Daniel Kurtzer, a former American ambassador to both Egypt and Israel, told an audience at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York on May 9 that religion is often a leading source of violent conflict rather than a conduit to world peace.
Kurtzer, currently the Daniel Abraham Professor of Middle East Policy Studies at Princeton University, took part in the Conservative seminary’s “Annual John Paul II Lecture on Interreligious Understanding: Religion and Diplomacy” alongside Philippines-born Archbishop Bernadito Auza, papal nuncio and permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, and Azza Karam of Egypt, director of the UN Interagency Task Force on Religion and Development.
Kurtzer, who served as America’s ambassador to Israel between 2001 and 2005, said he “would have loved to be working in other areas of the world where religion can play a helpful role, but I have been working, practicing, studying, and teaching diplomacy in a region where religion has become a tool and a weapon to be used against ‘the other.’”
Such use of religion, he said, “is most pronounced at the epicenter of the Jewish religion and, in some respects, the Muslim religion” — in the territorial dispute over the sacred space on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
Instead of its being “a meeting ground for dialogue, for mutual understanding, for building bridges,” the Temple Mount “has become a place where people are ready to kill each other…. In a competition over a holy place, people are ready to shed blood.
“In fact,” he said, “I would argue that God would withdraw the holiness from that place” because of the view that “the place is so holy it can only be holy for me and not ‘the other.’”
Kurtzer said his pessimism over peace might be different if his prime areas of expertise were Asia or Latin America. “But I approach the subject with a certain amount of skepticism because as you take a tour of the Mideast, there is not one place where religion today is acting as a bridge to peace. There are individuals who are trying to build these bridges, but mostly their voices are being drowned out.”
He said interfaith groups of Israelis and Palestinians cannot get funding for their peace efforts “to fight this tide of religion as the ultimate weapon in a battle for control and sovereignty in this region.”
Turning to ISIS “and the way in which it is profaning the religion of Islam,” Kurtzer said that asking a diplomat or former diplomat to regard religion as “a helpmate of diplomacy requires a leap of faith.”
Auza, the Vatican’s UN representative, agreed that much of the current relationship between religion and politics is tied to violence.
“Churches and faith communities are being blown up, Muslims and Christians killed in many parts of the world, girls being kidnapped and given as trophies for successful attacks, synagogues and Jewish cemeteries desecrated done in the name of religion,” he said.
Karam, commenting on Kurtzer’s suggestion that religion is often a source of violent conflict in the Middle East, said, “If we were to look at other places in the world, we would see that discrimination and bias and harm done in the name of religion is not limited to the Middle East.”
She said some religious leaders’ messages “are quite horrific…. It is precisely because of that harmful role that religion might play that we should be doubly, triply, quadruply careful. It is not good enough to cite what religion can do that is good. We have to be extra cautious when engaging in religious discourse” with people who wish others harm.
But, she said, “at the United Nations I believe there has been awareness that religions and religious leaders can and must play an important role to achieve the primary vision of the United Nations — to spare humanity from the scourges of war and promote fundamental human rights and foster integral human development.”