Maintaining Hope as We Work to End Religious Conflicts

How do most people get information about other religions? Sadly, from news coverage of the more than 50 sectarian conflicts that dominate international headlines.

I was recently reminded of this by Rabbi Justus Baird from Auburn Seminary, who makes the eloquent case for multifaith education as a pathway to heal the world. Last week I was honored to stand alongside five other women leaders and receive Auburn's Lives of Commitment award, and I was awed by the potential for the multifaith approach in the fight against religion-based hatred and misunderstanding.

To my mind, religion-tinged conflicts are perhaps the single greatest threat to world peace. Those conflicts have created more than 50 million refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people worldwide. Those conflicts have caused fathomless destruction and unrelenting death. And those conflicts have made life just plain uncomfortable for those who happen to be different than the crowd -- even in stable countries, like the U.S.

After more than 20 years of work on these issues with my colleagues at the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, including religious peacemakers who boldly address 20 of our worst conflicts, I am feeling new hope for change.

In February, I was in Jordan. It was just two days after the Islamic State group immolated a Jordanian pilot and the country was in mourning. I was invited by His Majesty King Abdullah II to represent the Tanenbaum Center as part of a group of global interfaith leaders. Our project is the Global Covenant of Religions (GCR) and our goal is to delegitimize the use of religion as a justification for violence.

The fact that this initiative is being spearheaded by the Hashemite King of Jordan -- a direct descendant of the Prophet, peace be upon him -- sends a crucial message. The initiative has also has buy-in from the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and many of the topmost Western, Eastern and Middle Eastern religious leaders.

Parallel to, but not part of GCR, is a conflict mitigation working group in the State Department's Religion and Foreign Policy initiative. I don't have much patience for, or belief in, Kumbaya. Getting in front of those who make and implement policy: that's what's real to me.

In this group, thought leaders from Tanenbaum, and other civil society and government groups, were tasked with developing a set of recommendations for John Kerry on how the U.S. can engage the issue of religion-based violence and extremism. The State Department is finally coming to understand that, when it comes to foreign policy, we ignore religion at our peril.

While in Jordan, I visited the Za'atari refugee camp, home to more than 80,000 Syrian refugees. Eighty percent of Syria's four million refugees don't even live in places like Za'atari. They're out of reach of help and services, and more than 12 million are in urgent need inside Syria. This is the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II.

And yet, even here, there is a glimmer of hope -- one on which the Tanenbaum Center is building. A month ago, I was in Israel with a Syrian refugee/activist. Yes, you heard me right: a Syrian in Israel. And he was welcomed there. He bravely came to talk about the Israelis and Syrians, who are rising above politics and deeply ingrained distrust, to work together to ease the immense suffering of Syrian war victims. With their eyes focused firmly on "the day after," they're working toward a time in which Syria and Israel might be partners instead of enemies.

Partners. Christians and Jews are also banding together, as they combat the brutal persecution of Christians in the Middle East and North Africa and the vicious rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere.

People of many faiths are working to counter the hatred and distrust that fuel sectarian conflicts. A key part of that work is communicating balanced and accurate information about "the other." The leading religion reporter from one of the world's major news outlets recently confided that she could not get her editors to run stories about interreligious reconciliation. "These stories just have no traction," she said. We need to reduce our dependency on the news media as our main source of information about unfamiliar religious beliefs. The unrelenting focus of the media on conflict, serves only to fuel the flames.

This brings me full circle to Rabbi Baird's point: learning to live with difference -- developing an understanding of other's beliefs and non-belief -- is a crucial life-skill in a world rent by religious extremism and violent conflicts. We are making progress. And although there is still much to be done, we can aspire to a world in which Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists -- and believers and non-believers of every stripe -- are partners instead of enemies

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