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The World Council of Churches (WCC) has engaged with the Office for Genocide Prevention and the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers to promote a regional meeting in the Americas discussing the role of religious leaders in preventing incitements to violence that may lead to infractions categorized in international law as “atrocity crimes”: war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity and crimes of aggression.

The consultation on peace-building in the Americas was held in Washington DC on 29 February and 1 March.

Recent years have seen a significant escalation in tensions among groups of different religions or beliefs in many regions. This has often resulted in violence. Incidents of politically motivated violence and sectarian violence have been preceded or accompanied by hate speech and the abuse of religion to fuel hatred, discrimination and hostility.

“We know that, quite often, religious leaders are part of the problem, but they are also part of the solutions to promote peaceful and inclusive communities”, said Rudelmar Bueno de Faria, WCC representative to the United Nations in New York.

Religious leaders have taken actions worldwide to counter hate speech and incitements to violence, actions that are especially important in divided societies at risk of large-scale violence. On the other hand, in some instances, religious figures have been responsible for inciting violence.

Incitement to violence invoking purportedly religious arguments and targeting persons of other religious communities is an issue of concern to the WCC. Many of the member churches and partners around the world are working to ensure that freedom of religion is respected as an inherent human right.

WCC involvement in the initiative is part of the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace, a call from the 10th Assembly of the WCC, held in the Republic of Korea in 2013. Specifically, the event in Washington conforms with the WCC’s current actions to encourage and form religious leaders and communities as agents of peace.

Speaking on the situation in the Americas, Bueno de Faria said “When we discuss the incitement to violence through religious speeches and messages, it is important to have in mind that this does not necessarily occur on the grounds of inter-religious rivalry. It may be intra-Christian violence. We have seen persecutions of Protestants by Catholics, evangelicals and Pentecostals by Protestants and Catholics and vice-versa.”

The conversations during the consultation in Washington showed that the most common dimension of violence and incitement to violence in Latin America is due to Christian stances on social justice and humanitarian concerns. The Latin American group made recommendations on issues related to racism and discrimination against descendants of Africans and their religions, indigenous people and migrants, gender-based violence, radicalization and extremism, with a focus on youth gangs.

One specific recommendation arising from the consultation is to create a Central American Network (Northern Triangle of Central America: El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) to address issues of youth violence and narco-traffic in a holistic way. The network could be initiated by the Vatican and the WCC, with governments and the UN invited to join.

Regional consultations

A plan of action on the “Role of Religious Leaders in Preventing Incitement that could lead to Atrocity Crimes” was launched in Fez, Morocco, in April 2015, by the UN Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect. Throughout 2016, the plan will be discussed at five regional meetings of religious leaders.

The outcomes of such consultations are expected to strengthen the plan, which is expected to be adopted at a plenary meeting of religious leaders scheduled for later this year. The consultation in Washington, DC is one of the planned regional consultations.

The regional meetings aim to deepen understanding of the key role of religious leaders in preventing and countering hate speech and incitement to violence, learning from experiences, identifying specific contributions that religious leaders in this region can make to prevent such acts, and support the role of interreligious dialogue in conflict prevention, mitigation and reconciliation. It also aims to establish a lasting network of religious leaders from the Americas who can support each other and act as agents of peace in their local communities.