Interreligious Dialogue as a Means to Peacebuilding

February 3rd, 2015 12:06 pm


It can be said that in our diverse societies it is now more common to meet and work with people who are different from us in culture and religion. Communication across cultural divides is a skill that you can learn.

Religion is frequently cited as a cause of violent conflict, yet dialogue between faith communities often reveals that religion is not a primary source of tension. Moreover faith – based approaches to peacemaking can be invaluable in promoting understanding and reconciliation.

This article will discuss two elements to peacemaking.   One is where religion is a source of conflict and the second is where religion is not a source of conflict. When talking about situations where religion is a source of conflict it necessary for religious communities and religious leaders to play a role in addressing the conflict. Even in those situations, almost universally, where we describe a conflict as being about religion – it is really about much more than religion. Religion may be a surrogate for other factors whether it is ethnic conflict and the ethnic divisions that may overlap with the religious divisions or whether its that one religious group is better off economically. Religion may be used as a means of mobilising a movement against the other group, however it is frequently not religion per se that is motivating the conflict or what lies behind the conflict.  So even where there is religious conflict, religion can be considered a much less a driving force than is often thought to be the case.

When talking about religion not as a source of conflict, South Africa is a good example of this. In the struggle against apartheid it was religious leaders (particularly in the African community  – but also among liberal whites.) that were at the forefront of non violent protest, of pushing for change, of trying to break the conscience (the christian conscience) of those who were underpinning the apartheid system, or in the case of central America where conflicts have not been religiously motivated, not divided along religious lines, but where religious leaders have played a part in bringing out peace. David Smock said in his book Interfaith Dialogue and Peacebuilding that these weren’t religious conflicts but religious organisations and religious leaders were at the forefront of bringing peace there.


Some of the challenges to faith-based peace building can be when some religious leaders have decided that they want to become involved in promoting peace. If some of those higher up in the hierarchy in the religious tradition are against this – and this can be the case, for example, in Sri Lanka I personally have seen it occur, where some of the higher ranking Buddhist teachers support the government in its work to combat the LTTE and they support the military intervention. So when other Buddhist leaders who are underneath them want to promote peace and want to promote political resolution to the conflict, they can go up against those within their own faith tradition, and they can go up against their own superiors, and that can create conflict within their own community. It can also, if those superiors respond to them by criticising them, delegitimate them. It can take away their very authority as a respected religious leader within their community.

Interfaith dialogue is more than a conversation in several regards. One is, to say a conversation implies a kind of tranquility that is often absent in interfaith dialogue. A conversation suggests that two people are engaging in a discussion about something which they don‘t necessarily care passionately or don‘t necessarily disagree fundamentally with each other; but interfaith dialogue is more than a conversation in that it can generate deep-held emotions, it can touch at the very depths of people‘s being and their orientation toward life and toward the divine. But in addition, it‘s more than a conversation – if it‘s handled well – because it goes beyond talk: it goes to shared activities; it goes to attending each other‘s religious services; it goes to explaining to each other particular religious practices; it can entail joint activities where they‘re engaged together in some faith-based activity addressing some justice issue, or some human need together. So it goes well beyond just conversation. David Smock says in his book Interfaith Dialogue and Peacebuilding that it looks to “things that they can do jointly”.

I think there is greater interest today in inter-religious dialogue because there is greater awareness of the ways in which religion has propelled conflict in the past, and there is greater interest in how to engage religious leaders and religious communities and organisations in efforts towards promoting peace. Often in the past the religious dimension of conflicts was ignored in efforts towards conflict resolution, and that meant that those religious actors and organisation who were potential partners for peace were ignored. There is greater recognition of this now, after the identity-based conflicts during the 90‘s in which religious nationalism sometimes played an important role, and following September 11th, which clearly drove home in the United States the salience of religion in international affairs and in conflict. This can also be seen from my own country with the Troubles in the North of Ireland.

Religion is an important dimension that informs political policy, that informs international relations, and that it needs to be engaged, and there are plenty of resources within the religious realm, that can be engaged to promote peace and good governance and human rights around the world. When there are  divisions between religious communities and there are not avenues for engagement between them, this exacerbates distrust between communities that can lead to violence, and so there is a need for creating these avenues for engagement, these relationships between communities as a way to prevent violence on religious grounds from occurring again.

In Practice

Interfaith dialogue, once it‘s conceived by a group of religious leaders, is a major task. It‘s a systematic approach to thorough dialogue, to a point where you are asking individuals to think about their core values; what it means to be who they are, and how they relate to other people. To do this may sound like it‘s a conversation, but it is a very systematic approach. If you take a subject, a theme – and most dialogues are based on themes – you‘ll have a church and a mosque which are very interested in poverty, in helping child refugees in a conflict zone. They first have a dialogue; they think about why should Christians and Muslims be committed to children refugees in Darfur, Sudan. Why should they be committed? They‘ll speak about the historical issues, but then they‘ll get to the real issues. What is the praxis? What is the essential approach on the ground that we need to do? So the dialogue will then lead into steps, as two groups coming together. How do we help refugees? Where do we find local partners to save them? Where do we find clothes? How do we distribute those clothes? How do we protect them? Which politicians can we work with – that can help us – and which do we see as allies to help in our program protecting child refugees? So the dialogue might start as a conversation, but when it comes to a particular theme that affects conflict-stricken communities around the world, it‘s very structured, it‘s very systematic and it‘s very real in saving people‘s lives.

An interfaith dialogue can adopt a variety of goals but it‘s essential that there are goals. To just meet with another community unprepared and expect something positive to come out of it is generally a false hope and expectation. The situation could deteriorate into accusations of one side against the other. The most extreme elements could speak out and make charges against the other community. So, you need to have goals and maybe a simple goal is to attend the religious services of the other community and have that community interpret what‘s happening at the religious service. That‘s probably the simplest form of dialogue. Or a discussion of religious texts where you talk about similar texts aimed at the same ethical principles, or the same theological principles, and explain where there are variations and differences between the texts.  Or to talk about issues from the ethical perspective of the three faiths and to talk about how the different faith traditions reflect on some public policy issue.

I am going to finish off with a quote from David Smock in his book Interfaith Dialogue and Peacebuilding: “there are a range of ways that people can approach interfaith dialogue, but it‘s essential that the goals be set out and the methodology be agreed upon before you embark on it.”

Rachel Power


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