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June 9, 1998

Role of Religion in Ending Violent Conflict Focus of New Study at Columbia University

Can major religious bodies exert a positive influence in negotiations to end armed conflict, where politics often fails? Researchers at Columbia University aim to find out.

The "Conflict Resolution and the Role of Religion" research project is an effort to understand the particular impact religious bodies or religiously motivated people may -- or may not -- have in the resolution and prevention of deadly conflict. The study will focus on major conflicts in the Middle East, Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia, Guatemala, Algeria and Sri Lanka.

The project, under the sponsorship of the International Conflict Resolution Program at the School of International and Public Affairs, will bring together scholars whose fields of study includes international affairs, human rights and religion.

"At some level religion today continues to play a role in many of the world’s major conflicts," said Dr. Andrea Bartoli, the lead researcher and director of the International Conflict Resolution Program. Citing the Middle East, Northern Ireland and the former Yugoslavia as examples, Dr. Bartoli said: "We see Jews versus Arabs, Catholics versus Protestants and Muslims versus Serbs. What we’re looking to find out is: Is there a way that the major religions -- Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism -- can become positively involved in resolving conflict?"

In addition to Dr. Bartoli, participants in the research include Columbia’s Center for the Study of Human Rights, which sponsors international clergy for research on human rights and religious freedoms, and Columbia Professors Robert Thurman, an authority on Buddhism and Tibet, and Mary McGee, a specialist on Hinduism.

The Conflict Resolution program, established in January by Dean Lisa Anderson as an interdisciplinary research center at the School of International and Public Affairs, has received a $200,000 grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for overall program support over the next two years. The grant will support the religion project, its first major undertaking, and a second research project, "Learning Lessons from Experience," in which government leaders and others who have direct experience in resolving international conflict will participate.

Dr. Bartoli, who is also associate director of the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America at Columbia, expects to develop a debriefing procedure for humanitarian, development and government agencies working on conflict resolution at the international level. Eventually, the program may offer seminars and courses to diplomats and others in the field.

Dr. Bartoli is a vice president of the Community of St. Egidio, a Catholic international lay association, which was involved in the peace process in Mozambique. He has been a special representative of the Community of St. Egidio to the United Nations and is now actively involved in conflict resolution activities of the Community in Algeria, the Sudan, Burundi, Kosovo and Guatemala.

ICRP's goal is to serve as a bridge between conflict resolution research and theory established in academia and real-world players in resolving deadly conflict worldwide. A consortium of Columbia experts in the field has been established through the program, which includes scholars who examine the global and political aspects of conflict resolution as well as those whose field focuses on conflict between communities or individuals.

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