Religious Freedom As Central to Living Together in Peace

May 16, 2023

Today marks the commemoration of the International Day of Living Together in Peace.

Established by the United Nations General Assembly in 2017, “The Day aims to uphold the desire to live and act together, united in differences and diversity, in order to build a sustainable world of peace, solidarity and harmony.”

Days such as this one help to galvanize events, statements, and activities that encourage us to look beyond the needs of our own lives and interests to the interactions we have with others around us. And when we do that, we invariably recognize the differences in backgrounds, customs, practices, and beliefs.

These differences often are not insignificant and can often include profound differences of beliefs, even about ultimate truth or religious questions.

The world is a highly religious place, and those numbers are growing. The Pew Research Center predicts that by 2050, those who are religiously unaffiliated will make up only about 13% of the global population, meaning that at least eight billion individuals will identify with one religious tradition or another. 

While religious differences can be a source of conflict, it is not inevitable. A central facet of a peaceful society is a commitment to religious freedom.

As research from scholars like Nilay Saiya, Peter Henne, Brian Grim, and others have documented, a strong correlation exists between places of religious repression and religion-related terrorism and other forms of conflict. In contrast, where religious freedom is respected, human flourishing, economic development, and other social goods are likely to be found.

This is not just theory, but is seen in practice, as well. In the past few weeks, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and the U.S. State Department have released their annual reports taking stock of the state of religious freedom worldwide. Many places where religious freedom violations are most severe are precisely the places where violence and conflict are prevalent.

The question, then, is what to do about these realities. What steps can be taken to help promote a culture that respects religious freedom and helps to build peace across differences?

There is important work being done on this front. Take, for example, a few recent efforts in Iraq, a place that has seen and still is dealing with challenges to building a culture of peace and respect for religious freedom.

In February of last year, the Catholic University in Erbil and Koya University hosted the First International Conference on Religion and Social Peace: Challenges and Prospects, bringing together representatives from a wide range of Iraq’s religious traditions to identify steps that could be taken.

Earlier this year, the University of Mosul established a UNESCO Chair for Preventing Violent Extremism and Fostering a Culture of Peace. Despite administrative challenges, in just its first few months the Chair has been working to build greater awareness and support through its work, said Professor Qabas Al Badrani.

Last month, RFI also hosted its first Statesmanship and Religious Freedom Seminar in Iraq, designed to inspire and equip young people to pursue political engagement for the common good.

These represent just a few steps, among many, that can and are being taken to work toward living together in peace.   

The work to advance a culture that embraces peace and respects religious freedom must go hand in hand.

Jeremy Barker is Director of RFI’s Middle East Action Team