Diplomatic community told: 'don't ignore religious leaders in peacemaking efforts'

By staff writers
20 Mar 2007

On the fourth anniversary of the Iraq War, a new book has been published which seeks to show how religious peacemakers often use techniques for addressing conflict that are lacking in official diplomatic efforts.

Peacemakers in Action: Profiles of Religion in Conflict Resolution, by David Little of the Harvard Divinity School and the New York-based Tanenbaum Centre, will be published this week.

Four years since the US invasion of Iraq, soldiers continue to perish in what is now a bitter sectarian conflict. At its centre are Iraq's religious leaders, with figures like Shi'ite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr wielding unparalleled influence on the streets. But their influence is far from unique.

The determining role of religious figure is evident in conflict situations worldwide: witness Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon, the Mullahs of Iran, Catholic and Protestant leaders in Northern Ireland, the deposed Islamist regime in Somalia, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Hindu Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka - and the list goes on.

Yet despite the profound role religion is playing in conflict situations, grassroots religious leaders are often shut out of official diplomatic efforts - even though many of them could make a positive difference.

"This book is a call to action," co-author and Tanenbaum Centre Executive Vice President Joyce Dubensky explains. "What we are saying to the diplomatic community is simple, but critically important. Don't ignore the religious leaders on the ground. They can help you make peace. The people listen to them. And don't bring them in when it's already too late."

Peacemakers in Action: Profiles of Religion in Conflict Resolution (Publication Date: 19 March 2007, Cambridge University Press, US$24.99) chronicles the stories of 16 brave men and women who have successfully tapped into religious beliefs as a tool for intervening in some of the world's most violent and stubborn conflicts, including: Israel-Palestine, Sudan, Afghanistan, Northern Ireland, Ethiopia, the Balkans, South Africa, Nigeria, El Salvador, Sierra Leone, and West Papua. For each of them, religious texts and traditions have served as a practical resource.

What sets these Peacemakers apart from secular activists dedicated to peace is their unique stature in the community, their credibility and their effective techniques, the book argues.

They are able to use such resources as religious texts, the power of the pulpit, indigenous religious and cultural traditions, creating religion-based philosophies of non-violence, and adapting secular and Western models of conflict resolution to local conflicts.

"The Tanenbaum Centre Peacemakers in Action work courageously for the greater good under the most difficult circumstances," the Dalai Lama observed at an interfaith prayer service for peace with the Peacemakers in September 2005. "We should all learn from and follow their great example."

Grassroots religious leaders are powerful - but underutilized - actors for resolving some of the world's most horrifying conflicts the book says. As such, it contains timely information for diplomats, government officials, and conflict resolution practitioners, as well as today's students of religion and international affairs - our future peacemakers.

"This is the single most important book published in the field of religion and conflict resolution to date," says Dr Marc Gopin, author of Holy War, Holy Peace.

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