Interfaith Initiative for Peace Building: A Case Study on Indonesia and Sudan

By: Norani Abu Bakar (12/10/2010)


Muslims and Christians make-up about 55 percent of the world’s population and the peace between them impacts the future of the world. The first past of this paper gives an overview on the role and the importance of faith and then presents an argument to support the criticality of interfaith engagement between the Muslims and the Christians to the global peace. Several examples on outstanding interfaith projects that are carried out internationally and nationally are also presented to provide some understanding on the global community response towards this subject. This writing also refers to two case studies to illustrate how interfaith relationship moves from religiocentric to religiorelative and how this change brings positive impact to their countries. The last part of this paper will suggest some approaches that can be implemented in order to achieve sustainable solutions for peace.   

1.      Unity in Diversity and the Unleashing of Social Value of Faith Tradition through Engaging Relationship.

The adherents of the Abrahamic faiths have lived as neighbors since the day their spiritual great grandfather lived. Today, there are approximately 5 billion religious people in the world, i.e. almost 85 percent of the world population[1] and by 2050, it is forecasted that there will be 3 billion of Christians and 2.2 billion of Muslims[2]. What will the world be like if Christians and Muslims live beyond tolerance and engage one other for the betterment of mankind? What will happen if fear and war is transformed to love, cooperation and trust? After all, they do share many common values and that their faith is rooted to a historical tradition.

Many socialists, including Peter Berger who advocated on secularization theory which says religion will dissolve with modernization, affirms the resurgence of religion in the 21st century. This is good news only if faith adherents live in peace and that the emergence in spirituality promotes beneficent and benevolent. Some scholars say that hospitality in hermeneutics and human rights hermeneutics is emerging among modern religions[3]. Unfortunately, hermeneutics that produces sound scholarly work on religious ethics will not bring peace to the world unless these values are assimilated to the community at large.  This is a very difficult task, especially when one tries to imagine on how to bring the huge population of Christians and Muslims to partner and to engage towards global peace.

Instead of haunted by the impossibilities, the Muslim and Christian leaders from the areas where there is tolerance but lack of engagement, need to expedite their learning process by analyzing the lessons learnt from the experiences of religious scholars and practitioners like Douglas Johnston, Marc Gopin, Mohamed Abu-Nimer, Amal Khoury, Emily Welty, Sallama Shaker, Monica Duffy, Sulaiman Nyang, Abdul Aziz Said. These leaders have shared their experiences in Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Sudan, etc. generously and in depth. ‘Prevention is better than cure,’ and integrating some of their findings into the local situation can prevent from unnucessary mistakes.

Each faith tradition has treasurable social capital value and transforming the relationship from tolerable level to engaging level and promoting this as the 21st century spirituality will bring out the best from each tradition. The unleashing and the utilizing of the avail and untapped social capital resources from each faith community can only happens when barriers are overcome and community strives together for common good. The result is the enhancement of the livelihood of a pluralistic society.

This proposal may sound very theoretical. Perhaps, the result from the Jubilee USA Network will awaken us from underestimating the power of interfaith unity in working towards common good. The Jubilee which is made-up of an alliance of over 75 religious denominations, faith communities and NGOs perseveres to work for cancellation of international debt owed by developing countries. As a result, today, more than 23 of the poorest countries in the world have received over $88 billion in debt cancellation[4]. This result stuns us. And there are more success stories to tell, but the journey is not going to be easy. However, analyzing how others did it will escalate the economies of scale in learning. This paper urges leaders from Abrahamic faiths tradition to recall and to claim the covenant of God to Abraham that God will bless his descendants and turn them into great nations[5]

2.      Interfaith Diplomacy, Work and Engagement in the 21st Century

Muslims and Christians can agree that the core of both faiths has many principles of fundamental human rights, including human dignity, tolerance, solidarity and equality which are founded on the basic principle of loving God and our neighbors. Numerous passages from the Qur’an and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad testify to this. And similarly, many passages in the Bible and sayings of Lord Jesus Christ teach on these values. Two most relevant texts are:

So invoke the Name of thy Lord and devote thyself to Him with a complete devotion’ – Quran: Al-Muzzammil, 73:8

None of you has faith until you love for your neighbour what you love for yourself’ – By Prophet Muhammad

 ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’This is the first commandment. / And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’There is no other commandment greater than these.”  By Jesus Christ sayings -Mark 12:29-31

These great values can only be shared when there is communication. Communication is important. It is the key to enter into engagement. And as love is the essence of both faiths, dialoguing with love and wisdom or ‘diplomacy’ is scriptural. It is diplomacy that brings a relationship from the level of tolerance to understanding. Diplomacy facilitates forgiveness, repentance, reconciliation and restoration. It transforms the relationship between two strangers to acquaintances, to casual friendship and then to love relationship. All these are parts of the teaching of Abrahamic faiths. The Quran communicates Allah’s command and the hadith pointed to the life of Prophet Muhammad as guidance in the life of the Muslims. The Lord Jesus Christ, the incarnated Word, communicates the will of the Father, converses and lives among the people to show them the way of life. After his ascension, the Holy Spirit comes to the lives of the followers and interacts with them on the will of Trinity God. Diplomacy comes with both faiths. Only through the conviction that diplomacy is the will of God can both adherents embrace God’s beautiful plan for our coexistence.

