Beyond religion: Can faith be a force for peacebuilding?


By Teniola Ayoola

What do Desmond Tutu, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King have in common? The iconic peacebuilders have also been religious leaders.

With many of the world's current conflicts attributed to divisions between faiths, can religion alternatively be used to foster peace? Peace News Network attended the Pulitzer Center’s recent event, Beyond Religion, to speak with peacebuilders on how religion is being used in war zones to encourage reconciliation.

“I wouldn’t say religion in itself causes violent conflict," says Oge Onubogu, from the United State Institute of Peace (USIP). "Having a lot of religious actors or people who practice different religions in a community, in a society is not a bad thing, but the inability to be able to manage those differences, the inability to manage that diversity effectively is what creates the challenge."

Freelance correspondent and producer Danny Gold agrees.

"I’ve covered conflict a lot, especially ethnic and sectarian conflict, and one of the things you see is demagogues or leaders seize onto religion as a way to convince people to support them, but it’s really just about power for them, or about money or about control," Gold says.

Gold points to the example of violent conflict in the Central African Republic in late 2013, which was understood in international media as conflict between Muslim and Christian groups.

"For the most part it wasn’t really a religious conflict," says Gold. "It became a religious conflict because leaders exacerbated the religious divisions. They took advantage of the fact that maybe there were some differences in the communities that weren’t violent, but, once they saw that as an opportunity to rally people behind them and seize power, they used that to their advantage."

But Onubogu says religion can also be used to unite people in reconciliation processes. USIP has been using religious connections as a key component bringing communities together in the middle belt region of Nigeria. In 1992, violent inter-religious conflict broke out in Kaduna State, killing over 2,000 people and and fueling distrust. In 2001 the neighboring Plateau State saw 5,000 people killed and 250,000 displaced.

"There was a lot of killing," says Onubogu. "On both the Muslim side and the Christina side.

"We were able to work with clergies from the Christian side and the Muslim side," says Onubogu. "To really understand what the drivers of the conflict were in their communities. And at the end of the day, this resulted in a peace pact in this community that ceased fighting, and this community has remained relatively stable for the past thirteen years.”

For Onubogu, and many peacebuilders, understanding a conflict and maintaining perspective is vital when looking at the relationship between religion and peace.

"I think we need to try to get to a point where we can put aside all our prejudices and we can put aside what we think about our religion, or the next person’s religion," Onubogo says, "and just look at individuals as human beings."

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