Field Notes article

CRS’s Inter-Religious Peacebuilding Programming: Reflections on Authority, Community, and Identity

Catholic Relief Services (CRS) has welcomed the opportunity for our inter-religious peacebuilding approaches to be examined in this blog space through the lens of the Contending Modernities project. This article aims to explore how our body of work in the sphere of inter-religious action (IRA) intersects with some of the questions animating Contending Modernities, particularly those related to authority, community, and identity.

As represented in the case studies featured on this blog–and soon to be published as a book collection–CRS and our local partners ground ourselves in the praxis of inter-religious peacebuilding, as filtered through the experiences of Christian and Muslim leaders grappling with the immediate and existential concerns of their constituencies. Their engagement with one another and with theological dimensions of inter-religious relations cannot be divorced from community needs and aspirations: for improved health and education, for sustainable livelihoods, for safety, for a better future for their children, for dignity. In this reality, the practicalities of life together become as authoritative a basis for inter-religious cooperation as are scripture, tradition, or institutional authorities. Confronting the drivers of child marriage in coastal Kenya, for example, or seemingly intractable land conflicts in Mindanao, southern Philippines, are compelling challenges for religious leaders to seek to address together. Yet CRS’s IRA approach avoids instrumentalizing these religious actors; even as they move towards concrete changes in community wellbeing, these IRA programs seek to increase mutual understanding of religious traditions and teaching–the traditional domain of inter-religious dialogue–as well as to foster trust and improve relationships. CRS understands each of these elements–knowledge, skills and attitudes; mutual understanding and strong relationships; and joint action–as mutually reinforcing components of inter-religious social cohesion.

The approaches illustrated in these case studies are at once respectful of traditional religious authority, and creatively orient it towards collaborative ends. In most cases the IRA projects sought to work with those already functioning as recognized leaders of their respective Muslim and Christian religious communities; that is, those not only holding leadership positions or titles, but also possessing personal qualities to convene, inspire, and galvanize others. To the extent that these religious leaders command respect within their communities, and beyond, it is assumed that they offer an entry point for reaching and potentially influencing or mobilizing broader constituencies. The Mindanao A3B project reflected an instructive extension of this logic, taking care to involve traditional leaders, as well as to cultivate the participation of women leaders where possible. Many projects took further steps to secure approval and authorization from higher-level authorities, such as in the case of CIRCA, which sought the blessing of the Tanzania Episcopal Conference, the Sultan of Sokoto, and others. In this way, religious authority becomes a platform for re-knitting social cohesion. To take an example from Northern Nigeria, Christian and Muslim participants who were initially afraid to be publicly associated with one another are now willing to be seen working together. Even in Bosnia, where the religious dimensions of the programming were largely implicit given the strong overlap of ethnic and religious identities, the project chose to work with war victims because they were understood to be legitimate leaders of public opinion on the possibility of post-war reconciliation.

Beyond the initial stages of engaging leaders, however, the IRA programs examined in these case studies gave participants space and support to explore and deepen their own rationale for cross-religious cooperation; that is, for participants to develop a shared and coherent understanding of their own agency in undertaking such work. CRS’s signature “3B” approach to building social cohesion–progressing iteratively through stages of binding, or personal healing and self-transformation; bonding, or intra-group strengthening and consensus-building; and bridging, or inter-group engagement and collaboration–was a cornerstone of the IRA programming in Central African Republic (CAR) and Mindanao, with the Bosnian case implicitly representing and presaging the 3B approach as well. Both CIRCA and TA’ALA also involved periods of intensive learning and reflection on religious traditions and teachings in addition to peacebuilding trainings. The fruit of these internal and intra-group processes has been the cultivation of an inclusive sense of community and shared purpose among project participants, as well as a reinterpretation of exclusionary narratives.  As described in the CAR case, “communities began to examine their views critically and to see themselves differently, opening the way to coexistence with other ethnic groups.” This was demonstrated in a variety of ways, for example through the creation of a mixed committee to enable mostly Muslim herders and primarily Christian farmers to coordinate their livelihood activities peacefully, or the actions of residents in one remote village to convince a group of Muslims to return from Cameroon, where they had taken shelter at the height of the violence. Meanwhile, women and youth implementing CIRCA connector projects—small, locally-led initiatives designed to address community priorities such as clean water, livelihoods, or child care while also bringing people together across religious lines—in Niger reported that other community members have requested to join the interfaith activities. Some TA’ALA participants invited those they had met through the project into their own homes, despite religious differences that would normally limit this kind of social interaction. And in the final A3B evaluation in Mindanao, stakeholders noted an increased willingness to communicate and have contact across identity lines as the most significant change of behavior brought about during the project. In Bosnia as well, war survivors participating in the intensive workshop series began to work across religious and ethnic lines to support one another through economic hardship.

