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Religion and Diplomacy: How It Matters to Foreign Policy Making

Religion functions in many communities around the world as a key source of identity, values and worldview. Religion is also a dynamic force, and lived religious practices and beliefs are not static and unchanging but rather subject to continual reinterpretation. With over 80 percent of individuals around the world identifying with a religious group, religion plays an integral role in driving and shaping social change. Over the past few years, the U.S. Department of State has helped to lead a new U.S. government focus on strengthening the approach to religious dynamics and actors on critical policy issues.

Since 2013, the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs (S/RGA) has played a central role in government-wide efforts to implement the National Strategy on Integrating Religious Leader and Faith Community Engagement into U.S. Foreign Policy. Through its work to engage with religious actors and communities and assess religious dynamics in their specific, local contexts, S/RGA has supported three overarching objectives: (1) advising the Secretary on policy matters as they relate to religion; (2) assisting U.S. embassies and consulates in assessing religious dynamics and engaging religious actors; and (3) serving as a first point of entry for those seeking to engage the State Department on matters of religion.

Below are a few examples of S/RGA’s efforts:

• Recognizing religious and community leaders’ activism in mitigating against and adapting to climate change, S/RGA organized briefings and strategic planning sessions with religious organizations and advocacy groups leading up to the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference (COP-21), culminating with a two-day “Symposium for Religion and Climate Change.”

• Civil society organizations – including religious communities and institutions – play a unique role in ensuring the success of refugee resettlement. Thus, S/RGA has worked with and highlighted the key role of religious communities in welcoming and supporting refugees.

• S/RGA engaged religious leaders in Orthodox-majority countries such as Ukraine and Cyprus on issues related to social and political stability and security.

• S/RGA worked with diverse religious leaders in Nigeria to develop their common anti-corruption plan.

• S/RGA expanded engagement to religious groups in Cuba as part of normalization of diplomatic relations with the country.

• S/RGA led a delegation to support capacity building for French and Belgian non-profit organizations fighting anti-Muslim sentiment in their countries.

• In coordination with other interagency partners and the White House, S/RGA coordinated a briefing on the Zika virus for representatives from religious and NGO communities. It is also engaging on efforts to combat anti-microbial resistance.

In September 2016, S/RGA convened the first Religion and Diplomacy Conference at the State Department for government leaders, academics, scholars, religious practitioners, and community activists. The conference showcased various approaches and methodologies for engaging religious actors and assessing religious dynamics, as well as explored how lines of effort can be expanded, deepened, and enriched in the future. It demonstrated the State Department’s commitment to working with civil society and religious communities to advance its goals and deepen its knowledge of religion in context around the world. It also helped establish new relationships among attendees, and allowed them to share insights on religious dynamics, identify tools for cultural understanding, and give voice to the perspectives of various traditions.

As Secretary Kerry has said, “It’s up to us to recognize that we can’t lead in a world that we don’t understand and that we can’t understand the world if we fail to comprehend and honor the central role that religion plays in the lives of billions of people.” The conversation on religion and diplomacy is fluid, dynamic, and evolving. Yet it is one that is of critical importance to policy making, and one that S/RGA will continue to encourage in the State Department.