At the moment, the image of religion is one characterized by fanatics carrying out attacks in the name of God. Now, the German government wants to strengthen support for its peace-spreading potential.
It will be an illustrious group. On Monday, German Minister of Foreign Affairs Sigmar Gabriel will meet with religious dignitaries and scholars from around the world at the Federal Foreign Office in Berlin. There he will address Islamic scholars from Iran and Afghanistan, Jewish representatives from Jerusalem, Catholic archbishops, Orthodox clergymen and Protestant pastors, Anglicans and Copts, Baha'is, Sufis and Druze, Shiites and Sunnis – many men and very few women.
"Participants exercise influence and authority in their communities and are committed to working for peace both within and among societies," reads the announcement published by the Foreign Office. The title of the conference, "Peace Responsibility of Religions," makes clear the meeting's theme as well as its objectives for the 100 or so guests who will attend.
For German diplomats, the conference is an unusual step beyond the normal role of state actors on the international stage. They will engage with non-state actors as a complementary resource to traditional diplomatic means. An independent area of operations has even been established in the Foreign Office to that end.
September 11, 2001
The history of the conference goes back to the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. Those attacks changed global diplomacy. In 2002, Germany's then foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, established the ambassador-level post of Representative for Dialog with the Islamic World. After the change of administrations in 2005, the Federal Foreign Office rebranded the post as the Special Representative for Intercultural Dialog.
Some 10 years ago, the US State Department established a sub-department for religious affairs. Some foreign offices in other European countries have also taken a similar approach.
First structured exchange
So now Berlin has taken the step, too. The Foreign Office says that the upcoming conference and the new operations area are "not an expansion, but rather a new approach." Representatives say they are looking to engage in partnerships and social projects, essentially pre-political undertakings. They are interested in establishing a structured exchange with religious actors.
The Heidelberg-based sociologist Ines-Jacqueline Werkner, who counts international politics and peace studies among her areas of expertise, points to the Treaty of Lisbon when speaking of the topic. In an aside to the 2007 treaty, the EU committed itself to open, transparent and regular dialog with religious organizations – this, too, she says, testifies to the importance of non-state actors. Political scientists have long suggested harnessing the positive potential of religion.
'The only relevant player'
"Publicly, the subject of religion has tended to be seen from a one-sided perspective – namely, religion as the source of conflict," Werkner told Deutsche Welle. But religions' obligation to facilitating peace has long enjoyed a positive significance among diplomats. In conflict zones, religious actors are often "the only relevant societal players" – with knowledge about dealing with problems, integration and respect among local populations.
The conference at the Foreign Office, which will begin on Sunday evening, will feature a prime example of this type of engagement. Among the guests will be Mauro Garofalo, who is responsible for international relations at the Community of Sant'Egidio, a Catholic organization. In 1992, Christian lay people were able to bring about what international diplomats had failed to do: After 16 years of civil war, and almost one million deaths, they negotiated a peace agreement between warring factions in Mozambique.
To this day, that feat is still considered a milestone of what civil engagement can achieve on the diplomatic stage. In his 2014 book "Was Frieden schafft" (What Creates Peace), peace researcher Markus Weingardt lists ten further examples, among them Sierra Leone, the Congo and Cambodia.
Theater and diplomacy
It is therefore fitting that local religious representatives have also been invited to the Foreign Office. For instance, the grand mufti of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the president of that country's Jewish community will both travel from the formerly multi-religious city of Sarajevo – which still seeks to uphold that tradition. The archbishop of Conakry and the grand imam of Guinea will also be in attendance. And representatives from the Catholic commission Justitia et Pax and a leading Islamic representative will attend from Cameroon. The Foreign Office is looking to strengthen support on the ground for such developments.
Berlin's Foreign Office also seeks to mediate on a cultural level. In 2016, the office initiated a debate series dealing with the new world order, and disorder, called "Berlin Correspondence" - in cooperation with the city's Maxim Gorki Theater. The foreign minister at the time, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, spoke at the series' opening, posing the question of whether "forces existed that could set in motion great tectonic shifts in our concepts and models of order."
Steinmeier called for action in the "difficult work of creating a common order" - work that would include major narratives and the patterns of their transmittance. That was on May 22, 2016. Now, one year later, Sigmar Gabriel will attempt to take this ideal to the global diplomatic stage.