Religious hostilities, intolerance, radicalization, polarization, marginalization, and discrimination are on the rise. It seems that the situation worsens by the day, while the accompanying violence is particularly alarming in Africa and -- to a lesser degree -- in South East Asia.
Increasing religious identity in these two areas along with the absence of fairly shared benefits of development for the populations help to reinforce Muslim-Christian and Buddhist-Muslim tensions. The fate of the long survived traditions of co-existence and multiculturalism in the Middle East and North Africa is also of serious concern; and we are yet to see if the changes there will be respectful of traditions of multiculturalism, harmonious coexistence, and principles of fundamental and universal rights.
These concern were loudly pronounced by religious communities during the 9th World Assembly of Religions for Peace (RfP), held in Vienna on 20-22 November 2013. My own personal concerns about these religious tensions were strengthened when I observed in Myanmar, right before coming to Vienna, that resentment and hatred towards Rohingya Muslims is spilling over from the Rakhine State to the rest of the country in the form of rising anti-Muslim, anti-Islam sentiments.
In Vienna, the Religions for Peace World Assembly was preceded by the First Global Forum of the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID). While the theme of the KAICIID Forum was "the image of the other", the World Assembly's theme was "welcoming the other". Frankly, there is an urgent need to base the global debate on the premise that "the other is me", but not for the reason that the all religions share many commonalities, but because every human being deserves to be respected. Being a human being is good enough reason to see and treat another with respect to his or her rights and entitlements as "the self", irrespective of his or her religion, faith, race, ethnicity and gender.
This important point could not have an impact on the interactions of humans, communities and nations unless it is pervasively incorporated into education systems from early childhood. It would also need to be supported by additional community advocacy programs where elders, religious, and community leaders can play a lead role. Here, the ownership should belong to both the governments and communities. International organizations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the Alliance of Civilizations, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, RfP or KAICIID cannot make a difference without local awareness, ownership and leadership.
The gloom of the destruction of Syria lingered over all participants at the RfP World Assembly. This made me think about the importance of healing inter-communal wounds in such a way as to not allow them to persist as a source of resentment in the sub-conscience of communities. It is also fundamental to see ethnic and religious minorities as cultural-civilizational assets and richness, rather than a liability or burden for nations.
I had the privilege of moderating a session of the World Assembly where, under the rubric of "welcoming the other through just and harmonious societies", very crucial issues such as good governance and citizenship, social cohesion, freedom of religion, and protection of religious minorities were discussed. These are singularly important challenges of our times that require immediate action.
It is clear that we need courageous religious and community leaders who would act as "soldiers of peace". They might need to be equipped with practical knowledge and skills on human rights, peace making, and media. On the issue of promoting freedom of religion and protection of religious minorities, establishment of national dialogue mechanisms with the participation of majority and minority religious leaders and government agencies should be considered. Some countries have already exhibited positive examples in this regard. Additionally, the consensual UN Human Rights Council resolution 16/18 of 2011, and its follow-up UNGA and HRC resolutions provide for an important venue for open dialogue under the Istanbul Process. This framework could be fully utilized to promote religious tolerance and freedom of religion globally.
Protection of minorities from persecution, violence, or intimidation by the majority or other forces is not only a legal but also a moral obligation for states. When it comes to action at the international level, existing mechanisms and programs have not been able to address the challenges effectively.
If conflicts are not managed properly, we may see Africa become an arena for an artificial confrontation between Christianity and Islam as both are likely to be exploited to mobilize masses. After all the horrible news of violence from Nigeria, Mali, and Somalia, with its implications in neighboring countries, the most recent news from the Central African Republic and Angola as to Christian-Muslim tensions add to the worry.
While the "religious divide" is becoming a cover for multiple root causes of inter-communal unrest, at the same time peaceful and moderate local Islamic traditions are being taken over by radical interpretations. Local interfaith initiatives across the religious spectrum are struggling not to be overridden. Once again, we are reminded of the importance of top-level cooperation between global Muslim and Christian leadership to provide a strong support base for the local faith-based initiatives.
Today, the OIC Secretary General's repeated calls for a historic reconciliation between Islam and Christianity and the need for practical cooperation between the Holy See and the OIC are timely and make sense more than ever in Africa and the Middle and Near East.
The call of the OIC for a Buddhist-Muslim high-level dialogue should also be developed with respect to the interreligious developments in Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka as to reduce the tensions and remove the sparks that could lead to conflict and violence.