Why religious leaders might be best at fighting extremism

New York City, N.Y., Jul 19, 2017 / 06:01 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Religious leaders, not secularists, are often in the best position to persuade violent religious extremists towards peace, the papal nuncio to the United Nations has said in response to an effort to prevent atrocities.

“The very existence of a plan directed toward religious leaders is also a humble recognition by the international community that those who are being incited by pseudo-religious motivations for violence aren’t going to be effectively persuaded out of it by secular argumentation from so-called infidels or by economic materialism,” Archbishop Bernardito Auza said July 14.

“They need, rather, valid religious arguments that show that extremists’ violence-inducing exegesis is unfaithful to the text and to the God they’re claiming to serve; they need persuasive counterarguments that plant the seeds of peace and eradicate the weeds of violence.”

Archbishop Auza is the apostolic nuncio leading the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations. He spoke at the launch of a Plan of Action for religious leaders and other actors to prevent incitement to violence that could lead to atrocities.

The plan follows two years of consultations by Adama Dieng, the U.N. Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide. Dieng told UN Radio that the plan had been designed to counter the kind of ideology that led to the Islamic State group’s genocide against the Yazidi people.

For the papal nuncio, the prevention of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity “requires the contributions and collaboration of each of us and all our communities and institutions.”

He noted that some religious leaders abuse their influence and authority “to spur or justify atrocities.” At the same time, many more religious leaders condemn these abuses and stress that “violence against others in the name of God is a great blasphemy against the name of God and the greatest disservice to religion itself.”

According to the nuncio, the United Nations’ plan and recommended practices can help religious leaders inoculate their congregations against “the half-truths that ideologues can use to incite them to hating rather than loving, and attacking rather than serving, their neighbor.”

Archbishop Auza noted that religion and violence can be delicate subjects.

“Acknowledging explicitly the religious dimension of some expressions of violent extremism is fraught with danger, and we can understand the reluctance of governments and international bodies to do so,” the archbishop reflected. “Thus, the most important contribution of religious leaders to this debate is to help people understand that acknowledging the religious dimension of some violent extremism, or more precisely the manipulation of religion for violent ends, does not mean equating religion, or a particular religion, or an entire religious community, with violence.”

“Understanding the motivations that lie at the root of terrorism and violence is complex and requires careful reflection and analysis, all the more so when there is a religious dimension to it,” he added. “Religious leaders are uniquely placed to offer such reflection. Pope Francis has helped to open up spaces for this reflection to occur so that religious leaders are able to contribute to the sensitive debate about religiously motivated terrorism.”

At the same time, the archbishop stressed that other bodies, like national governments, are more capable of stopping atrocities than religious leaders.

“There has been some focus recently on the role of religious leaders in preventing atrocity crimes — and this is good, because religious leaders have much to contribute — but, at the end of the day, religious leaders and organizations obviously do not have the resources by themselves to stop atrocities,” he said.

Religious leaders can influence behavior and mentalities, but do not control law enforcement agencies and armed forces. Rather, national governments and the international community have the primary responsibility “to act to protect the innocent from savage acts.”

Although the Holy See could not support all the elements of the United Nations’ action plan, Archbishop Auza said the plan is “a major, practical step forward” in fostering a culture and society consistent with the 2005 world summit on the Responsibility to Protect, a U.N. commitment to prevent genocide, war crimes and other crimes against humanity.

The latest action plan also notes the need for meaningful interreligious dialogue among religious leaders.

On this point, Archbishop Auza cited Pope Francis, who has called this dialogue “a necessary condition for peace in the world.”

In January the Pope told diplomats accredited to the Holy See that interreligious dialogue provides a paradigm to discuss differences, to grow in mutual appreciation of others’ perspectives, and to journey towards peace and other goals. The pontiff said that religiously motivated men and women can show adherents how to fight injustice, root out discord that can lead to war, renounce violence and vengeance, and transcend selfishness, hatred and lack of forgiveness.

Archbishop Auza emphasized this effort.

“That’s why the work of religious leaders and believers in general, and interreligious dialogue in particular, are crucial not just in preventing incitement to violence among susceptible coreligionists, but in fostering incitement to virtue and thereby creating the type of peaceful and inclusive societies in which atrocity crimes are ethically unimaginable,” he said.

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