Religion’s Roles in Peacebuilding: Religion and Interfaith Engagement in Times of Conflict and Disaster

Sharon Eubank is director of Latter-day Saint Charities. The following is an edited summary of her remarks at the 29th Annual International Law and Religion Symposium, 4 October 2022.

As I see the great difficulties around the world, my greatest concern is that the rise of identity politics has pushed people into smaller and smaller boxes until they don’t have anything in common with anybody else. The question that galvanizes me is, What could we do as societies, cultures, and religious communities to weave social fabric back together? What practically would make that kind of difference? Today, I will pose three related questions, share some examples I’ve observed from around the world, and issue an invitation.

But first, I will start with a well-known story. Around the turn of the century, in Jordan, as the Ottoman Empire was fighting for territory there, the state decided to tax Christians who were living in the city of Salt. A tax collector marked all Christian houses with a sign and planned to return the next day to collect taxes. Muslim neighbors took exception to this and, overnight, marked all the houses in the village. They said, in essence, “If you are going to tax the Christians, you must tax us all, for we are brothers.” How do we create that spirit of solidarity conveyed in this famous story?

My three related questions are

  • Do faiths sincerely engage with each other and governments for peace? Or do they compete and create additional conflict?
  • Why engage the faith community? What do they bring to the table that is unique?
  • What can be accomplished by interfaith and government cooperation in practical terms of peacebuilding?

I will share a few stories while you think about those questions.

Examples of Peacebuilding: Weaving Together a Social Fabric

The first G20 Interfaith Forum was held in Brisbane, Australia, in 2014. The United Arab Emirates sent Candace and Robert Bateman and Bubbles and Surender Singh Kandhari as delegates. President Bateman was the stake president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Abu Dhabi. The Kandharis are the principals of the Guru Nanak Darbar Gurudwara (Sikh temple), Dubai. These delegates attended the conference, sat, listened, and then flew home on the same airplane. Rob Bateman and Surender Kandhari sat next to each other, began to talk, and said, “We should do something. We’ve heard and discussed all these things. What could we do together?”

They started talking about the many migrants who live in the UAE, the conditions those individuals live under, and what they could do to lift migrants and give them dignity. They decided to hold a feast at the Sikh temple, where they invited 30,000 migrants to come, have a meal, and receive fellowship. The Latter-day Saint and Sikh communities in the UAE had never done anything with each other, so planning and carrying out this event was an opportunity for them to get to know each other. The interfaith project happened on 20 September 2015. On the morning of 11 October, President Bateman, who was a very young man, was running on a treadmill, had a heart attack, and passed away.

It was a shock to both communities, just weeks after they had worked together, but they have continued this interfaith humanitarian project in memory of President Bateman. Every year, during World Peace Day, the Sikh and Latter-day Saint communities get together and pack hygiene kits, make food, and talk. They then distribute the kits and food in the beautiful days around Diwali, the festival of lights. These communities are taking the call to action. They decided, “Let’s not just talk about this. Let’s do something,” and those two men found something they were able to do.

In Kenya, Latter-day Saint Charities and three other organizations, including ADRA (Adventist Development and Relief Agency), built a primary school in an area where students had been meeting in dilapidated accommodations. Half of the 1700 students in the school are Muslim; half are Christian. There had not traditionally been peace among them. Parents wondered what they could do with this young generation that might promote more understanding. They said to the agencies involved, “We would like our students to study their values, their principles at school. Would you provide us with religious texts?” We were a little bit nervous. We usually don’t do this in humanitarian projects. They said, “We want Bibles, and we want Qu’rans—to learn a little bit about each other’s faiths.” The idea was, We’re not going to promote one religion in this school, but we’re going to learn about each other’s faiths and religions. So that is now happening in a small primary school in Kenya.

In Iraq, Baroness Emma Nicholson, founder and chairman of AMAR International, realized after the systematic persecutions of the Yazidis that they were not well understood in interfaith communities in Iraq, even though their religion is 2500 years old. Baroness Nicholson gathered the faith community in Baghdad in a time of conflict and arranged for Yazidi elders to explain their faith’s tenets to an interfaith group that had always counted them as devil worshipers. They had a chance to explain their faith for themselves. The media were there; government leaders were there. It was energizing to hear them express their faith in their own words and then to hear government and other faith leaders accept them into the community. Now, relations may not be perfectly harmonious from now on, but it was a step forward. And I was appreciative that Baroness Nicholson saw that lack and took steps forward.

Gary Hart is a Holocaust survivor who lives in Germany. He is involved in a program that facilitates his sitting down and talking with new refugees about where he got his resilience from. I love the sharing of life experiences one on one in this way—the sharing of stories of pain and resilience with someone who has also experienced persecution.

