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date: 28 January 2020

Post-Conflict Processes and Religion: An Overview

Summary and Keywords

Religion was a relatively overlooked factor in the study of political science until the 21st century. Even when the focus on religion increased in the aftermath of 9/11, a majority of the scholarship still dealt with religion and violence. “Religion and peace” has arguably been a less popular topic, yet there is still a vibrant literature that has contributed to our understanding of religion and social dynamics, especially given the significant number of religiously inspired organizations that are active in postconflict processes, such as Network of Engaged Buddhists, Sant’Egidio, and American Jewish World Service. Religion can play a critical role in conflict resolution and negotiation, especially in settings where secular approaches fall short of resolving the tensions, and where religious actors are seen as more neutral than the political actors. Peacebuilding literature has also recognized the importance of religion. Every religious tradition has its own sources of nonviolence within itself, and under the right conditions, these sources can help with reconciliation, peacebuilding, and transitional justice. At the same time, involvement of religious actors in postconflict processes poses its own challenges. Religious actors are rarely fully neutral, their assistance usually comes with conditions attached, and their involvement in political processes can undermine their moral authority. In addition, there are religious leaders who work against reconciliation to protect their own status in conflict settings. Recognizing that it is difficult to measure the effectiveness of faith-inspired initiatives, more scholarship is needed to explore the dynamics of religious initiatives in postconflict processes. There are gaps especially when it comes to non-Christian actors’ involvement in peace processes, and how the faith-inspired initiatives of individuals differ from those of religious institutions and organizations.

Keywords: religion, peace, postconflict processes, peacebuilding, transitional justice, conflict resolution, conflict transformation, politics and religion


Religion was a relatively overlooked factor in the study of political science until the 21st century. Even when the focus on religion increased in the aftermath of 9/11, a majority of the scholarship still dealt with religion and violence. “Religion and peace” has arguably been a less popular topic, yet there is still a vibrant literature that has contributed to our understanding of religion and social dynamics, especially given the number of religiously inspired organizations that are active in postconflict processes. To give a few examples, American Jewish World Service, World Vision, International Network of Engaged Buddhists, and Catholic Relief Services engage in peace initiatives and humanitarian assistance programs; Sant’Egidio (globally) and the All Africa Conference of Churches (in sub-Saharan Africa) have mediated between warring forces and have negotiated peace agreements that ended wars; and Wajir Peace and Development Committee in Kenya supports community infrastructure and educational development.

This article reviews the scholarship on religion and postconflict processes. In the context of the article, postconflict process means any action or process that takes place after the violent phase of a conflict and works towards renormalization of the social and political order, both locally and internationally. Conflict resolution and negotiation are included within the definition of postconflict processes because they usually continue after the violent phase of the conflict ends. The concepts of peace and peacebuilding are also critical components of postconflict processes.

Religion can be a source of or inspiration for both violent and peaceful orders. The same absolute commitment to one’s faith that leads to violent divisions can also provide avenues for togetherness, freedom, and justice (Appleby, 2000; Gopin, 2002b; Sandal, 2012). Religious actors have historically played critical roles in human rights campaigns (Civil Rights Movements in the USA), peace movements (Dutch Peace Movement during the Cold War), and political resistance (the Solidarity Movement in Poland). These roles contribute to peacebuilding, and in many settings they are organic stages of postconflict reconstruction. Springs (2015, p. 168) states that in the studies of religion and peacebuilding, “the pull toward deadly conflict . . . overly constricts the focus and potential impact of religious peacebuilding” and suggests expanding the focus of violence and peacebuilding to include structural and cultural factors such as economic recovery and religious freedom. This expansion is necessary, as it is methodologically problematic to confine the influence of religion to just ending physical violence.

There is a need to study religion more rigorously to define its multiple and interrelated roles in sustainable, structural peace—to borrow from Johan Galtung’s (1969) terminology. Due to limitations of space, however, this article does not claim to cover the literature on religion as it relates to resistance, human rights, and social justice. At the risk of neglecting some of the aforementioned critical dimensions, the article specifically looks at religion, peace, and stability by focusing on the literature on conflict resolution, peacebuilding, and transitional justice in a relatively narrow sense.

