Healing of faiths
Conventional wisdom tends to hold religion responsible for most wars in history, with some ascribing religious motives to many conflicts even today.
Such notions are sweeping generalisations. It is irrefutable, of course, that in history much blood has been shed in the name of God the Catholic Church’s record in that regard is less than magnificent.
Even today, religious networks such as al-Qaeda conduct their campaigns of terror under the banner of Islam, while some analysts believe that among the myriad reasons for the US invasion of Iraq there lurks a fundamentalist Christian impulse.
In most armed conflicts, however, religion is merely a pretext. The conflict in Northern Ireland, for example, is not about religious freedom or supremacy; the long civil war in Sudan between the Muslim north and the Christian and animist south has been about access to and control of scarce resources; the struggle between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Iraq is not so much about religious differences (though these are exploited) as about ethnicity and political dominion; the conflict in Palestine is primarily about land and security, and has to do with religion only in as far as the competing factions can be broadly identified by their faith.
Historically, leaders of faiths were quite prepared to support wars, for reasons of religious hegemony or to foster strategic political alliances. Within the mainstream of religion, this school of thought rarely applies today.
So when the Vatican vigorously opposed the invasion of Iraq, it placed itself in opposition to a nation in which Catholics constitute the largest single religious grouping. Its opposition was motivated by gospel values in service of the Almighty.
Where religions once caused wars, or patronised them, they are now looking to become the makers of peace. Increasingly faiths are coming together to heal their differences and to work together with a common purpose towards peace everywhere. In doing so, they have an opportunity to deprive those who seek conflict of one emotive pretext for justifying hostilities.
This will not happen spontaneously. Religions must first get to know and understand one another, establish trust and friendship, and find a common purpose. That process has already begun, with Pope John Paul II’s interreligious meeting to pray for peace in Assisi in 1986 being a pivotal moment.
It is good that Pope Benedict has continued to embrace such gatherings (his earlier misgivings about the 1986 event notwithstanding).
Indeed, the Holy Father is actively encouraging interreligious dialogue. Arguably, his controversial speech in Regensburg in 2006 provided a stimulus for an unprecedented engagement between Islam and the Catholic Church and Christianity in general. This engagement may well produce contentious moments, but there are clear signs of expanding goodwill between the two faiths, at least on the level of leadership.
Likewise, dialogue between Judaism and Catholicism has transformed what once was a sense of mutual suspicion and even antipathy to a relationship of respect and cooperation. The next step must be to develop mutual trust and fraternity.
Interreligious dialogue must happen on all levels. The establishment of the KwaZulu-Natal Inter-Religious Council therefore must be warmly welcomed. We applaud the council’s admirable ambition to facilitate a moral regeneration in society, and commend it for its commitment to make interreligious dialogue work.
Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, the council’s founding chairman, is expressing realistic expectations when he says that the hard work has just begun.
In that hard work, those who engage in interreligious dialogue and cooperation at all levels must be resolutely supportedin prayer and, where possible, in action.