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Room for Religion in Diplomacy

3/1/2004 - 6:00 AM PST

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Faith's Role in International Affairs

NEW YORK, FEB. 28, 2004 (Zenit) - Events in recent years brought home, often brutally, the influence of religion in international affairs. Conflicts such as the internecine strife in Balkans and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have also prompted scholars to intensify their analysis of religion's impact on politics.

Religion is not only a factor that provokes violence; it can also be an important part in promoting peace. This is an underlying idea in a collection of essays edited by Douglas Johnston and published last year under the title "Faith-Based Diplomacy: Trumping Realpolitik."

The introduction observes that religion stands at the center of much of the conflict in the world today, and that its importance might increase because of globalization's threat to traditional values. Consequently, religion should be given "its just due as a defining element of national security."

One of the essays, by Johnston and Brian Cox, notes that this directly contradicts the secularization thesis, expounded by the founder of sociology, Auguste Comte. The 18th-century philosopher had argued that modernization and progress would lead to a weakening of religion.

To contrast the disparity between a secular and faith-based way of acting, Johnston and Cox turn to outline how diplomacy differs when carried out by religiously motivated people. Such faith-based diplomacy has among its characteristics:

-- A conscious dependency on spiritual principles and resources in the conduct of peacemaking. This can include prayer, fasting and forgiveness.

-- A reliance on a certain spiritual authority. Intermediaries need a certain legitimacy, based either on ties to an institution or through trust based on a personal spiritual charisma.

-- A firm rooting in a particular religious tradition. Nevertheless, a faith-based diplomat should understand and respect the essence of other traditions.

-- A transcendent approach to conflict resolution that adds to the human logic present in normal diplomacy. This approach would rely on sacred texts that informs about human nature and the spiritual dimension of experience.

-- The ability to persevere against overwhelming odds.

Faith-based diplomacy, they continue, can be carried out in diverse ways. It can bring a new perspective to old problems. It can work to build bridges between conflicting parties. Other modes involve efforts to facilitate mediation and working to heal the wounds of history.

Mixed record in ex-Yugoslavia

In his essay on Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, David Steele points to a positive and a negative role played by religion. He noted the extraordinary examples of interfaith efforts at reconciliation among the religious communities in these zones. For example, the leaders of the Serbian Orthodox, Catholic, Muslim and Jewish communities in Bosnia signed a statement of shared moral commitment and established a new interreligious council in 1997. Three years later, Kosovo's religious leaders also formed an interreligious council and published a statement condemning violence and intolerance.

These postwar acts were an important change, as some religious leaders in the recent past had condoned war and ethnic division. In fact, noted Steele, religion in the former Yugoslavia had been used too often to deepen social and ethnic cleavages.

Steele, who restricted his analysis to the part played by Orthodox and Catholic churches in the conflicts, commented that religion had long been the single most important defining factor for Serbs, Croats and other peoples. This had led to a tendency to sacralize nationality, which in turn contributed to intolerance. During the conflicts some of the clergy in the churches were led by nationalistic sentiments and played a role in fomenting conflicts.

Others, however, were involved in efforts of reconciliation and humanitarian aid. Steele observed that a common characteristic of these Christian leaders was the ability to find a balance between justice and reconciliation. In this way they were able to condemn the injustices committed while at the same time reaching out to the other side.

In the book's concluding essay R. Scott Appleby acknowledges religion's capacity to provoke violence. Whether it be Christianity or Islam, Hindu nationalists in India or Buddhist agitators in Sri Lanka, combatants often claim religion as their motivation. But religion also provides important motivations for peacemaking, Appleby says. One of the tasks facing contemporary society, he continues, is to identify and cultivate in each distinctive religious tradition those strengths that will aid in building peace.

Limits of sovereignty

"The Sacred and the Sovereign: Religion and ...

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