This article is divided into three main sections: Religion, Conflict Resolution, and Negotiation; Religion, Peace, and Peacebuilding; and Religion and Transitional Justice. The section on Religion, Peace, and Peacebuilding deals with four main bodies of literature, which are not mutually exclusive and share many common features. The first body of literature focuses on the intrinsic links between individual faith traditions and nonviolence. The second body of literature introduces general theoretical frameworks that explain the dynamics behind peace processes and religious interventions. The third one specifies the conditions and the type of actors that engage in religious peacebuilding. The fourth body of literature problematizes and critiques the motivations for religious peacebuilding and the context in which it takes place.

Religion, Conflict Resolution, and Negotiation

Conflict resolution can be defined as a situation “where parties enter into an agreement that solves their central incompatibilities, accept each other’s continued existence as parties and cease all violent action against each other” (Wallensteen, 2015, p. 8). Regardless of the role of religion in a conflict, religious actors can have meaningful contributions to conflict resolution and postconflict processes. Faith-based conflict resolution and mediation techniques have been frequently employed, especially in settings where secular approaches fall short of resolving the tensions, and where religious actors are seen as more neutral than the political actors. To illustrate, Pope John Paul II, along with his envoy Cardinal Antonio Samoré, successfully mediated the Beagle Channel conflict that erupted between Chile and Argentina in 1985 over the possession of three islands. Religious actors such as the Interreligious Council of Sierra Leone (IRCSL) were critical in the formulation and signing of the Lome Peace Agreement to end the civil war in the country (Turay, 2000). Abu Nimer and Kadayifci-Orellana (2008, p. 571) argue that the involvement of the IRCSL actually led to the “restoration of a democratically elected government; disarmament, demobilization, and now reintegration of ex-combatants; and the setting up of the truth and reconciliation commission and the special court.” The Council issued press releases through channels such as the British Broadcasting Corporation and the Voice of America.

Similarly, Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, Pax Christi, and World Vision, along with local religious leaders, played a critical role in facilitating the peace process in Northern Uganda that brought an end to Lord’s Resistance Army attacks on civilians (Marshall & Van Saanen, 2007). Haynes (2009) explores the role of Sant’Egidio in bringing Mozambique’s civil war to an end; the influence of a Buddhist leader, Maha Ghosananda, in the resolution of Cambodia’s societal conflict; and the efforts of a Christian pastor, James Movel Wuye, and a Muslim religious leader, Muhammed Nurayn Ashafa, in fostering interreligious dialogue in Nigeria.

Although faith-based conflict resolution can occur in a variety of settings, there are factors that facilitate such interventions. In his study of religion and conflict resolution in civil wars, Svensson (2012) finds that conflicts are difficult to resolve when religion is involved; therefore, the role of religion should be de-emphasized by policy makers (but not neglected altogether). Cox and Philpott (2003) argue that faith-based diplomacy towards reconciliation is likely to occur in contexts where parties define themselves by their religion; where certain religious leaders enjoy charisma; where there is space for civilizational dialogue; and where faith-based diplomats are well positioned to become trusted envoys. These leaders can more easily tap into the cultural subtleties and processes, which becomes especially important given that symbolic and nonverbal ritual acts have the power to truly bond adversaries and help achieve peace (Schirch, 2004). Underlining the importance of rituals and symbols in conflict resolution within the context of the Arab–Israeli conflict, Gopin (2002c, pp. 207–208) states that faith leaders should lead religious settlement, repentance, and reconciliation ceremonies, and old mosques and synagogues defiled in violence should become sites of rebuilding.

Not all organizations pay sufficient attention to religious rituals in postconflict processes, and one can even argue that even in the academic literature, the role of rituals is understudied. Schwarz (2017), for example, argues that prayer is ignored in transnational advocacy scholarship. Governmental funding organizations like the United States Agency for International Development recognize the importance of prayer in community projects and initiatives, Schwarz argues, yet there are restrictions regarding the integration of prayer into government-funded activities as prayer is often erroneously seen as a solely private activity that does not have a place in the public sphere.

