Training Diplomats to Understand Religion

Foreign Office Minister Baroness Warsi meeting H.E. Archbishop Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster (September 2012)

Earlier this week, I was in London to attend and address the first ever course run by the Foreign Office on religion and foreign policy. The particular focus was on the issue of freedom of religion or belief, but the wider goal of the course is to help British diplomats understand better the importance of religion in shaping foreign policy. The course, delivered by the Woolf Institute based in Cambridge, included case studies, lectures and reflections from diplomatic practitioners.

Supplementary to this course, which will be refined and developed for a further session in March, is the launch in the Foreign Office of a parallel series of lunchtime seminars on aspects of religion and foreign policy. Archbishop Nichols of Westminster gave the first seminar before Christmas alongside Foreign Office Minister Baroness Warsi, focusing on the international role and activity of the Roman Catholic church, the importance of religious freedom, and the relationship between the Catholic Church and government. Over 100 British diplomats of all grades and specialities took part. Further lectures planned will cover sources of religious tension and freedom, the Church of England and international diplomacy, the right to be secular in the Middle East and North Africa, and the impact of conflict on relations between communities in the Middle East.

I personally believe that an understanding of the dynamics of religion and faith in global society is not only a legitimate and important tool of foreign policy practice, but an increasingly essential one for our diplomats and foreign policy advisers in a modern world in which religion is ever more important as a driver of political, social, cultural and even economic motivation. In the same way that we expect diplomats to develop a keen knowledge of international economic issues, or the intricacies of multilateral negotiating techniques in areas from disarmament to climate change, we cannot ignore religion. Unlike in much of the world, most British school children or students do not regularly attend a place of worship, even if a large majority of British people still express a religious affiliation. So our new recruits, and more experienced diplomats, need training to engage a world where faith and religiosity is more common and evident than at home. Whether a diplomat agreed or disagrees with the values expressed by faiths, not understanding them puts him or her at a great disadvantage across the globe, from Khartoum to Karachi, Rio to Riyadh.

So I am delighted that the Foreign Office has launched this initiative. Understanding religion, and religions, needs to be an integral part of our diplomatic armoury.

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