‘Religions can help promote peace’

Applications for the Mercator Fellowship on International Affairs are open until 20 December.

While 28-year-old Marina Dölker was a Mercator Fellow last year, she studied how to deal with religious actors in crisis situations. Many international organizations are engaged in peace-building and development cooperation worldwide, but they rarely consider the religious convictions of the local people, says Dölker. ‘Religion is a major factor for peace and development. It is important because it touches peoples’ hearts.’

Ms Dölker, in the context of international politics, religions have often been associated with violence, like extremist terror.
Marina Dölker: You definitely get this impression from news reports. My experience of religion, however, has been very positive. I’ve been very active in the Protestant Church. When I was a Mercator Fellow, I focussed on this contradiction: Religions can stimulate intolerance, extremism and violence, but they can also have the opposite effect. That gets much less attention from the public.

What role has religion played in development assistance thus far?
Dölker: Religion has mostly been regarded as a contextual factor. This is because many people in development cooperation, including those who work for the United Nations, have undergone Western socialization, which teaches that religion is a private matter. However, that is not the case in many countries. Studies show that worldwide, eight in ten people consider that they belong to a particular religious community, and that is important to them. Religion is a meaningful factor in peace and development.

What is religion’s special relation to peace?
Dölker: Religions are special because you can’t really capture their essence: They penetrate a person’s inner depths, and touch one’s heart. Furthermore, religious teachings provide a moral compass for many people. People who believe deep down that something is not right will not do it over the long term. That is why development projects that don’t build on local peoples’ deep convictions cannot be sustainable. For example, if an organization distributes condoms to help prevent Aids but the Christian preacher calls them a thing of the devil, few people will use them.

What can you do in such cases?
Dölker: One possibility is to first hold workshops with the religious leaders, in which you explain the devastating consequences of HIV infection and the necessity of Aids prevention. Proposed measures can also be examined in a theological context, for example, by studying Bible passages that emphasize the importance of a person’s physical well-being. In Lesotho, this approach inspired Christian preachers to campaign for HIV/Aids education, which legitimized Aids prevention schemes in the eyes of the local population. This applies to peace projects, too. All faith traditions preach forgiveness, reconciliation and love of one’s neighbour. Cooperating with religious actors is about much more than preventing extremism: Religions can help promote peace. These days I observe a big change in thinking on the part of many people. When I was working with the United Nations Population Fund in New York as a Mercator Fellow, I saw that this subject is becoming more and more popular at the UN.

Is more attention given to some religions than to others?
Dölker: No, and it shouldn’t be. So far, the UN has primarily worked with Christian organizations because most of them have typically Western organizational structures. But the UN is trying to work with the greatest possible variety of religious organizations and authorities.

As a Mercator Fellow, you spent time in the office of the Lutheran World Federation in Amman, Jordan. What was your experience of religion there?
Dölker: In Jordan, religion plays an important role everywhere all the time. Most people are very public about their beliefs. I only met one Jordanian who said he didn’t believe in God. But he, too, regularly attends the mosque with his family because religion is so important culturally. State and religion are closely linked. I was impressed to see how the Muslim majority and the small Christian minority coexist as religious communities. Christians and Muslims work together in the country office of the Lutheran World Federation. While some prejudices exist, believers of both religions work hand in hand. Interreligious dialogue is part of everyday life.

What are you doing next professionally?
Dölker: When I was a Mercator Fellow, I often heard how important it is to work with local faith communities in development cooperation. So far, there hasn’t been much of that. But I will now have the opportunity to do exactly that. Churches often lack development policy know-how and development organizations lack knowledge about the church. Working for the Lutheran World Federation in Geneva, I will have the chance to introduce local churches to development cooperation.