22.- 25.9
2020

MEETING THE CHALLENGES OF RELIGIOUS COHABITATION: PERSPECTIVES ON INTERRELIGIOUS AND INTER-DENOMINATIONAL DIALOGUE INITIATIVES

Helga Dickow, Arnold Bergstraesser Institut, Freiburg
Yonatan N. Gez, University of Konstanz and the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva

 

25/09/20 11 – 12.30 am Room 454 (Casino building)

 

Short abstract:

This panel puts a critical lens onto inter-religious and inter-denominational dialogue initiatives in the wide sense of the term. Drawing on case studies from across the continent, panel participants will go beyond the rhetorical appeal of buzzwords to identify actual promises and concrete challenges associated with this field.

Recent years have seen the growing involvement of religion in political conflicts across Africa, often intertwined with the rise of fundamentalist groups and ideologies. Seeking to stem this challenging development are a wide variety of dialogue-based initiatives, initiated by international Faith-Based Organizations and NGOs, umbrella and ecumenical associations, and even some local and national governments. Such initiatives set out to build bridges and facilitate transformative dialogues both across religions and between traditions and denominations, by identifying remedies that would promote—or ‘restore’—tolerance and coexistence.

Such initiatives may go a long way into achieving these goals. At the same time, and despite ostensibly good intentions denoted by appealing buzzwords such as dialogue, tolerance, and inclusivity, such initiatives ought not to be spared critical examination. Indeed, questions arise regarding the actual efficacy of such dialogue initiatives, as well as their unintended consequences. Furthermore, such initiatives may themselves be taken over by political actors or be instrumentalized for financial gains, while some blur the boundaries between dialogue and proselytization, or engage in undetectable forms of de facto exclusion. In extreme cases, the politics of (inter-)religious dialogue may be just as compromised as those of religious-based conflict.

In this panel, speakers will put an analytical and critical lens onto initiatives that are ostensibly aimed at promoting interreligious understanding in these challenging times. Speakers may draw on concrete case studies from across the continent, focusing on formal as well as informal dialogical initiatives involving Christian, Muslim, traditional, and other religious groups. While their attention may understandably turn to well-recognized dialogue initiatives, they are encouraged to equally consider uncommon, semi-formal, and low-key initiatives (e.g. web-based dialogue groups, publicly staged debates, and school-based initiatives).

In many African countries religious leaders or interfaith leadership are relegated to the symbolic, if not esoteric role of offering prayers at official ceremonies. Politicians and sometimes also traditional leaders take prominent positions, while religious representatives emerge from obscure corners, perform their rituals and remain unnoticed for the rest of the programme. I argue in this presentation that faith-based organizations or interfaith peace groups have contributed greatly to the socio-economic development of African countries in general and to security initiatives in Ghana in particular. The success story of such engagements must be told and shared as an example not only for emulation by others, but also for perpetuation and further engagements for peace and security elsewhere. Having gone through seven successful elections, Ghana is not only seen as peaceful, but is described as a beacon of democracy and an icon of economic progress in the West Africa sub-region (African Peer Review Mechanism, 2005; Aganah, 2008).
Religious leaders have important access to figures of traditional authority, who regularly see the former not as competitors or aliens, but as crucial development partners in light of their intimate and special relationship with the members of their faith. This is an important difference to popular perceptions of government agencies, whose presence is widely only felt in times of emergency and/or via peacekeeping operations. The degree of soft power enjoyed by religious leaders is thus fundamentally different to that enjoyed by other civil society groups and state agencies. The argument of my presentation is based on years of collaborative work as director of the Yendi Peace Centre with various religious leaders in the field of conflict management in the northern part of Ghana.

Michael Cobb is a doctoral student at the University of Freiburg, Germany.

 ‘Rather than erecting walls that keep us apart, we should build bridges that bring us closer together'

Eswatini shares a unique history with Christianity as its advent was through the initiative of a religio-cultural figure, King Somhlolo. For Emaswati, the king is divinely appointed and he a unifying factor and a symbol of culture and religion. It was therefore easy for them to accept King Somhlolo’s vision[3] on the coming of Christian missionaries as divinely willed, resulting in Christianity making its home within Swazi religio-cultural thought. Local debates have revealed obstinacy by most Christians to adhere to a literal interpretation of the King’s vision, whilst a minority perceives it in more liberal terms.   Legislatively, Eswatini has no official religion, but everyday practices point to Christianity’s overriding popularity. Thus, most Emaswati, whose population is about 1.2million identify as Christian.[4] Forms of Swazi Traditional Religion also make up this religious landscape and they elide with Swazi Culture and Christianity. Although the country’s constitution guarantees religious freedom and bars discrimination based on religion, minority religions are viewed with suspicion probably both intentionally and unintentionally. Islam in particular is associated with terrorist groups like ISIS or Boko Haram. Society attributes any fanatic behaviour of these groups as representing all Muslims, including those residing in the country. However, there are religious bodies and interfaith organisations that are concerned about the mistrust and suspicions existing amongst faith based communities.  These groups strive to promote interfaith philosophy and values through healthy and transformative dialogues. Notwithstanding dialogue initiatives, interreligious understanding and tolerance is still low amongst religious groups due to the historical notion of the royal invitation of the first Christian missionaries, which leads to the simplistic view that Eswatini is a Christian country.  The argument that this paper advances is that Christianity legitimatises its authority over other religions by claiming a divine connection with cultural authority. Parading this relationship, however, intimidates other faith-based communities and it becomes a barrier to building bridges that would bring together people across religious traditions. The paper further suggests that local faith-based communities should aggressively engage in transformative programs that would solely focus on reorienting people’s mind-set on the belief that Christianity is superior to other religions because it was expressed and communicated through cultural media. A transformed mind of Liswati will subsequently be the best advocate for an inclusive approach that will bring down erected walls of intolerance, discrimination and disunity amongst religious adherents.

