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I.A. Murzaku: The Role of Religion in Peacebuilding

 Speech at the UPF Interfaith Consultation on the Crisis in Syria
Amman, Jordan, October 11-13, 2013

Published in Dialogue & Alliance, Vol. 27, No. 2, 2013

The current return of religion has been extraordinarily apparent throughout the entire world. Religion has a stronger hold now than it has had for a long time in many parts of the world. It is successfully discussed in the media and politics. Politics is permeated by faith sentiments and beliefs. It seems that religion is not colliding with modernity. On the contrary, religion and modernity are merged in a harmonious way.

Religion is not eliminated from politics, as the Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire predicted. Religion has entered politics in the USA, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. President Barack Obama’s speech at the 61st annual National Prayer Breakfast used passionate language and invited people to unite “as brothers and sisters and children of God … united in prayer.”[1] He also added, “The presidency has a funny way of making a person feel the need to pray”[2] to the Almighty. God is back, and the modern world is de-secularized. Peter L. Berger, the wellknown Austrian-born American sociologist, in his book The Desecularization of the World, states: “The assumption that we live in a secularized world is false. The world today … is as furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more than ever.”[3]

Why is religion back? Religion satisfies important needs: it helps individuals discover their purpose in life and answer the everlasting individuals’ quest for meaning, the need to find and encounter the transcendent, something far greater than man. The most profound characteristic of religion is its sense of the holy or the sacred, something revered for its own sake. It brings out from us awe, mystery, imagination, admiration and a moral code. The holy is the mysterium tremendum et fascinosum (a mystery that at the same time overwhelms and fascinates). Religion necessarily includes faith. The content of that faith may differ from religion to religion, but it is still faith.

Religion and conflict

This leads us to the core argument of this important gathering: the role of religion in conflict, the potential of religion to transform conflict, and the potential of religion to be a bridge builder for peace. Many current conflicts, including those in Syria, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Kosovo, involve and evolve around conflicting parties that are for the most part defined along ethno-religious lines. Religion was not the cause and the main player in these conflicts. The roots of conflict probably reside elsewhere: economic, political, security, identity, search for resources, etc. These tend to be at the heart of conflict.[4]

Rabbi Arthur Schneier, spiritual leader of New York’s Park East Synagogue, in his visit to Sarajevo in 2012 stated, “The conflict in former Yugoslavia was the result of nationalist ambitions, not a religious conflict, although it could become [one].”[5]

Indeed, as scholars agree, the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia were distinctly ethno-religious because ethnicity and religion have become so entangled that they cannot be separated, a well-known phenomenon especially in the Balkans. The religious diversity of the conflictual, ethnically diverse parties was enhanced, used and abused to justify violence. Thus the conflict, although not religious in essence, divided and channeled as it is along passionate religious lines has the potential to turn into a religious conflict.

Religion, interreligious dialogue and peacebuilding

However, all religions value peace and the principles that promote peace, justice and coexistence, and here lies the potential of religion to transform conflict and build peace, healing broken ethnic relations and reconnecting conflicting parties to a commonly shared value system. Religious texts can provide a rich scriptural and credible background and examples of peacemaking, forgiveness and compassion, which in turn can lead to changed attitudes and perceptions. Thus, religion, religious representatives and faith-related exchanges can become among the main factors, if not the factor, of trust building between ethnically and religiously diverse and conflictual parties.

Fide sed cui vide [trust, but look whom/what you trust] in this case will be the sacred texts and sacred people in specific religious history. Exploring the encounters and distrust that turned into trust and respect from the medieval texts is an effective tool to bring interreligious dialogue to life and educate in interreligious dialogue.

Medieval texts: Faith-actors and faith-dialoguers

Ignorance of the “other,” ignorance of other faiths and ignorance of history feed darkness and intolerance. In contrast, openness and candor promote peace and amity. There can be no peace among different ethnicities without peace among the religions that these ethnicities represent; and there can be no peace among religions without dialogue, engagement, openness, communication and an honest diagnosis and cure for what Pope Benedict XVI called, when speaking on Balkan conflicts, “the latent tensions among religions of the region.”[6]

The Bioi of St. Neilos of Rossano, an early 11th-century Italo-Greek saint, report the collective fear of the Christian population of Southern Italy towards the Saracen incursions and the related human and material suffering. Furthermore, the Saracen representation is indicative of consternation and constant distrust on the part of the locals.