The basic concepts and approaches to diplomacy also involve cognitive dialogue, whereby each faith group must first have correct information about other religion for there to be peace. This study is elaborated in great details in the book, Unity in Diversity. Today, many studies have been published on religious ethics, diplomacy, pluralism, conflict resolution, coexistence and inclusion. In the later part of this paper, the work of several Muslims scholars from Indonesia will be discussed. ‘Exclusion and Embrace’, a remarkable writing written by Miroslav Wolf is an invaluable scholarly work to help one to transform traumatisms from religious conflict and hurt into love and to forgiveness.

Another scholarly work in this area, speaks optimistically that that the process of religious engagement of human rights is now under the way in Christian, Islam, Judaic, Buddhist, Hindu and traditional communities alike[6]. In addition to this, some reports also mention that there is a momentum of transformation of religiocentric to religiorelative[7]. The former have caused many deaths and the latter brings hope and peace. This being known, leaders need to be proactive in persuading religiorelativism to their community and to be strategic in implementing it.  Our mind sets must be shifted towards preemptive collaboration where compassionate and fruitful interfaith engagement is not initiated because of crisis but simply because living ethically is a core to every faith tradition.

Evidence on one of the most remarkable religorelative efforts that has great potential to affect change radically is shown through the Muslim and Christian leaders’ initiative on loving God and neighbors that is encapsulated by ‘A Common Word’ collaboration.[8] This effort is supported by addresses and signatories from 138 Muslims; led by HRH Prince Ghazi of Jordan, dozens of grand muftis, an ayatollah and leaders of many Islamic countries and Muslims scholars and 102 Christians including His holiness Pope Benedict, patriarchs, clergies and academia.   This important breakthrough evidenced that it is possible for Muslims and Christians to work together towards reconciliation and peace building while acknowledging real differences between both faiths.

Unfortunately, this initiative is not free from critiques. Voices on dissatisfaction expressing that such diplomacy and gestures are not enough and that the mask of hypocrisy on the tension between Muslims and Christians must be ripped away and resolved in order for both to reconcile. While there is some validity to this voice, nothing can be achieved unless the leaders from both faith traditions set an example to the rests of the adherents on loving one another and extending hands for forgiveness and reconciliation prior to working on pragmatic matters. On the contrary to this pessimistic response, A Common Word initiative resonates to the hearts of many international and national religious leaders who were not involved with the founding of A Common Word initiation, including the non-Muslims and non-Christians.

One of the most significant outcomes from A Common Word is the launching of the World Interfaith Harmony Week, a UN resolution for worldwide interfaith harmony that will fall on the first week of February of every year that is aimed to promote harmony between all people regardless of their religion. This benchmark comes from the proposal and effort of King of Jordan, HM King Abdullah II and HRH Prince Ghazi of Jordan that was made recently this year following-up Prince Ghazi initiative on A Common Word[9].

On the national level, an interfaith project that is based on A Common Word is initiated officially in the Philippines by Magbassa Kita Foundation Incorporated (MKFI) and the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy (PCID) with the hope to spread harmony and peace especially at the southern of Mindanao where tension exists among the Muslims, Christians and Lumad (a minority race with no specific faith tradition). Many of the projects run by this initiative focus on the improvement in education for the marginalized Muslim youths. The strong support that is received from the mayor of Zamboanga City, Mr. Lobregat who is of Catholic background, on the needs of the Muslim community, reaffirms a bright future for a harmonious society in Mindanao.

The earlier part of this writing also voices that interfaith engagement should be initiated even when there is no major crisis. The exemplary interfaith work and leadership of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) ‘walks this talk.’ Its interfaith wing has executed many interfaith projects decades before the September 11 incident. Their commitment is significant that in October 2010, it’s National Director for Interfaith and Community Alliances, Dr.Sayyid Syeed received the Interfaith Alliance President’s Award for his contribution on the improvement of interfaith relationships in America and his ability to persevere in the face of extreme anti-Muslim rhetoric. Two examples on the interfaith projects that were organized or participated by ISNA are; ISNA and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) collaboration in areas of poverty, education and anti-bigotry; and ISNA support to Interfaith Health Fair in Detroit where a litany of Muslim and Jewish doctors, nurses and social workers were on hand to provide health screening and meal for the homeless.

3.      Interfaith Initiative for Conflict Resolution in Indonesian

This segment will furnish readers with a brief background and some facts on Indonesia to facilitate deeper understanding on the conflict, the contributing factors and the impact of the crisis to the citizens. Later, an analytical discussion will be presented on the way the interfaith engagement was implemented prior to and after the conflict. This segment will also outline some of the policies that may have been developed as a result of the crisis.

3.1 General background on Indonesia and the crisis in 1999 – 2000

Indonesia is the most populous Muslim-majority nation in the world. There demography of its religious population is identified as 88.2% Muslim mainly Sunni with slightly over one million Shi’a, 5.9% Protestant, 3.1% Catholic, 1.8% Hindu and 0.8% Buddhist and 0.2% other[10]. The Indonesians came in contact with Arab traders that were doing commerce with Indonesia in the fourth century CE. However, Islam began to assimilate only from the beginning of the eleventh century through intermarriages and the movement of Sufism.  In the earlier days, Islam in Indonesians retained much of the previous blend of Hinduism, Buddhism and animatism.

Christianity arrived in Indonesia during the sixteenth century through two means: Catholic missionaries brought by the Portuguese, and Protestant missionaries brought by the Dutch. The latter colonized Indonesia from the 17th century to 19th century and increase in missionary efforts and growth of both Roman Catholicism and various Protestant denominations took place from the 20th century onwards. The Dutch supported pre-existing Islamic governance structures in order to have good diplomatic relationship so that it can continue its trading business in this region. Their non-intervention on Islamic religious matter gives room for the authority of rural Islamic boarding schools and mystical leaders to grow stronger. These leaders later became the founders for independence movements, which in the twentieth century merged around either Muslim or popular nationalist parties.

