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23 May 2001

"Interreligious dialogue is not an ambulance"
A discussion on religious tolerance, conflict and peace-building

The issue of religious freedom has been important to the World Council of Churches (WCC) and its member churches since the beginning of the modern ecumenical movement early in the twentieth century, and Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is based on the statement on religious freedom adopted by the first WCC assembly in Amsterdam in 1948.

Ecumenical thinking on the concept of religious liberty has progressively evolved in light of the concrete experiences of WCC member churches around the world in vastly different environments. Over the years, churches have realised that religious liberty cannot be divorced from other aspects of human rights and the Church cannot seek protection for its own rights isolated from concern for all rights of all people.

Religious freedom and religious tolerance have many facets, as do the interreligious aspects of conflict and those in conflict resolution. These issues therefore affect various areas of WCC activity. How can the WCC respond to these issues? Are there new trends and challenges for the Council?

Rev. Dwain Epps of the WCC International Relations Team, Dr Tarek Mitri and Rev. Dr Hans Ucko of the WCC Interreligious Relations and Dialogue Team discuss this topic with Karin Achtelstetter of the WCC Media Relations office:


Karin Achtelstetter: The World Council of Churches submitted a written statement on the question of religious intolerance at the 57th session of the UN Commission on Human Rights. Based on reports received, the WCC drew the attention of the Commission to factors contributing to growing religious intolerance, such as inequitable distribution of economic resources and denial of political power-sharing in governments, or the abuse of religion as a "tool and a catalyst in the escalation" of conflicts, to name another item on the long list the WCC provided. Now, looking at the outcome of the 57th session, do you feel that the UN Commission took any notable steps "to safeguard and promote religious freedom, especially for the religious minorities" and to "build trust and a global climate of religious tolerance, peace and non-violence" ( aims highlighted in the WCC's submission)?

Dwain Epps: In bringing this matter, in the particular terms used, to the Human Rights Commission, we were trying to set a more positive climate for the discussions in the Commission, especially with regard to the very contentious issue of religion in conflict today. We were aware that there was a tendency building in this meeting to re-divide the world after the Cold War into a clash of cultures and, in a sense, a clash of religions. And when one begins to address the question of religion, very often emotion reigns supreme over reason. Now, on these kinds of things you don't expect immediate results. One resolution tabled and adopted at this Human Rights Commission addressed the question of religious intolerance and misuses of religion. This itself was a rather contentious debate. About as many voted for as voted against, or abstained. However, the reactions to our statement show that we had some influence in moderating the debate. Many of those affected recognised themselves in our statement. That is, the victims themselves were able to say, "No, we are not necessarily being attacked because we are Christians, but rather because of very deep underlying political, military, economic and other kinds of concerns." I think that it was, if not the first, at least one of the most pointed statements by the WCC on this issue submitted to the Commission in our many years of dealing with religious intolerance.

Tarek Mitri: I want to add something to what Dwain has said. For many years, national organisations and governments have understated the role of religion in conflicts and tensions. Now we are faced with the opposite: the tendency to overstate the role religion plays. Often people refer to religious freedom violations interchangeably with human rights violations that have little, or sometimes nothing, to do with religion. Be that as it may, we need to recognise that religious freedom and human rights are indivisible. The human rights of minorities and human rights of majorities are equally indivisible. The social and political rights of minorities that are denied are often those of the majorities as well. Also, it is important that the advocacy of religious liberty and human rights not function, and not be perceived, as a weapon of one religious community against another.

Dwain Epps: The fact that some reports circulated before the meeting of the Commission had given the impression that the WCC had generally condemned Muslim attacks against Christian minorities, and that the WCC took a strong stance in defence of beleaguered Christians around the world illustrates the problem in the present climate to which Tarek is referring. This was a rather severe distortion of what the Council said. But it illustrates the degree to which the question of religion is very often being overstated, and sometimes misstated. The reactions we have received indicate the importance of the World Council of Churches being able to continue our efforts to reinforce the importance of dialogue between communities, between faiths, and between religious groups as a way to help restore harmony and the civil, political, cultural, economic rights of the peoples involved.

Karin Achtelstetter: The WCC chose to submit its written statement on religious intolerance under item 11, dealing with the thematic question of civil and political rights, rather than under another item, for example, that deals with the situation in a specific country or region. Why this choice?

Dwain Epps: That decision was made because the report of the Special Rapporteur on religious intolerance comes under item 11. Our intention was to encourage and strengthen his work. It is at that point in the Commission that the general question of the impact of religion on society or of human rights violations on religion, freedom of religion and tolerance comes. We also refrained from addressing this question with regard to particular country situations because we were aware of a tendency on the part of some governments and of some other non-governmental organisations to address questions relating to religion in some places in an extremely divisive and contentious way. The WCC is involved in some situations where the local churches - some of which have suffered badly of late in conflicts with a religious dimension - have urged the WCC not to condemn their governments but rather to support their governments' efforts to restore law and order, precisely in order to be able to rebuild harmonious relations.

