WASHINGTON — PUT the words "religion" and "conflict" side by side and terrible things come to mind: Sectarian wars that have taken a savage toll over the centuries from the Crusades to Bosnia.
But if religion can cause conflict it can also end it, as a growing number of religiously based conflict mediators - relative latecomers in a field dominated by governments and secular groups - eagerly attest.
"The religious sector may well be the most rapidly expanding sector in the field of international conflict resolution today," says Cynthia Sampson, co-editor of a recent book on religion and statecraft.
Religious groups have historically confined their social activism to humanitarian causes, providing relief to victims of disasters, for example, or lobbying for social justice. But two things have thrust religious communities into a new role.
One is the changing nature of conflict, which in the post-cold-war era has become harder to resolve through traditional diplomatic means. As ethnic and religious groups have replaced nation-states as the principal warring parties, religious institutions have become ideal bridge-builders and conciliators.
The other change is the belated recognition on the part of religious communities themselves that, as intermediaries with a unique capacity to convey empathy and inspire trust, they have a significant role to play in resolving sub-national conflicts.
"The focus is shifting to the peace side of the justice and peace equation," says Ms. Sampson.
With contacts through every level of society, religious institutions are often well-positioned to win the confidence of the opposing sides. Religious leaders, moreover, are able to introduce concepts like repentance and forgiveness into the reconciliation process.
"Religion represents the integrity, fairness, and moral authority that an official mediator might not have," says William Vendley, secretary-general of the World Conference on Religion and Peace.
The potential for religious involvement in dispute resolution was hinted during the 1980s, when officials of several Protestant denominations successfully mediated a preliminary agreement between the Nicaraguan government and indigenous Misquito Indian tribes, which was later finalized with the help of former US President Carter. The Sandinista-Misquito conflict was one of a number that religious groups have helped broker around the world.
As Edward Luttwak of the Center for Strategic and International Studies notes, religion can provide warring parties with a new means of communicating.
"Concessions previously regarded as intolerable evidence of a lack of fortitude, may become politically acceptable if they can be presented as acts of deference to religion," he writes.
"Restoring the torn political fabric touches only part of the problem," elaborates John Paul Lederach, director of the Institute for Conflict Studies and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. "Conflict also tears at the fabric of people and families." "What religious groups can provide is a concern for human beings, a concern for healing, a concern for fairness, so that everyone has a voice," adds Dr. Lederach. "The goal is not only a cease-fire but transformation and reconciliation." r