Religion and International Relations


Religion (noun): the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.

In modern times, religion isn’t just the belief and worship of a supernatural entity. It is a way of life. Since birth, children are indoctrinated into their parent’s religion. Traditions, practices and values, both positive and negative are taught till they become common fact. Religion permeates into the lives of people completely and seamlessly.

Given its pervasive nature, it is unsurprising that religion affects relations between people and on a larger scale relationships between nations. This project analyses the effects of religion on the international scale. Through case studies, it will highlight the advantageous as well as detrimental role of religion in maintaining peace between countries. The article will not focus on the various conflicts/ peace processes themselves, instead, it will detail the religious background, the issues and proposed solutions.

Case Study 1: Jerusalem and the Israel – Palestine Conflict

Background to the Conflict:

Jerusalem and other holy sites of the Middle – East are holy to the three major Abrahamic religions namely – Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Historically speaking, there have been multiple conflicts over the ownership of these locations. The most famous being The Holy Crusades.

In modern times, this has continued into the Israel – Palestine conflict.

The roots of the conflict lie in the late 19th and early 20th century. This period saw the rise of nationalist movements amongst Jews and also amongst Arabs. Both movements wished for a sovereign state for their people, in the region. It was also a time of large scale Jewish immigration into the region. Jews were escaping the chaos caused by the Russian Revolution and later the Holocaust during WW2.

In 1920,Haj Amin al-Hussein emerged as the leader for the Palestinian Arab Nationalist Movement. The man saw the Jewish Nationalist Movement and Jewish immigration as the primary enemies to his goal. This led to large scale riots and violence between the two sides. Sporadic bursts of violence continued till the start of WW2.

Post WW2 tensions arose due to the large scale immigration of Holocaust survivors. This was fuelled by the stories that were coming out the Holocaust. The support resulted in Jews attacking on the Arabs as well as the British Administration.

In 1947, the British Mandate approached the United Nations to provide a solution to the problems in Palestine. The United Nations Special Committee on Palestine proposed a division of territory on the basis of religion. The area was to be divided into three parts. An independent Arab state and an Independent Jewish state while Jerusalem and Bethlehem remained under UN control.

Jews were dissatisfied by the loss of Jerusalem but accepted the decision. However it was vehemently opposed by the Arabs. This led to eruption of a Civil War in the region. Jews in the region were conscripted into an army. With British aid, they annexed territories to form modern day Israel.

The Conflict:

In 1948, The Israeli Declaration of Independence was signed officially declaring the State of Israel as an independent nation. Since then the region has been under multiple wars and conflicts. The Arab nations surrounding Israel universally opposed its existence. They trained armies and rebels to conquer the nation.

In 1967 during The Six Day War, Israel occupied areas of Palestine beyond its borders. Including the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Israelis have since started settling in the region.

Despite multiple attempts at peace the standing issues of the conflict could not be resolved.

From 2005 onwards the Hamas organisation gained prominence in Palestine. The fighting in recent years occurred due to rocket attacks coming from both side of the Gaza strip.

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The Standing Issues:


Jerusalem is the most major issue. Both sides claim ownership of the city. As stated previously Jerusalem is of great significance to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam being an important and holy city for all of them. For Judaism in particular Jerusalem is the holiest city in the world. It is the former location of the Jewish temples on theTemple Mountand was the capital of the ancient Israelite kingdom. It also contains the Jewish holy site, The Western Wall and the Mount of Olives. Hence the Israelis are unwilling to part with the city. For Islam, Jerusalem is the site ofMohammad’s Night Journeyto heaven, and theal-Aqsa mosque. For Christians, Jerusalem is the location ofthe Crucifixion of Christand theChurch of the Holy Sepulchre.

Presently, Israel considers the complete Jerusalem as part of its sovereign region. Jerusalem also is its capital. No other nation in the world accepts this

Holy sites

Both sides have concern over the treatment of their holy sites under the other’s control. Historically these concerns are founded, as both sides have banned worshippers while they were in control of the region. The treatment and possible vandalism of the sites under opposing rule is a concern as well.

