Tapping into the potential of faith-based actors to shape pathways to sustainable peace

Faith-based actors can have a fundamental influence in relation to peace and political transition processes. Given the legitimacy, influence, and public platform they possess, religious leaders (and institutions) can either sow the seeds for peace, or fan the flames of war.

In the course of a joint project with The United States Institute of Peace (USIP) and The International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD), Inclusive Peace have produced a forthcoming report that draws on 71 case studies of peace and transition processes assessing the involvement of faith-based actors. The report lays out a series of comparative findings examining why, the extent to which, and how faith-based actors have been engaged in formal peace processes over the last 30 years. Despite significant differences in terms of conflict dynamics, recent experiences from Ukraine and Ethiopia illustrate the significant bearing faith-based actors can have on the trajectory of a conflict as well as a strong influence on any rapprochement, dialogue, and reconciliation attempts. Our comparative research also explores a number of factors which either enable or constrain faith-based actors’ influence.

This blog explores a few of these factors that may be particularly pertinent to consider with regard to the current dynamics at play in relation to Ukraine and Ethiopia.

Unity: Internal unity of faith-based actors has a pronounced effect on the influence they can exert on peace and political transition processes. This can often be a gargantuan task, given that cleavages within or between faith communities often mirror conflict lines. In Sri Lanka, polarisation within the Catholic Church prevented it from adopting a clear anti-war message. Such divisions are not uncommon, and in some contexts can also be used to demonstrate a commitment to internal dialogue and reconciliation, as was seen in the Catholic Church in Guatemala, where internal divisions were addressed through dialogue. By demonstrating and seeking to peacefully manage divisions, the Church’s legitimacy was actually bolstered, which then positioned the Church to play a central role in the country’s peace process. Similar kinds of dialogue – initially informal grassroots dialogue – are currently happening amongst Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UCO-MP) and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), including through public joint prayers. It remains to be seen the extent to which religion will become a central point of contestation in the conflict itself, which could fundamentally shift conflict dynamics (and how broader parts of society and the international community are mobilised to support, or not, military objectives). In Ethiopia, recent tension within the Orthodox Tewahedo Church has threatened to create new waves of instability (both at national and community level), and it remains to be seen to what extent a reconciled Orthodox Church can now play an active role in advancing dialogue and reconciliation efforts more broadly in the country.

Coalition building: Faith-based actors’ ability to build coalitions among different actors of different faiths and other stakeholders, particularly those likely to have an influence over conflict parties, strongly contributes to their ability to influence peace and political transition processes. In some instances, these coalitions are formal mechanisms or institutions, such as Inter-Religious Councils. The Inter-Religious Council in Liberia played a critical role in bringing together Muslim and Christian leaders (and communities), who in turn pushed for an end to the civil war, and who subsequently were deeply involved in the country’s pathway to reconciliation. In other contexts, such as the Philippines, faith-based actors worked with civil society and business actors to increase public mobilisation and support for a peace process, while also using the breadth of the coalition to influence main actors in the implementation process and to engage with political leaders.

Resources and organisational capacity: Faith-based actors, particularly when members of large powerful social organisations such as churches, have important material, infrastructural and political resources that facilitate both their inclusion and influence in peacemaking and peacebuilding efforts. The fact that these organisations have their own resources rather than being dependent upon others increases their independence and, in turn, their legitimacy. In Afghanistan, the ulama councils of religious scholars supported outreach and public mobilisation in the Constitutional Loya Jirga process, increasing their influence in and around the process. Yet this influence was also exploited by certain Mujahideen leaders (claiming religious leadership) to take a stance against transitional justice, which made more moderate clerics and mullahs fearful of supporting such an initiative. Because they have the necessary financial and human resources, faith-based actors can invest in long-term involvement both in mediation efforts among conflict parties but also within communities. Many religious groups remain involved in the post-agreement phase and help parties heal, build social institutions, and seek justice. In Sierra Leone, the Inter-religious Council of Sierra Leone (IRCSL) was involved in reconciliation, relief, human rights training, democratisation, and reintegration programs, especially of child combatants. In this way, the resources and organisational capacity of faith-based actors can lend themselves to sustained engagement and involvement overtime as conflict dynamics change, and the potential for peace processes (and their implementation, including through reconciliation) also evolves over time.

Early involvement: Early involvement of faith-based actors in dialogue efforts establishes a precedent for their continued involvement and increases its legitimacy. While the conflict dynamics may not lend themselves to overt engagement (or even in the use of rhetoric around “negotiation” or “reconciliation” given the political sensitivities and the realities of the violent conflict “here and now”), finding ways to engage with conflict parties (and the wider community/ society) can ultimately create the conditions for faith-based actors to play a meaningful role in peacemaking efforts. This can be true of faith-based actors within a particular context, as well as faith-based actors from neighbouring countries or at the international level. In the case of the Beagle Channel dispute between Chile and Argentina, early Papal mediation was key to preventing further escalation. On the other hand, Buddhist actors in Sri Lanka strongly opposed the Norwegian-led peace process, which served as a major “spoiler”. In Ethiopia, the Inter-Religious Council and a number of individual faith communities made individual and joint statements calling for violence in the north of the country to be avoided during the early period of the internal conflict. While these calls weren’t headed, they have subsequently conferred a degree of legitimacy on the Inter-Religious Council (and national faith-based bodies such as the Orthodox Church, Catholic Church and the Islamic Supreme Council) as the country now looks ahead to a National Dialogue process.


Photo source: Dimitris Avramopoulos/Flickr