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Religion and the Role It Plays for UN Missions

Updated on September 22, 2016
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Rebecca Graf is a seasoned writer with nearly a decade of experience and degrees in accounting, history, and creative writing.

Religion's Major Role is Society

In order to understand how important religion is in UN missions, one has to agree that a region’s culture plays a major part the day to day operations of the region including that of society and government as well as the interactions with the world around the region. The dictionary defines culture as “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group.” (1) Religion is part of the culture.

This does not mean that the religion had to be one kind or state dictated. The point we are looking at here is the role it plays in society as a whole. All society is effected by religion as it impacts their family, their workplace, the community, or the media. Ignoring religion in any society is a vital mistake.

The degree of its importance can vary from region to region which makes it even more important to understand a region’s culture including religion when dealing with them. That means the United Nations has to take religion into consideration. It has to understand where it is going and how religion effects everyday life.


For Example...

If you were to go into Saudi Arabia, it would be smart to know what the various religions were, how strong of influences the religions are, and how much of every day life is impacted by religious rules and traditions. This doesn't have to be a bad thing. No one is passing judgment here, but religion is important in society.

In this example, one would need to know that alcoholic drinks are typically forbidden. Women have to act and dress a certain way. Specific foods are prohibited. All this from religion. Even specific times of day are devoted to the religion.

Let's swing to the other side - America. Here there are many different religions with none of them directly influencing laws over the others. There is no state religion, but where in America you go varies the impact of religion. You cannot enter the South and expect the same religion influence as you do in the North or Midwest. It's like two different cultures. What is taboo in one region is accepted in another.

You need to understand how religion influences a region before you go in.

Peacekeeping Operations

When getting involved in peacekeeping operations (PKOs), the UN desires to “contain international conflicts and to facilitate their settlement by peaceful means.” (2) That peace has to involve working “effectively within the system’s culture” to ensure cooperation and civil interactions. (3) When UN workers enter a situation without having proper training in the “local culture, customs, institutions and laws” the chances of successful “peacekeeping and peacebuilding” greatly diminishes. (4)

It just takes one unintentional insult about religion or any other cultural custom to escalate a situation into a world war. In order to integrate into the society and accomplish the peacekeeping goal, the UN works find that “thorough knowledge and understanding of the society, culture” and traditions are vital. (51) Within UN missions, it is extremely important to understand religion and where it plays in the conflict, if at all. Any UN mission that is executed without this knowledge is doomed to failure.

Human Rights

The UN looks to protect human rights. In that process, they encounter many refugees who are in that situation due to religious reasons. The decision to help refugees has to involve understanding religion as that they are fleeing for their lives due to “race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” (6) The UN strives to give international protection to these people. In doing so, religion cannot be ignored due to the fact that many nations persecute based on religious beliefs. Iran is one country that does not hesitate to arrest and punish those that change from Islam to any religion and for those other religions to evangelize to Muslims. In 2009 a man was arrested in Iran and sentenced to death based on “charges of apostasy and evangelism” in a trial that UN commentators said did not follow the process of the law. (7) Eventually, Iran relented and released the man but not after threatening to hang him if he did no renounce Christianity. (8)


If the UN is to be involved in international protection of human rights, religion will play a part and needs to be understood before addressing the situation or going into negotiate peace.


(1) “Culture,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary,

(2) Sunil Ram, The History of United Nations Peacekeeping Operations during the Cold War: 1945 to 1987, 2008, 3.

(3) Handbook on United Nations Multidimensional Peacekeeping Operations, United Nations, December 2003, 16.

(4) Ibid, 35.

(5) Ibid, 51.

(6) Ibid, 169.

(7) “UN experts voice concern over situation of religious minorities in Iran,” UN News Centre, September 20, 2012,


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