Since Indonesia’s independence, there has been an increased in observance and less culturally-influenced and universal form of Islam. This country is not an Islamic state even though it is predominantly Muslims. Today, the largest Muslim organizations in Indonesia are the “traditionalists” (Nahdlatul Ulama) and “modernists” (Muhammadiyah). In the post-colonial Indonesia, several presidential regimes – most notably President Sukarno (1945-1967) and President Suharto (1967-1998) – created public policies that favored some religious groups. President Sukarno established the Pancasila or Five Principles as the foundation of its new constitution, “Belief in the One and Only God; just and civilized humanity; the unity of Indonesia; deliberation for consensus; and social justice for all of Indonesia’s people.” Later, under President Suharto, the government officially recognized five religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism and Buddhism.

Pancasila, the influence of shari`ah in national policy, and the position of official national religions are still debated in contemporary Indonesia. Some Islamic groups demand for more compliance between official law and shari`ah and advocate for a completely Islamic state. However, Muslim proponents of pluralism and liberal Islam, as well as members of other religions, favor the freedom of religion and the secular state. The largest Muslim organizations in Indonesia, Muhammadiyah (1912) and Nahdlatul ‘Ulama (NU) (1926), coming from the modernist and neo-traditionalist movements respectively, are committed to upholding Pancasila and not instituting a Muslim state and promoting a pluralistic democratic state. Organizations such as the Liberal Islam Network (1999) are dedicated to advancing liberal Islam and fight for civil liberties such as freedom of expression, minority rights, women’s rights and freedom of religion. Although there are several political parties that have been founded on religious grounds, elections routinely demonstrate the general population’s support for Pancasila and for continuing a history of tolerance and diversity for the many religions co-existing in Indonesia.

Indonesia guarantee religious freedom to six officially recognized religions, however, frequent conflict happens and the largest scale of religious violence happened in 1999-2000. Some of the riots were between Muslims and Christians. In Sulawesi, more than 1000 people are believed to be killed. In 2006, the government executed three Christian ministers that incited the religious violence in Poso, the place where the violence triggered by a brawl between Christian and Muslim gangs in December 1998 sparked the religious violence in 1999. Many protested the execution of the three Christians and criticized the government for not punishing Muslim instigators in the same fashion.

            After the 1999 -2000 event, a peace agreement was signed between two parties in 2002 and some sporadic incidents still happened after that. Between March 1996 and August 2005, about 180 churches were destroyed, burned or closed by force. Among the churches that were closed, more than two dozen churches in West Java were closed by force by the Islamic Defender Front (FPI) in 2003; the imprisonment of believers from the “Sang Timur” Catholic School; the conflict between Muslim residents and members of a Christian Batak Church; and violent attack against followers of the Muslim Ahmadiyah sect.

The Christians were not the only people that were attacked. In Ambon city, the provincial capital of Maluku, both Christian churches and mosques were burnt down along with hundreds of houses, banks, shops, stalls, vehicles and government buildings. Around 20,000 people were forced to flee their homes and take refuge in military headquarters, houses of worship and other facilities[11]. The list of the outbreaks, the number of people being injured, properties being burned down, people seeking refuge at worship places, schools being destroyed and people tortured to death is very long. In short, all suffer and are at lost. In this fight, the Muslims and the Christians look at each as ‘you verse me’ and not as us Indonesians or us, the Abrahamic faiths adherents who share many common values. This version of religiosity is articulated by scholars as religiocentric.  

While some media coverage tried to portray the core reason to the unrest as the violence between the Muslims and the Christians, religion was not the main contributing factor to the unrest. It was the scape goat to Indonesia economics crisis which was badly impacted by the financial crisis that hit Asian economics beginning July 1997. Before the crisis, the exchange rate between the rupiah and the dollar was roughly 2,600 rupiah to 1 USD.  The rate plunged to over 11,000 rupiah to 1 USD in January 1998. The currency devaluation contributed to a sharp decline in purchasing power as the rise in the price for basic goods outpaced wage increment. The impact of lower real wages pushed many poor people below the poverty line. The sharp recession caused contraction of GDP by 13.1 % and only 0.8% growth in 1999[12]. The situation got worse when agricultural, the economic sector that employed most Indonesians, had its output affected by poor weather, natural disasters, and civil unrest. This tension was vented by rioting and nationwide unrests pressured the public forced President Suharto to step down after 30 years in power. Consequently, political turmoil exuberated.

Rising prices, food shortages, devaluation of rupiah and massive unemployment widened the gap between the rich and the poor and this led to greater tension. Many of the privately owned commerce and wealth entities were Chinese-Indonesian-controlled. Even though Chinese Indonesians comprised of only 3 to 4 percent of the population, they have influential wealth position and disproportionate control of the Indonesian economy. The Chinese came to Indonesia during the period of Dutch colonization and taken up business and professional employment. Historically, they faced great discrimination, prejudice, and even violence and were once purged during the anti-communist movement that took place under Suharto governance in 1965. Many of them are Christians, Mahayana Buddhists and Confucians. Their financial status contributed to resentment causing the outbreaks of the anti-Chinese violence. Soeharto’s son-in-law, Gen. Prabowo Subiyanto, helped fuel anti-Chinese sentiment by labeling them “traitors” as they who fled with their money abroad. After the riots in the cities of Jakarta, Solo, and Surabaya, this situation was exuberated to the emergence of mass rapes and other forms of sexual assault against ethnic Chinese women in a systematic, organized fashion.


