Field Notes article

CRS: Lessons in Contemporary Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding


The case studies of Catholic Relief Services (CRS) projects profiled by Contending Modernities (CM) offer an encouraging snapshot of the role of religion in peacebuilding and conflict transformation processes. Although the projects also bear some room for specific revisions in their underlying design and modes of implementation–indeed, these shortcomings were often highlighted by CRS personnel involved with the projects –in several crucial respects, the practices evidenced by CRS’ programs represent the cutting edge of ways in which religious actors can concretely participate in change processes promoting social cohesion and reduction of violence in all its forms.

In particular, the CRS cases reflect a shift of focus in the subfield of religion, conflict, and peacebuilding away from what has long been the dominant approach: compartmentalizing religion as a distinct and isolated variable informing identity. Instead, all four of the CRS programs profiled by CM engage religion as one among many factors capable of both fomenting and resolving conflict. Most importantly, all of these programs recognize the capacity of religious actors–and especially those in positions of leadership–to operate across sectors toward goals that deepen social cohesion and reduce violent encounters. This proves especially valuable in the cases of conflicts like Bosnia and Herzegovina where “religion” (due to its conflation with ethnonational identities) appears as a “driver” of conflict and as an enduring obstacle for post-war reconciliation.

A nuanced approach to religion’s role in conflict helps to demythologize religion as a unique, disaggregated sociocultural phenomenon prone to driving violent conflict–thereby effectively troubling the very category of “religious conflict” itself. This is important in the post-war context of segregated social spaces and exclusive historical narratives, where religion is often reified as a divisive and determinant social marker. Rather, religion emerges in these case studies as one critical facet of intersectional social, cultural, and political identity-formation. As the CRS cases demonstrate, the most successful examples of contemporary inter-religious action within broader processes of peacebuilding and conflict transformation address religion as situated within broader, complex constellations of identity-formation (including socio-economic, racial, ethnic, national, political, postcolonial, and myriad other factors). Such an approach marks positive progress away from historical attempts to extrude religion from other, overlapping socio-cultural identity categories for its ostensible role as a unique conflict driver, and conversely, related attempts at instrumentalizing a similarly decontextualized construction of religion to serve as a silver bullet cure for intractable conflict with religious dimensions (especially through elite-level inter-religious dialogue (IRD), as will be discussed below).

To this end, the cases of the Choosing Peace Together (CPT) program in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and the TA’ALA program in Egypt both highlight the ways in which religious difference may be compounded, along with ethnic difference and other identity markers, into narratives of social and political exclusion and other-ing capable of spanning generations. CRS’ work in both BiH and Egypt calls particular attention to the potential concretization of these identity narratives through sustained isolation. In both cases, the hardening of oppositional identities was found to result in and from both a physical separation and a lack of constructive socio-cultural mechanisms for engagement between communities whose suspicions of the “other” became further reinforced through prolonged mutual segregation.

Informing most of the cases of peacebuilding featured by Contending Modernities is the 3Bs approach. The 3B method, comprised of Binding, Bonding, and Bridging activities, sets the stage for reconciliation by addressing personal barriers to peace, fostering communal understanding and voice, and generating pathways to constructively encounter the “other.”  This method pays heed to deeply-held divisive narratives kept alive in hearts and practice, and better equips communities to develop local, pragmatic, and mutually agreed-upon conflict resolution mechanisms. Critically, the 3B method recognizes the relevance of inter- and intra-religious dialogue to facilitating pathways for peacebuilding and development outcomes. The latter are often framed in terms of “connector projects” such as building wells, promoting intergroup public health initiatives, and reducing rates of gender-based abusive practices. Such bridging projects promote conceptions of the “public good” and deepen capacities for social cohesion in tense pluralistic contexts. Operating horizontally and vertically at the (inter)personal, communal, and municipal levels–as exemplified by the case of Mindanao–the 3B model seeks to garner support among key stakeholders while increasing resilience in the face of potential violence through the establishment of action-oriented relationships and semi-formal mechanisms for conflict diffusion and transformation. As Omer explains:

Binding activities focus on self-transformation, including trauma healing and dialoguing. Bonding activities seek to strengthen intra-group relations, operating with a theory of change that suggests that improved intra-group relational patterns will benefit inter-group action and dialogue and capacity to negotiate land disputes. Within this space, traditional and religious leaders (TRLs) are trained to act as peace facilitators. Bonding activities also involve TRLs leading group celebrations and land conflict mapping and analysis (hence intra-group activities). Bridging activities eventually cultivate inter-group trust, reinforced by activities such as interfaith celebrations, implementing community-based reconciliation projects, joint legal literacy trainings, and inter-group dialoguing.

As the explicit application of the Binding, Bonding, and Bridging (3B) approach illustrated in all four cases, a more situated, intersectional conceptualization of the category of religion and how it operates within a given context also opens the door for broadening peacebuilding approaches to engage new sociopolitical spheres. In particular, 3B outcomes in Mindanao and from the CRS’ Dialogue and Action Project (DAP) in the Coastal region of Kenya highlight the ways in which engagement with religious and community leaders can be instrumental to broader peacebuilding initiatives that are not necessarily “religious” in nature. Leveraging religious authority through inter-religious action (IRA) training can help resolve conflicts such as land disputes, or to promote well-being by reducing the incidence of child marriages. As inter-religious action and training helps to foster broader inter-group mobilization around these issues, the networks of actors may even extend their efforts into secular institutional spaces–such as public policy and local/national legal systems–that might have been considered potentially hostile to the “traditional” influence of religion. The opportunities for innovation and collaboration with secular law courts, governments, international organizations, and non-governmental organizations evidenced by the Mindanao and Kenya cases demonstrate the potential for establishing norms of constructive contestation of difference between communities and across boundaries of tradition. However, these case studies also point to the vital importance of local capacity-building in the generation and maintenance of these new norms, and the necessity of training and resources to help avoid escalation into destructive forms of conflict. The importance of developing of new patterns of constructive engagement and interaction goes beyond recasting social norms and narratives; behind these narratives often lie extensive histories of actual grievances rooted in social, cultural, and political structures of material disparity and exclusion that will almost inevitably require inter-group cooperation to dismantle.

