Gosnell Yorke, Zambia Daily Mail
February 23, 2023
The UN has set aside one week every year to have the world reflect on the complex role religion plays in international affairs.The United Nations (UN) celebrates days, weeks, months, and even decades like we have done in the month of February.
This month alone, we have celebrated International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11, World Radio Day on February 13, and Global Tourism Resilience Day on February 17.
We also celebrated World Day of Social Justice on February 20 and International Mother Language Day on February 21.
One UN celebrative event, in particular, which happened at the beginning of the month, will be the focus of this article.
It is World Interfaith Harmony Week (WIHW), which was celebrated from February 1 to 7, and I will discuss the week in relation to peace and conflict since religion relates to both.
WIHW, as its name suggests, is meant to include all religions such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, indigenous religious traditions (including African), Islam, Jainism, Judaism, and Sikhism.
It was King Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein and Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan who were the prime movers of WIHW.
This was during the 65th UN General Assembly in 2010. Their proposal was supported by 29 co-sponsors among which were African countries and those with a sizeable number of people of African descent in the diaspora.
African countries were Egypt, Liberia, Libya, Mauritius, Morocco, Tanzania, and Tunisia, and others were Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Guyana, and Honduras.
The proposal was later adopted unanimously by the UN General Assembly as Resolution A/65/L5.
Such a proposal and subsequent resolution were informed by the indispensable role which religion plays in international affairs. Mainly due to forces of secularism in the global North or the West, religion has tended to be overlooked among peace and conflict scholars generally.
However, the situation has been changing for the better in more recent years.
One relatively recent example of this recognition of religion in peace and conflict studies, as it relates to issues of governance, is Douglas Johnston and Cynthia Sampson (1994). Religion: The Missing Dimension in Statecraft (Oxford University Press).
Consistent with this recognition of religion, the UN has now set aside one week every year to have the world reflect on the complex role religion plays in international affairs.
On the one hand, religion can promote peace and harmony among people of faith around the world.
That would explain, for example, why the basic theme driving WIHW which is understood to be one of the commonalities among all religions is: “Loving the good and loving the neighbour.”
Also, in its 2010 resolution stated earlier, the UN recognised the moral imperatives of peace, tolerance, and goodwill which characterise all religions, convictions and beliefs.
However, on the other hand, it is also recognised that religion can equally create conflicts and chaos and in the process violently violate human and other rights of others based on extremist conceptions and convictions.
In his speech at the UN General Assembly in 2010 delivered on behalf of King Abdullah II, Prince Ghazi rightly pointed out: “The world is rife with religious tension and, sadly, mistrust, dislike and hatred” (paragraph 2).
Prince Ghazi added: “The misuse and abuse of religion can be a cause of world strife, whereas religions should be a great foundation for facilitating world peace” (paragraph 3).
Contemporary examples of what some perceive as the negative impact of religion on the continent include Al Shabab and Isis in Somalia and northern Mozambique respectively, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger, and the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda.
For some, examples of religion as a positive force for good on the continent in terms of fostering social cohesion and good governance include the various Truth and Reconciliation Commissions that have been held in countries like Liberia, Rwanda, and South Africa.
In celebrating WIHW this year under the theme ‘Harmony in a World in Crisis: World Interfaith Harmony Week 2023’, the UN encouraged all states to spread the message of inter-faith harmony and goodwill in the world’s churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, and other places of worship.
For some, such an appeal might not be particularly meaningful for a multi-religious country like Zambia in that, unlike some other countries – both African and non African – which are conflict-ridden due to ‘warring religions’, Zambia rightly prides itself as being a beacon of peace.
This is so despite the fact that, according to World Christian Database of 2015 as it relates to Zambia, 82 percent of the population is Christian – Protestant and Roman Catholic.
Around 10.4 percent are Indigenous African, 0.5 percent Bahá’í, 2.2 percent Muslim, 4.6 percent agnostic and all other groups, including Hindu at 0.2 percent.
Although Zambia sees itself as a Christian nation, perhaps informed by the statistics just cited, there is always need to guard against the inherent danger of appearing exclusionary of other religions with potential for religious conflict.
Conflict can arise either from within the body politic itself or inspired by external bad actors bent on propagating a particular extremist brand of their faith by attempting to radicalise some who are within the country.
To Zambia’s credit, the preamble of its 2016 amended Constitution, in addition to its declaration as a Christian nation, also has embedded within it the right of others to freely affiliate themselves with other religious and faith traditions.
These include African traditional or primal religions, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, or no religion at all.
That is, the country should not only pride itself on experiencing, more or less, ethnic peace as a form of what peace and conflict scholars usually refer to as negative peace, but it is currently experiencing religious peace and harmony as well.
May that state of affairs endure since, after all and as stated earlier, that is what WIHW is all about.
The author is a lecturer of religion and human rights at Copperbelt University Dag Hammarskjold Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies