Highlighting the peace-making power of religion, despite its mixed track record

At the 17th Annual Meeting of Religious Liberty Experts, scholars examine both the destructive and healing power of faith in society.

Silver Spring, Maryland, United States | Bettina Krause and Barry Bussey

A group of scholars, lawyers and religious freedom advocates met last week to challenge a widespread belief that religion is primarily a divisive force in society, fuelling tension and violence. The 17th annual “Meeting of Experts,” organized by the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA), brought together some 20 academics at Pepperdine University School of Law in Malibu, California, to consider the role of religion in current global conflicts, and to focus on ways that faith can, instead, be a powerful force for peacemaking and conflict resolution.

“We need to use faith anchored in forgiveness and reconciliation,” said Ambassador Robert A. Seiple, a former United States Ambassador at large for Religious Freedom, and current IRLA president. “We need to know our own faith, and likewise, we need to understand our neighbour’s faith and respect it.”

Ambassador Seiple, who gave the first of ten major presentations, focused on his firsthand experience with the horrific 1994 Rwandan genocide. He described visiting the country in the aftermath of the violence and standing on a bridge over a river clogged with hundreds of decaying bodies. According to Ambassador Seiple, one of the most troubling aspects of the Rwandan genocide is that it took place within a “Christianized” country—some 85 percent of the total population identified themselves as Christian. But in spite of this colossal failure on the part of churches in 1994, religious values have since played a vital role in rebuilding social stability. As Rwandans have reclaimed their country, they have shown the world the power of forgiveness, said Ambassador Seiple. He noted that many perpetrators of the genocide are today living side-by-side with their victims.

According to Dr. Ganoune Diop, Secretary General of the IRLA, each presentation during the four-day event was shaped in some way by two key questions: “How can we live with our deepest differences?” And, “How can the best of religions overcome the abysmal record of religious wars, religious ethnic cleansing, and genocides fuelled by religious discrimination?”

Although the Meeting of Experts examines these questions from a scholarly perspective, the issues that drive the work of these scholars are far from abstract. “Too many people suffer discrimination, persecution, or even martyrdom or genocide because of their religious differences,” says Dr. Diop. According to a Pew Forum study released earlier this year, some 5.5 billion people—or 77 percent of the world’s population—live in countries with “a high or very high overall level of restrictions on religion.”[1]

The meeting brought together a diverse panel of scholars who represented universities and organizations from seven countries. Presenters included Dr. David Little, Professor Emeritus of Harvard Divinity School; Reverend Canon Brian Cox, Senior Vice President of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy; Professor Cole Durham, President of the International Consortium for Law and Religion Studies based in Milan, Italy; Professor T. Jeremy Gunn, professor of International Relations at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco; and, Dr. Amal Idrissi, law professor at the University of Moulay Ismael in Meknes, Morocco.

Over the past two decades, the Meeting of Experts has aimed to bring together some of the world's foremost scholars and practitioners in the field of religious freedom to track legal and sociological trends. Papers presented at the annual meetings are published, and have produced a significant body of academic and practical resources. The papers from this year’s Meeting of Experts will be published in the 2015 edition of Fides et Libetas, which will be available later this year from the IRLA, which can be contacted through its website at www.irla.org or its Facebook page at www.facebook.com/IRLA.HQ.

The IRLA was established by the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1893 and is the world's oldest religious freedom advocacy organization. It promotes freedom of belief for all people, regardless of faith, and has non-governmental organization status at the United Nations. Along with the annual Meeting of Experts, the IRLA sponsors regional religious freedom festivals and forums, and every five years organizes a world congress, which attracts an international mix of scholars, legal practitioners, government officials and human rights advocates.

[1] For the full study, visit the Pew Forum website at www.pewforum.org/2015/02/26/religious-hostilities/