There are few places other than the United Nations where the fruitful seeds for complex global paradigm shifts of ethical and political concern can be planted so effectively. As a result, cultures, traditions and with them, international policy, can be affected in the longer-term, and often fundamentally reformed for the advancement of societies.
The World Interfaith Harmony Week provided UN audiences with varying views on faith, religion and social responsibility. One of these opportunities was a well composed panel on "Engaging Religions to Prevent Atrocity Crimes," co-organized by the Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, The United Religions Initiative, The Partnership for Global Justice and the Department for Public Information (DPI) Outreach Program on the Rwanda Genocide.
The acknowledgement that religion in the past has indeed played a significant role in the promotion and execution of atrocity crimes, including genocide, thereby reinforcing the fact that any religion can be modified and abused by political leaders for the promotion of hatred, levels the playing field for those that are of the conviction that "true belief" is represented by only a few.
However, if religion can work this way, it can certainly work in a conciliatory manner as well. The UN Secretary-General's Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, stated how most religions indeed teach the equality of all individuals and the unity within the diversity that considers differences within race, gender or nationality as a gain and fundamental to healthy, contemporary societies. He also described how religious leaders in the ongoing unrest in the Ukraine have physically positioned themselves between angry residents in order to prevent violent clashes.
Carol Rittner, Distinguished Professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies, confirmed how historically some religious institutions and leaders became "part of the engine of genocide," and how others used their influence to protect those minorities who faced grave danger of being persecuted or killed. "Unfortunately," she noted, "religions have failed to teach and create solidarity across religious lines and between people, so that they can stand together against any form of degradation." Rittner further explained the complex role that religion played in the Rwandan genocide.
Author Timothy Longman described in his book, Christianity and Genocide in Rwanda (2010) how some members of both the Catholic and Protestant churches helped to promote the genocide by giving moral legitimacy to the killing:
Churches had long impacted ethnic politics in Rwanda, first by favoring the Tutsi during the colonial period, then switching allegiance to the Hutu after 1959, inadvertently sending a message that ethnic discrimination and favoritism could actually be considered as consistent with church teaching.
Both author Longman and Professor Rittner refer in their remarks to the helpful role that certain Muslim leaders played during the Rwandan genocide as protectors of Tutsis, preaching a message of tolerance rather than hate. As a result, many Rwandans converted to Islam when the humanitarian catastrophe was over.
Understanding how religion can function as a tool for peace, rather than an ideology for marginalization and division, is a message that needs to be relearned in numerous places, worldwide, including in international institutions and many houses of worship.