3.2 Interfaith Initiative Before and After the Conflict and Analysis on the Initiatives

The turmoil in 1999-2000 is contributed by politics, economics, social and religion. Even though faith seems to have the least influence, religious communities were very impacted from this unrest. As Indonesian culture is rich with hospitality, it is hard for one to imagine that there can be lack of engagement between the faiths tradition that the pressure from the economic crisis wiped away their harmonious community life. Furthermore, interfaith initiative is not new in Indonesia. The first formal inter-religious conference was documented to take place in November 1967. It was sponsored by the government to develop some strategies for resolution towards religious related social problems. In this conference, the participants were asked to propose a concept of inter-religious harmony which can foster engagement so that every religious community can live together peacefully and respectfully [13].  

In 1969, the government issued a joined-decree of the minister of religious and internal affairs about preserving harmony among the members of religious communities. This decree was renewed in 2005. The decree mandates government leaders in each provinces and districts to take part in sustaining harmony among religious communities and to support the communities to establish a forum called Inter-Religious Harmony Forum (Forum Kerukunan Umat Beragama – FKUB). Its aim is to build dialogue among religious leaders, accommodate aspirations from religious organizations and communities, and to give recommendations to the government about the feasibility of erecting places of worship. Members of this forum are religious leaders from the various traditions.

The unrest in 1999-2000 and the sporadic religious problems that continuously take place in Indonesia until today indicate that there is still a lot of room for improvement that must be in place. There are many reasons to the weakness in the system and this situation can first be improved by studying the available reports. Unfortunately, many reports are not properly documented, making it difficult to evaluate. Many cases, especially the violence towards the ethnic Chinese women have not been thoroughly investigated. There are many reasons to this unavailability of information.

One possibility could be an inadequate infrastructure to support the execution of tasks that were mandated to the government leaders of each province and district. This infrastructure needs to include training for the religious leaders to run the Inter-Religious Harmony Forum and systematic documentation and reporting to the central governance. The fact that the country comprises of 17,000 islands with about 243 million population makes any management overarching a widely disperse geographical area and diverse population extremely difficult.  Under these circumstances, a decentralized system as such can function well with the empowerment and competency of the leaders in si-tu which can only be made possible through proper training. It is understandable that this task was unmanageable during turmoil. However, as Indonesia economic has recovered and the political environment is stable, the renewed decree may have greater potential of success with good management.

Today, the number of local NGOs dedicated to interfaith and pluralistic concerns has increased. This could be an indication of a positive outcome of the initiatives that were launched in 1967 and 1969 by Indonesian government. This evidence that the common vision to cultivate a harmonious pluralistic society does resonate to the public. Perhaps in the next decade, especially, with President Obama speeches on Indonesia as a model for religious tolerance in November 2010[14] and the improvement in media technology and the inclusion of the studies on pluralism in learning institutions, the interfaith initiative in Indonesia will grow exponentially.

One of the leading interfaith organizations is Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace (ICRP) and the organization lists another 51 organizations throughout the country that are considered interfaith organizations. All have similar activities; organizing interfaith forums, dialogues, and events, and promoting pluralism and cooperation among the different faith adherents. Some of the  interfaith organizations are; Indonesian Peace Building Directory, which support interfaith and religious minority organizations; Institute of Human Assistance of Interfaith Community, founded by leaders of Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism and Hinduism; Liberal Islam Network which focuses on gender equality and interfaith dialogue; and Society for Interreligious Dialogue, the second oldest Indonesian organization involved in inter-religious dialogue that was established in 1996 aiming at Indonesian religious leaders and youth.

The Pluralism Project of Harvard University did a study on ‘Religious Pluralism in Indonesia’ through its ‘International Portrait’ chapter and a report by Agus Hadi Nahrowi described in great length on the activities that are organized by each interfaith organization. Interestingly, none of the description on the activities cover by the NGOs include restoration of the dignity, forgiveness and healing. The report from Oslo written in 2002 also had no record on these events as taking place in the interfaith initiative. Scholars however suggested that the primary distinction between an interfaith diplomacy (IFD) and other identity-based dialogues is that the IFD becomes a religious experience itself[15]. The book, Unity in Diversity writes that a successful IFD is transformative, it transform strangers into an interdependent relation with one another as a member of the community. For both faiths groups to be interdependent to one another, forgiveness and healing must first take place. The collective memory from the past cannot be erased simply through this exercise. However, this is the stepping stone prior to addressing the commonalities on justice and human rights and partnership in building better communities. Between the Muslims and the Christians, the painful history from ‘crusade’ or ‘jihad’ still lingers in the heart of the adherents and this pre-existing tension may emerge during discourse. Only forgiveness helps. Some scholars also suggest that discourse may begin with prayer in a way that is most comfortable to the participants.   

The scale of the death figures from its religious conflict is relatively low compared to many countries with much smaller population. Sudan, which has about 40 million people today, had 2.5 million deaths in its last 20 years of conflict. For such a big country with huge diversity of races and religion, Indonesia has been able to maintain a very high religious tolerance. This was affirmed by President Obama in his speech on the 10th November 2010 during his visit to Indonesia. No country is without imperfect, but acknowledgement should be given to its national scholars, some who paid a high price to voice their insights on religious pluralism and interfaith engagement. Among the leading scholars in this area are; H.A.Mukti Ali, a modern Islamic thinker, who pioneered the idea of inter-religious harmony in 1960 when he was the minister of religious affairs (1971-1978).  Mr.Ali developed a model of inter-religious harmony that was based on Islamic principles of justice, absolute freedom of conscience, the perfect equality among humans, and the powerful solidarity in social interaction, which was referred to when dealing with inter-religious issues.

