TOKYO — Among political leaders, faith groups often get a bad rap, according to experts on religion and politics.
They're associated with legal headaches and confusing practices. They're better known for causing trouble than helping out.
That characterization seemed laughable Saturday afternoon as religious leaders took the stage at the G20 Interfaith Forum to describe what they're up to around the world. In Myanmar, they're helping to protect religious minorities. In Haiti, they're planting trees to combat deforestation. In general, faith groups are stepping up where they can to serve their neighbors in times of need.
"Religious communities have both the surge capacity to respond to immediate needs such as arise with natural disasters and also staying capacity to help address long-term human needs," said Elder Gerrit W. Gong, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In other words, religions are more than sets of rituals and beliefs. They are global networks equipped to respond to global problems.
"Religious communities offer unique connection between international and local organizations," Elder Gong said.
Yet many government officials still avoid partnerships with religious actors. They worry about saying something wrong or being accused of privileging one faith group over others, said James Alexander, a policy adviser in the Office of Religion and Global Affairs at the U.S. State Department, during a forum session on religion and government.
"Part of the problem for our diplomats is they're afraid they have to be religious scholars in order to do this work. They're afraid they're going to make mistakes," he said.
That attitude has to change for us to have any hope of addressing global crises like poverty and climate change, experts said.
"The issue here is not really should we engage with (religious) actors, but how," said Azza Karam, senior adviser to the United Nations Population Fund.
Although it's wrong to avoid partnerships with faith groups outright, it's understandable that government leaders are cautious, said Judd Birdsall, executive director of the Transatlantic Policy Network on Religion and Diplomacy.
Few officials have received the right kind of faith-related training and they may not know where to turn for help.
"There’s a need there to increase the comfort level and decrease the illiteracy when it comes to religion," Birdsall said.
But that's difficult when governments won't commit enough resources to this effort. In many countries, only a few people are equipped to help diplomats understand the world of faith. For example, Alexander works on a team of four in the State Department.
"It's hard to do big things when you're so small," he said.
It's also hard to do big things when the people you'd like to train say no. Government officials sometimes assume faith groups only care about inter-religious conflict, missing opportunities to partner with them on broader issues like health care, disaster relief or human trafficking.
"Religious communities are about more than being persecuted or persecuting others," Birdsall said.
Additionally, politicians are often more concerned with getting re-elected than pursuing unique solutions, according to John Key, the former prime minister of New Zealand, during a G20 Interfaith Forum session on disaster relief. In a tense environment, they try to avoid risks.
And reaching out to religious actors can be risky, Alexander said. Partnering with faith groups in the wrong way can lead to bad press or even lawsuits.
Legal concerns "have a huge impact on the way in which we do our business and think about how we do our business," he said.
At the very least, government leaders might be embarrassed if they say the wrong thing. Alexander and others try to help them recognize that it's OK to reach out to faith groups even when you still have things to learn.
"It's true we really should know something about the world we're working in and about the religions we're working with. At the same time, it doesn't require full understanding of a particular religion to talk to a (faith) community about working on infrastructure, like a water system," Alexander said.
Participants in the G20 Interfaith Forum, an annual gathering of faith leaders, policy experts and humanitarian activists, are cheerleaders for partnerships between religion and government. The event is aimed at increasing coordination between the two institutions.
But even these men and women acknowledge that not all partnerships are healthy or right. Faith groups must be aware that some leaders will try to work with them just to make their own goals appear moral, said Mohammed Abu-Nimer, a senior adviser to the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue.
"If they can find the right religious leaders, they will work with them," he said. "Unfortunately, I think this is problematic. They're trying to use them symbolically and not really engaging with them."
Other officials might be so fixated on working with faith groups that they reach out to the wrong ones, Birdsall said. Religious leaders are experts on a variety of issues, but that doesn't mean they're the right fit for every project.
“There’s a temptation to counteract the ignoring of religion by overemphasizing religion,” he said.
Moving forward, officials and faith groups must understand and respect one another without compromising on what makes them unique, according to forum participants.
"We need a mutually respectful way to engage," Abu-Nimer said.
And it needs to happen fast. Around the world, people of all ages go without homes, food or a safe place to worship. Currently, responses to these needs by individual countries aren't enough.
"More than ever, our challenges are international," said David Cameron, the former prime minister of the United Kingdom, during his keynote address at the forum.
Churches are also international, as Elder Gong noted during his remarks. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is present in 191 countries and territories.
Global reach allows "macro sustainable development priorities to be addressed in effective micro solutions, sometimes one village, one person, one tree at a time," Elder Gong said.
Or one hospital bed at a time. The State Department's Office of Religion and Global Affairs is currently partnering with international bodies like the World Health Organization and religiously affiliated hospitals to address the growth of drug-resistant diseases, Alexander said.
Elsewhere, relief organizations and government officials are working with religious leaders to better prepare for natural disasters, which will likely happen more frequently as the global climate continues to change, said Atallah Fitzgibbon, policy and strategy manager for Islamic Relief Worldwide.37 comments on this story
People naturally gravitate toward houses of worship when they're in need of shelter, so it makes sense to "build the capacity" of these spaces, he said.
The whole world can benefit when religious leaders and government officials commit to deeper, more impactful relationships with one another, said Haruhisa Handa, one of the leaders of this year's forum, during a Saturday morning address delivered in Japanese.
“We need to understand each other, otherwise worldwide challenges cannot be resolved,” he said.