Mapping the Terrain: The Role of Religion in Peacemaking

Report – external series

Harpviken, Kristian Berg & Hanne Eggen Røislien (2005) Mapping the Terrain: The Role of Religion in Peacemaking. State of the Art Paper to the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Oslo: PRIO.

This state of the art paper is written for the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs as part of the project ‘Mapping the Terrain: The Role of Religion in Diplomacy and Peacemaking’. The main component of the project was a conference, under the same title, held in Oslo 7-9 February 2005.


There is a renewed interest in the relationship between religion and peacemaking. This is partly a reflection of new attention to the role of religion in war, yet, the literature on religion and peacemaking is only loosely connected with the one on religion and war. This state of the art paper reviews a selection of recent publications on religion and peacemaking. Recognizing the immense variation between various religious traditions and conflict contexts, we suggest a number of general recommendations, which should be useful for peace brokers operating in religiously charged conflicts, as well as for peacemaking based on religion. Religious peacemakers have a track record. In some cases – such as the contribution of Sant’Egidio to the 1992 peace accords in Mozambique - religious actors use their moral status and perceived neutrality as a foundation for engaging with multiple actors, including leaders of conflict parties. In other cases – as in seeking to prevent the reemergence of war in Angola in 1998 - religious actors engage their local and international networks to explore opportunities outside of a conventional diplomatic process. In neither of these cases did religious actors command the ground alone. Yet, it is exactly the potential for offering a different perspective on issues that may be at the root of the conflict, and to offer original spaces to meet, that bears promise for the involvement of religious actors in a range of conflict situations. In conflicts that are heavily charged by religion, working conditions for the religious peacemaker are more difficult. Seeking to isolate the religious dimension is rarely viable, but is more likely to stimulate the creation of religiously based ‘spoiler groups’. Even when religiously based groups appear unreceptive to conciliation, therefore, it is important to find ways of consulting with them. The exclusion of religiously based parties in the process that led to the 1993 Oslo Accords, for example, seems to have cemented opposition both from Hamas and the Israeli radical settlers. A dialogue with religiously based groups in settings such as these may be led by diplomats or by religious actors, depending on context. Importantly, however, parties in religiously charged conflict tend to emphasise the religious identity of the peace broker, even when the latter does not. Religion is always part of a larger societal context, where it is both shaped by, and has an effect on, political, cultural and economic processes. Hence, religion alone is unlikely to create peace, just as it is unlikely to be the main cause factor of any armed conflict. In making the case for the salience of religion in peacemaking, the preparedness of religious communities to engage proactively in conflict resolution and transformation may have been exaggerated. Nonetheless, there is a need for diplomatic actors to strengthen the emphasis of religious dimensions in the context of peacemaking interventions. This presumes knowledge-building, capacity development, and ultimately a new level of religious awareness in peacemaking.

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