Abdurrahman Wahid, well-known as Gus Dur, who was also the fourth president of Indonesia and a past chairperson of NU was also one of the greatest Muslim intellectuals. Gus Dur inspired NU youth to be critical with the government and its policies, and to demand equal representation from the non-Muslims and the left wing. Gus Dur is committed to the freedom of religion and his expression that “reducing religious freedom is a crime”[16] cannot be ignored. He is also a prominent international figure and resumes high responsibility in some of the interfaith organizations. The known father of Islamic modernist in Indonesia, Nurcholish Majidh or Cak Nur produced remarkable scholarly work on “inclusive theology.”[17] Cak Nur’s liberal thinking broadened the issue of pluralism and democracy from the standpoint of his neo-modernist view of Islam. Many of his followers continue to carry on his “inclusive theology.” Some of them are Syafi’i Anwar, the executive director of the ICIP. He described that the greatest contribution of Cak Nur was his commitment to pluralism and his advocacy for Muslims to study other religions.  Th. Sumartana, a Protestant, founded the first interfaith organization in Indonesia. Together with Gus Dur and Cak Nur, he is considered a pioneer of the interfaith movement in Indonesia. He also attempted to open the windows of consciousness about the importance of understanding other religious theologies. Today, 13 of the State Islamic Institutes (IAIN) teach religious diversity and comparative religion[18]. H.A. Mukti Ali and Nurcholish Madjid were among the students of this institute.  

In studying the progress of interfaith engagement in a country, an analysis should also be made by reading reports from external parties such as the reports written by US International Religious Freedom Report (2006) and External report from The Oslo Coalition (2002). The latter wrote that the general impression left with its delegation was that of a strong and confident co-operation between the leaders of the mainstream churches and the dominant Muslim networks of NU and Muhammadiyah[19]. During Oslo visit to various Islamic Boarding School in the rural NU-context of Jombang, when asked about their opinion on the current shari‘a-debate, the teachers responded that they were against the inclusion of shari‘a in the constitution, since “Indonesia is pluralistic”. They also reported that many Muslims volunteered to protect churches during Christmas and Easter celebrations from being burnt.

Oslo report and various writings voiced the same tone that the development of the interfaith initiative in Indonesia looks very promising.  The interfaith activists, scholars and religious leaders have reached another milestone since 1999. However, a few writings voiced out that while the government generally respects religious rights, at some occasions, there is still religious discrimination and restrictions for unrecognized religions.  Another weakness mentioned is that the government also sometimes tolerated abuse of religious groups by individuals, or failed to punish the perpetrators. For example, some of the interreligious violence has been instigated by factions in the military and allowed to spread due to the lack of police and law enforcement.

4.      General background on Sudan and its Conflict

Sudan is the largest country in Africa by area, with a population of 43.9 million. It shares borders with nine countries is considered amongst the most diversified nations in the world with more than 250 local tribes and languages. The country has 70% Sunni Muslim, 5% Christian and 25% indigenous belief. As for its ethnic group, Sudan has 52% black, 39% Arab, 6% Beja, 2% foreigner and 1% other[20]. The coming January 2011 election in Sudan will determine the future of the republic as one unified country or two separate countries; the Northern and the Southern.  The projected image of the war, especially by the media, has been the “War between the Muslim North and the Christian South” as the Northern area is populated mainly by the Sunni Muslims who speak Arabic and the Southern area is populated mainly by the Christians, who speak English, and the animists. However, there are some Christians who live in the North and some Muslims in the south. The label of “Muslim North versus the Christian South” war does not really depict the true picture of the conflict as there is only five percent of Christians in Sudan. The indigenous belief people and the minority Muslims in the South are also impacted by the war. In total, two million people died and four million people were displaced. Today, another two million people are living in camps due to the on-going Darfur conflict. 

The issues are complex and this election will not guarantee peace and solution to the Sudanese conflict of self and national identity. The history of enslavement, inequality, marginalization, poverty and lack of representation are some of the internal contributing factors in this conflict. Internal matters on religion, politics, economic are all intertwined with each other. The war is also fueled by external contributing factors such as military support from foreign countries to both, the government military and the southern fighters. In addition to these, there are issues that are deeply rooted in faiths and languages which began ever since the invasion of the Muslim Kingdom of Funj in 1504 and the Catholic presence in Khartoum in 1848.[21] As faith is very influential in the life of the Sudanese and is an older concept than the nation state, resolving religious conflict is critical.

Sudan became independent from Britain in 1956.  A year before its independency, the escalating conflict in Sudan received international attention. In 1969, Jaafar Numairi took over the country through the “May Revolution” military coup. In 1972, the Addis Ababa Peace agreement between the Anya Nya movement and the Northern government, allowed the south to become a self-governing region. This stopped the war. Unfortunately, the government failed to fulfill its promise and this gave rise to distrust amongst the Southerners to the North. The discovery of oil in 1978 in the Southern of Sudan sparked fight over the control on the new economic resource. The tribes that live in that area were at the forefront in this war and this led to eventually a widespread ethnic turmoil.

In 1983, President Numairi announced the implementation of Shariah Law. As protests from Muslims and non-Muslims from those who prefer a secular government intensified, President Numairi leadership was defeated by a bloodless military coup led by the National Salvation Front in 1989. The leader was Omar Al-Bashir who is now the President of Sudan. In 1991, Al-Bashir introduced penal code based on Shariah and the monetary system followed the Islamic banking system. He improvised the existing governance and declared that South Sudanese were exempted from Shariah Laws. As the jurisprudence structure was not ready to substitute the Shariah Law, judges continued to use the Shariah Laws. The repeated failure for the Northern government to keep their promises and the lack of structure in the South made the Southern Sudanese felt that their rights were not protected by the government. As a result, the South rose up to what they believe as their rightful duty to protect their land, people and to preserve their culture, religions and traditions.    

