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How religious actors de-escalate conflicts

Religiously motivated actors stand out because they frequently enjoy more trust from conflict parties. 

Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos with Pope Francis
Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos with Pope Francis © dpa

1 _ Colombia

Representatives of the Catholic Church played an important role behind the scenes of the Colombian peace process because they enjoyed the trust of all conflict parties, also during the revision of the peace agreement that was initially rejected by the population. 

2 _ Mozambique

In civil war-torn Mozambique it was the Community of Sant’Egidio, an organisation of Catholic laypeople, working with Bishop GonÇalves that were able to broker a lasting and stable peace agreement in 1992 at the height of the civil war. An earl­ier mediation attempt by the United Nations had failed and the situation appeared hopeless. In 2010, Sant’Egidio also negotiated a peace agreement in Guinea-Conakry that opened the door for the first democratic elections in 50 years. The community is currently endeavouring to achieve an armistice in the Central African Republic. 


3 _ Rwanda

During the Rwandan genocide of 1994, in which (Christian) Hutus slaughtered over 800,000 (Christian) Tutsis in 100 days, only one population group resisted the violence: Rwandan Muslims. They recognised very early on where the political propaganda of hatred and violence was heading. They courageously raised their voices in opposition, condemned the violence as contrary to the Quran and set up programmes in Muslim schools to sensitise and immunise children and young people against propaganda. They rejected the violence and helped refugees – whatever their religion or ethnicity – to escape the death squads. They hid them, supplied them with food and acted as protective shields, often at the cost of their own lives.

4 _ Benin

The fact that the changeover to democracy in ­Benin occurred peacefully is primarily due to ­Bishop Isidore de Souza. In February 1990 he ­initiated the Conférence Nationale des Forces Vives de la Nation with almost 500 delegates from all the country’s important social and political groups. Within a few days, under his leadership, this national conference succeeded in agreeing major democratic and economic reforms and committing all forces to renouncing force. Later, Isidore de Souza became head of the transition government and eventually of the legislative Haut Conseil de la République – in contravention of Catholic Church law of the time, but (exceptionally) with the ­consent of the Pope. By taking on these leading full-time political functions, de Souza was able to directly mediate between the conflict parties and thereby steer system change onto a peaceful course from the very outset, before he again limited himself to ecclesiastical office in 1993.

5 _ GDR

The protest movement in the GDR would hardly have been able to develop without the involvement of the Protestant Church. Furthermore, the Peaceful Revolution of 1989 would probably not have remained peaceful very long. Church representatives were active in different ways: first, the Church offered a roof under which different opposition groups and people could meet – there was no alternative to this in the GDR. Second, ecclesiastical representatives and groups were important contribu­tors to the opposition movement. Third, Church representatives acted as mediators between the ­people and state authority, especially in autumn 1989 when there were fears of a violent suppression of the demonstrations. And fourth, many pastors took part in the Round Tables at all political levels that shaped the transition in 1989/90 and were also active in a wide range of political functions after reunification.

6 _ Chile / Argentina

In 1978, following decades of conflict over the course of the border in the Beagle Channel, Pope John Paul II prevented a bloody war between Chile and Argentina at literally the last second. For six years, Papal envoys worked on the ultimately successful conclusion of a Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the neighbouring countries.

7 _ Cambodia

Following the reign of terror of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, to which two million people – roughly a quarter of the population – fell victim, the Buddhist monk Maha Ghosananda ­began a peace and reconciliation movement in 1979 that grew into an important force and a strong voice in politics and society.

8 _ Germany / France

Founded by Protestant Pastor Frank Buchman, Moral Re-Armament (today known as Initiatives of Change) has provided informal mediation and useful diplomatic services in many conflicts. It made a major contribution to building understanding and reconciliation between the former “arch enemies” Germany and France after the Second World War, which was also supported by church representatives on both sides.

9 _ India

In British-occupied India at the time of Gandhi, a Muslim called Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan built up a strictly Islamic, but equally strictly non-violent and religiously tolerant, resistance movement in the North-West Frontier Province, the “servants of God” (Khudai Khidmatgar). Of all groups, it was among the Pashtuns, whose propensity for violence was notorious, that an opposition ­developed which struggled peacefully for ethnic self-determination and a ­united, multireligious India. For several years, a social transformation took place that an amazed Gandhi described as “a modern fairy-tale”.

10 _ Philippines

The largely peaceful victory over the repressive rule of the Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 was primarily thanks to broad sections of the ­Catholic Church. It was above all members of religious orders and priests in grassroots church communities who convinced the people to proceed without violence and laid the foundation for the Rosary Revolution.

11 _ Kashmir

Representatives of the Quakers, a historical peace church, were active medi­ators in the India-Pakistan border conflict in Kashmir (1965–66) and the bloody civil war in the Nigerian region of Biafra (1967–70). They have ­continued to mediate in numerous military conflicts until the present – ­however, very consciously behind the scenes, away from media attention.

12 _ Latin America

Individual Catholic bishops, the World Council of Churches (WCC), the Lutheran World Federation and Mennonite mediators contributed in a varied and decisive way to overcoming violent conflicts in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and other Latin American countries (especially during the 1980s and 1990s).

13 _ Religions For Peace

National interreligious councils in Bosnia-Herze­govina, Kosovo, Liberia, Sierra Leone and other countries have contributed to achieving construct­ive solutions to political conflicts through various activities, usually initiated by the interreligious peace organisation Religions for Peace. For example, the Interreligious Council of Bosnia-Herzegovina (IRC-BiH) succeeded on its own to draw up a draft law on freedom of religion and the relationship between state and religion that all three ethnic groups or partial republics enacted into law with unanimous approval in 2004. In Sierra Leone, on the other hand, as a result of its early involvement, the Interreligious Council prevented a religious ­intensification of the civil war. Although it was ­unable to stop the civil war, it contributed to its de-­escalation and facilitated an understanding ­between the former conflict parties after the ­violence ended.