Once religion comes into the picture in conflict settings, it has the potential to change the cost-benefit calculus in negotiations. Through introduction of religion to negotiations and conflict resolution, Luttwak (1994, p. 17) argues, concessions previously regarded as “intolerable evidence of a lack of fortitude” may become acceptable (one can argue the opposite as well; when what it is at stake is defined in religious terms, it might become difficult to concede due to its sacred status). Studying faith-based mediation, Bercovitch and Kadayifci-Orellana (2009, p. 185) also confirm this argument, stating that “there are a number of characteristics that distinguish these faith-based interventions from secular ones, including (a) explicit emphasis on spirituality and/or religious identity; (b) use of religious texts; (c) use of religious values and vocabulary; (d) utilization of religious or spiritual rituals during the process; (e) involvement of faith-based actors as third parties.” Within the context of conflict resolution, Gopin (2000a) highlights situational religious ethics, which involve listening to the needs of the parties in a conflict and then exploring religious ideas, values, and institutions for that particular setting. Even within the military, Moore (2013) asserts that the existence of specially trained military chaplains can facilitate religious leader engagement in conflict and postconflict areas.

Religion, Peace, and Peacebuilding

Religious ideals have had an impact on the establishment of not only religious organizations and endeavors, but also on some of the seemingly secular institutions that have contributed to peace (in the context of this article, “secular” is used to denote public policies and institutions that do not involve religious or spiritual elements). Philpott and Shah (2006) argue that European federalism that is embodied in the European Union has origins in religious ideas. In a similar vein, although faith-based institutions can play critical roles in the aftermath of religious conflict, their peacebuilding programs are not just confined to addressing religious conflicts but also apply to those where religion is not the core dimension of the conflict (Smock, 2001). Whether a conflict is religious or not, culture and religion are integral parts of the postconflict process. Barnett and Stein (2012, p. 23) state that humanitarians usually operate in societies where “the religious and the secular are not institutionally or spiritually separated as they are in the West.” Paras (2012) calls this assumption of the clear separation between religion and politics “secular fiction.” “Religion is one source, in many cases a main source, and in some cases the major or exclusive source, of moral culture,” posits Etzioni (2007, p. 157), and this moral culture—what he calls “the soft underbelly of security”—should be given attention in divided societies and postconflict reconstruction.

Policymakers and academics alike have found traditional secular approaches to postconflict processes insufficient. Drawing attention to the rise of religious extremism on both sides of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, Landau (2007) argues that the active participation of credible religious authorities in the peace process is a must, and the conflict cannot be solved with just utilitarian and rationalist diplomatic paradigms. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright confirms this assertion. A famous example of what one might call “faith-inspired peacemaking” was orchestrated by President Jimmy Carter at Camp David in 1978. In her book, The Mighty and The Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs, Albright (2006, p. 77) emphasizes the ability of President Carter to “understand and appeal to the deep religious convictions of President Sadat and Prime Minister Begin.”

Every religious tradition has its own sources of nonviolence within itself. The first of the four bodies of literature considered in this section underlines these spaces of peace in religion. Gentry (2016) not only highlights the commonalities regarding nonviolence across Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, but also argues that these commonalities distinguish religious approaches to peace from secular ones. In a similar vein, Philpott (2012) elaborates on the key concepts in three Abrahamic religions that can form a basis for a conversation between the religious and the secular without confining the traditions to their institutional structures or particular manifestations. Auerbach (2005) focuses on the different approaches of religions to reconciliation and forgiveness. He argues that while Judaism and Islam see repentance as a necessary condition for forgiveness, Christianity emphasizes mercy and love and teaches its believers to ask and grant forgiveness without preconditions. Highlighting the concepts of forgiveness, reconciliation, and justice, Volf (2000) argues that Christianity contributes to peaceful social environments unless it is reduced to what he calls “vague religiosity” or is conceived of as exclusively a private affair. Abu Nimer (2003) points out the abundance of religious indigenous practices and values in Muslim communities and argues that there is no need to mechanically import Western-based peacebuilding models. Dragovic (2015) studies the Catholic and Islamic (specific to Bosnia and Herzegovina) perspectives and institutions as they relate to postconflict statebuilding.