Working primarily with existing, recognized leaders validates their voices as legitimate arbiters of personal and social norms; that is, as moral authorities on how to live as faithful people in the contemporary world. Further engaging these leaders with their own and one another’s traditions and teachings related to peace and tolerance, and with concrete experiences of cooperation, strengthens the prominence of these values in the vision they promote of a faithful society. In Mindanao, for example, the 143 traditional and religious leaders mobilized in the project subsequently formed 4 municipal interfaith networks, which strengthened their voice on peace and conflict issues. Leaders in TA’ALA intervened in 38 separate instances to prevent violence, and crafted statements to promote tolerance in their communities; these were used as a resource by school administrators in one location to mitigate brewing tensions among Muslim and Christian students, and to foster positive attitudes towards the religious ‘Other.’ In Bosnia, panel presentations in which war survivors shared their stories of trauma and reconciliation helped to change up to 80% of audience members’ attitudes towards those of other ethnic groups. And a particularly powerful example comes from Bouar, Central African Republic, which gained a national reputation as a ‘haven of inter-religious peace,’ thanks to the work of a religious leaders’ platform; so well respected was their work that a Muslim driver who fell into the hands of a violent local militia while traveling in another part of the country was spared harm because he came from Bouar.

Nearly all of the IRA projects also included an emphasis on youth (or child, in the case of DAP) involvement and leadership. In so doing, CRS and its partners affirm young people’s voice, agency, and potential to contribute meaningfully to their communities and their futures. By inviting young people to undergo the processes of self-reflection, capacity-building, dialogue and collaboration, this IRA approach allows them to construct inclusive identities and an expansive understanding of community. Some of these youth, in turn, became active proponents of inter-religious cooperation; doing so requires no small amount of courage in contexts where elders and other authority figures may tacitly or actively disapprove. In Niger, for example, CIRCA youth expose themselves to potential–though to date not active–pushback from religious hardliners through their use of public address systems to promote peace and social cohesion. TA’ALA youth in Egypt used more informal opportunities to share their experiences with peers and with villagers curious about their newly formed inter-faith relationships. The experience from Bosnia, meanwhile, illustrates that youth and even adult participants in project trainings may need additional support for dealing with resistance in their own communities.

These case studies also point to some growing edges for our approach to inter-religious action. One is the further potential to support and empower youth as agents of change. Another is to explore avenues for greater involvement of women leaders in this programming. In addition, several of the case studies–from Bosnia, Central African Republic, and elsewhere–highlight missed or under-explored opportunities to extend the personal and relational transformations experienced by direct project participants to effect changes at higher levels or to embed such changes in governance structures and systems. Outcomes from CIRCA and Mindanao, on the other hand, provide examples of how IRA equipped religious leaders to become more influential in working for peace and reconciliation through various government institutions and processes, including the empowerment of minority leaders—Muslims and indigenous peoples—in Mindanao to claim their rights. This suggests a next frontier for IRA engagement with authority, and specifically how the spiritual and moral authority claimed and represented by IRA leaders may challenge or complement state power that is ostensibly secular, but frequently highly attuned to its positioning on matters of religious identity and societal balance of power.

In an era when much of the discourse around Christian-Muslim relationships is animated by fear of the Other, CRS’s IRA portfolio represents an alternative framing of inter-religious engagement. The cases illustrate the potential for IRA to foster mutual understanding and strong relationships, informed in many cases by deep reflection on religious traditions and teachings, not strictly for joint action yet rooted in the concerns generated by daily realities and challenges of community living.  


 Photo Courtesy of Philip Laubner/CRS
Nell Bolton
Nell Bolton serves as Senior Technical Advisor for Justice & Peacebuilding at Catholic Relief Services. Prior to this, she supported CRS’s peacebuilding and governance programming in Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe, as well as working and consulting in sub-Saharan Africa beginning in 2001. She has worked on social cohesion and the promotion of equitable democratic governance with, among others, The Carter Center, the Ulster Project, and Habitat for Humanity. Following a return to her native New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, she led a variety of advocacy initiatives and headed a faith-based social justice organization in southeast Louisiana. Nell holds Masters degrees from the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame and from Candler School of Theology at Emory University, where her thesis focused on the intersection of religion, gender, and peacebuilding.

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