Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding: The Religious Dimension

By Dr. Douglas M. Johnston


The events of September 11, 2001 in the United States graphically exposed the limitations of secularism as the West’s sole guiding principle for international relations and of the power-politics model of decision-making that has served as its altar.  The purposeful exclusion of elements that clearly play a central role in some situations has left foreign policy practitioners with an inadequate frame of reference for dealing with problems of communal identity that take the form of ethnic conflict, tribal warfare, and religious hostilities.  It is no small irony that this historical exclusion was never itself the product of rational analysis but rather a predictable outgrowth of dogmatic secularism.  The question then becomes which of these two positions comes closest to the “real” meaning of realpolitik, dogmatic self-limitation or a rational willingness to see the world complete and whole?

Almost anywhere one turns, one finds a religious dimension to the conflict, and the West is woefully ill-equipped to deal with it.  Sadly, Western policymakers have let their rigorous separation of church and state become a crutch for not taking the time to understand how religion shapes the worldviews and political aspirations of others who do not similarly separate the two.  As demonstrated by the current conflict in Iraq, the West is fundamentally incapable of dealing with religious differences in a hostile setting.  Nor is it equipped to counter demagogues like Osama bin Laden or Slobodan Milosevic who manipulate religion for their own purposes.  Because of this inherent failure to comprehend, Islam and Christianity, for example, tend to talk past one another at best or, alternatively, resort to conflict to settle their differences.  The attacks of September 11 are one of the more recent manifestations of where this can lead.

In the wake of those attacks, the United States and its coalition partners have  been pursuing a dual track strategy – a track of justice and retribution in Afghanistan and a track of pre-emption in Iraq.  This response is understandable when one considers the fact that the leading vital interest of every nation-state is protecting the security of its citizens. However, unless one complements that response with an effective strategy of cultural engagement, all one will do in the final analysis is expand the pool of future terrorists and move toward a police state as one seeks greater security in an increasingly insecure world.

Faith-based Diplomacy

Samuel Huntington noted in his Clash of Civilizations that religion is the defining element of culture; and here a new concept called faith-based diplomacy merits our attention.  Simply put, faith-based diplomacy incorporates religious concerns into the practice of international politics. Operationally it involves making religion part of the solution in some of the intractable, identity-based conflicts that plague today’s geopolitical landscape. How this translates in practice varies from one conflict to the next, since every conflict is unique; but the approach itself is built around the role that religious faith plays in the lives of the protagonists. Implicit in this approach is a recognition that everyone of influence in any given situation is not necessarily bad; and those who are bad, aren’t bad all of the time. Thus, it plays to the angels of their higher nature by bringing the transcendent aspects of their religious convictions to bear operationally.

Among those who are best equipped to practice this form of diplomacy are religious leaders and institutions and, most particularly, faith-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs).  As the concept of national sovereignty continues to erode under the steady onslaught of technology change and economic globalization, the power of state-centric political bodies is diminishing accordingly; and NGOs are stepping in to fill the vacuum.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the realm of conflict prevention and peacebuilding.  With the effectiveness of traditional diplomacy waning in the face of ethnic conflict and other problems of communal identity, religious actors are becoming increasingly engaged in peacemaking around the world.  Clearly, religious reconciliation coupled with official or unofficial diplomacy is seen by many to offer greater potential for dealing with identity-based conflicts than do the realpolitik approaches that worked so well during the Cold War.  As appealing as this sounds, however, there are a number of formidable challenges to using religion as an instrument of peace, not the least of which is the significant role it has played over time in both instigating and exacerbating conflict.

Religion as an Instrument of Peace

As everyone is well aware, religion is a double-edged sword.  It can cause conflict or it can abate it.  All too often, the religious contribution to social evolution has been characterized by intolerance, divisiveness, and resistance to change.  Clearly, the kind of absolutism that sometimes attends religious convictions does not lend itself to negotiating meaningful compromise.  Moreover, the key virtues of religious persuasion – neighborly concern, the betterment of humanity, and one’s right relation with one’s creator (for those religions that include a creator) – are often too weakly rooted to prevent their cooption by the forces of power politics.  Thus it is that religion in far too many instances is used as a badge of identity or a mobilizing vehicle in aiding and abetting conflict for political ends.  Sadly, the shelves of the world’s libraries are replete with volumes on religion’s negative contributions to global history.