The second body of literature recognizes the unique potential of faith in attaining peace. Scholars have devised theoretical frameworks and concepts that focus on the overall dynamics of religion and spirituality, and their impact on peace processes. For example, Little (2007, p. 438) introduces “hermeneutics of peace,” “an interpretative framework that begins with the conviction that the pursuit of justice and peace by peaceful means is sacred priority.” Philpott (2012) frames religion as a rich resource, providing avenues that are not always available to secular peacebuilders. Elaborating on the concept of “restorative justice,” Philpott reviews six practices of political reconciliation (namely, building just institutions, acknowledgment, reparations, apologies, punishment, and forgiveness). Another perspective on religion and peacebuilding within this second body of literature is the investigation of religious actors as communities of expertise, or epistemic communities. In the international relations literature, an epistemic community is defined as “a network of professionals with recognized expertise and competence in a particular domain and an authoritative claim to policy-relevant knowledge within that domain or issue-area” (Haas, 1992, p. 3). Sandal (2017) applies the epistemic communities framework to the religious leaders who are working towards peace and reconciliation in conflict settings. She argues that religious leaders can be treated as epistemic communities in their policy-relevant work towards peacebuilding, and that religious expertise on peacebuilding diffuses across borders. David Stevens (1994), former general secretary of the Irish Council of Churches and former leader of the prominent religious peace organization Corrymeela Community, states that these connections and diffusion of knowledge matter in peacebuilding. Stevens (1994, p. 11) remembers that Roel Kaptein, who had retired from a senior position in the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, changed the way Stevens understood the biblical message by bringing in ideas on rivalry, scapegoating, conflict, violence, and the birth of culture as well as introducing him to the work of philosophers like René Girard. This type of epistemic influences show that efforts in one context can easily have an impact on other postconflict processes.

In light of the recognition of religious peacebuilding, scholars have investigated how future peacebuilders should be educated. As part of this discussion on education, Abu Nimer (2001) introduces an interreligious peacebuilding training approach grounded in both intercultural sensitivity training and conflict resolution training concepts. Based on the data he gathered between 1993 and 1999, Abu Nimer concludes that integrating cognitive (instrumental), affective (here and now), and behavioral (action) elements in such training contributes to the process of change sought by the interveners.

The third main body of the literature investigates who engages in peacebuilding and under which conditions. What is it about certain religious actors that makes them ideal for peace interventions or facilitating transitions? What do they offer? What are the consequences? There are well-known religious leaders who have contributed to the conceptualization of peace and human rights. Heft (2011), for example, argues that John Paul II provided much of the vocabulary for solidarity in human rights and advanced a distinct theology of peace. Religious actors, however, do not need to have such a high profile to have an impact in conflict transformation. Johnston and Cox (2003, p. 14) state that faith leaders, in general, have “a well-established and pervasive influence in the community, a reputation as a force for change based on a respected set of values, unique leverage for reconciling conflicting parties, including an ability to rehumanize relationships and the capability to mobilize community, national and international support for peace process.” Sisk (2011, p. 237) asserts that religious leaders have a direct role in moving divided societies away from “minimalist constructions of tolerance” towards a “deeper notion of coexistence.” Johnston (2003) argues that religious actors have the upper hand in peacemaking and negotiations due to a well-established influence in the community; a reputation as an apolitical force for change based on a respected set of values; leverage to reconcile the parties; and the capability to mobilize national and international support for peace. Applying these insights to the case of the conflict between Colombian authorities and Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), Minear (2006, p. 30) finds that religious community organizers were accepted more easily due to their impartiality. Ganiel and Dixon (2008) take a step further and, based on their study of Northern Ireland, argue that engaging with fundamentalists will introduce new avenues for conflict transformation. Based on his study of religious organizations in El Salvador, Peru, Turkey, and Indonesia, Tezcür (2015) argues that transnational religious ideas and linkages, and the nature of the state–religion relationship, influence whether religious organizations will develop human rights platforms during violent internal conflicts.

