Promoting freedom of religion or belief needs to build on community peacebuilding by faith actors

5 July 2022

by Graham Gordon - Head of Public Policy

The UK Government is hosting the 4th International Ministerial on Freedom of Religion or Belief in London on 5th and 6th July. Governments, parliamentarians, faith and civil society representatives will come together to discuss the prevention of violations and abuses, and the protection and promotion of freedom of religion or belief.

Efforts to ensure that States develop and adhere to legal and political frameworks to support freedom of religion or belief are vital and will be the central focus of the conference.

But they need to be complemented by support for ground-level initiatives that build understanding, tolerance and peaceful coexistence and that can prevent conflict in the first place. For many people, in particular in more rural contexts in countries in the Global South, their experience of freedom of religion or belief will be based on the relationships they have with others within their own village, community or locality who have a different faith identity.

It is often faith groups themselves that are behind peacebuilding and mediation initiatives that make this a reality. As recent CAFOD research into the role of the Catholic Church in development has shown, the Church can be present in places where government and other actors struggle to reach and can be seen as a trusted and impartial actor seeking the common good and speaking out for those whose voices may not be heard.

In Lebanon, in that face of tension between largely Sunni Muslim Syrian refugees and the Lebanese host population, comprising Christians, and Sunni and Shia Muslims, Caritas assumed the role of a trusted mediator and set up a range of peacebuilding and development projects, such as summer sports camps, conflict-resolution workshops, and community activities around religious festivals. Caritas’s commitment to work with all people and promote social cohesion, peace and reconciliation has been vitally important. As a result, resistance between groups has broken down and friendships have blossomed.

In recent years, Myanmar has suffered ongoing conflict at community and national level, which has often been articulated along religious lines. This has resulted in divided communities, displacement from the land, and isolation and entrenched poverty for some groups. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference has trained local priests, religious congregations and church members in listening, mediation and inter-faith dialogue for peace. As a result, priests have implemented projects designed to bring benefits across the whole community and to encourage dialogue and engagement among groups who traditionally saw each other as opponents. This has resulted in greater understanding and tolerance of other religious groups, as well as reducing conflict.

However, despite this role of faith actors in building peace and preventing abuse in the first place, the role of faith actors is still a blind spot across the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). Faith actors are often brought in late to any situation and are seen simply as implementing partners as opposed to actors who understand the local context and can act as brokers for change.

The FCDO can address this approach in the following ways:

Firstly, a strategy for engagement with faith actors. The FCDO needs a cross-departmental strategy to engage with faith actors, seeking regular engagement and input from a faith advisory group. This should involve reviewing what has worked well in the past to understand the distinctive role faith actors can play.

Secondly, ongoing in-country engagement with faith actors. As embassies become more responsible for implementing the UK’s International Development Strategy, Ambassadors and in-country staff need to engage regularly with faith actors at country level; and include faith actors in the design and implementation of peacebuilding, mediation and reconciliation programmes.

Thirdly, long-term partnerships and financial support for faith actors. Ad-hoc projects and programmes haven’t worked. The FCDO needs to ensure long-term partnerships and financial support for local faith actors, especially in places where they are the only organisaitons present. This is in line with the UK Government commitments to localisation, as well as the recent recommendations of the International Development Committee’s Report on Tackling Racism in the Aid Sector.

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