Proposed Solutions:

The most globally accepted solution is a Two State one. Since the conflict is religious in nature, it proposes splitting the region based on religion. With Palestine being comprised of the West Bank and Gaza Strip while Israel consists of the rest of the region. This would ensure that demographically Israel will have a Jewish majority with a significant Arab minority. While Palestine will have an Arab majority with a small Jewish minority.

Jerusalem would serve as the capital of both nations. With the Arab part under the control of Palestine and the Jewish part under the control of Israel.

Israel has expressed concerns regarding safety to this plan. As the region has been under multiple terrorist attacks, it believes that having a border so close to Palestine would increase the risk to its citizens.

Case Study 2: Islamic Terrorism

Islamic terrorism comprises of terrorist acts done by people in the name of Islam


The term Jihad features a prominent role in militant Islam. Jihad literally translates to “struggle” or “resistance”. Based on context and writing. This can have multiple interpretations. Peaceful interpretations include “struggling to follow the way of God”. However Jihad also has a military sense, it calls for the defence and expansion of the Islamic state. Defensive Jihad is considered an obligation of utmost importance for all Muslims, while expansionist Jihad is optional.

The ideology of Islamic terrorists insists that they are initiating a defensive Jihad against the West. Terrorists believe that the Western society and its policies are actively anti – Islamic. As such they insist that their actions are in defence of their religion.

The terrorists point out what they believe is a continuing war between Christianity and Islam. A war that started from the Crusades. By framing the fight as defensive, they appear to be a victim rather than an aggressor, and give struggle the very highest religious priority for all good Muslims.

Many of the violent terrorist groups use jihad to fight against Western nations and Israel. Most militant Islamists oppose Israel’s existence.

Another major aspect of terrorist ideology is the belief that Muslims have deviated from true Islam and must return to “pure Islam” as originally practiced during the time ofMuhammad.

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“Pure Islam” can only be reached by applying a literal and strict interpretation of theQur’an and Muhammad’s commands. The original sources should be interpreted individually and Muslims simply should not follow the interpretations of Islamic scholars. Interpretation of the Quran from a historical, contextual perspective is corruption.

In addition militants, scholars, and leaders oppose Western society for what they see as immoralsecularism. Terrorists claim that free speech has led to the proliferation ofpornography,immorality,secularism,homosexuality,feminism etc. ideas and concepts that they oppose.


Due to their ideology, Islamic Terrorism has been in multiple conflicts throughout the world. In addition to this, Islam has had traditional rivalries with many religions. Including Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism etc. further increasing the issue.

Some of the various conflict zones are:


Main religious groups involved

Type of conflict


Extreme, radical Fundamentalist Muslim terrorist groups & non-Muslims

The traditional base of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. It was liberated by a joint military effort. However the Taliban is rising again and fighting continues.


Kurds, Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims, western armed forces

By mid-2006, a small scale civil war, primarily between Shiite and Sunni Muslims started. Presently, the country is in another civil war against the ISIL


Hindus & Muslims

Kashmir has been a contested region since the formation of India and Pakistan.


Christians, Muslims

Periodic assaults on Christians occur

Middle East

Jews, Muslims, & Christians

Israel has always been a target of religious conflict. Thus Middle East remains as a volatile zone


Sunni & Shi’ite Muslims

Mutual attacks, and periodic strikes by Taliban.


Wahhabi and Sufi Muslims

Sufi Muslims moderate version of Islam are fighting followers of the Wahhabi tradition of Islam.


Buddhists & Muslims

Muslim rebels have been attacking southern Thailand.


As such there is no uniform solution for Islamic terrorism. The locations and grievances of each conflict are extremely varied and cannot be uniformly addressed. The terrorists also enjoy support due to the economic and social conditions of these regions. However generic solutions to address parts of this issue exist such as:

  • Establishment of humanitarian centres to help people socially.
  • Mobilisation of religious leaders to publicly oppose these actions and remove the militant support base.

Case Study 3: The Tibet – China Conflict


The Tibet – China conflict is a historical and geopolitical debate. Both sides claim sovereignty of the Tibetan Plateau. Tibetans insist that they have largely been a historically independent nation, and believe the Chinese occupation to be illegal. While the Chinese claim that Tibet was a part of Chinese administration until it was annexed by the British Raj to act as a buffer between India and China and after the Raj withdrew, the Chinese were able to regain their territory in 1951.