Often overlooked in the negative stereotyping of religion’s relation to conflict is the positive role it can play in actually preventing or resolving hostilities through the increased trust that it can introduce in certain situations.  It wasn’t until the publication ten years ago of Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft by Oxford University Press that this aspect of religious activity was systematically examined.  Ever since the Enlightenment, it had been axiomatic that religion was to have a declining influence in the affairs of humankind.  Hence, its all-but-total absence from the policymaker’s calculus and the uninformed policy choices that have flowed from that neglect.

With religion’s resurgence following the Cold War, it has become clear to most policymakers that religion is now far too important to be marginalized as it has been in the past.  Indeed, although there are still many in Western policymaking circles who underappreciate its peacemaking potential, others are beginning to see it as a defining element of national security.  Clearly, there is an urgent need to understand the religious dynamics at play in any given conflict situation if one is to deal effectively with their confrontational aspects or, perhaps more importantly, to capitalize effectively on their harmonizing elements.

Faith-based Intervention

As set forth in Faith-based Diplomacy:  Trumping Realpolitik, the 2003 sequel to the book mentioned above, there are several situations that particularly lend themselves to faith-based intervention.  First are conflicts in which religion is a significant factor in the identity of one or both parties to the conflict, as is the case in Kashmir.  A second possibility is third party mediation in conflicts where there is no particular religious dimension present, as exemplified by the Community of St. Egidio’s role in ending the civil war in Mozambique.  Third are those conflict situations in which religious leaders on both sides of the dispute can be mobilized to facilitate peace as has recently taken place through the work of the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy (ICRD) in the civil war between the North and the South of Sudan.  Fourth are protracted struggles between two major religious traditions that transcend national borders, as has been the case over time with Islam and Christianity.   Finally, there are those situations in which the forces of realpolitik have led to an extended paralysis of action as was the case in Cuba prior to the Pope’s visit to that country in 1998.

Included among the attributes that religious leaders and institutions bring to bear in promoting peace and reconciling differences between opposing parties are (1) credibility as a trusted institution; (2) a respected set of values, (3) moral warrants for opposing injustice on the part of governments; (4) unique leverage for promoting reconciliation among conflicting parties, including an ability to rehumanize situations that have become dehumanized over the course of  protracted conflict; (5) a capability to mobilize community, national, and international support for a peace process; and (6) an ability to follow through locally in the wake of a political settlement.  Finally, because religious peacemakers often operate out of a sense of calling, there is an inspired ability to persevere in the face of major, otherwise debilitating obstacles.

Faith-based NGOs

The range of religious actors spans a continuum, with the temporal power of the church defining one end of the spectrum and the personal initiatives of spiritually-motivated laypersons defining the other.  Between these extremes lie the initiatives of the faith-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs) mentioned earlier.  As contrasted with governments and secular NGOs, faith-based NGOs offer many of the same attributes listed above for religious leaders and institutions and often operate  with two distinct advantages:

1. When working through religious institutions as they often do, faith-based NGOs tend to maintain closer linkages with those whom they serve.  These institutions  provide penetrating access to the local community and are well-positioned to reinforce accountability for any agreements that may be reached.

2. By bringing a sense of moral authority to the policy debates, there is often greater receptivity to their agendas.

Thus, to the extent that faith-based NGOs can constructively exploit their faith-based identities, relationships of trust, and far-reaching networks, they offer a vital (and too often overlooked) tool for conflict avoidance and mitigation.  Beyond their increasingly recognized role in conflict mediation, these NGOs are also well-suited to the tasks of conflict prevention and post-conflict peacebuilding, neither of which represents an easy challenge.

With regard to prevention, for example, there are several generic obstacles that must be overcome if one is to be effective.  First, there is the challenge of thinking beyond the crisis of the immediate in order to shape events, rather than merely react to them.  Second is the difficulty of proving one’s effectiveness, i.e. how does one prove conclusively that something did not happen as a result of something that one did.  Finally, and overriding all else, is the challenge of mustering the political will of decisionmakers to take action, few of whom are ever inclined to sacrifice in the present to serve larger ends in the future.

