NEW YORK (CNS) — Faith-based diplomacy can be more effective than formal diplomacy in resolving conflicts and promoting development, but there are no quick fixes to deep-seated, religion-related violence, speakers at a May 9 lecture said.
Perseverance and individual action are required to achieve peace through the recognition of others as dignified human beings, they said.
Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the Vatican ambassador to the United Nations, and Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel, spoke on “Religion and Diplomacy” at the annual John Paul II lecture on interreligious understanding at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
“We have a primary role to delegitimize, to unmask, the false interpretation of religious texts as justification for acts of violence,” Archbishop Auza said. A focus on harnessing authentic religious values while eliminating their manipulation for violent ends “might just be the missing dimension of statecraft,” he said.
“At the United Nations, there has been an increasing awareness that religion and religious leaders can and must play an important role in all efforts to achieve the primary vision of the U.N.,” he said. Specifically, there has been a “rediscovery” by the U.N. of the influence and positive effect religions and faith-based organizations have “on the ground” to solve problems and achieve sustainable development, Archbishop Auza said.
The Middle East is a “region where religion has become a tool and a weapon to be used against ‘the other,'” Kurtzer said. The Temple Mount, a holy site for both Jews and Muslims, “instead of being a meeting ground for dialogue and building bridges, has become a place where people are willing to kill each other to maintain political sovereignty and control,” he said.
He suggested God might be inclined to withdraw holiness from a place where his name was profaned by violent behavior.
Kurtzer said people who share a common belief in a divine being and moral and ethical principles on which their holy books are based might be expected to be driven to become a unifying force for sustainable diplomacy. “These are not issues that can be sugarcoated,” Kurtzer said.
“In the Middle East, there is not one place where religion is acting as a bridge,” he said, adding that individuals are trying to make peace through local efforts, but their voices are being drowned out.
Progress will be made if individuals can impress their leaders to use religion as a bridge to diplomatic understanding and peace, Kurtzer said. How do you get the message to leaders that the people they’re leading want to work across the lines that divide them, he asked.
The challenge is to make individual peacemaking efforts into national and then transnational efforts, Kurtzer said.
Archbishop Auza said religions and faith-based organizations care for the “flourishing of the entire human person” and “strive for authentic human development.”
He said faith-based diplomacy stems from the recognition that all people have a fundamental equality and dignity as creatures made by God in his image.
Faith-based diplomacy has long-term goals, the archbishop said. “Our perspective is eternity,” he said, with a laugh, and then described how small consistent efforts over a long period sometimes achieve a significant result.
The archbishop said a papal nuncio to Cuba was regularly summoned to President Fidel Castro’s residence in the early 1960s for late-night meetings to listen to the leader’s thoughts. Archbishop Auza connected the sessions to the 2014 news that Pope Francis helped to reopen diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, and attributed the diplomatic thaw to “consistent rebuilding and regaining the trust of the Cuban leader.”
He said faith-based informal diplomacy penetrates more deeply into a problem, promotes development and paves the way “for formal diplomacy to do its role.”
If accepted and used positively, the strong nexus between religion and diplomacy has enormous potential to make the world a better place, Archbishop Auza said.
Addressing the seemingly intractable situation in Israel, both ambassadors said a two-state solution, with defined borders for both Israelis and Palestinians, remains the only viable path to peace. Archbishop Auza said the Vatican’s position on the issue has been consistent since 1948.
The Vatican has a “kind of binary relationship” with parties to the conflict and has a “respectful relationship with both sides,” he noted.
Kurtzer said he wakes up every morning optimistic there can be peace in the Middle East, but goes to sleep pessimistic from the weight of the day’s events. Nonetheless, he said firsthand experiences during his eight years as ambassador in Egypt and then Israel gave him hope that peace can be built “one person at a time.”
The event was sponsored by the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, the Russell Berrie Foundation, the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Milstein Center for Interreligious Dialogue. The moderators were Azza Karam, director of the U.N. Interagency Task Force on Religion and Development, and Laurie Goodstein, New York Times religion reporter.