The conflict also has an ethnic and religious side. The ethnic aspect comes from the fact that the Tibetans of the Tibetan Plateau are a minority to the Han Chinese majority of China, Secondly most Tibetans are Buddhists, while religion is banned in Communist nations like China. The Chinese government has a history of persecuting religions, especially those that have widespread popularity like Buddhism has in China. Widespread persecution and the exile of the Dalai Lama have only fuelled the clash.

Present Day Scenario:

Tibet did not participate in international organisations like League of Nations in the early 20th Century. As such it is unable to provide sufficient evidence for its sovereignty and independence. China maintains an extremely strict stance and prevents outside intervention.

However there have been known cases of genocide against Tibetans and Buddhists in particular. Also development and growth in the region seems to affect and benefit only the Han Chinese immigrants.

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The most accepted solution seems to be to provide Tibet with more autonomy and freedom while keeping it under Chinese rule. This would ensure an end to religious persecution while also allowing more inclusive development in the region.

Scholars also agree that the Dalai Lama must be allowed to return from exile and be an active part of the peace process. The Dalai Lama has a great influence in the Tibetan region and would be able to reassure and appease hardliners.

Case Study 4: Role of Christianity in Nazism and the Holocaust

During his rise to power, Hitler realised the political significance of Christianity and Christian Churches. To this effect, the Nazi party started the promotion of “Positive Christianity”. Positive Christianity differed from Christianity in many ways. Modern day historians agree that despite his claims, Hitler was anti – Christianity. He used “Positive Christianity” to justify his actions and his power.

Throughout his rule, Hitler called the Nazi cause as Christian. At the same time, he utilised the historical rivalry and hatred between Christians and Jews. To justify this, “Positive Christianity” openly rejected any Jewish involvement in the Holy Bible. It:

  • Rejected the Jewish-written parts of the Bible(including the entire Old Testament)
  • Claimed Christ was Aryan and not Jewish
  • Opposed the existence of the Catholic Church
  • Promoted national unity, and wanted to put all Protestant Churches under a single national Positive Christian Church
  • It emphasised Christ as a “positive” preacher and warrior against institutionalized Judaism

Hitler also used Christianity in his justification for the Holocaust. Claiming he is continuing Christ’s work by eliminating other races.

Religion as a Peacemaker

Historically, religion has been a cause of conflict. However religion can also be the cause of peace. Most religions in the world advocate peace. The use of violence is advised only as a last course in defence. Even the concept of Jihad in Islam is used mainly for defending the Islamist nation.

Religion can be used to eliminate the very cause of conflict itself, as opposed to merely stopping the fighting while the issues remain unaddressed. This is especially true under the following conditions.

  • religion is a significant contributor to the conflict
  • religious leaders on both sides wish for peace

Religious leaders are of particular importance in this approach as they are trusted and respected by their communities. This enables them to:

  • A leverage against those opposing peace
  • Generate local, national and international support for peace
  • Ensure promises are kept at a local level
  • Emphasise on the maintenance of morality and humanity in peace

Conflicts can be addressed by:

  • Interfaith dialogue and interaction to address issues
  • Proposing a solution that can address the religious and ethnic needs of both sides as a compliment to diplomatic negotiations e.g. solutions proposed for the Israel – Palestine conflict
  • Establishment of religious peacekeeping centres in strife torn regions like Iraq etc.

By this method it is possible to mobilise religion into a peaceful force that can end wars that are not only religious in nature but of other origins as well.


Beginner’s Guide to the Israeli Palestinian Conflict (a video available on YouTube)
“A Brief History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict”by Jeremy Pressman

BBC News reports on the Israel Palestinian Conflict

Conflict Over Tibet: Core Causes and Possible Solutions By Dustin Stokes

“Religion and the Holocaust” by Richard E Smith
“The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity” by Richard Steigmann-Gall

Religious Contributions to Peacemaking: When Religion Brings Peace, Not War

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