BAGHDAD — During the US Civil War, a northern religious leader wrote President Lincoln to take heart that "God is on our side." Lincoln responded that what concerned him most was, "Are we on God's side?"
When violent conflicts are accompanied by the conviction that "God is on my side," religion can easily be distorted to scapegoat and blame others. Despite global public perceptions, the war in Iraq was not a religious war. Political and religious leaders on all sides bear responsibility for describing the war in Iraq in religious terms.
Even when political leaders acknowledge the dangers of viewing conflict in religious terms, mixed messages and symbolism can carry weight. The Bush administration correctly emphasizes that military intervention in Iraq was not a war against Islam. Yet, the president frequently employs religious rhetoric - using scriptural references to characterize the American people, for example - that creates the opposite impression.
The best way for the US to prevent the war in Iraq from being perceived as a religious confrontation is to create a postwar space for Iraq's religious communities to contribute to the country's reconstruction. A society that has suffered as Iraq's has can easily misuse religion as a proxy for ethnic, tribal, and political divisions. Already Iraqis have killed religious leaders in what may hint at upheaval to come.
But religion can also be seen as an Iraqi asset in the reconstruction. The potential that this asset holds is evident in what I've seen happening here in Iraq during the past week in meetings among religious communities.
Already, Iraqi religious leaders are finding ways to work together to heal a war-traumatized society. Last week, in Najaf, the spiritual home of Iraqi Shiites, I attended meetings in which the most influential leaders of the Shiite community committed to cooperation with all Iraqi religions in humanitarian efforts. And they and senior Iraqi Sunni and Christian leaders pointed to relief activities already under way by Iraq's religious communities as examples of tolerance and unity that can be strengthened and expanded. These religious leaders pledged to send representatives soon to meet and agree on common principles for action.
A dramatic example of the potential this cooperation holds was evident in what Sheikh Ali Hussein-al-Jobourii said to me Friday at the Shakir al-Adoud mosque in Baghdad: "We provide shelter in our mosque, and the Christians bring them food here. Together we survive."
Religious collaboration is the best way to realize each religion's constructive capacities for change without falling into the trap of remaking the state in the image of any one of them.
There are ample precedents of religious communities helping to stop conflicts and providing social cohesion in the aftermath of violence. Sierra Leone's religious communities, for example, helped stop a bloody civil war: Muslims and Christians working together obtained the release of 50 children held by rebel forces. That was the catalyst for the negotiations that ended the 10-year civil war. After the fighting stopped, churches and mosques guided the healing and reintegration of child soldiers in their communities. Today, throughout West Africa, interreligious councils are working to stop violent conflicts and their root causes.
The reconstruction of Iraq will require the same kind of leadership from religious communities. They must undertake the difficult work of multireligious collaboration and resist attempts to hijack religion in support of internecine or intrareligious violence.
The US would be wise to support Iraqi religious communities in helping to meet human needs, rebuild community institutions, and reject violent conflict. In some cases, religious networks may be the only infrastructure able to reach thousands of Iraqis needing emergency relief. Local religious networks need to engage, along with the major secular relief organizations already on the ground, as partners in planning and delivery of humanitarian services.
The US Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in Iraq should explicitly include local religious communities in its budgets and delivery plans. It should also support multireligious efforts to identify and communicate Iraqi religious traditions of tolerance and freedom. Iraqi Shiite, Sunni, and Christian theological principles that support democratic pluralism exist, are beginning to be expressed, and are essential building blocks for a state that respects religious freedom. A multireligious committee should be formed, supported by respected religious leaders from the world's major faith traditions, to forge an Iraqi consensus on the widely shared values essential to good governance in Iraq.
The removal of Saddam Hussein hasn't solved Iraq's problems. Lasting peace and security is achieved by respecting human dignity, alleviating poverty, and ensuring self- determination. Mobilizing religious communities to work together to prevent and mediate violent conflicts is a powerful tool, frequently overlooked by the international community. Efforts to reinforce the deeply held and widely shared values common to all faiths serve as a bulwark against religious extremism.
Religious collaboration in Iraq is essential for the country's peaceful future. Fostering it may also go a long way toward building credibility among Muslims that the US doesn't view its military victory in Iraq as the first battle in a religious campaign.
• William F. Vendley is secretary-general of the World Conference on Religion and Peace, the largest worldwide coalition of major religions working together to promote peace.