Tarek Mitri: Let me add one important element: Christians in many countries of the South are extremely sensitive to the fact that they may, often unjustly, be perceived as a sort of local ramification of world Christendom. Anything that enforces this image of Christians as aliens in their own countries is detrimental to them. Within the context of their loyalty to their nations, Christians in many countries, such as Egypt, affirm their rights - whether social , political or religious - as citizens. They are not at ease with the very notion of minority. Another element is external interference. We still live in a world of nation states, where national sovereignty remains important. External interference, whatever its stated motives, is still a conflictual issue in international law and politics. In many cases of inter-communal relations, it plays an aggravating role in tensions. It exacerbates misperceptions of certain minority communities and feeds into the build-up and re-activation of hostility against them. I am not aware of situations where external interference in tensions between communities in one country has helped in the best way to appease those tensions or resolve them.

Karin Achtelstetter: This year's written statement was based on intensive contacts with WCC member churches in conflict situations with a significant religious dimension. Examples were Sudan and Indonesia. Both cases are characterised by Muslim-Christian conflict. Are most religious conflicts today Muslim-Christian, or are there conflicts in which other faith groups are involved?

Hans Ucko: Before answering your question, let me first say something about intervention. Our problem is that we are being solicited to do something about this or that particular conflict. While caution is called for, there is a risk that by being too considerate we are then perceived as not doing anything at all. This is devastating for us. I am therefore in favour of intervention on a "pastoral" level close to the communities in question. I am thinking of involvement in the sense of carefully planned interreligious team visits. After many years of interfaith dialogue, we have established excellent relations with people of other faiths with whom we share many common concerns. So it should be possible for us to find a group of Christians and Muslims, or Christians and Hindus, or Christians and Jews to address together or to visit together a particular area of conflict to try, by their way of being together, to demonstrate another way of living together that in all its modesty might be a kind of witness. A country in which there is interreligious tension between other faith groups is India. There we are up against a growing controversy over the issue of conversion on two sides, that is, from the Hindu side, the reconversion of Christians to their so-called original religion, and from the Christian side, calls (not always Indian) to plant the cross in Indian soil, or that by 2010 all Hindus be converted to Christianity. This is another example of religion entering colonial and post-colonial patterns.

Here I would like to highlight the WCC Youth Desk's initiative to bring youth from different religions and countries in conflict - Israel, Palestine, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India, Nigeria, Sudan - together in a particular country in collaboration with people of different faiths to try to devise national "kits" for peace and reconciliation between people of religious communities. This is a very good attempt to address some contentious interreligious issues in a particular region or country.

Karin Achtelstetter: You just mentioned the WCC Youth Desk's initiative. Can you give me other concrete examples of interreligious dialogue helping to build a culture of mutual tolerance and non-violence today?

Hans Ucko: We must not give the impression of dialogue as a quick fix. In the midst of conflict, it is not easy for interreligious dialogue alone to build a culture of mutual tolerance and non-violence. Nevertheless, there are examples, such as Sierra Leone, where people of different religious backgrounds have been able to foster peace instead of fuelling the conflict. In India today, there are Hindu, Christian and Muslim communities which address communalism through interreligious dialogue, not on a national, but on a regional or local level. And in spite of everything we see today in Israel-Palestine, there are Palestinians and Jews who meet, if only for Bible studies and in various organisations, however small, and try at least to support each other in advocating peace as an option.

Tarek Mitri: At times of communal tension or at the peak of a crisis, the most precious thing people have are contacts across the communal divide. Those contacts have been built quietly by patient dialogue during peacetime. When Christians in the Malukus are looking for Muslims to talk to, and Muslims are looking for Christians to talk to, it is the precious relations built in interreligious dialogue that serve them in moments of crisis. Another moment when you need those relations across the communal divide is when it comes to negotiating civil peace. At that moment, you realise that what has been built through a long process of dialogue, friendship, trust, a common language, is of great value. This is not to say that interreligious dialogue solves the problems, because those problems were not religious to start with, so they cannot be solved by religion. But dialogue contributes to solutions.

Hans Ucko: We should remember that interreligious dialogue is not an ambulance. It is prophylactic medicine in the sense that if we have been able to build some kind of trust through long years of interreligious dialogue, then maybe it works in times of conflict. Often when people ask "Why haven't you done anything through dialogue?" in this or that place, they are calling for dialogue to come like an ambulance and solve a conflict at its peak.

Dwain Epps: Inter-faith dialogue has to go slow in order to go deep. It must be exploratory. It does not in essence try to resolve tensions when they have developed into open fighting, though it may, as the colleagues suggested, open possibilities for cooperation. At another level, there is a broad system of inter-faith cooperation in many parts of the world among people of different faiths who are not necessarily involved in inter-faith dialogue. They are engaged as representatives of different faith communities seeking peace and justice in their societies. As we speak, inter-faith councils from five West African countries involved in resolving internal conflicts are meeting together to look at the situations in Guinea and in Côte d'Ivoire. From the beginning, our decision was that we should not, as Christians, seek to enter this discussion alone, but that we should draw on the expertise, experience, goodwill, understandings of tolerance, and practical work in the area of inter-faith groups to address this question.