The first challenge relating to peacebuilding is defining specifically what it is.  There are almost as many definitions as there are those attempting to define it.  Perhaps the most authoritative among these is that used by he who first coined the term in 1972, then-Secretary General of the United Nations Boutros Boutros Ghali.  His definition, while narrower than most that have followed, focused exclusively on the “post-conflict support of peace accords and the rebuilding of war-torn societies.”  Here, the fundamental challenge is one of restoring relationships that have been severed by war and dislocation –a highly difficult task under the best of circumstances.

As popular as inter-religious dialogue has become as a vehicle for reconciling strained relations between disaffected religious factions, its perceived worth is probably overrated if it only amounts to ad hoc meetings and a sterile exchange of views about belief systems.  If, however, it includes a mandate for action and a commitment to meet on an ongoing basis, then the relationships that result will likely lead to increased trust, at which points all things become possible.

Lessons Learned

Every conflict that takes place is inherently unique, driven as much by personalities as circumstances.  Not surprisingly, each also has unique lessons to convey.  Among those to be gleaned from a range of faith-based interventions by religious leaders and institutions (including faith-based NGOs) are the following:

1.  Trust and integrity

• The religious peacemaker must have credibility with the parties to a conflict, and this is most often gained through a long-term local presence (perhaps in concert with development work, as Norwegian Church Aid has done in the north of Mali and as the Mennonites characteristically strive to do wherever they are involved) or by partnering with a local individual or institution that commands such a presence.  Successful conflict prevention or peacebuilding requires long-term commitment.
• Transparency and cultural sensitivity are absolutely critical.  When planning an intervention, religious peacemakers must be transparent in their objectives, goals, and decisionmaking processes.  Equally important, they need to provide transparency in financial matters and fundraising, taking particular care that sources of financial support do not compromise their perceived neutrality.
• Integrity of analysis is crucial to gaining and maintaining credibility in the eyes of other stakeholders.  One must develop a sound expertise in the social problems one is addressing in order to (1) command the intellectual respect of the parties to the conflict and (2) be able to articulate credible alternative goals and the means for achieving them.  Such was the strategy of the East German Lutheran Church during that country’s transition to democratic governance in 1989.  One must also have a broader view of the conflict in order to properly tailor one’s recommendations to the historical, political, economic, and security realities.
• Integrity of practice is also important.  The spirit with which one pursues one’s work is every bit as important as the substance of its content.  For example, by emphasizing strategic nonviolence and avoiding polemics, both the Catholic Church during the 1986 “people’s” revolution in the Philippines and the East German Lutheran Church during that country’s transition to democracy gained and maintained the critical mass of public support needed to overthrow their discredited governments. These are traits that have also been institutionalized in the Dhammayietra peace walks in Cambodia, a description of which follows later in this chapter.

2. Resourcefulness

• In situations involving state-sponsored oppression, consideration should be given to using existing networks of religious communication to mobilize large-scale support, much like the Catholic Church did in using its radio stations and newspapers to confront the Marcos regime and as the Muslim-Christian Dialogue Forum is currently doing with its weekly television series on inter-religious cooperation in Nigeria.

• In third-party mediation/intervention, religious peacemakers should capitalize on religious beliefs and symbols in finding a common religious language of conciliation that can foster a genuine spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation.  When sensitively applied, such language and symbolism can aid in getting to the deeper issues, as the Conciliation Commission in Nicaragua was able to do when it brokered a peace between the Sandinista regime and the East Coast Indians in 1988.  More recently, the faith-based diplomacy of the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy in Kashmir provides yet another example.  Through applying the reconciling principles of Jesus of Nazareth –  a figure who commands the respect of all major world religions –  ICRD has been able to effect enduring reconciliation between several Hindu and Muslim communities.

• Whenever possible, serious consideration should be given to including religious leaders in formal peace negotiations.  Because of their unrivaled influence at the grassroots level, it is important that they feel a real sense of ownership in whatever political settlement emerges.  Further, their presence provides a moral authority that is otherwise missing and an enhanced capability for dealing with the kinds of religious issues that often permeate such negotiations.

3. Coordination with other stakeholders 

• Conflict prevention and peacebuilding are complex undertakings that typically require action on the part of multiple actors at multiple levels.  Thus, adept coordination is often required with domestic and foreign governments, international organizations, and NGOs.  In high-level mediation and negotiation, it is important to keep all of the stakeholders closely informed of the proceedings and to effectively coordinate the involvement of Track 1 and/or Track 2 diplomats.  The Community of St. Egidio’s work in Mozambique and that of the Conciliation Commission in Nicaragua are both examples of situations where these tasks were superbly executed.