When the Saracen soldiers (collectively) called on Neilos, the fear of death he (the saint) felt was obvious:

At that time, he (Neilos) was seized with great fear and trembling and was crushed on the ground in fear of death. Looking back on what and how much danger he had run into, he felt unable to go further. Stunned and afraid, he continually looked back, expecting at any moment a stabbing in the back.[7]

Then the hagiographer proceeds to describe the individual (Saracen) who held Neilos by the hand and appeared keen to know who he was, from where he came, and where he was headed, wanting to know everything about him. While Neilos was answering every question, point by point, about his birthplace, his condition, and the purpose of his trip, the Saracen was absorbed in admiring his interlocutor. So there was a level of exchange, if not curiosity, to know the other. It is safe to say that the Christian and Muslim cultures in southern Italy were in confluence and inclined to reciprocal knowledge of their traditions, including religion.

St. Neilos, according to the text of the vita, had personal interactions with Emir Abu al-Qasim (964-982). When St. Neilos’ three brother monks were captured by the Saracens, Neilos prepared a ransom and a letter to the emir, to which the emir responded:

It is your fault for the suffering of your monks, because you did not make yourself known before. I would have sent you my banner which [if] is hanging outside [the monastery, you] would have no need to neither flee from your monastery nor be troubled at all. If you ever deem it worthwhile to come visit me, you would have permission to reside in the entirety of my territory and you would receive much honor and reverence from us.

The reverence shown to probably the most celebrated Italo-Greek saint is indicative of the cross-cultural and cross-religious encounters the laboratory of Calabria had to offer.

Moreover, Christian monastics were particularly important in Islamic writings; in fact, the Qur’an mentions them as respectable figures. The Qur’an instructs: “You shall find the closest in affection to the believers those who say: ‘We are Christians.’ For among them are priests and monks, and they are not arrogant” (5:82); this verse is said to have been recited in the Medinan period. Monks and monasteries are particularly commemorated in the Qur’an for their asceticism and fervent worship of God.

The image of the well-lit monastery, filled with lamps, and the monk studying in his cell, or worshipping God at the hours of prayer, is also commemorated in the Qur’an. The Christian monastery, oil lamps and dedicated monastics are described in the Qur’an (24:35-37) as an archetype to be followed by Muslims: God is the light of the heavens and the earth. His light is like a niche in which there is a lamp, the lamp is in a glass and the glass is like a glittering star. It is kindled from a blessed olive tree, neither of the East nor the West. Its oil will almost shine, even if no fire has touched it. Light upon light, God guides to his light whomever he pleases and gives the examples to mankind. God has knowledge of everything. In houses [= monasteries], God allowed his name to be raised and to be mentioned therein. He is glorified therein, mornings and evenings, by men who are not distracted by trading or trafficking from mentioning God’s name, saying prayers and giving alms.

The most significant among St. Neilos’s encounters with the Jews with clear religious-theological undertones was that with Shabbetai ben Abraham Donnolo (913-982) of Oria, a renowned medical doctor, philosopher, theologian and his companion. This event, besides Neilos’s ease and willingness to communicate and explain his religion to representatives of other religions more generally, is indicative of the relations between Jews and Christians who debated civilly about their religion.

Interreligious dialogue and Catholic identity

Ex Corde Ecclesiae[8] [From the Heart of the Church] is a constitution promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1990; it affirms two important principles for all Catholic universities: first, every Catholic university is to publicly make known its Catholic identity; and second, a Catholic university is to safeguard within its institutional structures means for preserving and promoting its Catholic identity.[9] There are some scholars who find a hard time balancing these two, “Catholic identity” and “interreligious dialogue,” without the one taking precedence over the other or without the one diluting the other. For them, “engaging in interreligious dialogue is a sign of weakness or even a betrayal of the faith,”[10] or a betrayal of Catholic identity.

However, Ex Corde Ecclesiae gives some specific guidelines to educators in Catholic institutions of higher learning which target the value of interreligious dialogue. The pursuit of interreligious dialogue must spring from “a common dedication to the truth, a common vision of the dignity of the human person and, ultimately, the person and message of Christ which gives the Institution its distinctive character.”[11] It encourages interreligious dialogue; in fact, the Catholic university is expected to offer a contribution to ecumenical dialogue both among Christians and between Christians and people of different religions.[12] In sum, interreligious dialogue must strengthen, not reduce and dilute, the Catholic mission of the university.

