What religious dialogue can do for peace

The Foundation hosted a roundtable in February to discuss the role of the United Nations in engaging religious leaders and institutions in peacebuilding

Roughly 84% of people in the world claim to have a religious affiliation and almost two-thirds of international conflicts have a religious component. Yet peacebuilding missions often assume secular worldviews in their interventions or fail to include religious actors in their efforts.

The role of religion in international conflicts is increasingly recognised, but its potential is often wasted in implementation, perhaps due to a shortage of data and dialogue about experiences in the field. The roundtable provided a forum for this discussion. Speakers shared their experiences and identified opportunities, risks, and promising avenues for development. One speaker noted that:

Faith actors have been important conduits for dialogue and partnerships including connecting and uplifting women and other marginalised groups such as LGBTQ and individuals with disabilities. While many faith groups have expressed interest in exploring these partnerships more needs to be done to identify how to build meaningful, equal and authentic partnerships.

The event was held together with the Network of Traditional and Religious Peacemakers (the Network) and provided an opportunity to explore the intersection of religion and peace in the context of the Foundation’s ongoing work on dialogue and peacebuilding. The central theme was the role of the United Nations in fostering dialogue within and between religions. The event was attended by over 50 participants who engaged with five key speakers (see image caption below).

From left to right: Venerable Galkande Dhammananda, Executive Director Walpola Rahula Institute; Palwasha Kakar (moderator), Interim Director Religion and Inclusive Societies USIP; Mohamed Elsanousi, The Network; Cannon Sarah Snyder, Director Rose Castle Foundation; Jessica Roland, The Network; Peter Nsenkeng, Political Affairs Officer, UN DPPA Mediation Unit; Khadeeja Sarr, Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation; Nika Saeedi, Team Leader Countering Violent Extremism, UNDP

Leveraging structures: networks, spaces, and leaders

Understanding the crucial role of faith in peacebuilding has two keys, speakers expressed. First is religion’s embeddedness in local communities and widespread affiliation around the world. In addition, faith actors are highly effective peacebuilding partners because of their social infrastructure. They count with networks, organisations, spaces, and leaders that have an impact in their communities. Religious leaders and other faith actors can leverage this infrastructure for peace effectively.

One of the speakers’ stories made this point clearly, showing how the intervention of these actors can be a turning point in violent conflicts. After the religiously backed attacks in Sri Lanka, faith leaders spoke to their congregations, encouraging peace and successfully de-escalated the conflict. ‘Extremism came and more and more we felt in the religious institutions that we have to come together,’ the speaker stated, ‘because certain organisations or political parties could use the division for their game because we had not done enough to understand each other.’ The timely intervention of religious leaders after the attack was the result of years of dialogue efforts between the major religions in the country.

In this context what the UN can provide is dedicated platforms of dialogue at the country and global level and frameworks to incorporate religious voices in advancing peace and empower institutions and actors to action. The faith-based Advisory Council, the Alliance of Civilizations and the Office of the Special Advisory for Prevention of Genocide were mentioned as relevant UN actors for this.

But speakers also pointed out there are many difficulties in UN-religious partnerships (see Figure 1) and current frameworks to effectively leverage the power of religion and faith actors for peacebuilding. The multiplicity of religious actors in peacekeeping missions, several speakers explained, introduces a difficulty because the UN does not know which ones are credible or representative and does not have the capacity to analyse them. So the UN works only with the religious actors that approach them. This can create issues of legitimacy in the long term.

Civil society organisations and other partners that work specifically with religion, such as the Network, can serve as a bridge between the UN and the local religious context. It is only after we have mapped these institutions, profiled and understood their needs,’ explained a participants, ‘that the UN and other actors that are interested in enhancing these organisations can be able to meaningfully support them’.

A speaker also pointed out that outside the context of peacebuilding missions, states are a more present actor, and this brings about a different set of problems. Governments striving towards increased secularity could see the engagement of religious groups as the UN supporting adversaries. In other cases, UN support for certain groups and not others could be questioned from a legitimacy point of view and construed as having a political agenda. Another challenge speakers mentioned was the widespread perception of the UN as a secular institution.

Religious conflicts, secular frameworks: the role of scripture and challenges for the UN

The UN can also be seen as introducing values that are different to the community, several participants explained. This raises the risk of actors engaging with the UN Security Council viewed as collaborating with foreign agents and becoming targets of violence. So, there is a need to ensure the safety of those that engage in the absence of formal structures, especially at the community and local levels.



