When Religion Brings Peace, Not War

Linked with David R. Smock – USA, and with The United States Institute of Peace USIP.

Published on USIP, 52 pages, by David R. Smock, First published January 2006.

The post-September 11 world is seized with the dangers of religious extremism and conflict between religious communities, particularly between two or more of the Abrahamic faiths: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. The threat of religious extremism is real and well documented. The connection between religion and conflict is in the process of being thoroughly explored, however, to the extent that hyperbole and exaggeration are commonplace. In the popular mind, to discuss religion in the context of international affairs automatically raises the specter of religious-based conflict. The many other dimensions and impacts of religion tend to be downplayed or even neglected entirely.

The contribution that religion can make to peacemaking—as the flip side of religious conflict – is only beginning to be explored and explicated. All three of the Abrahamic faiths contain strong warrants for peacemaking. There are past cases of mediation and peacemaking by religious leaders and institutions. For example, the World Council of Churches and the All Africa Conference of Churches mediated the short-lived 1972 peace agreement in Sudan. In South Africa, various churches were at the vanguard of the struggle against apartheid and the peaceful transition. The most dramatic and most frequently cited case is the successful mediation the Rome-based Community of Sant’Egidio achieved to help end the civil war in Mozambique in 1992.


Repeatedly citing these cases as the main points of reference distorts the reality of religious peacemaking. Most of the cases of religious or faith-based peacemaking are less dramatic in their outcomes. Also, religious peacemaking is becoming much more common, and the number of cases cited is growing at an increasing pace.

The field of religious peacemaking is also maturing. With more sophisticated reflections of its growing experience, a body of knowledge is developing. I made an earlier attempt to reflect on this experience in the book I edited titled Interfaith Dialogue and Peacebuilding (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2002).

Some of the leading thinkers and practitioners in the field, including Marc Gopin, Mohammed Abu-Nimer, and David
Steele, contributed chapters to that volume. The book contains an analysis of the keys of success in interfaith dialogue as a mechanism for resolving violent conflicts. It lifts up the unique elements of religious peacebuilding, with a particular focus on apology and forgiveness. It also emphasizes the importance of keeping issues of social justice front and center, so that religious peacebuilding does not merely make the participants feel better.

There are a number of other important contributions to this literature.4 When communal identities, particularly religious identities, are key causal factors in violent conflict, traditional diplomacy may be of little value in seeking peace or conflict management. Douglas Johnston, president of the International Center on Religion and Diplomacy, has identified conditions in several conflict situations that lend themselves to faith-based intervention:

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