Educating for peace in forgiveness

Peace is primarily peace of mind and heart, a state in which there is orderliness in one’s relation with God in the first place and with others in the second place. Abba Rufus, in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, when asked by a brother monk about what interior peace is and what use it is, responded: “Interior peace means holding far off the remembrance of wrongs suffered and pride of spirit.…”[13]

That is why the late John Paul II in March 2000, on Ash Wednesday, emphasized the millennial theme of “healing and purification of memory.” A humble and genuine examination of conscience is often painful for religious and ethnic communities as a way of handling the past. It demands that various religions and ethnic groups need to re-examine their past with historical objectivity and truth, own up to their responsibilities, seek forgiveness and then turn the page and move on to a better future, because only the one who has ferto, fereris [forgiven will be forgiven].

Rather than asking all to forget the past, John Paul II during his visit to Syria on May 6, 2001, made a suggestion that forgiveness is an important component for the present and future.

A year later, he would develop the three themes of peace, justice and forgiveness in his 2002 message for the World Day of Peace:

No peace without justice, no justice without forgiveness: this is what in this message I wish to say to believers and unbelievers alike, to all men and women of good will who are concerned for the good of the human family and for its future.

The future of the younger generations of Syria can be changed, but not the past. The fruits of collaboration and openness among people of different religions and ethnicities will come in their own good time. One will reap where another has sown. So our imminent duty today is to sow the seeds of active tolerance, openness and above all education, and instruction in different faiths must be a priority.


In conclusion, religious peace is peace understood in terms of interreligious ecumenism applicable to all religious communities. Consequently, the adequate form of dialogue is the one that strives to establish a dialogue in search of understanding, openness and appreciation of different religions. Who better than Mother Teresa born Agnes Gonxhe Bojaxhiu in Skopje, of Albanian ethnicity, who came from a multi-ethnic, multicultural and a multi-religious cityembodied this dimension of ecumenical dialogue that we are called to follow? When Mother Teresa was ministering to a dying Buddhist man, a visitor overheard her whisper,

You say a prayer in your religion, and I will say a prayer as I know it. Together we will say this prayer and it will be something beautiful for God.

Ines Angeli Murzaku, Ph.D., is Professor of Religion and Chair of the Department of Catholic Studies at Seton Hall University, USA. She specializes in Ecclesiastical History, especially Byzantine and Catholic Church History. She has won prestigious grants including Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellowship for Experienced Researchers; Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Grant (SSHRC); and has been three times awarded Fulbright Senior Research Scholar grants. Her most recent publications include the following books: Monastic Tradition in Eastern Christianity and the Outside World; A Call to Dialogue, Eastern Christian Studies; Returning Home to Rome? The Monks of Grottaferrata in Albania; Quo Vadis Eastern Europe? Religion, State and Society after Communism; and Catholicism, Culture and Conversion: The History of the Jesuits in Albania. She is currently working on two books: a co-authored translation and critical edition of the Life of St. Neilos of Rossano and Monasticism in Eastern Europe, Russia and the Former Soviet Republics. She was the vice-president of the Association for the Study of Nationalities (2007-2013) and a United Nations (NGO) Christians Associated for Relationships with Eastern Europe accredited representative.

1. National Prayer Breakfast, February 7, 2013,, accessed on October 4, 2013.

2. National Prayer Breakfast, February 3, 2011, quotes_n_1292116.html, accessed on October 4, 2013.

3. Peter L. Berger (ed.), The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics, Washington, D.C.: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1999, p. 2.

4. Cornille, Catherine, The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Inter-Religious Dialogue, London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013, p. 150.

5., accessed on October 10, 2013.

6. Pope Benedict XVI, Values in a Time of Upheaval, New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2006, p. 105.

7. Giovanelli, Germano, Vita di S. Neilos, Fondatore e Patrono di Grottaferrata, Chapter 6, Badia di Grottaferrata 1966, p. 19.

8. apc_15081990_ex-corde-ecclesiae_en.html, accessed on October 6, 2013.

9. Ex Corde Ecclesiae, articles 2 and 3.

10. 91_dialogue-and-proclamatio_en.html, 52, accessed on October 6, 2013.

11. Ex Corde Ecclesiae, articles 21 and 23.

12. Ex Corde Ecclesiae, article 47.

13. Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1984, p. 210.