In his work on cross-cultural conflict transformation, Lederach (1997) highlights and investigates three levels religious leaders can influence: grassroots, middle-range, and top leadership. In their conceptualization of religion and peacemaking, Brewer, Higgins, and Teeney (2010) count four strategic social spaces in civil society involved with advocacy of positive peace that religious actors should take an active part in: intellectual, institutional, market, and political spaces. This multilevel involvement of religious actors in peacebuilding is not without its challenges. Powers (2010) states that peacebuilding requires political engagement and for many religious actors, “the challenge is to have a political impact without being politicized.” It is operationally difficult to trace the reasons why peacemakers engage in ambitious initiatives. Cejka (2003, p. 25) notes that while religious and ideological motivations have overlaps, it is critical to distinguish between the two. In that vein, she reports that religious motivations are cited much less frequently by peacemakers than ideological, practical, or relational motivations. There is also the question of the impact of religious traditions of the sides to conflict, on the duration of the peace process. Gurses and Rost (2017) ask this very question and find that sides in a conflict that share the same religious tradition are less likely to have durable peace after the end of the conflict, and there is a higher risk that the conflict will recur.

The fourth body of literature that investigates religion and peacebuilding looks critically at religious interventions in the name of peace, taking into account the history of colonialism and power imbalances. Many of the settings in which peacebuilders and humanitarians operate have distinct political structures and legacies. Grovogui (1996) reminds us that, historically, Western colonizers have seen the lands they colonized as repositories of culture that are not capable of governing themselves. Lynch (2015) draws attention to how religious humanitarianism and peacebuilding work are shaped by dominant powers’ security and economic discourses. Ngo, Yu, and Van der Veer (2015), for example, point out that in multiple Asian contexts (including India, China, Tibet, and Vietnam) Christian peacebuilding and initiatives have been closely identified with foreign imperialism and interpreted as a threat to sovereignty, and hence communities mostly have turned to Asia’s majority religions like Hinduism and Buddhism.

There are also significant contributions to the field that investigate the missionary movements and their political involvement. Agensky (2013) emphasizes the multitude of evangelical actors and their political influence, pointing to leaders and organizations in sub-Saharan Africa who were, for example, entangled in Uganda’s anti-homosexuality legislation; supported questionable political figures in elections; made Islamophobic statements; and intervened in Kenya’s 2010 constitutional referendum. In a similar vein, scholars have also questioned the neutrality of religious organizations when it comes to deciding which conflict and postconflict settings they will get involved in. Barnett and Stein (2012, p. 19) note that religious organizations tend to be more selective than secular ones; Islamic agencies generally do not venture outside the Muslim communities; and the Christian organizations “select” those who are in need who seem “most ripe for conversion.” Lynch and Schwarz (2016) argue that different Christian humanitarian groups have very different visions about what it means to enact Christian beliefs in the provision of aid, and they highlight the conditions for aid imposed by not just religious organizations but secular ones as well. The strings attached to postconflict interventions, secular or religious, can cause long-term challenges. Using examples from constitutional and electoral processes in Afghanistan and Iraq, Kandiyoti (2007) notes that the women’s rights and gender “mainstreaming” agenda that informs donor-assisted postconflict reconstruction packages adopts a technocratic approach to address what are fundamentally political problems that exist in religiously conservative postconflict environments. When imposing conditions on postconflict communities, it is critical to think about how these conditions will resonate with the values and institutions of the society in general.

