Muslim and Christian leaders need to set up permanent structures of relating to each other to head off potential conflicts in a world where religion is often seen as having a divisive role, the head of the World Council of Churches has said.
“The role of religion in emerging geo-political contexts is rapidly changing,” WCC General Secretary, the Rev Olav Fykse Tveit, said in a speech to a meeting in Albania earlier this month of the WCC’s Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA).
“While religion often plays a commendable role as a force for promoting justice, peace and reconciliation, in the 21st century its role has been much more divisive,” said Tveit, a Norwegian theologian who took up his WCC post in January 2010.
In recent decades, he said, many religions have experienced a spiritual revival, leading in some countries to the emergence of “highly politicised” religious groups, institutions and movements.
“The changing geopolitical contexts provide more opportunities for various political actors to mobilise religion in power struggles and for their own political gain,” the WCC General Secretary noted. “Religious extremist movements play a significant role in this, creating serious social polarisations and contributing to intensifying conflicts and encouraging extremism.”
He pointed to the role of religion in various conflicts, “particularly in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, but also throughout the whole globalised world”.
Tveit said the WCC needs to be at the “cutting edge” of the churches’ involvement in identifying and addressing this trend. “We must stand together and find ways to act on the basis of our faith and together with our constituencies,” he said.
In terms of interfaith dialogue, Tveit said there needs to be a, “dynamic interdependence between interfaith dialogue and religious freedom. The dialogue must build on a real freedom; you cannot dialogue with tied hands or threats of reprisals.”
The WCC and several Muslim organisations are organising a November consultation in Geneva, intended to provide guidance to enable cooperation between Muslims and Christians at all levels, including faith-inspired approaches for joint Christian-Muslim action.
“We must urge Muslim and Christian leaders to establish permanent structures of relationship nationally [and] regionally, to be able to address the potential conflicts when they are occurring,” Tveit said, referring to the consultation.
At the same time, Muslims and Christians need to understand the challenges that each other face as minorities in different contexts.
“We need to mobilise and challenge one another’s willingness not only to respect but also support people of other faiths as people of faith, through our own prayers,” said Tveit.
The Geneva-headquartered WCC groups 349 churches, predominantly Anglican, Orthodox and Protestant. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member but works with the WCC on some issues.
Tveit noted also an increasing role of religion in providing a renewed impetus for, “religious activism that mobilises grassroots religious communities for non-violent social change towards justice and peace”. He said that “harmonious” interaction between religious communities would demonstrate how communities are able to overcome ethnic and cultural divisions, potential conflicts and communal hatreds.