Where can one spend two days engaging in open, honest, genuine dialogue and discussion over breakfast, lunch, dinner and coffee with: a Saudi scholar of Muslim jurisprudence, a moderate Muslim diplomat from Turkey, a dynamic sophisticated young Muslim deputy foreign minister from the new state of Kosovo (where 90 percent of the population is ethnic Albanians who are secular/cultural Muslims), Muslim religious leaders from Myanmar (formerly Burma) who are in dialogue with Buddhist religious leaders about how to live in peace in their country, and Muslim religious leaders and women activists from Somalia and Indonesia? Where can this all happen? Finland, of course!

That’s where I went to participate in a unique seminar in a snow-covered Finnish forest on the Baltic Sea, just east of Helsinki. The seminar, held in a beautiful retreat center, was organized by Finn Church Aid, Religions for Peace, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Mediation Support Unit of the United Nations. This special two-day workshop brought together religious leaders and scholars as well as interreligious practitioners and activists – including traditional leaders and women – all involved in serious efforts at peace-building in different regions of conflict in the world.

It was an intriguing and inspiring experience – intriguing since many of the traditional leaders came from places that I knew almost nothing about. Inspiring because I met religious leaders and activists who were courageously and patiently making significant contributions to peace in their societies with remarkable wisdom and with some serious successes. Not only is this rather unusual, but it is not something that is written about very much in the mainstream media.

Participants listened attentively in the seminar room to testimonies of religious and traditional peacemakers from Myanmar, Somalia, Ethiopia/Eritrea and Kyrgyzstan. I discovered that in complicated conflict situations, third-party intervention can help significantly in peace-building only when the facilitators really understand the cultural context well and bring in local leaders to engage deeply in the process. In our productive workshops, we hashed out the principles and practices concerning each case study and forged important methods and modalities for continuing cooperation.

All too often you hear people say that religions are the source of problems and conflicts rather than being part of the solution. This seminar proved that not only is this not true, but that the opposite can be the case! Religious leaders at many levels have the power and potential for being peace-builders in effective ways in their communities and societies. And in some places in the world they have played major roles in helping to resolve seemingly intractable conflicts.

Today, in places of severe strife such as Myanmar and Somalia , interreligious councils, set up with the help of international organizations such as Religions for Peace and Finn Church Aid, are confronting enormous challenges and beating incredible odds in bringing conflicting parties together to learn to live in peaceful coexistence. They are demonstrating that much can be accomplished for the common good by bringing people together from different sides of a conflict in genuine dialogue that builds trust over time.

For the past 21 years the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, which serves as the Israel affiliate of Religions for Peace, has been doing groundbreaking work – mostly quietly – with religious leaders, women, educators, youth and young adults. Since we haven’t killed anyone – and we haven’t had any scandals – we don’t often make it into the news. But at least now readers of this blog – and those with whom you share this information – can know that this kind of religious peace-building goes on in many places in the world, including in Israel.