Critical scholarship on religion and postconflict processes also points to the gaps and misconceptions both in policy and in the literature. Coming from a religious studies angle, Omer (2011, p. 29) argues that the cultivation of a distinctive religious studies approach to the study of religion, conflict, and conflict transformation would depend on the ability of the scholar of religion to be a “critical caretaker.” Omer states that this critical scrutiny needs to be supplemented with counter-hegemonic narratives and minority opinions. Hayward (2015) also brings up the issue of the lack of attention to women in religious peacebuilding; she points to critical religious actors such as Betty Bigombe (a Christian Ugandan woman who served as a principal mediator between the Uganda government and Lord’s Resistance Army); activist nuns in conflict settings like Colombia and the Philippines; and Yemeni Nobel Prize winner Tawakkol Karman. Pointing to another theoretical flaw in the discussions of religion and justice, Wilson (2010) argues that dualistic thinking (interpreting religion’s role in “either/or” terms) has limited understandings of both global justice and religion. She proposes a relational dialogist approach that recognizes the multifaceted relations among institutional, ideational, individual, communal, irrational, and rational dimensions of religion.

Although there is much to say about religious leaders’ contributions to peacebuilding and postconflict processes, there are also many cases where these actors fall short of helping to deliver stability. Grzymala-Busse (2016, p. 30) draws attention to the fragility of moral authority, and how the legitimacy of religious actors can be undermined by what is perceived as “overt and narrow politicking.” Based on intensive field research in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Clark (2010) shows that although religious actors were well-positioned to contribute to peacebuilding, for the most part, they used their power to exacerbate interethnic divides and deny the committal of war crimes, and they were mostly inwardly focused, not even aware of their capacity as peacebuilders. In Clark’s view, divisions between the moderates and conservatives can make it difficult for moderate religious leaders to reach out to a wider audience. What is more, there are religious leaders who benefit more from maintenance of the interethnic divides; and finally, there are religious leaders who are not willing to admit the crimes committed by their community. All these factors made it difficult to see meaningful contributions by religious leaders to peacebuilding in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

From a methodological standpoint, there are measurement challenges in the investigation of religion and postconflict processes. Analyzing the impact of faith-based peacebuilding is not easy. In their study that maps Christian and Muslim peacebuilding actors, Bouta, Kadayifci-Orellana, and Abu Nimer (2005, p. 45) caution researchers about “the attribution problem” (i.e., how much of the impact can be truly attributed to the religious actors), the intangibility of peace, and the fact that insecure situations may prevent immediate impact assessment on the ground. Silvestri and Mayall (2015, p. 87) do not necessarily see attribution as a problem to be solved; they state that “seeking to identify a cause and effect relationship between religion and violence, and between religion and peace, seems both useless and inappropriate.” Given the multiple dimensions of politics and violence, this is a reasonable position to take. Rather than presenting one factor as a single explanation for violence or peace, scholars and policymakers should recognize each factor as part of a complex equation.

Religion and Transitional Justice

In postconflict societies, good governance and law are keys to reconciliation and transition to a functioning society. Although the fields of law and public policy have been resistant to including religion, there is space for faith-related matters in legal conversations. Kendhammer (2016), for example, shows how democracy can work alongside the legal recognition of Islamic values within the context of Northern Nigeria. However, even when the importance of faith-related matters is recognized, the Western desire to engage religion is not without its problems. In her work, Hurd (2015) critically examines hastily devised legal frameworks to engage religion through interfaith initiatives, religious freedom projects, and religious minority protections.

Transitional justice is a critical legal and societal component of postconflict processes. The International Center for Transitional Justice (2017) defines transitional justice as “the ways countries emerging from periods of conflict and repression address large scale or systematic human rights violations so numerous and so serious that the normal justice system will not be able to provide an adequate response.” Transitional justice efforts usually involve special courts, prosecutions, truth-seeking, and fact-finding processes by judicial authorities, and institutional reform. This is also a process of dealing with a painful past, which Soyinka (2000) refers to as “burden of memory.”

