Whether or not one believes that religion unites or divides communities, it is unarguably a fundamental element in the formation of human society. As such, it is understandable that religion can be an important element when it comes to resolving conflicts.
Our experience in the Arab Group for Muslim-Christian Dialogue, which was founded in 1995 to help resolve conflicts in the Arab world, demonstrates that there is an important role for religious leaders in peacemaking. The group is comprised of intellectuals, clergy and other public leaders from Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Sudan, and the UAE who work together to launch initiatives that promote coexistence and mutual understanding between Muslims and Christians in the Arab world and elsewhere.
Notably, members of our group have participated in peacemaking efforts in northern and southern Sudan where the issue of religion has come into play since the government, which is based in the predominantly Muslim northern part of the country, worked to implement Islamic law in the predominantly Christian south. In 2003, the team participated in a gathering of nearly 50 people representing churches, Islamic organisations, non-governmental organisations and the Sudanese government. The main objective was to help promote interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims in Sudan, who have found themselves in conflict with one another largely as a result of fighting between various rebel groups and the government.
The Arab Group for Muslim-Christian Dialogue helped host seminars and discussions with government officials to promote coexistence, which eventually contributed to a national peace agreement in 2005 between the government and the major rebel army, as well as between some Muslim and Christian communities.
In order for interfaith dialogue to be effective in alleviating tensions and resolving religious and sectarian conflicts, it should work to remove the core causes of religious conflict. In order to do so, there are some guidelines that I believe practitioners should keep in mind when outlining how dialogue should be conducted.
First, it is important to recognise that the dialogue should not be restricted only to social elites; it should include the popular base. Second, it should not only encourage different communities within the larger public to exist side by side, but instead help them adopt themes of “coexistence” or “togetherness in coexistence” in their everyday lives. After all, mere existence requires that members of a multi-religious and multi-confessional community exist next to each other, avoiding clashes and confrontation. Coexistence, however, involves meeting face-to-face and working together hand-in-hand.
Finally, dialogue should not be used to resolve ideological differences. Successful dialogue encourages participants to arrive at an agreement on commonalities which then facilitates them working together.
Through our work on various conflicts, we have understood that it is not worthwhile to worry about religion itself as a divisive force, but rather to concern ourselves with those who use it for selfish personal or group benefits. For instance, faith is being used by some to eliminate the idea of a unified nation-state, replacing it with confessional and sectarian entities. When this happens, allegiance to a common nationality becomes fragmented in favour of confessional and religious allegiances. This is the danger that faces Iraqis as well as Sudanese.
Perhaps surprisingly to some, interfaith dialogue can address these kinds of religious and political issues to foster national unity. It can strengthen a sense of community and unification no matter what one’s religious affiliations are, so that various communities can work with one another for the benefit of the entire nation.
There is a palpable fear that this division along sectarian lines may happen in other countries in the region as well. However, the prospect of it happening should not allow us to become disillusioned, but rather motivate us to help people see, perhaps through interfaith dialogue, that religious or confessional pluralism can be a source of enrichment for unity within diversity.
* Rev. Dr. Riad Jarjour is General Secretary of the Arab Group For Muslim-Christian Dialogue and President of the Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue. This article is part of a series on spiritual leaders and interfaith dialogue written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).