Washington Bishop: Religion Is Fault Line in Many Conflicts

U.S. diplomacy should involve religious voices because many conflicts in the world are caused by religious division, said the Episcopal bishop of Washington at a Christian-Muslim event this week.

Bishop John Bryson Chane was among four religious "principal leaders" at a March 1-3 summit hosted by the Washington National Cathedral to brainstorm on how Christian and Muslim leaders can promote peace and reconciliation worldwide.

David Ignatius, associate editor for the Washington Post and moderator of the March 3 public dialogue, asked the four leaders what they would do to promote the peace effort now that the summit has concluded. Chane said he plans to talk to political authorities in Washington about the need to involve religious leaders in foreign relations conversations.

"[A]s we engage in the challenges of 21st century, we need extraordinary 21st century diplomacy," said Chane on Wednesday. "The diplomacy can no longer be devoid of the voice of religious leaders since religion is the fault line in so many of the conflicts that really challenge the religious communities."

Chane's call echoes that of a recently released report that calls for the U.S. government to recognize the large role that religion plays in the lives of people its foreign officers interact with overseas. The report "Engaging Religious Communities Abroad: A New Imperative for U.S. Foreign Policy," sponsored by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, calls on policy makers to involve the local religious communities in global efforts such as educating women and children, delivering health care, promoting democracy, and resolving conflicts.

The Anglican/Episcopal representative was joined by three other religious principals who represented the Shi'a, Sunni and Roman Catholic faith traditions. They were: Ayatollah Dr. Ahmad Iravani, president of the Center for the Study of Islam and the Middle East and research scholar at the Columbus School of Law in Washington, D.C.; Professor Dr. Ahmad Mohamed El Tayeb, president of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt; and Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue in Rome.

Each of the four religious principals in turn invited five religious leaders and experts from their faith communities to join the three-day summit.

Two members of the American Jewish community joined the summit as observers.

The religious leaders who gathered at the summit acknowledged their peace effort comes at a time when the world is "threatened by the global economic crisis and inequitable distribution of resources, by humanitarian crisis caused by natural disasters, food, water, and energy shortages, and climate change and when "new and enduring political and religious conflicts are increasing violence at every level," as stated in their inter-religious call and commitment to action paper that came out of the summit.

In particular, the document highlights the conflict and violence in the Holy Land.

During the public dialogue, both Christian and Muslim religious leaders emphasized the importance of building friendships when engaging in interfaith dialogue. The Muslim leaders also expressed appreciation at the sincerity of their Christian hosts in listening to their voice.

"I had not only the opportunity for interfaith dialogue, but also for interface dialogue," said Ayatollah Iravani. "We had the opportunity not only to learn from our Christian brothers and sisters, I had the opportunity to learn from our Sunni brothers."

"Without establishing friendship, without establishing trust towards each other, we cannot go anywhere," he said.

Iravani attended the summit in place of Ayatollah Dr. Seyyed Mostafa Mohaghegh Damad Ahmadabadi, professor of law at Shaid Beheshti University in Tehran.

Meanwhile, Roman Catholic representative Tauran commented that interreligious dialogue is based on human friendship.

"Interreligious dialogue is not a dialogue between religions, but between believers," said Tauran on Wednesday. "If there is not mutual confidence, the human values of brotherhood, attention to the other … interreligious dialogue cannot happen."

Summit participants agreed on a plan of action that includes: promoting co-existence through engagement; participating in interfaith programs on a variety of levels to promote the common good; standing against de-humanizing influences of moral relativism; consumerism and greed, confronting issues of unjust treatment, violence and oppression of women in children; rejecting and condemning attacks on sacred places; challenging the media to provide more accurate and balanced coverage of religion-based news, including countering Islamophobia; and seeking a just solution to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, among other actions.

Washington National Cathedral plans to hold a follow-up summit next year. The date has yet to be announced.