The Religious Implications of the Middle East Peace Process

High-Level Expert Group Meeting

30 April 30-1 May 1999

Limassol, Cyprus

Chaired by George Vassiliou

Introduction and Conclusion

In Cyprus, a high-level expert group explored the religious implications of the Middle East peace process - the common values among the region's religions, the influence of religion and relevance of the Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities.

The genesis of the Middle East and also other conflict lies not in a religious but territorial-political dispute. However, all groups in the conflict have used religion to enhance the legitimacy of their territorial-political claims. Radical groups have succeeded in influencing the depth and breadth of the conflict.

The subject was peace, but one leading question was which peace process? In the background real conflict was happening in Kosovo and Yugoslavia. Common sympathies and actions to mitigate the plight of refugees from Kosovo show the potential for different factions in the Middle East playing a constructive role side by side.

In the Middle East, as well as Cyprus, the peace process has stalled. To resolve a conflict two sides must understand that it is not possible to change the world by violence and be willing to shake hands. The group welcomed the decision of Palestine to postpone the unilateral declaration of statehood.

The importance of tolerance, respect and dialogue was stressed, but this has to stem from knowledge. It is not enough that the elite or the intellectuals have the knowledge; it must penetrate to all levels of society. Knowledge, moreover, is a continuous activity that must go on, updated and renewed from generation to generation.

Peace must be permanent, not provisional. A provisional peace can be imposed by the strong over the weak but such a peace cannot last. It is also important to get across the message that a lasting peace is not a zero-sum game but a win-win situation.

Politics without values is sheer brokerage of power. But if religion has relevance it has to be a critical force, teaching humility to the powerful and that peace without justice or an imposed peace cannot last.

Tolerance based on knowledge

Tolerance is a key word, but can mean either the tolerance out of neglect or tolerance that comes from respect. To achieve peace, tolerance has to come from respect, but respect is not possible unless one knows about the other person, their religion, their culture and their beliefs. At the threshold of the 21st century, the tragedy is that there is little knowledge, respect and tolerance. There is precious little knowledge among religious teachers of what are the roots and beliefs of the other major religions. There is even less knowledge and respect among the masses who rely on television and other media for their view of the world. Political leaders are the products of the spiritual values with which they grew up.

The Middle East peace process was initiated by Anwar Sadat who believed that peace was possible among these three monotheistic religions which come from the cradle of civilisation. At Cordoba, Spain, centuries ago, this had been understood and Jews, Christians and Muslims lived and worked together to produce the rediscovery and flowering of civilisation. This best example tells us that conviviencia (the Spanish word for living and working in harmony together) is possible.

Yet Samuel Huntington's thesis on the clash of civilisations offers a horrific vision to which the world could be headed if leaders are not careful. At many universities and religious centres, students are taught only one view of the world - their own, often narrow, religion's view. This should be changed, so that both politicians and theologians have a wider knowledge and can pass it on to the masses.

Religion and politics

One crucial problem is the interaction between religion and politics, with political leaders using religion to legitimise and support their own objectives. In fact, religions usually draw attention when issues are politicised. Religion has been used both as an excuse and as a motivation, and in recent years extremism has worked hand in hand with religious conservatism. Fanatic groups are useful to authoritarian regimes with strong religious traditions that practice political, economic and military violence, making it difficult to discern a religious confrontation from one that is basically political.

Religion when mixed with politics can have an explosive effect, especially where passions are played on, claims are made to absolute and universal truth, leading religious people to forget their own commandments about the importance of not resorting to violence. When religion becomes the deepest political identity, it can be very disruptive.

Realpolitik often comes into conflict with the importance of abiding moral values. In realpolitik, there is no such thing as justice. Especially for politicians with an eye on election, even before they consider their place in the history books, the end easily justifies the means.

The United States has played a crucial mediating role in the Middle East, but because of domestic political pressures it is not always the disinterested political broker. Europe should also participate more actively in the peace process and accept responsibility, because of its historical role in the countries of the region.

Peace and justice

Most people believe in peace and justice, tolerance and respect, but these can be subjective words. One person's peace can be another's misery. Too often the peace process has been treated as if it were a bargaining process between equals when it is really an expression of political power realities. It is important to place stress on shared values and the spiritual dimensions of peace.

That is why some people prefer to search for justice rather than peace, but justice too has many meanings, depending on who benefits. It can also lead to the pressing of demands without regard to the consequences. There should be acceptance of the right to differ and not to believe that one is superior to another.

Coexistence also means different things to different people - which is why conviviencia perhaps expresses better the aims that lie behind the search for a lasting peace. Conviviencia in the Middle East would stress the huge contributions to history of the three communities, the fruitful times when they have lived and worked in harmony and tried to solve their problems. It could also emphasise the overwhelming problems that still have to be sorted out such as water supplies, the numbers of refugees, which can only be solved by mutual agreement. Political power - as expressed in the Middle East - too often means the ability to hurt, coerce, and damage, rather than the positive value of integration and production.

Special role of religion

Religion is both a sociological organisation and a set of beliefs. All major religions express the importance of transcendence, spirituality and the triumph of the spirit, the search for God, the importance of universal values, the possibility of change and renewal. Indeed, prophetic witness to the virtues of truth, justice, peace, equality and the roles of serving others and of reconciliation have a central place in all the monotheistic religions.

Indeed even in religion there is an inner tension between claims to universality and respect for humanity. In the West, it is often harder than in the East to deal with these contradictions. An individual pastor faces the dilemma of explaining to his people that while their faith is unique and the ladder to God, they should also respect the claim of other religions for uniqueness.

When people have realised that they cannot solve their problems by fighting, then religion can play a role in helping to forge and fulfil more constructive ideals. Religious leaders may not be well trained in political science or international law, but are more likely to be in touch with the needs, hopes and fears of ordinary people.

Declaration of Human Responsibilities

The InterAction Council's Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities is especially relevant to the issues covered in the discussions. The following articles in particular express matters of concern:

  • Every person regardless of gender, ethnic origin and social status, political opinion, language, age, nationality or religion has a responsibility to treat all people in a humane way. (Article 1).
  • All people, endowed with reason and conscience, must accept a responsibility to each and all, to families and communities, to races, nations and religions in a spirit of solidarity. What you do not wish to be done to yourself, do not do to others. (Article 4).
  • Dispute between states, groups or individuals should be resolved without violence. No government should tolerate or participate in acts of genocide or terrorism, nor should it abuse women, children or any other civilians as instruments of war. Every citizen and public official has a responsibility to act in a peaceful, non-violent way (Article 6).
  • While religious freedom must be guaranteed, the representatives of religions have a special responsibility to avoid expressions of prejudice, and acts of discrimination towards those of different beliefs. They should not include or legitimise hatred, fanaticism and religious wars, but should foster tolerance and mutual respect between all people (Article 15).