The UN is also presented as having a secular brand so when we have disparity of capacity within religious entities, it’s easier to engage with those who really have the right capacity, and this might pose a problem about fairness and independence for the organisation.

The UN is often viewed as representing secular values and this can lead religious groups to mistrust the organisation or use it as a symbol of non-religious or even anti-religious worldviews. This secularity is often a response to concerns about religious beliefs as fueling violence and conflict.

The assumptions about secularity and the violent nature of religious sentiments keep faith-based peacebuilding organisations from receiving international funding. As a speaker explained: ‘when we are fundraising, there are donors who, as long as the organisation is faith-based, they will not fund you because they think you will probably just be advancing, you know, values of a particular religion or you’ll only reach out to people about particular faith yet we have so many youth-led faith-based organisations working in areas of peacebuilding and development that are really serving everybody.’

Scripture also plays a crucial role and in some traditional interpretations justify violent means. Scripture is also used as a tool to impede the inclusion of actors like women, youth, or LGBTQ communities. One speaker explained:

I’m really convinced that harnessing the power of scripture and tradition within local cultural context is a key to shaping the thought and practice of tomorrow’s leaders today.

Speakers also highlighted, however, that trying to tone down the relevance of scripture is a mistake when it comes to peacebuilding and inclusion. Downplaying scripture and tradition can generate strong reactions and alienate communities and leaders. On the contrary, scripture can be a very important path towards these goals.

An example of this is a program that addressed ‘the misuse of religious ideology not by negating scriptural teaching but rather by amplifying such teaching within localised mainstream tradition, teaching an Islamic worldview deeply rooted in scripture and tradition that promotes the peaceful and alternative approaches that challenge the status quo.’ These programs have a relevant impact and can form the religious leaders of the future.

Inclusive peacebuilding: forming the religious leaders of the future

Religious ideologies, scripture and some of their interpretations have instituted and reproduced the exclusion of women, youth and other communities. In religious discussion most leaders are male and older. However, this has also created an opportunity. Certain groups have developed their own leadership because they do not identified with these religious leaders or they have dissenting opinions. The UN could help support them by establishing opportunities for dialogue and making sure that youth and women are included.

All these religions have certain elements, certain ideas that developed in the past maybe they are not healthy and not support inclusivity and sometimes discriminate you, particularly towards women.

Fortunately, there are numerous youth-led organisations working on issues of religious extremism, countering hate speech and demystifying violent and exclusionary religious narratives. Unfortunately, these groups often lack the capacity they need to scale up their impact. As a speaker explained: ‘we don’t have organisations who come to the forefront to design programs and sustain courses that can help build the capacity of young people and faith groups interested in advancing peace.’ The UN’s Youth Solidarity Fund was mentioned as a good tool to support youth-led religious organisations.

Some of these systems, as one of the speakers expressed, often focus on short-term results rather than sustainable, long-term outcomes. ‘For example,’ they explained, ‘our governments can be effective at identifying influential leaders of extremists worldviews, sometimes at the expense of noting the next generation of leaders currently in formation beneath them.’ Fostering inclusivity and empowering non-traditional religious leaders that are often forming youth groups is key for preventing future religious conflicts.

One of the speakers had recommendations on how to influence the religious leaders of the future. Introducing peace in the teachings of seminaries and universities has proven successful in discouraging exclusionary and violent religious ideologies. This helps to use the power of scripture and tradition to promote peace and inclusion in faith institutions. The wives and mothers of senior religious leaders are also powerful, but often disregarded faith leaders. They become suddenly ‘de facto leaders in thought and practice to their wider community’ and often lack the training to assume this role. Women in the Frontline provides scripturally bounded training in mediation and peacebuilding. They allow women to work with other women who in turn continue training the next women leaders within their spheres of influence. The work also indirectly influences the male leaders to whom these women are connected.

The event brought to light what religious dialogue, faith actors and institutions can do for peace. More importantly, speakers highlighted concrete actions that should be taken in the future (see Figure 2 below). The way forward towards peaceful and inclusive societies requires a recognition of the influential power of religious institutions, networks and leaders and it demands that everyone from youth learning scripture in seminaries to established leaders are engaged.



Written by Maria Langa