Some United Nations agencies have long avoided mention of the world of faith and religion except when cooperating on matters such as refugee assistance, but a new initiative may change that.
But U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, a practicing Roman Catholic with a deep Christian faith, has addressed the faith community in New York on how it can help in combatting the violent extremism of groups claiming religion is their motivation.
"I firmly believe in the power of faith leaders to shape our world for good," he said.
Guterres spoke at the launch of the Plan of Action for Religious Leaders and Actors to Prevent Incitement to Violence that Could Lead to Atrocity Crimes throught the initiative known as the Fez Plan on July 14.
"The Fez Plan of Action is the product of two years of consultations, led by my Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide. It involved religious leaders representing different faiths around the world, as well as faith based organizations and many others," said Guterres.
"I would like to pay tribute to the critical role of many partners, and in particular KAICIID, the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers and the World Council of Churches."
At the launch the U.N. head voiced concern at the abuse of religion to justify incitement to violence, while stressing the importance of religious leaders in preventing violence and contributing to peace and stability.
"Around the world, we see how religion is being twisted [and] cynically manipulated," he stressed, launching the action plan to prevent atrocity crimes, which include genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.
Guterres cautioned against the proliferation of online and offline hate speech.
"Hate speech sows the seeds of suspicion, mistrust and intolerance [and] over time, it can play an important role in convincing people that violence is logical, justifiable, even necessary," he noted.
PLAN OF ACTION
The Plan of Action was developed over two years of intensive consultations at the global and regional levels organized by the U.N. Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect, with the support of the World Council of Churches, the International Dialogue Centre (KAICIID), and the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers.
A total of 232 religious leaders and actors from 77 countries took part in the consultations. Participants included Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs from different groups and denominations, as well as representatives from various religious minorities, including Baha'i, Candomblé, Kakai, Yazidi and humanists.
It is the first action plan specifically designed to enable religious leaders to prevent incitement to violence and at least 30 percent of participants at all meetings were women.
Guterres was joined by U.N. Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, and a number of religious leaders from around the world.
Hate speech is one of the most common warning signs of atrocity crimes, Guterres said, noting that early action can be taken to prevent them from occurring and that religious leaders are key actors in that warning process.
He highlighted the commitment expressed in the Plan of Action for Religious Leaders and Actors to Prevent Incitement to Violence that Could Lead to Atrocity Crimes to promote peace, understanding, mutual respect and the fundamental rights of all people.
The UN head said the Plan lays out ways in which religious leaders can prevent incitement to violence and contribute to peace and stability.
"These principles summon us to show respect for all human beings, even those with whom we might profoundly disagree or whose cultures might seem alien," he said, calling for the widest possible dissemination and implementation of the Plan of Action.
"Let us work together to prevent and end atrocity crimes and all affronts to human rights and dignity," he stated.
The scheme is known as the "Fez Plan of Action" for the city in Morocco where it was drafted in 2015, the Plan called for monitoring of incitement and the development of alternative messages as well as engagement in dialogue.
It includes efforts to develop and revise education to include better mainstreaming of appreciation of all cultures, engaging in and strengthening inter-religious and intra-religious dialogue and activities.
In doing so it seeks to ensure understanding, respect and communication, engaging in dialogue on grievances, strengthening clarity of message and engaging with political leaders.
Dr. Isabel Apawo Phiri, Deputy General Secretary of the World Council of Churches said it is an "important project, which engages a critical and often previously ignored constituency for a more peaceful world.
"We live in a time when some groups boldly and shamelessly advance religious justifications for the inhuman violence they perpetrate.
"While acknowledging the need for each of us to interrogate our own traditions and interpretations for sources of violence against others, it is of vital importance that the much vaster religious resources for peace and justice do not remain untapped," she said.
Faisal Bin Muaammar, Secretary General of the International Dialogue Centre (KAICIID) said, "In our work with leaders of religious communities, we have seen an alarming spike in recent times of incitement to violence against people based on their religion, and in the misuse of religion to justify violence.
"Religious leaders are keen to work together to find solutions to these pressing challenges. Attempts to find solutions to these challenges have tended to exclude religious leaders. A 360-degree approach which brings religious leaders, policymakers, and civil society to the dialogue table is the only way to build solutions that work."