Rev Dr Keith Beech-Gruneberg, director of local ministry training at the Diocese of Oxford reflects on conflict inspired by religious differences 


As I write this, the news headlines are dominated by conflict. Every day we hear the latest from Iraq, Gaza/Israel and Ukraine. Occasionally there is good news. But more often it seems the situations become even more intractable.

All of these conflicts have a strong ethnic dimension – something we are all too familiar with. And all of them have a religious dimension too – and again, of course, this isn’t unusual.

This prompts in me two reflections.

First, I don’t think it shows religion is a bad thing. I think it shows religion is something important. It’s because it really matters to people that they are prepared to fight for it, or to suffer for it – whether this is justifiable self defence, misguided enthusiasm, or the result of manipulation by those misusing the religion for other ends. And because it really matters to so many people, it becomes a factor in so much conflict. The way many atheist regimes, such as Stalin’s Russia, behaved suggests we certainly wouldn’t be better off without religion.

A person’s religion, if they take it at all seriously, is a significant part of their identity. It’s fundamental to who they are. It helps to define them both as an individual and (at least in the case of most religions) as a member of a group who share that religious identity. It can then get mixed in with ethnic, cultural, political and all kinds of other factors too. And just like putting patches of different colours onto a piece of paper at its best this creates a rich pattern, at its worst it creates a mess. So again we shouldn’t be surprised when religion is a cause of conflict. My second reflection comes from the way that in the current conflicts we can see Christians, Muslims and Jews as both aggressors and as persecuted. In Iraq, Christians and others are suffering at the hands of an extremist Muslim militia. In Ukraine, Catholic Christians are pitted against Orthodox Christians. And in Gaza/Israel, though opinions may differ on whether one side has more right on its side than the other, we surely see both the people in Gaza (largely Muslims) and those in Israel (largely Jews) as both aggressors and victims.

So those of any faith need to beware the possibility that our faith could be misused as a justification for mistreating other people. No faith is immune to this possibility. And in the same way those who do not follow any religion need to realise that those things that shape their identity and that matter to them could also be twisted into a reason to attack others.

But equally followers of any faith may be persecuted for that faith. We can’t assume that just because someone is a Christian, or a Muslim, or a Jew, then they can’t possibly be the victim of persecution – however other people who claim to follow that religion may be behaving elsewhere, or whatever may have been the case for followers of that religion in the past. We need to look at the facts of the particular case – whether that is life-threatening situations faced in some countries, or when someone in this country claims they are being discriminated against.