Karin Achtelstetter: How do you explain in a nutshell how WCC's International Relations and Interreligious Relations and Dialogue teams complement each other in their conflict resolution and peace-building efforts?

Dwain Epps: Since the creation of a department on inter-faith dialogue many years ago, relationships between that part of the Council and the one dealing with international affairs have more often been contentious than cooperative. This was particularly true in the area of Christian-Jewish relations ( at a time when we became much more involved in promoting dialogue for peace between Palestinians and Israelis. In other areas, international affairs staff found inter-faith dialogue interesting but a little esoteric.

Lately however, we have become very much aware that the nature of the world is changing radically. We have long recognised that religion is a major factor in conflict and in human rights violations. But for decades we chose, on the advice of those directly involved, to describe conflicts in Northern Ireland, Sudan and some other places as specifically not religious in character. It was only around 1991 that we began to recognise that while religion may earlier have been simply a complicating factor, it was now becoming a central aspect of conflict. That drives us in the International Relations team very strongly in the direction of more intensive discussion and cooperation with our colleagues in Interreligious Relations. Coming from different backgrounds and histories and with slightly different responsibilities, we are now struggling to find the terms on which this relationship can be worked out in practice. We have made great progress recently and are ready to open this dialogue up among WCC staff so that, together, we begin to understand much more profoundly the nature of the new challenges that we are confronting.

Hans Ucko: I think this also has to be seen in the broader context of WCC self-understanding. For the WCC, reality is increasingly marked by religious pluralism ( in the sense of enrichment and of difficulties and conflict. The WCC will have to conduct its business with the understanding that other religions are also concerned. We should use the relationships we have been able to establish to seek ways of addressing problems that are everybody's problems, not just the problems of Christians. As far as religious freedom, minority-majority relations and conflict situations where religion plays a certain role are concerned, these are the areas where we certainly complement each other. It is in our mutual interest to pool whatever resources we have.

Dwain Epps: Another dimension is the question of the impact of religion on global governance. This also pushes both our teams, and the Council as a whole, beyond where we have thought we might be. I am thinking of two initiatives with global import - last year's UN Millennium World Summit of Religious Leaders, and Hans Kung's World Ethos initiative. But we are acquainted with at least a dozen other initiatives that try to give somewhat simplistic multi-faith, multi-religious, often spiritual or spiritualist responses to global problems that seem to be beyond the present capacity of global, intergovernmental and secular institutions to respond creatively. Here we as a Council need to find out whether we are to co-participate on the same basis with communities that may have a thousand people as we do with those that may have a million, or those that may represent as much as a fourth of the world's population. How do we responsibly and effectively relate to and with others in this rapidly evolving new climate? What is the relationship between spirituality, religion, social engagement and the involvement of human communities that happen to have a religious identity in the process of global governance? This is certainly a of new area of exploration that we are both having to work hard at.

Hans Ucko: There are certainly simplistic attempts to address complicated issues today. We should be aware of this. It is even more important that we work together right from the beginning, so that we don't only talk about peace and harmony in a kind of spiritualist way - which sounds very nice but is like jelly and ice-cream: it goes down quickly but there is no substance to it. We need to address the various multifaith initiatives jointly, because they are mushrooming. All kinds of serious initiatives are telling us to "listen, involve religion in addressing some of the global threats", but some propose facile and simplistic ways of not seeing the real issues at stake.

Karin Achtelstetter: Can you identify a region and an issue where we should work together?

Hans Ucko: I think we would be foolish not to involve International Relations in exploration of these global initiatives together. I think it is important that interreligious dialogue and international relations together address relevant aspects in relation to Israel-Palestine. We have talked about Indonesia where, again, there are both international and interreligious aspects.

Dwain Epps: Some obvious opportunities are emerging in Africa. What we are doing in Nigeria and in West Africa is building very strongly on the fruits of Christian-Muslim dialogue. Yet other inter-faith, specifically Christian-Muslim, relations in West Africa are not necessarily products of WCC inter-faith dialogue work. In such cases, we have an opportunity to try to familiarise our Interreligious Relations colleagues with the things we are discovering as we approach these relations from the perspective of international relations. Sudan is another such area and it is an extremely complicated, even contentious one, even between us. When the WCC was playing a mediating role there in 1971-72, we were engaged in a process that involved Christians and Muslims. We were specifically asked by both North and South not to describe this as a religious conflict, so that religions could interpret their conflict together to the world outside in a way that could address the root causes: colonialism, poverty and political circumstances. Now we are in a situation where, on both sides of the Christian-Muslim divide, positions have hardened, to the point where neither is now really willing to enter into authentic dialogue. And yet we recognise that without such dialogue, there is no long-range future for Sudan. So this is another specific case that will require a lot of joint work to see how best we could use our respective relationships, skills, knowledge and expertise to try to find a way towards peace in a conflict that has gone on for well over 30 years.

Karin Achtelstetter: Thank you very much.

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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 342, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.