Several of the cases also point to the ways in which IRA-focused peacebuilding moves beyond the more limited model of mobilizing and leveraging the authority of local religious and community leaders. While such leaders still featured prominently in the implementation of all of the CRS cases surveyed by CM, the cases of CPT, TA’ALA, and the DAP project also demonstrated the extension of CRS’ peacebuilding efforts to youth programming, thereby tapping into a demographic whose needs–and potential role as a future driver of conflict or peace–are often sidelined by the privileging of older, male authority figures. The shortcomings of the model focused on training and enhancing the peacebuilding capacity of religious leaders were also apparent in several cases, as this approach tends to exclude women as parties to conflict and potential actors in formal peacebuilding processes. Importantly, and regardless of their apparent invisibility from such processes, women play pivotal roles as change agents within religious communities and more broadly. The authors of the Mindanao report reflected directly on the challenges of including women in peacebuilding programs that relied heavily on established male authority and social capital, though they emphasized that such inclusion would ultimately be necessary to achieve more capacious notions of peace and development.

While these cases indicate the need for increased participation among women in the local design and implementation of peacebuilding, the TA’ALA case study also highlights other potential risks of limiting engagement to male authority figures as agents of identity-driven conflict. In particular, the TA’ALA case reported the surprising degree to which mothers–not religious or community leaders–were found to be responsible for fostering ethno-religious identity formation in local youth, often along exclusivist lines. Thus, further engagement with women and children in the conceptualization and implementation of future peacebuilding projects may ensure their scope is more inclusive, and that they better address unanticipated loci of authority driving oppositional identity formation within given local contexts.

Perhaps most fundamentally, across all four cases, the forms of prescribed inter-religious engagement also moved (either by design or voluntarily, as in the case of the collaborative community clean-up effort emerging from the TA’ALA project) beyond an emphasis on inter-religious dialogue to inter-religious action. This shift stands out as perhaps the most concrete signal that peacebuilding has begun to transition away from solely focusing on religious literacy and understanding between conflict parties (the corollary to the view that categorical religious difference and mutual ignorance drive conflict, and can be overcome through elite-level IRD), toward ensuring that such efforts are paired with praxiologically driven forms of action and broader inter-community engagement. This shift should not be taken as invalidating the importance of religious literacy and intra/inter-religious dialogue as such. In fact, the central role of traditional and religious leaders (TRLs) in the bonding and bridging stages of the 3B process–during which these leaders are trained as peace facilitators and lead intra and inter-religious events and activities–highlights the crucial part that more traditional forms of IRD play in the success of subsequent IRA engagement. Rather, the IRA approach highlighted by the 3B process indicates the frequent insufficiency of IRD alone as a means of achieving thorough-going, multi-level transformation in a given context. For this reason, as discussed above, the emphasis on improving inter-group patterns of relation through multi-level action and engagement in addition to IRD stands out as a hallmark of the 3B process. The specialized, local articulations of need and the corresponding peacebuilding strategies highlighted across the four featured case studies speak to the breadth of concerns and potential sites of conflict–including non-religious issues, such as land, child marriage, and development–opened by the shift in emphasis from IRD alone to the more expansive IRA approach.

The CRS cases profiled by CM demonstrate the ways in which recent advances in the theory of religion, conflict, and peacebuilding play out when applied across a diverse array of localized contexts. Cases such as CPT and TA’ALA in particular help to complexify previous notions of “religious conflict” that relied on the construction of religion as a disaggregated identity category and driver of conflict or as epiphenomenal to more basic material causes, and in so doing also point to the ways in which peacebuilding must approach religion as one among a potential host of intersecting identity markers whose particular contours and influence will vary within and across given conflicts. Similarly, the A3B project in Mindanao and the DAP project in Kenya show that engaging with religious and traditional leaders can also be an effective way to address issues, such as land use and child marriage, that may not be considered “religious” at all. The results of these case studies also highlight the transformational possibilities inherent in the shift from elite-level inter-religious dialogue toward increased emphasis on constructive, action-oriented engagement. Whether in local authority figures in Mindanao collaborating to broaden the scope of inter-religious conflict resolution or in youths from different religious backgrounds coming together to clean up a neighborhood in Luxor, the examples of IRA in these case studies represent a very positive step forward for contemporary theory and action around religion, conflict, and peacebuilding.

Featured photo courtesy of Catholic Relief Services/Philip Laubner.

Garrett FitzGerald
Garrett FitzGerald is a Doctor of Political Science & Peace Studies from the University of Notre Dame and was a Research Associate for Contending Modernities. Garrett’s research interests focus on bringing the critical and constructive insights of decolonial thought into conversation with the theory and practice of peacebuilding.