4.1 Interfaith Initiative Involvement in Sudan Conflict Resolution

Religion is at the core of the life of the people in Sudan. In everyday life, the Sudanese Christians and Muslims live side by side, at work places, schools, neighborhood, public facilities and festivities. Intermarriage between Muslims and Christians women is also common and legal under the African Rights (July 1995). 

Unfortunately, both, the regimes of Numeiri and Turabi, used religion through their Islamist movement to gain political power. Both focused on the fight as “us versus them.” This changed the Sudanese political upfront and disrupted the harmony of the community. Numeiri fueled conflict by enforcement of Shariah Law from 1983 to 1985 and Turabi forced Islamization and jihad to the South during the1990s in order to accomplish his vision for an Islamic state. This approach, what is described earlier as reliocentric, was the way Islam being projected to the Sudanese. However, Muslims are not the only faith adherents that are fueling the war. Several religiocentric Christian groups from abroad were also indirectly involved, such as the Norwegian People’s Aid organization which supplied Southerners with weapons hidden in bibles who added fuel to this war. There were also voices of moderate Muslims in Sudan who believed that jihad is not to be waged against their own people.[22] In 1997, an Imam in his Friday prayer denounced government repression, publicly asserting, “Islam does not accept suppression and confiscation of the rights of the people and the suppression of the freedom of expression,”[23]

Having the voices that opt for peace heard and convincing religious leaders and politicians to refocus from religiocentric to religiorelative are one of the key actions necessary to resolve the Sudan identity crisis.  The refocusing of religiocentric to religiorelative had its first breakthrough in 1972 when mediation efforts by World Council of Churches (WCC) and the All-Africa Council of churches of Addis Ababa Accords managed to end the conflict for a short time period[24]. This treaty was nullified by Numeiri. Consequently, the conflict was resumed. During this turmoil, the Sudan Interreligious Council (SIRC), an independent NGO was established as a result of the International People’s Friendship in collaboration with the Sudan Council of Churches (SCC) in 2000. Its general assembly consists of 23 Muslims and 23 Christians. Both groups represented different sects and denominations. SIRC approached the conflict pragmatically, by focusing on practical matters while maintaining its main purpose; establishing co-existence and religious tolerance. One of the main achievements of SIRC was to launch a program which voice out that ‘there is no compulsion in religion’ in March 2004. This is aligned with its Sudan constitution in 1998 that stipulates religious freedom for all Sudanese.

Following this program, two conferences and inter-religious dialogue was organized in Sudan in 1993 and 1994, with more 40 countries participating. Unfortunately, the critique indicated that the agenda was leaning toward the Muslims side and some church leaders shared that they almost walked out of the floor. Most of the papers presented were reported as presenting Islam and there was lack of room for interfaith diplomacy. These well-funded conferences were organized by the Ministry of Justice of Sudan under the Advisory of Human Rights of the UN. Analyzing this issue, a few possible reasons could be the source of its weaknesses. First, the Ministry of Justice may not have enough representatives from the South to ensure all speakers would be presenting paperwork that promotes peace in religion. SCC as well as some Muslim speakers, for example, refused to distribute its paper works for containing some intolerance content. Secondly, there weren’t enough experience scholars and practitioners to council the ministry. The empowerment was premature.

At national level, several community oriented interfaith initiative for dialogue and workshops on coexistence were carried out. One of them was two week youth program where Muslim and Christian youths lived together. This was organized by SCC and its purpose is to bring them under one roof so that they can learn about each other. This is an excellent program. Both were hostile towards one another at the beginning but their relationship grew as they focused on what was common among them; sports, music and fashion. Another initiative was organized by the head of Sudanese Coptic Church, Father Filo Theos, who taught about Islam and the culture of the Muslims to his church members. Father Theos has published many publications on views on Muslim society and likewise. Even though the scholarly work among the Sudanese has not developed as much as in Indonesia, such effort did contribute in bridging the two communities.   

The Sudanese ladies have also contributed to the interfaith engagement significantly. In March 1996, the Women’s Action Group (WAG) was founded with a group member of 30 women, Muslims and Christians. The first lady of British embassy in Khartoum, Dr.Lilian C.Harris helped in building bridges by running a program “promoting mutual venting of negative emotions: feelings of anger, pain, confusion, helplessness from war, displacement, social prejudices, religious dogma, and social transitions.” In the Listening Sensitivity Workshop, the women experienced emotional healing as they are being listened. In one of the dialogues, they were asked to share what they like and dislike about the others. Such engagement approach is highly supported by many IFD scholars. In Unity in Diversity, affective dialogues where participants share personal stories and compare narratives often go beyond religion. This self-discovery and secure environment allows everyone to feel comfortable to venture into sensitive topics which they felt uncomfortable to talk about in the past. WAG success in engaging the ladies brought them to organizing many workshops such as the in Ahfad University for Women under the theme “The differences that Unite Us,” in 1996. In Peace Protocol in 2002, they appealed for women’s right to the Sudanese government and in December 2003, eight of them from north and south officially represented “Sudanese Women Empowerment for Peace (SUWEP)” to Naivasha peace negotations.

