leaders can engage in public advocacy for peace in ways that resonate with their respective faithful and members of different faiths and religious women's organizations can lead advocacy efforts on behalf of vulnerable populations within their own faith traditions and community-wide. By developing public uses for religious assets, religions creatively and faithfully re-express their own tradition through action as well as language.

Once religious communities gain the capacity to tap their existing networks and resources to transform conflict and advance human development, their efforts can be made dramatically more powerful and effective through inter-religious cooperation. Multi-religious efforts can be more powerful, both substantively and symbolically, than the efforts of religious group acting alone. Cooperation breaks down barriers between different groups and creates "horizontal" connections between communities, helping them to function as common stakeholders, greatly reducing the temptation to manipulate religion itself in scapegoating dynamics.

Inter-religious cooperation provides a huge moral coalition for needed change where there are unjust political, economic and social relations. Religious leaders working to transform conflict are strengthened by joining their efforts with those of religious leaders of different faiths. Every time religions work together for peace, they demonstrate the true nature of their faith communities. They affirm that religion need not be part of the problem, and that religion must be part of the solution.

Using this method, religious communities employ religious assets to adopt roles essential to transforming conflict. Leveraging their social assets, grassroots religious networks educate local populations regarding the seeds of conflict; religious congregations and women's groups bridge the divide among combatants; and local religious community institutions work to reintegrate former child soldiers. Deploying moral assets, religious leaders are able to speak out against scapegoating, articulate the moral responsibilities of combatants, engage in nonviolent activism for peace, provide a space for mediation, and foster community reconciliation that protects the rights of all groups. Drawing on spirituality, religious leaders engage religion to break the cycle of violence. Religious practices counter messages of hate and calls for violence by fostering mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Unleashing the power of multi-religious cooperation, religious leaders of different faiths can advance shared commitments to transforming conflict; and different religious communities are able to work together to advocate and facilitate "Track 2" (4) peace negotiations, and support national reconciliation among all groups. These are the kinds of actions religious communities take when they unleash their hidden assets.

II. Mechanisms: Inter-Religious Councils

Religions for Peace leverages the power of religious communities to transform conflict through inter-religious councils.

Religions for Peace builds national and regional inter-religious councils to help religious communities to collaborate on critical issues. These action-oriented councils are not themselves religious organizations, rather, they are secular, or public, in character. They are led by religious leaders and designed to provide a platform for cooperative action throughout the different levels of religious communities, from grassroots structures to the senior-most leadership. Successful inter-religious councils serve as bridges between religious communities, building trust and reducing hostility in areas of conflict.

Five principles guide the inter-religious councils affiliated with Religions for Peace:

* First, acknowledge religious differences. Religious communities do not hold the same beliefs. But they need to acknowledge that religious communities are sincere in their differences and that their own religious teachings tell them to respect one another.

* Second, collaborate on deeply held and widely shared concerns. The most powerful and effective issues for inter-religious collaboration are driven by the core beliefs of all the religious partners. If a concern is not widely shared by religious communities, Religions for Peace does not adopt it. Religions for Peace fosters cooperation in areas that religious communities have identified as deeply held and widely-shared concerns: conflict transformation, meeting the needs of children affected by HIV/AIDS, mobilizing women of faith, disarmament, poverty, human rights abuse, poor governance, inequitable globalization, and unilateralism in international affairs are all widely-shared concerns of the world's religious communities, well-suited to the method and mechanisms of Religions for Peace.

* Third, preserve the identity of each religious community. Catholics and Protestants, Muslims and Jews, Buddhists and Hindus, Christians and the followers of indigenous religions can work together without surrendering their specific religious identities. Inter-religious cooperation, done well, not only leverages the collective resources of religious communities, but strengthens the identity of each individual religious community and its institutions.

* Fourth, honor the ways religious communities have organized themselves. Each religious community must have its own voice based on the way it organizes itself locally, nationally, regionally and even internationally. Religions for Peace does not choose who will represent a particular religious community. The religious community itself determines who will represent that community in interreligious dialogue and cooperation. Inter-religious collaboration should leverage, not seek to alter, existing religious structures.

* Fifth, support locally-led multi-religious structures. Religions for Peace helps to establish autonomous inter-religious councils. These councils are then free to affiliate with Religions for Peace, but importantly, they retain their own identity.