Very much like in any postconflict process, transitional justice has been traditionally very secular. Brewer, Mitchell, and Leavey (2013) argue that transitional justice studies on Northern Ireland have overlooked religion, and they develop a conceptual map that brings together input, intervention, and context (pp. 159, 160): “understanding the best form of intervention by the best type of input in the most appropriate arena given the context is the key to legitimizing religious contributions to transitional justice.” Similarly, with evidence from the case of Sierra Leone, Graybill (2017) cautions against the dominance of Western legal norms and the International Criminal Court in Africa, and warns that ignoring religious norms and values in peacebuilding and transitional justice is costly. Coming from an anthropological perspective, Shaw (2004) confirms that Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission at the national level did not quite resonate with the local tribal traditions for addressing past injustices.

Religious groups have played a role in managing many truth recovery processes, ranging from multiple settings in Latin America (Hayes & Tombs, 2001) to Bosnia (Herbert, 2003, pp. 229–264). In some cases, transitional justice institutions came into existence thanks to pressure from religious actors. Klocek (2009) argues that religious actors are not simply just another participant in transitional justice; as he demonstrates with the cases of South Africa and Guatemala, religious actors pressure governments to adopt transitional justice institutions based on reconciliation. Vinjamuri and Boesenecker (2008) investigate how religious ethics lead to a particular conception of peace, especially in transitional justice in the form of truth commissions and war crime trials, using cases ranging from South Africa to East Timor. Oyola (2015) highlights the critical role of the Diocese of Quibdo, and argues that the feelings of hope and justice religiously inspired by the diocese made a difference in the participatory processes of construction of social memory in Bojaya, Choco in Colombia. Philpott (2007) divides religious actors’ influence on transitional justice into two categories: There are “thinkers” (who theorize about religion, justice and human rights) and there are “doers.” In the “doers” category, Philpott cites the Catholic Church in Chile and protestant leaders in Brazil for their role in truth commissions; Desmond Tutu in South Africa; and religious communities in Guatemala, Peru, East Timor, and Sierra Leone, as examples of religious actors influencing transitional justice.

Balancing religious and traditional/secular approaches in transitional justice can prove to be challenging. Shore (2009) argues that Christianity played an “ambiguous” role in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and some observers criticized the TRC leadership for following a “religious redemptive” understanding of their mandate. At the same time, in his analysis of the South African TRC, Wilson (2001, p. 134) states that, in the Vaal region, religious organizations were the only local actors that officially worked with the Commission towards the goal of reconciliation: “not businesses, or health institutions or educational establishments, just churches.” In short, in postconflict settings, religious actors are not only uniquely situated to navigate the difficult conversations and facilitate reconciliation at a societal level; they might also be the only allies on the ground for national and international actors engaged in transitional justice efforts.


Although outnumbered by the studies that focus on religion, conflict, and violence, there are significant scholarly investigations that analyze the dynamics of religion and postconflict processes, and there is a vibrant literature focusing on religion and peace. Although not covered in this article due to limitations of space, works focusing on the role of religion in development, human rights, education, and health in former conflict settings can also be considered as part of the literature related to postconflict processes.

Scholars agree that religion is not a simple and clear-cut concept. Another point of agreement is that peacebuilding, transitional justice, and other postconflict processes should include religion as one source among others. The article reviewed a number of scholarly contributions that point to the challenges in policy, practice, and academia. Religious organizations usually are not fully impartial, and some religious leaders are less enthusiastic about being part of peace processes than others. Like in many other issue areas, there are gaps in theory, and flaws in methodology in the literature on religion and postconflict processes, some of which were pointed out throughout this article. One of these gaps is the dearth of studies focusing on non-Christian actors and contexts. Another is the insufficient attention paid to the conflicts and tensions between religious actors of the same tradition in postconflict processes. How do different religious actors compete on the ground, and how do they participate (or not) in postconflict processes? Studies differentiating between the activities of religious institutions and religious leaders will also be a welcome addition to the field. There is, in addition, a dire need for more multidisciplinary analysis and rigorous field research looking into the sophisticated role religious actors play in postconflict processes. However, trends in the literature and in practice show that there is every reason to be optimistic. There seems to be more space for religion in academic publications, and there is an increasing desire to tap into every available source, including religion, in the policy world.


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