Many international interfaith activists or bodies also contributed towards the peace in Sudan. The United States government, for example, sent Senator John Danforth to convince the fundamentalist Muslims to work towards religiorelativism. His effort was fruitful, leading to the signing of another peace treaty in 2005. This event that took place in Kenya contributed tremendously in the ending of the 20 years of civil war. This achievement was made possible only with the help of SIRC under the leadership of Professor Al-Tayib Zain Al Abdin and 6 committed representatives from each faith group. It is however not easy for external parties to facilitate and to be trusted by the Sudanese, especially the fundamentalists. For example, the USA involvement through the envoy led by Danforth can be questioned as having four possible intentions; first, to curb terrorism, second to respond to the pressure from Christian organizations that protest on human right abuse, third USA interest in oil and fourth USA control and responsibility in the weaponry market in that region. Senator Danforth therefore, had two barriers to overcome, resolving internal religious conflict and earning the trust from Sudanese that he is genuinely inspired by his faith and is not using religion as a legitimation for USA political and economic agenda. Such a distinction is difficult. After a discouraging beginning, his perseverance in trusting that the religious people in Sudan could play a positive role together and make it possible for Sudan people to live with one another, the Sudanese religious leaders including the Islamic fundamentalists began to take him seriously. Muslim fundamentalists would not have respected someone who did not fear God and would not have wasted any time talking to them[25]. They also highly regarded Danforth’s openness about his faith, his position as a priest, and religious commitment.

The empowerment of his leadership by the USA government and President was also important to his success. Both have to work side by side. Interfaith initiatives will not lead to conflict resolution if the supply of weaponry from Kenya and Uganda arming the rebels was not also stopped. In resolving this issue, Danforth negotiated with the presidents from both countries to cease their weaponry supply. Perhaps, they were also obliged to support him due to the fact that the USA had helped their armies during terror crisis by providing a large package of non-lethal support from 1995 to 2000[26]. Pressure on these governments regarding their military intervention, except for peacekeeping troops, is extremely critical to any peace effort. While this has been controlled, war intensified as Sudan continued to receive its largest supply of arms and military related items from China. This being said, Danforth’s commitment to interfaith peace initiative alone will not resolve all problems. Key players in politics, economics, administration, transportation and infrastructure must cooperate with each other.

5.      Interfaith Engagement towards Sustainable and Lasting Peace

Based on the studies done on various reports and discussions on Indonesia and Sudan and the research on the interfaith initiatives that take place in areas where Christians and Muslims, the recommendations for a long haul engagement initiative between Muslims and Christians may consist of the followings:

  1. Educating the youths – this requires a systematic development of educational materials and pedagogy that allows conversation in a secured environment. The youth camp, such as the one organized by SCC is a good example of an educational tool to reaffirm the lesson. In addition to the common activities that the Sudanese youth have had, inclusion of community service to the needy Sudanese regardless of their faiths will be an important lesson to enhance the education.
  2. Training interfaith initiative religious leaders on how to run an interfaith discourse that allows the sharing of spiritual experience in addition to finding solution to conflict resolution and building the trust for interdependency towards one another. This initiative can be done by local governments or NGOs.   
  3. Developing partnership between religious leaders and all key parties to the conflict resolution, locally and internationally. This may include the fundamentalist groups too, in addition to the partnership with the media which tend to create sensational image to the general public.
  4. Educating religious teachers and clergies on Islam and Christianity, especially on the ‘hospitality in hermeneutics’ of the Bible and Quran and contextualized research work. Facilitate their personal relationship development with adherents of other faiths.
  5. Teaching and coaching the community members, perhaps through a centralized community center, on appreciation of others culture and religion. Such initiative can be edified by inviting the communities to organize an event together, for example, by celebrating the national day or other festivities.
  6. Supporting the provision of the basic needs of the both community members, such as having a shelter, food, basic health care and education, including hygiene and home economics and management.
  7. Developing interfaith related policies and competent team to implement the policies.
  8. As Abrahamic faiths adherents believe in God, honor and respect each other’s spirituality and religious practices.  


The core of the Abrahamic faith holds spirituality that outpours the benevolent and beneficent way of religiosity. These values are the treasure of Christians and Muslims. Sharing these commonalities in all discipline of life, politics, and economics will bridge members in pluralistic community from being tolerant to being engage with one another. This relationship is to be cultivated in our daily life, with or without crisis. At time of conflict, coming together in resolving conflict by adhering to the common values and applying tactful wisdom, knowledge, efficient strategies, patient and love, and developing partnership with right key parties, including the fundamentalists, will be the best approach to crisis management. Long term solutions should be the motivational factors to interfaith initiative in every conflict resolution. At the same time, the approach and engagement should always give room for each other to celebrate own spiritual experience when walking through the journey.



Abu-Nimer, Mohammed and others. Unity in Diversity – Interfaith Dialogue in the Middle East. Washinton: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2007.

Appleby, R.Scott. “Retrieving the Missing Dimension of Statecraft: Religious Faith in the Service of Peacebuilding.” In Faith-Based Diplomacy: Trumping Realpolitik, edited by Douglas Johnston, 236-56. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Besançon, Marie L. “Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Senator Danforth as Special Envoy to the Sudan.” Kennedy School of Government case no. CR14-09-1905.0 (2009): 1-27.

Donnely, Jack. Universal Human Rights – In Theory and Practice. USA: Cornell University Press, 2003.

Johnston, Douglas. Faith-Based Diplomacy – Trumping Realpolitik, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Mayer, A.Elizabeth. Islam and Human Rights – Traditions and Politics. USA: Westview Press, 2007.