The collaborative work of the inter-religious councils affiliated with Religions for Peace takes many forms. Religious leaders may speak out on public issues or advocate--publicly and privately--for social transformation. Religious leaders may bring adversaries together and work to end conflict or rebuild divided societies. Religious institutions may educate, protect and care for vulnerable populations. Religious communities may provide food, medicine and shelter to the needy. In their most effective form, inter-religious councils become institutionalized multi-religious coordinating bodies to deliver critical services through religious networks and serve as a unique entry point for civil society to access the under-utilized collective assets of religious communities.

Successful Inter-religious Cooperation

Working together in this way, diverse religious communities around the world are preventing and mediating violent conflicts in some of the most challenging environments around the globe:

* Inter-Religious Councils established by Religions for Peace are helping to prevent conflicts from developing, to mediate peace negotiations among warring parties, and to rebuild peaceful societies in the aftermath of violence. Sierra Leone's religious leaders, Muslims and Christians working together, stopped a bloody civil war and mediated negotiations between the government and the rebels.

* The Inter-religious Council of Liberia was instrumental in President Taylor's decision to relinquish power and is now working to achieve reconciliation after years of human rights abuse and violence. Through regional coordinating committees of its affiliated inter-religious councils in Sierra Leone, Cote d'Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Ghana, Religions for Peace is working to mitigate and mediate cross border conflicts throughout the region. Throughout West African conflict zones, multi-religious teams of inter-religious council members have visited refugee camps, home to thousands of refugees and internally-displaced people, to provide psycho-social counseling and support.

* The newly-formed Inter-Religious Council of Iraq provided the first forum for Iraq's Shiite and Sunni Muslims, Christian and other religious leaders to meet face to face since before the Baath regime came to power. The Inter-Religious Council of Bosnia used community media outlets to advocate religious tolerance during the conflict and drafted national laws on religious freedom as part of the country's reconstruction.


Civil society is undergoing a fundamental shift in its attitude toward religion and beginning to tap the resources of religious communities to transform conflict. Collaboration with religious communities complements and strengthens the work of secular organizations. The United Nations and international development organizations like UNICEF are beginning to seek out religious networks for their ability to reach vast numbers of people and their capacity to affect change. More and more experts acknowledge the potential of religious communities as partners to address common concerns such as armed conflict, human rights violations, and poverty.

The conflict transformation work of the Religions for Peace network is a collaborative work, a work that takes place where religious communities exist. It is a common labor that proceeds with respect for the ways that religious communities can organize themselves for common action on local, national, regional and international levels. Representatives of each religious community work together to take common action on common problems, but in ways that respect the different religious identities of one another. In cooperation, we surrender nothing of the deepest inner impulse of our beliefs and spiritualities, but we express our commitments in action together. Religious communities working together to transform conflict demonstrates the largely untapped power of inter-religious cooperation.


1. For a more extended discussion of religious bi-lingualism see Vendley, "Religious Difference and Shared Care: The Need for Primary and Secondary Language," Church and Society (September/October 1992), 16-29.

2. This brief analysis is drawn from the preparatory document of the conflict transformation commission of the Seventh World Assembly of Religions for Peace. The author wants to acknowledge the creative partnership of Ms. Cynthia Sampson in its preparation.

3. The potential social power of this infrastructure is enormous. A recent study of the response of faith-based organizations to orphans and vulnerable children impacted by HIV/AIDS in six East African countries (Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland and Uganda) commissioned by UNICEF and Religions for Peace found that 690 faith-based organizations collectively assisted over 150,000 children through the mobilization of 9,000 volunteers. Study of the Response by Faith-Based Organizations to Orphans and Vulnerable Children, compiled by Dr. Geoff Foster and jointly published by UNICEF and the World Conference of Religions for Peace, 2004. Virtually all of this care was accomplished with no external funding or training, and most of it was locally initiated. The fact that there are 150,000 congregations in the six countries gives some hint of the potential impact of systematically mobilizing and equipping the existing religious infrastructure to address the plight of the children.

4. While governments, armed groups and intergovernmental bodies are typically the primary participants in peace negotiations, it is widely recognized that the parallel efforts of other civil society actors can complement and advance the official peace process.
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Author:Vendley, William F.
Publication:Cross Currents
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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