Sonene Nyawo is Senior Lecturer in Theology and Religious Studies at University of Eswatini, Kingdom of Eswatini.

 

African Initiated Churches, i.e. churches founded by Africans in Africa, represent an increasing number of people in different African countries. These churches have an important impact on people’s lives in the way they shape people’s self-understanding, values and behaviour. Also on a very practical side, especially in areas where government structures are not able to cover basic needs, many African Initiated Churches provide skills and agricultural training, child care, schools, health related services such as clinics and hospitals and even universities. These churches’ social service activities are often open to non-members. Moreover, during interviews conducted with church leaders in South Africa, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda in the framework of the research project “Potentials of Cooperation with African Initiated Churches for Sustainable Development”, the majority of the interviewees claimed to have regular interaction with other churches or even other religious groups. Drawing on these semi-structured interviews, this paper will investigate African Initiated Churches’ perspectives on interreligious dialogue with a specific focus on exchange with Muslim communities. The data set covers countries where the large majority of the population are Christians, as well as countries having nearly equal numbers of Muslims and Christians. Finding out if and how these differences as well as the different types of the churches (e.g. African Independent or Pentecostal) affect their attitudes to Muslims will be the guiding questions of the paper.

Philipp Öhlmann heads the Research Programme on Religious Communities and Sustainable Development at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany.

Marie-Luise Frost is a researcher in the Research Programme on Religious Communities and Sustainable Development at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany.

The political imperative of peace-building for sustainable development and national integration informed the government’s decision to inaugurate the Nigeria Inter-Religious Council (NIREC) in 1999 to serve as a platform for high-level dialogue between Christians and Muslims. However, NIREC’s activities as a state sponsored political project have not fully achieved the goal of promoting religious dialogue as a veritable instrument of peace-building. The effectiveness of meaningful dialogue among religious leaders is hampered when interactions become a function of political - as opposed to a religious- agenda. An additional challenge is how the state can allow such dialogue to flourish without setting serious limitations on the scope of the discussion. Added to this is the composition of government initiatives, which sometimes are not reflective of real ideological influences at the grassroots (Driessen and Vaidyanathan, 2011).  It seems clear that peace building process can neither be holistic, nor sustainable, if they are limited to policy makers and mainstream religious groups alone, to the exclusion of a plethora of women, youth, civil society organizations, and other social minority groups.

Three major assumptions underscore the study of inter-faith dialogue and religious harmony in Nigeria: (i) a stable multi-religious state is contingent on successful inter-faith dialogue; (ii) religious identity in a multi-cultural society is crucial in the mobilization and consolidation of political power, but could also be a potent force for destabilization; and (iii) state-sponsored peace initiatives undertaken as political project undermine interfaith dialogue as a veritable instrument of peace-building.

The paper broadly explores the potential of inter-faith dialogue as mechanisms for promoting religious harmony, peace-building and national integration. Specifically, the paper appraises the activities of NIREC in promoting religious harmony and conflicts resolution in Nigeria between 1999 and 2018 ;  examines structural issues, agencies and the operational challenges of implementing inter-faith dialogue as government-sponsored initiative; and finally explores how interfaith dialogue initiatives can be fully  harnessed to promote reciprocal understanding, tolerance and peace among  disparate religious communities in Nigeria.  The paper is situated at the intersection of religious diplomacy as well as peace and conflict studies. Religious diplomacy and peace studies clearly raise the awareness of religious plurality in multi-cultural society and contributes immensely to the development of productive inter-religious understanding. (UNESCO, 2011). Increasing our theoretical understanding of the nexus between religious diplomacy and peace-building is vital to ensure that inter-faith dialogue becomes an inclusive process.

Previous studies have explored structural operations of inter-faith dialogue in some specific contexts, the agencies and procedural issues involved (Little and Appleby, 2004; Fitzgerald & Borelli 2006; Khan 2018; Jeffrey 2019; ). While these studies are significant to the broad literature on ‘religious diplomacy’ and peace studies, the limits of state-sponsored peace initiative in a heterogeneous country such as Nigeria and the potential of inter-faith dialogue adding value to national integration have not been sufficiently explored.

Keywords :   Interfaith Dialogue, NIREC, Religious Diplomacy and Peace building

Kehinde Olayode is Professor of International Relations at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State, Nigeria.