Last week I took part in a meeting of the WCC Executive Committee in Abuja, Nigeria, a context in which inter-communal violence is a widespread concern and a daily reality. In a statement we adopted on the situation in Nigeria, we highlighted – among other things – the consequent importance of inter-religious initiatives for peace and social cohesion. Indeed, the WCC, together with the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought (Jordan) and Christian and Muslim partners in Nigeria, has sponsored the establishment of the International Centre for Interfaith Peace & Harmony (ICIPH) in Kaduna, northern Nigeria, for this reason.
The interreligious challenge and the interreligious response is the similar in many other contexts in which the WCC is engaged or concerned. One emblematic example is Iraq. One of the first missions I undertook after starting work at WCC was to northern Iraq in August 2014, in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Mosul to the so-called ‘Islamic State’. In a conversation with an Iraqi Kurdistan government minister in Erbil, reflecting on the origins of that crisis, he observed that “if we were to base our opinions and actions on what we learn at school, we would think that was no history in this country before Islam, and that there are no communities in Iraq other than Muslims – obviously a poor basis for living together in a diverse society.”
This conversation planted the seed for a project in which the WCC has been convening representatives from all the religious communities and components of Iraq – all the Christian churches, Muslim Shia and Sunni, Yazidis, Kakai’is, Shabak, Turkmen, Jews – to revise the official school curriculum so as to present the historical and current diversity of Iraqi society, in the interests of greater social inclusion and cohesion. We are very proud that the Iraqi government has accepted and adopted this revised curriculum, and that teachers are now being trained for its utilization in schools nation-wide.
WCC has also been privileged to participate in inter-religious advocacy for nuclear disarmament, along with secular members of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). Advocates from different religious communities played key moral leadership roles in the campaign that led to the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). This treaty is establishing a new normative principle in international law against not only the use of nuclear weapons but also the development, testing, production, stockpiling, stationing, transfer and threat of use of this most catastrophically, indiscriminately and intergenerationally destructive category of weapons.
Another very positive example of interfaith action for peace relevant to the context here in Indonesia is the ‘Call for Peace in the Land of Papua’ recently issued by an inter-religious Eminent Persons Group, comprised of the former First Lady Ibu Sinta Nuriyah, Alissa Wahid (Nahdlatul Ulama); Rev. Gomar Gultom (PGI), Marzuki Darusman (former Attorney-General of Indonesia), and Catholic Bishop Siprianus Hormat. (PGI General Secretary Rev. Jacky Manuputty and the first ever indigenous Papuan Catholic Bishop Yan You also joined in the launch of this initiative.) The call summons the parties to the conflict in West Papua back to the negotiation table. Members of the group have offered a frank assessment of the situation in Papua and the failures of the Indonesian government to address the escalating conflict and the deteriorating humanitarian and human rights situation in the region.
Both the content and the ‘body language’ of such initiatives offer extremely precious examples and leadership towards sustainable and inclusive peace, in an increasingly divided, confrontational and conflict-affected world.
At its 11th Assembly held in Karlsruhe, Germany, in September 2022, representatives of the WCC’s member churches reflected on the current perilous state of the world, and adopted - among other important policy statements - a statement on “The Things That Make For Peace: Moving the World to Reconciliation and Unity”. The Assembly observed that ours is a time of “renewed and escalating global polarization, reconfiguration of governance and geopolitical alignments, division, confrontation, and militarization… with all the appalling risks that attend this context.” It also acknowledged grave concerns about “the instrumentalization of religious language, authority, and leadership to justify, support or ‘bless’ armed aggression or any kind of violence and oppression, in sharp contrast to the Christian calling to be peacemakers”.
These threats to peace, the Assembly declared, “fundamentally violate the core tenets of the Christian faith” and stressed that “[t]he calling to dialogue, encounter and the pursuit of mutual understanding is the very essence of ecumenism and central to peace-making.”
In its response to these realities, the Assembly expressed its rejection of “the polarization and division of the human community” and declared the churches’ “commitment… to grapple with the threats and challenges to peace, justice, human security and environmental sustainability through dialogue, encounter, the pursuit of mutual understanding, and cooperation, rather than through exclusion and confrontation.”
Importantly for our current discussion, the Assembly strongly affirmed “the commitment of the WCC and its member churches to peace-making through inter-religious dialogue and cooperation at all levels, as a key contribution to countering the forces of division, confrontation, polarization, and injustice”.
Indeed, religion is one of the many diversities in the human family that has in some places and at some times been instrumentalized by divisive forces. But to my knowledge it’s very rarely the case, if ever, that a conflict can be said to be fundamentally religious in nature. Much more often, ethnic divisions or political ambitions lie behind conflicts that are presented in religious terms. Even more important then for religious leaders to guard against being instrumentalized in this way, and to act together to counter it and to provide a more positive example for their communities.
A tragically current case in point: As part of its reaction to the ongoing conflict in Israel and Palestine and the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe there, the WCC Executive Committee meeting in Abuja refuted “all those who seek to portray the current conflict in religious terms, misusing scripture to justify violence, killing, cruelty and oppression; we reject and denounce all such efforts to distract from the root causes of the conflict in the region.” In such a desperate and acutely dangerous situation, Jewish, Muslim and Christian religious leaders must work together to prevent religion being deployed as a weapon in this terrible war.
Returning to the WCC 11th Assembly statement, the Assembly was careful to describe “The Things That Make For Peace” much more comprehensively than the simple cessation of violence. Indeed, it called for “greatly increased investment by governments and other actors in the foundations of true human security and global stability, including for urgent action to achieve climate justice and to avert the threat of catastrophic climate change, and for a just transition to renewable energy, for the elimination of extreme poverty, for sustainable development, and for measures to control rampant inequality… all of which if not addressed will fuel conflict.”
In this regard, I would like to highlight an important initiative – the International Partnership on Religion and Sustainable Development (PaRD) – which seeks to bring an interfaith constituency of faith-based actors together with governments and UN agencies, to promote partnerships across these sectors for accelerating progress towards the SDGs. It is a means of trying to engage the capacities of the faith leaders and communities for building the “foundations of true human security and global stability”.
Finally, I observe that the many different conflicts that have proliferated around the world in recent times are symptomatic of one common malaise: declining respect, even open contempt, for the principles of international humanitarian and human rights law. These instruments of international law were negotiated in the aftermath of the Second World War precisely to protect the world from the sort of horrors that we are now seeing again in Ukraine, in Israel and Palestine, and elsewhere. Is our collective memory really so short? How can we be so ready to unlearn the lessons of the past, and to abandon principles created for the protection of all members of the global community?
International humanitarian and human rights law offer our best and only protection against the brutal rule of ‘might makes right’. In the current geopolitical context, it should be the common first priority of faith leaders from every religious tradition to insist on the continuing importance of these principles, to demand that all governments fulfil their legal and moral responsibility to ensure the unbiased and consistent application of these principles in all contexts, and to refuse to be the pawns of politicians and demagogues.
director of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs, World Council of Churches