Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster

Religion, Identity and Conflict

Given in response to the address by Dr Christopher Moran (Cooperation Ireland) at the Religion, Identity and Conflict conference at St Mary’s University, Twickenham on 2 December 2016. 

Thanks to St Mary’s for this initiative, and its partnership with the Institut Catholique.

Thanks to Dr Moran for his fascinating and first-hand experience in the work of reconciliation in Northern Ireland. We are privileged to have this personal insight and we thank you for your great work and initiatives in this remarkable yet unfinished story. I also thank you for your most gracious words about Her Majesty the Queen and for helping us to appreciate and applaud her personal involvement in all this process and the unique and transforming contribution she has made.

As I listened there were many points hitting home:

*the importance of facilitating contact between people: grassroots engagement, safe spaces, building trust.

*the appreciation of history:  hope and memory have to go hand in hand

*the need for time ‘peace comes dropping slow’ (Yeats)

*moving to the perspective of a balance of interests rather than a balance of power

*that forgiveness means rising above offence

*the role of religion: no scape-goating, but responsible and proactive religious leadership

As you would expect this last point lingers all the more with me.  But it also resonates deeply with another situation of which I would like to speak for a moment. And Dr Moran’s mention of the symptomatic importance of walls is also a powerful link for me.

Three weeks ago I was in Jerusalem and enjoyed a most fascinating conversation, over more than three hours, with Rabbi Michael Melchior. One of the main thrusts of this conversation was his conviction that all attempts at bringing about a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine have failed because they were based on a purely secular approach to the process. They have been fashioned and led by western powers with our habit and culture of marginalising religious belief or as seeing it simply as a problem. In contrast he was convinced that such processes needed not only to recognise the religious identities of the people but also harness the potential within those religious traditions for peace and just concern for all.

He spoke at length of an initiative he had put together. The event, a Summit for Peace, actually took place just two weeks ago, 14 and 15 November, in Alicante. Echoing so much of what we have just heard, it was over 10 years in the making. It involved finding a safe place, involving people on the ground and it sought to use the strengths and resources of religious belief.

Those present at this summit for peace were 11 rabbis from Israel including the Chief Rabbi of Israel, one who is Chief Councillor of the state religious system, one who is a leading figure in the Neo-Hasidic Movement within Religious Zionism; 11 Muslim leaders including the Minister of Religious Affairs of Palestine, a representative of Hamas, the founder of the Islamic movement in Israel, the Secretary General of the World Muslim Conference for Jerusalem, the President of the Adam Centre for Interreligious Dialogue in Gaza; and 4 Christian  bishops and Patriarch, Latin, Greek, Melkite and Evangelical Lutheran. All the participants live in either Israel or Palestine, including Gaza. They are people on the ground.

Their work, I hope, is seminal. Their resolve was expressed in their final statement of understanding and intent. It included this opening sentence:

‘We, people of the Holy Land and leaders of its religious communities are gathered to take upon ourselves to relentlessly seek peace in the Land. We emphasise that our two peoples are responsible for their common fate, that the three religions are responsible for creating peaceful existence and that we, as religious leaders, are responsible for promoting a life of mutual respect based upon justice and safety, in the spirit of the word of God as conveyed by his prophets.’

They continued: ‘The violence that is conducted in the name of God is a desecration of his name, a crime against those who are created in his image, and a debasement of faith. The proper means of solving conflict and disagreement is by negotiation and deliberation only.’

They called for the cessation of violence and committed themselves to educate future generations to uphold mutual respect, and called for ‘a solution that recognised to right of the two peoples to exist with dignity.’

While calling on political leadership for initiatives, they recognised that doing so does not excuse them from tireless work for peace, to which they committed themselves.

I give this brief account because what is being done there corresponds in so many ways to the main points of the presentation we have just heard.

There are too many walls in our world, but here we have paid heed to two of the most enduring and shameful. Indeed, all this work looks to enact not only the emphases in Dr Moran’s paper but also the great axiom of Pope Benedict, enunciated with clarity on his visit to England in 2010, including a visit to this very university, speaking in this same room. He insisted that to find peace we have to move from seeing religious belief as a problem to be solved to understanding that it is a great resource to be rediscovered.

In this country, we too are travelling the same road, even if our steps are small. Dialogues are taking place, focusing on the nature and understanding of violence. The role of religious minorities is being quietly explored at a personal level, while more public bodies reconsider their attitude to religious belief. This seminar is a unique opportunity to explore these issues in much greater depth. I thank you all, I thank Dr Moran again and I assure you of my prayers and good wishes.


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