Iraq, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Palestine. In a world torn by sectarian violence, religion is often seen as the problem, not the solution.
But an international coalition called Religions for Peace is working hard to change that perception by mobilizing religious leaders to fight back against those who use religion to promote violence.
Inter-religious dialogue is often dismissed (or overlooked) as a well-meaning but benign endeavor — certainly not risky or life-threatening. Hayder Karim knows better.
Karim, a 31-year-old Iraqi surgeon, was forced to leave his country this summer because he had the audacity to bring together Shiite and Sunni religious leaders in the cause of peace. As Iraq coordinator for Religions for Peace, he is no longer safe in Baghdad.
“Often I have expected death,” Karim wrote recently in The Washington Post, "my neighbors', my loved ones', my own."
In the wake of the U.S. invasion four years ago, Karim was treating patients round-the-clock (literally) on a worn-out sofa in a makeshift clinic located in a Sunni mosque. Son of a Shiite father and a Sunni mother, Karim was appalled and angered by those who exploited long-simmering sectarian differences to cause death and destruction.
Karim’s decision to work for peace by bringing together Iraqi religious leaders (the first such gathering took place in Amman, Jordan, in 2003) may seem naive. After all, the religious divisions plaguing the Middle East — among Muslims and between Muslims, Christians and Jews — are grounded in centuries of conflict and distrust.
But insurgent groups, sectarian militias and al-Qaida forces all understand the power of reconciliation across religious lines. That’s why Karim and anyone else who supports Religions for Peace in Iraq courts death.
Of course, the big question is: Does inter-religious cooperation make a difference? While it’s hard to measure “success” in the Sisyphean struggle against violent conflict, Religions for Peace has worked for more than 40 years to create grassroots alliances in local communities throughout the world. Today, the group supports multi-religious partnerships in some 55 nations.
This makes sense. Religious communities are the most prevalent and influential civil institutions in the world. With so much media attention focused on “religion the problem,” it’s easy to forget the daily efforts of countless religious groups to combat poverty, disease and war itself.
The idea is to focus religious groups on their shared struggle against the common enemies of humankind — and harness that energy for common action. Religions for Peace claims this works, citing successful inter-religious coalitions fighting such problems as violence against children, the HIV/AIDS pandemic and poverty — as well as helping to mediate conflicts in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere.
Idealistic? Yes, but Hayder Karim will tell you that idealism is precisely what is most needed in places like Iraq. Until religious groups in Iraq and other war-torn nations find the will to work together to end the cycle of violence, no religious community — big or small — will be truly free.
It may be a long shot, but Religions for Peace deserves our support. Why not take a small fraction of what we spend waging war and invest it in winning the peace?
Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. Web: www.firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.