It is my great pleasure once again to participate in this Sant’Egidio annual meeting - a wonderful movement which holds a special place in my heart.
Last year I shared some guiding principles that inform our work with religious actors at Search for Common Ground. During this past year, in my fairly new role as director of religious engagement for the organization, I have been listening and learning, both from our own Search initiatives around the world and also from colleagues in the field, in order to develop a Common Ground Approach to working with religious actors. Today I would like to expand on some of these guiding principles and share experiences that illustrate how we are putting them into practice in order to build interreligious Bridges of Peace across the Abrahamic faiths.
But first let me begin with a story about a rabbi - we will call him Rabbi Cohen - who lives in Israel. He is about 40 years old and is highly influential both religiously and politically. He is considered one of the geniuses of his generation, answers questions about Jewish law that are followed by thousands of people. He also holds extreme nationalistic religious views that stem from his belief that the entire Holy Land was promised by God to the Jewish people three thousand years ago and must remain in its hands, now and forever.
Rabbi Cohen joined our Religious Leaders project to expand constituencies for peace towards a negotiated solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict for one main reason. His strong nationalist point of view is growing in Israel and his political party is powerful; he realized that he cannot continue to say ‘no, no no’, to other parties’ peace programs without coming up with his own scenario for what relations between Israelis and Palestinians will look like in the future.
I was shocked to hear his interpretations of religious texts when I heard him discussing them with fellow rabbis during the first year of the project – views that placed the supremacy of land ownership above the holiness of life. I think I was most shocked because in his personality, Rabbi Cohen is a kind, gentle and charming man.
During the second year of the project we took a group of 34 religious leaders, men and women, National Religious and Muslim, to N. Ireland to build bonds and learn lessons from the conflict there. Rabbi Cohen, born in Israel, had never left the country following a minority religious opinion that once in the Holy Land you are obligated never to leave. What was he to do? After consulting with various learned rabbis – this was not an easy decision - he decided to take out a passport for the very first time to travel with us. That trip was a turning point for him and many of the participants in the project.
We are now in the third year of the project and 30 Muslim and Jewish religious leaders – men and women - have divided into working groups and are implementing activities to expand constituencies for peace in their communities. Rabbi Cohen is working with a group of National Religious leaders to develop recommendations for their political party on how to advance peaceful relations with their Muslim neighbors based on a religious perspective.
This is the power of the Common Ground Approach to change attitudes and behaviors. Despite the religious differences and the seemingly intractable conflict of the Arab/Israeli conflict there is something about this approach that in a word – works! And it especially works with people whose religion holds a place of deep identity in their lives because despite the differences, there are so many commonalities - love of the divine, of dedication to religious principles and practice – among many others.
I would like to focus on three of our Common Ground guiding principles that are helping us to build these bridges of peace:
It may seem strange to begin with hope but maintaining it in fragile, conflict-ridden societies, especially those where conflicts have continued over generations, is most probably the most important for peacebuilding. Peacebuilding Principles often begin with an intellectual analysis of the conflict, the ‘who, what, when, where, how’ aspects of it. But when we begin with hope we see time and again that constructive change happens even in the most difficult of circumstances. Hope - believing that there are people out there doing good things, helps us find them in order to partner with in our activities. Hope brings out the best in people who then rise to the challenge and this generates new opportunities.
This positive perspective strongly resonates with religious leaders whose mission includes providing hope and support to their communities. Scriptural narratives that model conflict resolution and offer rituals for self-reflection, repentance, and renewal are found in many faiths. Religious texts call on adherents to never give up but to seek peace and pursue it as a supreme value. They offer the potential for personal and spiritual transformation and for building peaceful connections with other human beings. Put simply it makes sense for religious peacebuilding to be rooted in hope.
After 100 years of conflict in the Holy Land you would think that this is one location where hope has flown out the window. And yet I am constantly amazed at the commitment of participants of our Religious Leaders’ project to learn about the other and seek ways to live with their neighbors without violence. It’s not easy but it is hope that is encouraging them to search for a safer life for their children in the future
Religious actors need to be included in peacemaking because they are an integral and significant component of society – and not just because governments want to control extremist, radical behavior. Religion has influence in many fields such as humanitarian relief, development, education, health, gender, and human rights and is often a main delivery provider so it makes sense to include them in the discussions. But inclusivity doesn’t just mean senior male religious leaders. It also comprises women and youth who are essential components of religious communities and who are among the most affected by conflict and violence. Yet they are often excluded from leadership activities in the public space. That is why we like to use the inclusive term religious actors in our work rather than the traditional religious leaders.
In Northern Nigeria where attacks on holy sites have been commonplace, we are working with Muslim and Christian religious leaders, men and women, to develop consensus on how to protect holy sites for all. Using our Universal Code of Conduct on Holy Sites as a basis for collaboration between religious communities, the leaders have committed to disseminating a consensus statement in their communities through the media, town hall meetings and educational programs in schools and to include women and youth in its implementation.
LONG TERM COMMITMENT – the third and final guideline I want to highlight here.
Sant’Egidio knows what it means to commit long term. These annual meetings over decades have built a loyalty and trust between peoples of different faiths that is hard to rival. Conflict transformation best succeeds through sustained trust building and the nurturing of mutual respect over a long term process. Investing in relationships with religious partners is the best way to create enduring positive change and reduce religious identity-based conflict.
We have been working in Kyrgyzstan for a decade now and have built the relationships that are enabling us at this time to foster institutional legal reform and an environment of interreligious acceptance. In partnership with Kyrgyzstan’s State Commission on Religious Affairs, we are engaging religious leaders, government and civil society organizations to address amendments to Kyrgyzstan’s draft law on freedom of religion and religious organizations. In this way, Christian, Muslim, Jewish and other religious actors are participating in formulating new government legislation that directly affects the religious rights of their communities.
So Hope, Inclusivity and Long Term Commitment are 3 of the Common Ground principles I’m sharing with you today. I look forward to sharing more – with our stories of implementation in the future.