Every year on 21 September the United Nations observes International Peace Day. In 2001 the UN General Assembly called on the member states to observe the day through non-violence and ceasefires.
How well that has been observed is tragically clear for all to see.
There are many ways to calculate “armed conflict,” which can cover everything from a full-blown war to local terrorist attacks. Generally speaking, armed conflicts are registered in terms of casualties per year: over 10,000, 1,000-9,999, and 100-999 deaths. Using this metric, it is estimated that there are 38 armed conflicts raging in the world during 2018. These range from smaller local conflicts to larger ones involving massive loss of life in places like Syria, Yemen and Burma.
Almost every religious tradition speaks of peace, although some would limit that peace to fellow believers. Christians speak of pax and eirene, Jews speak of shalom and Muslims of salaam. The religions of the Indian subcontinent speak of shanti and ahimsa (non-violence). Leaders from every world religion speak with some frequency about the importance of peace. International groups and movements such as Religions for Peace and the Parliament of the World’s Religions work tirelessly to promote peace and understanding.
Yet for all this talk and all these efforts, there is still tremendous violence in the world. If we are honest, all too often the conflicts have religious components. It is common for religious people to claim that this or that conflict is political and not religious. In some cases that might be true. However, denying religious components to many conflicts is built on the naïve and faulty assumption that religion cannot be politicized. It can and it is. While religion may not be the only factor in some major conflicts, it definitely plays a role: Buddhists vs. Rohingya Muslims in Burma; Sunni vs. Shi’ite Muslims in Yemen and, to some extent in Syria; Muslims against Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq; Hindus against Christians in part of India; and majority Christians against minority Christian groups in places like Russia. One is reminded of the verse in the book of the prophet Jeremiah: “Peace, peace, they say, but there is no peace” (Jer 6:14; 8:10).
If almost all religions speak of peace, if so many religious leaders around the world speak of the importance of peace, why is there so much conflict and not just conflict but conflict involving religion? Perhaps a partial answer can be found in the UN International Peace Day. It is a day not when governments and religious leaders speak of global peace and peace on the much touted macro-scale; it is, rather, a call for not just religions but individual believers to practice peace and non-violence. As long as religious people do not see themselves obliged by their faith to be active agents of peace and reconciliation — but rather allow and even promote conflict in their families, workplace and neighborhoods — conflicts will continue to rage in our world.
CNEWA, of course, is no stranger to conflict. We work in war-torn areas such as the Middle East and the Horn of Africa; we also work with refugees, those quintessential victims of violence, in refugee camps and displacement centers throughout the world. We serve in areas where there are intra-religious conflicts like Ukraine. The words of Jeremiah ring often in our ears.
International Peace Day provides us with an opportunity and a challenge: an opportunity to evaluate our role as believers who work actively to promote peace and reconciliation, and a challenge to bring that peace and reconciliation into our daily lives and local communities.