Metz, Helen. “Sudan: A Country Study” Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress,

Norris, P.  Inglehart, R. Sacred and Secular – Religion and Politics Worldwide. New York: Cambridge Press, 2004.

Nyang, Sulaiman and Johnston, Douglas. “Conflict Resolution as a Normative Value in Islamic Law – Application to the Republic of Sudan.” In Faith-Based Diplomacy: Trumping Realpolitik, edited by Douglas Johnston, 210-227. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

United States Department of States. “Sudan: Special Envoy Speaks on His Recent Visit to Juba and Khartoum” Washington DC,

Witte, J. God’s Joust God’s Justice – Law and Religion in the Western Tradition. Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2006.

World Christian Trends, Gordon Conwell University,

Jubilee Debt Campaign (2010),

The Pluralism Project, Harvard University,

Islamic Society of North America,

CIA The World Fact Book – https://

Kerukunan Umat Beragama: Pengantar,

“Obama louds Indonesia as a Religious Tolerance country,” see

[1] World Christian Trend, (accessed October 2010)

[2] World Christian Trends, (accessed October 2010)

[3] See, e.g. An-Naim, Toward an Islamic Reformation…., 77

[4] Jubilee Debt Campaign (2010), see (accessed Dec 2010)

[5] See Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, Genesis Chapter 15-17

[6] John Witte, God’s Joust God’s Justice – Law and Religion in the Western Tradition. (Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2006), 77

[7] Pippa Norris, Rogel Inglehart, Sacred and Secular – Religion and Politics Worldwide, (New York: Cambridge Press, 2004), 4

[8] A Common Word is an initiative is a groundbreaking step towards reconciliation between Islam and Christianity led by Muslim and Christian leaders as a result of Muslim leaders’ invitation to peace in 2007.  

[10] Harvard University see ( accessed 3rd December 2010)

[13] “Kerukunan Umat Beragama: Pengantar” see

[14] “Obama louds Indonesia as a Religious Tolerance country,” see (accesses 5December 2010)

[15] Mohamed Abu Nimer, 15.

[16] “Mengekang Kebebasan Agama, Gus Dur: Itu Kriminal”, see

[17] “Pribadi Unggul Semakin Hilang”, Kompas, Dec 18, 2005

[18]  The 13 IAIN/UIN are: IAIN Ar-Raniry in Aceh, IAIN Sumatera Utara in Medan , UIN Syarif Hidayatullah in Jakarta, IAIN Sunan Ampel in Surabaya, IAIN Walisongo in Semarang, IAIN Imam Bonjol in Padang, IAIN Sulthan Syarif Qosim in Pekanbaru, IAIN Raden Fatah in Sumatera Selatan, IAIN Raden Intan in Lampung, IAIN Sultan Gunung Djati in Bandung, IAIN Antasari in Kalimantan Selatan, IAIN Alauddin in Sulawesi Selatan, and UIN Sunan Kalijaga in Yogyakarta.

[19] Report from The Oslo Coalition Report on Freedom of Relgion or Belief in 2002, see (accessed 5 December 2010)

[20] CIA The World Fact Book – https:// (accessed 3 November 2010)

[21] Marie L.Besancon, Blessed are the peacemakers: Senator Danforth as special envoy to the Sudan, (Cambridge: Kennedy School of Government Case Program – Harvard University, 2009), 2

[22] Interviews Sudanese clerics, Muslim Brother, Khartoum, July 2007 reference to footnote in Marie L.Besancon, Blessed are the peacemakers: Senator Danforth as special envoy to the Sudan, (Cambridge: Kennedy School of Government Case Program – Harvard University, 2009), 6

[23] “Sudan Moslem Prayer Leaders Criticize Government,” Agence France Presse, November 22, 1997, available in LEXIS, Nexis Library, ALLWD File.

[24] Douglas Johnston, Faith Based Diplomacy – Trumping Realpolitik (USA: Oxford University Press, 2003), 212

[25] Interviews: Sudanese Christian Clerics, August 2007 reference to Marie L. Besancon, “Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Senator Danforth as Special Envoy to the Sudan,’ Kennedy School of Government case no. CR14-09-1905.0 (2009), 16.

[26] Marie L. Besancon, “Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Senator Danforth as Special Envoy to the Sudan,’ Kennedy School of Government case no. CR14-09-1905.0 (2009), 13


2 thoughts on “Interfaith Initiative for Peace Building: A Case Study on Indonesia and Sudan

  1. Dear Viewers & Friends,
    Your comment is highly appreciated. This blog promotes mutual respect and love to one another, so I welcome any writing that is coherent to this rhetoric. I trust we can learn a lot from one another. Have a good time writing.

    Shalom & assalamualaikum,
    Norani Abu Bakar

  2. eunicelow says:

    Peace is the entitlement of every human person, and peace-building is the responsiblity of every religious and political leader. History shows that this is easier said than done, but we are not excused from answering the call for reconciliation and mutual upbuilding. Norani has showned that interfaith initiatives are becoming more pressing now than ever before. We need to engage leaders not only at the diplomatic and religious level, but also at the ground level where the common people struggle with their day to day problems. The people need to understand that while many religions share the common ethos of love, peace and goodwill, they are frequently exploited by individuals or groups of individuals to push their selfish agenda. To avoid further conflicts and misunderstanding, social, economic and political problems should be identified and resolved without compromising one’s faith. Religious and political leadership should work hand-in-hand to help the people from both the practical and spiritual aspects. I congratulate Norani for boldly taking up the challenge of approaching this delicate issue and wish that hers will be a positive and fruitful step to move forward the interfaith and peace- building initiatives .

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