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“We need to foster the peacemaking potential of religions”

Interfaith dialogue must be part of a new foreign policy of societies. Article by Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel in the “Tagesspiegel” of 21 May 2017.

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Palmyra lies in ruins because so‑called Islamic State wants to destroy Syrians’ memories of a millennia‑old cultural identity. Boko Haram has been conducting a brutal campaign in northeast Nigeria for years, with the aim of creating an Islamic caliphate. The Rohingya Muslim minority is being persecuted in Myanmar. And terrorists have carried out despicable attacks in the name of religion from Paris to Berlin.

All of these examples show the pseudo-religious exploitation of political and economic conflicts – and how religion is being used to conceal their true nature. The danger is that the positive role religions can play in helping people to overcome fear, trust in mercy and extend mercy to others may be forgotten. Religions have a profound understanding of guilt, forgiveness and reconciliation. Faith communities can stand up for equality and justice in their societies. They take a long‑term view – something that is needed to foster peace. And they are not confined to national borders.

It will be a new step for us when we welcome over 100 representatives of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and other religions from Europe, the Middle East and North and West Africa to the Federal Foreign Office on 22 May. For the first time, we will conduct an in‑depth, long‑term dialogue with representatives of religions from all over the world, thus adding a further component to our foreign policy of societies.

What responsibility do faith communities and religions take on in important areas of society? Which best practices – particularly in social engagement, care, education and peacemaking – do they offer? How can the peacemaking potential of world religions be deployed to an even better effect? What positive examples are there of engagement by faith communities in conflict prevention, mediation and reconciliation efforts? What is the role of interfaith peacemaking? How strong is the voice of religions in public discourse? These are just some of the questions that we want to discuss in depth.

There is no doubt that religion has a great impact on society and politics – and this impact is growing worldwide. I can confirm that after a few months as Foreign Minister and from the experiences of my meetings and trips. But equally, there is no doubt that religion has a polarising impact and is blamed for reactionary views, fanaticism, violence and even terrorism. However, people who merely promote the stereotype that religion always makes conflicts worse are, in my opinion, making a big mistake.

The aim of our initiative is thus to look closely at the peacemaking potential of religions and at their responsibility for peace in society. We want to ask faith communities to rise to this challenge. And that is why we are bringing priests, rabbis and imams from all over the world together in the same room. However, the conference is not about freedom of religion or theology. Instead, our aim is to explore the potential of the various religions to shape society in their regions.

We are not total novices in this field. For example, we already provide support to the Catholic lay movement, Community of Sant’Egidio, in peace dialogue in Mozambique, where faith communities have good contacts that enable them to identify very concrete ways to end violence. We also work with the Muslim group Dar El Fatwa and peace researchers from the Berghof Foundation and support a dialogue among Sunnis on preventing radicalisation in Lebanon. We work with the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Nigeria, where we are endeavouring to mediate between Christian and Muslim groups.

The viewpoint of churches and faith communities widens our scope for analysing and implementing foreign policy and forms part of the cultural intelligence that we need when we want to understand other societies’ dreams and traumas.  This is why we want to look beyond the conference and set up a network that could serve both as an early warning system and a starting point for talks on the ground.

Opening our foreign policy to greater input from civil society has also been part of the strategic realignment of our cultural relations and education policy since the start of this legislative term. It involves moving away from foreign policy between countries and towards a foreign policy of societies. And in a world full of conflicts of a pseudo-religious nature, that is more important than ever. 

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