Religion not at the heart of many world conflicts, scholars say

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Religion, which has been blamed for being behind much of the violence in today's world, might be a scapegoat, according to one Georgetown University scholar.

"The role of religion needs to clearly be determined," said Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen, a scholar at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs, where Wednesday's symposium was held.

Based on his eight years serving as the director of international justice and peace office for the U.S. bishops, plus 14 years of Vatican work in international affairs, Christiansen said things are not always what they seem to be.

The conflict in the former Yugoslavia is one example. "Serbians identified with Orthodoxy as their cause," he said, but all ethnic groups in the nation were testing freedom's waters after 50 years under communist control.

Even in protracted conflicts like that between Israel and Palestine, "ethnology and nationalism is the issue," Christiansen asserted.

Another factor in violence is what the Jesuit called "religious tribalism." "Yemen is a clear example," he said. "Tribalism is a strong problem when you talk about 'jihadism.'" And "when you look at Saudi Arabia, you see it's informed by tribal culture," he added.

Christiansen acknowledged that some violence can be attributed to religion. Some of the conflicts in the Middle East, he said, are "Sunni-Shiite religious conflicts for leadership of the Muslim world." In these situations -- such as Iran's aid to the embattled Syrian government -- adherents of one branch of Islam will cross borders to aid their like-minded brethren embroiled in conflict. If their aid proves helpful in winning the conflict, that patronage gives the helping country a leadership leg up. And some fights are even more fratricidal in nature, such as Islamic State's bid to impose its brand of Sunni Islam in the region by waging war against other Sunnis. By the same token, he noted Saudi aid "informs how Islam is taught in Pakistan."

Jesuit Fr. Leo Lefebure, another Berkley Center scholar, said it was easy to make religion a scapegoat. "If we get rid of one scapegoat, the goal is, we have to find another," he said. "Jesus came to undo the scapegoat mechanism. But we used Jesus to scapegoat the Jews."

The lack of communication or dialogue can be injurious when reading the foundational texts of a one faith. "If Christians think they know who Jews were from the Bible, Muslims think they know the Christians and Jews from reading the Quran," Lefebure said.

If one were to read the sacred texts of the others' faiths, he added, "we would realize it should be a friendly competition on who should be more virtuous to each other."

A third Berkley scholar, Kathleen Marshall, a senior fellow in religion and global development, noted the "fractured" state of interreligious dialogue. "We've hit the wall" when it comes to dialogue about violence, she said.

"It's worth breaking down what development means," Marshall said. For some, she added, "changes in lifestyle, the end of slavery, it is about the aspirations for a better life." But these aims are hard to realize in "fragile states," which number up to 50 around the globe, she noted.

"We overlook (the role of) religion in the Ebola crisis, which is a fragile-state case," Marshall said.

While "there are many ways" to engage fragile states or those struggling with violence, she added, "the least satisfactory is to send a check."

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