July 14, 2017
Role of Religious Leaders and Actors to Prevent Incitement to Violence that Could Lead to Atrocity Crimes

Intervention of Archbishop Bernardito Auza
Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations

Launch of the Plan of Action for Religious Leaders and Actors
to Prevent Incitement to Violence that Could Lead to Atrocity Crimes
United Nations, New York, 14 July 2017


Mr. Secretary General, Excellencies, Distinguished Fellow Panelists, Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am very pleased to be present at the launch of this Plan of Action, which is meant to help “better understand, articulate and encourage the potential of religious leaders to prevent incitement and the violence that it can lead to, and to integrate the work of religious leaders within broader efforts to prevent atrocity crimes” (p. 3).

The fruit of three years of hard work, the Plan is intended primarily for religious leaders and workers, but also helpfully includes detailed recommendations for States and state institutions, civil society organizations, and the media, conscious that preventing genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity requires the contributions and collaboration of each of us and all our communities and institutions.

While the Holy See is not able to support every one of the 177 targets flowing from the Plan’s nine groups of thematic recommendations and 35 objectives, the plan as a whole represents a major, practical step forward in fostering a culture and society consistent with what the Outcome Document of the 2005 World Summit called the Responsibility to Protect.

I would like to share three brief reactions.

First, I wish to underline the emphasis in the Plan that “States have the primary responsibility to protect populations from atrocity crimes, as well as their incitement.” This is in line with Articles 138 and 139 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome, which states the responsibility to protect falls primarily, but not exclusively, on national authorities. Then the international community is called upon, “as appropriate, [to] encourage and help States to exercise this responsibility.” This encouragement and help can take many forms, among which I would like to recall the duty to refrain from inciting tension and conflict in third States that could constitute the prelude, the scene or still worse, the breeding ground for committing the hateful crimes in question.

There has been some focus recently on the role of religious leaders in preventing atrocity crimes — and this is good, because religious leaders have much to contribute — but, at the end of the day, religious leaders and organizations obviously do not have the resources by themselves to stop atrocities. While they can influence behavior and mentalities, they do not possess the resources and instruments, which only States possess for stopping mass atrocities, such as law enforcement agencies and armed forces. While I heartily welcome the spotlight on the helpful role of religious leaders, it is important to maintain the crucial focus on the primary responsibility of national governments and the international community to act to protect the innocent from savage acts.

My second point is that, as the Plan helpfully emphasizes, “religious leaders and actors can” — and I would add, do — “play a particularly influential role” in preventing atrocities, “because they have the potential to influence the behavior of those who follow them and share their beliefs.”

Negatively, this influence has been abused by those religious leaders who have misused their authority and influence to spur on or justify atrocities. Positively, it has been seen in the many more religious leaders who have condemned such abuses, stressing that violence against others in the name of God is a great blasphemy against the name of God and the greatest disservice to religion itself.

Religious leaders and communities are called to uphold the Responsibility to Protect by engaging in interreligious dialogue and promoting peace in their communities. Their vocation is to carry out and inspire actions aimed at helping the building of societies based on respect for life and human dignity, charity, fraternity, which goes far beyond tolerance, and solidarity.

The Plan offers religious leaders many helpful good and best practices, in order to inoculate those who come to their places of worship from the half-truths that ideologues can use to incite them to hating rather than loving, and attacking rather than serving, their neighbor. The very existence of a Plan directed toward religious leaders is also a modest recognition by the international community that those who are being incited by pseudo-religious motivations toward violence aren’t going to be effectively dissuaded by secular argumentation from so-called infidels or by economic materialism. They need, rather, true religious arguments that show that extremists’ violence-inducing interpretation is unfaithful to the text and to the God they claim to serve; they need persuasive counterarguments that plant the seeds of peace and eradicate the weeds of violence.

The phenomenon of religiously motivated violence is a particular challenge in the defense and protection of Freedom of Religion or Belief. Understanding the motivations that lie at the root of terrorism and religiously motivated acts of violence is complex and requires careful reflection and analysis. Religious leaders are uniquely placed to offer such reflection. Pope Francis has helped to open up spaces for this reflection to occur so that religious leaders are able to contribute to the sensitive debate about religiously motivated terrorism.

Acknowledging explicitly the religious dimension of some expressions of violent extremism is fraught with danger, and we can understand the reluctance of governments and international bodies to do so. Thus, the most important contribution of religious leaders to this debate is to help people understand that acknowledging the religious dimension of some violent extremism, or rather the manipulation of religion for violent ends, does not mean equating religion, or a particular religion, or an entire religious community, with violence.

In his April 28 address to the participants of the International Peace Conference in Cairo, Pope Francis emphasized that “religion is not a problem but a part of the solution.” In order to “counter effectively the barbarity of those who foment hatred and violence,” he said, “we need to accompany young people, helping them on the path to maturity and teaching them to respond to the incendiary logic of evil by patiently working for the growth of goodness, … daily turn[ing] the polluted air of hatred into the oxygen of fraternity.”

For religious leaders to carry out this service, he said, it’s essential that religion not “be relegated to the private sphere, as if it were not an essential dimension of the human person and society,” because such secularizing tendencies can add fuel to the fires being stoked by those who want to instrumentalize religious motivations toward violent ends. Confining religion only to the intimate sphere of the person risks the development of a culture of intolerance, which is one reason why national authorities must recognize and ensure religious freedom as an inalienable fundamental human right.

The public good that comes from religion needs to be appreciated and promoted so that religious leaders can better, Pope Francis continued in Cairo, “unmask the violence that masquerades as purported sanctity, … denounce violations of human dignity and human rights, … expose attempts to justify every form of hatred in the name of religion, and … condemn these attempts as idolatrous caricatures of God.” 

My third and last point involves the importance of religious leaders’ participation in meaningful interreligious dialogue, which is the focus of the fifth thematic recommendation.

This is something that Pope Francis has been stressing by both word and action since his 2013 election. “Interreligious dialogue,” he wrote in the exhortation that charts the path of his pontificate, “is a necessary condition for peace in the world.” He elaborated on that conviction this January in his annual address to the members of the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See. He described how interreligious dialogue, beyond the many direct fruits that come from it for believers, provides the peoples of the world a paradigm to discuss their differences, grow in mutual appreciation of others’ perspectives, and journey together toward peace and other common goals.

Religiously motivated men and women, moved as they are by the call of God to reverence the other’s God-given dignity and love their neighbor, he said, have a special responsibility to show everyone how to converse about the deepest and most important matters and to work respectfully through what may divide. Moreover, they show adherents how to fight injustice and root out the personal and social causes of discord that can lead to war, to renounce violence and vengeance in vindicating one’s rights, to transcend selfishness and the hatred that calcifies through lack of forgiveness, and to carry out the works of mercy that build a culture of peace.

That’s why the role and work of religious leaders and believers in general, and interreligious dialogue in particular, are crucial not just in preventing incitement to violence among susceptible coreligionists, but in fostering incitement to virtue and thereby creating the type of peaceful and inclusive societies in which atrocity crimes are ethically unacceptable, and, indeed, unimaginable.

Thank you for your kind attention.