• As feasible, religious peacemakers should generally seek to strengthen and support existing peacemaking initiatives, thereby avoiding any need to recreate a wheel that already exists and enabling them to focus more effectively on bringing the religious elements to bear.  The Mennonites customarily do this to excellent effect.

• Finally, as a general rule, it is always preferable to develop indigenous ownership of conflict prevention and peacebuilding initiatives as early in the process as possible.


Over the past ten years, a burgeoning array of resources has grown up around faith-based conflict prevention, dispute resolution, and peacebuilding.  The below listings are representative and by no means exhaustive.  Apologies are thus extended to those organizations, experts, and authors who may have been omitted.

Key Organizations

  1. American Friends Service Committee
  2. Catholic Relief Services
  3. Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy
  4. Community of St. Egidio
  5. European Platform for Conflict Prevention and Transformation
  6. Fellowship of Reconciliation
  7. International Center for Reconciliation, Coventry Cathedral
  8. International Center for Religion & Diplomacy
  9. International Peace Research Institute
  10. Life and Peace Institute
  11. Mennonite Central Committee
  12. Mercy Corps International
  13. United States Institute of Peace, Religion and Peacemaking Program
  14. University of Notre Dame, Program in Religion, Conflict and Peacebuilding
  15. World Vision
  16. World Council of Churches
  17. World Conference of Religions for Peace

Key Experts/Resource Persons

Scott Appleby
• Director of the Joan B. Kroc Center for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame
• Author of The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence and Reconciliation

Landrum Bolling
• Director-at-Large, Mercy Corps International
• Former President and Rector, Tantur Ecumenical Institute

John Paul Lederach
• Leading practitioner-scholar in conflict transformation
• Founding Director, Conflict Transformation Program, Eastern Mennonite University

David Little
• Professor of the Practice of Religion, Ethnicity, and International Conflict; Harvard Divinity School
• Former Senior Scholar in religion, ethics, and human rights; United States Institute of Peace

Joseph Montville
• Former Director, Preventive Diplomacy Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies
• Co-editor of Conflict and Peacemaking in Multi-ethnic Societies

Cynthia Sampson
• President, Peace Discovery Initiatives
• Co-editor and author, From the Ground Up:  Mennonite Contributions to International Peacebuilding

David Smock
• Director, Religion and Peacemaking Initiative, United States Institute of Peace
• Editor of Interfaith Dialogue and Peacebuilding

David Steele
• Program Manager, Conflict Management Group
• Former Director, Religion and Conflict Resolution Project, Center for Strategic and International Studies

William Vendley
• Secretary General, World Conference of Religions for Peace
• Former Professor of Systematic Theology, Maryknoll School of Theology

Key Books on Religion and Peacebuilding

Appleby, Scott.  Ambivalence of the Sacred. (Lanham, MD:  Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1999).

Berger, Peter.  The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics (Grand Rapids, MI:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999)

Coward, Harold and Gordon S. Smith, eds.  Religion and Peace Building.  (Albany, NY:  SUNY Press, 2004).

Gopin, Marc.  Between Eden and Armageddon : The Future of World Religions, Violence, and Peacemaking (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2002).

Johnston, Douglas and Cynthia Sampson, eds.  Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1994).

Johnston, Douglas, ed.  Faith-based Diplomacy:  Trumping Realpolitik (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2003).

Kiser, John.  The Monks of Tibhirine:  Faith, Love, and Terror in Algeria (New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 2002).

Lederach, John Paul.  Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies (Washington, DC:  USIP Press, 1997).

Sachedina, Abdulaziz.  Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2001).

Shriver, Donald.  An Ethic for Enemies:  Forgiveness in International Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

Smock, David, ed..  Interfaith Dialogue and Peacebuilding.  (Washington, DC:  USIP Press, 2002).

Varshney, Ashutosh.  Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life:  Muslims and Hindus in India (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2003).



Chapter in People Building Peace II: Successful Stories of Civil Society. Utrecht, Netherlands: European Centre for Conflict Prevention
September 7, 2004

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