My final story, from Florida, happened very recently. JustServe is an app and a website sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The app posts volunteer opportunities in communities, and individuals and groups can search for and sign up to participate. A homeowners’ association (HOA) in Florida—comprised of 2000 households of all kinds of faiths and of no faith—knew a hurricane was coming. They decided to register on JustServe and use the app to take care of each other during the storm and its aftermath. As the storm rolled through, they started getting messages, such as, “We don’t have any electricity and we need help.” And, “My husband who is a paraplegic has fallen out of his wheelchair and I can’t get him up.” They set out in boats, canoes, kayaks, and fan boats and started responding to needs in these 2000 homes. They got a number of barbecues together, barbecued meat, and delivered it to people in their boats.

One message said, “Dear families. Thank you so much for volunteering today, going out of your way to comfort and help our next-door neighbors! We truly appreciate all the team effort! Our hearts are full with the response of everyone willing to lend a hand!”

One man said, “I’ve literally had 5 hours of sleep in 2 days[ h]elping another fellow neighbor. It[’s] so sad to see what happened to our neighborhood. For those that reached out I haven’t forgotten about you[.] I’m trying to get to you as fast as possible.”

I love the practical weaving of social fabric in this way. Someone wrote, “I must say watching and reading this community come together and keep talking to each other is like no other. I’m truly amazed and blessed to be neighbors with y’all.”

In an email to me, HOA representatives stated, “During natural disasters . . . the most resilient communities . . . are not the wealthiest or the ones who have spent the most on physical infrastructure, but the ones with the strongest social infrastructure.”

Three Questions

With these grassroots examples as background, I return to my three questions.

Do faiths sincerely engage with each other and with governments for peace? Or do they compete and create additional conflict? While there is no real answer to this, I want to emphasize that we focus in the media on conflicts. But what is most important is the spirit demonstrated in Salt—that we truly are brothers and sisters, that we truly exist in this world to help one another—and to build that spirit of solidarity. There is a common misperception that faiths compete against each other when, in reality, the majority of the time we understand each other’s strengths and work to leverage each other in situations that call for that.

My colleague Robert Hokanson has said, “The cooperative example has the potential to instill trust beyond our own faith circles and filter into the larger communities. One of the things implicit in a faith community is trust. Individuals will donate to their church for a good cause because they trust [it]. Individuals will change their behavior when encouraged by a trusted faith leader. That trust grows when we give evidence that we can work together and overcome differences and cooperate on good causes. . . . [T]hat magnifies the trust throughout the world beyond our organizations. It becomes incredibly important in the times we live in now.”

Why engage the faith community? What do we bring to the table that’s unique? Barron Segar, president of the World Food Program, recently said, “Funding for governments for crisis is generally flat, and yet the needs for food and shelter are increasing. We turn to the private sector to fill the gap, and increasingly, that is the faith-based community that responds. I’m personally overwhelmed with the generosity of this faith community. I started my role in 2020, and I was surprised and overwhelmed at the support from faith-based organizations. A few things I’ve learned is that they are connected in their communities. They leverage the local values and the culture into a practical help. They are boots on the ground to implement aid in a significant matter.”

Faith communities bring people together, not randomly but because they’re bound together by something that is powerful enough to change behavior. And there aren’t very many powerful forces like that in the world. Faith is one of the great motivators for people to change and to seek peace.

Finally, What can be accomplished by interfaith and government cooperation in practical terms of peacebuilding? Brett Scharffs, director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies, has said, “First, governments should realize that many of their objectives can be achieved more effectively if religious minorities are part of the solution. The good that religions can do, especially when it comes to integration and achieving goals, is amplified if the religious group works in partnership with each other and with the government and with nongovernmental actors. Second, the government should recognize that using religious groups instrumentally, as a means for achieving government ends, effectively removes the stabilizing element that the government needs. Religions must play their unique, powerful roles in society and not become merely instruments of the state. And third, all of us should recognize that the best antidote to ill that is done in the name of religion is better religion. The best answer to Islamic extremism is authentic Islam, just as the solution to Christian extremism will be authentic Christianity. The best answer to divisive tragedy is a greater measure of faithful solidarity.”

This is why we are at this Symposium today. Only the best of faith has sufficient power to defeat conflict, disaster, and violence.

An Invitation

So this is my invitation to you. How will you build peace with your own faith and your own principles in your everyday work? I hope you take the challenge from Robert Bateman and Surender Singh Kundhari and not just talk about this but ask, What will we do? What can we do with the relationships that are born here? What can we do with the ideas we’ve been inspired by? And how can we use the positions we have?

The people at this Symposium are some of the most powerful people in the world. You have power to do good. What will we do with that power? As a person of faith, I call on Almighty God to bless you in your efforts. I hope that He will open doors for you and you will have opportunities to do things you’ve never done. Because, as recorded in the New Testament, Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9).

Return to the Series introduction