In time of war, a monument to peace
Just steps from the Lincoln Memorial, a new building - topped by a translucent white roof that resembles the wings of a giant dove - is puzzling tourists and commuters alike.
What is it? Who works there? The answer: the U.S. Institute of Peace, which often is followed by a variant of "the what?" The headquarters of the 27-year-old independent institute, scheduled to open to the public this year, is designed to raise the profile of a humble agency that occupies five floors of the National Restaurant Association.
"The new building is like a temple," said Qamar-ul Huda, a senior program officer in the institute's religion and peacemaking program. "We have monuments to those who fought in wars all over Washington, and rightly so, but we don't recognize the peacemakers. This building helps." It may also help to draw attention to Huda's small but increasingly active program, which studies the role of religion in war and peace and engages religious leaders in peacemaking.
Plenty of universities and independent think tanks are working at the nexus of religion and peace, said Ambassador Dane F. Smith, a senior adviser on Darfur at the State Department who has written a book about American peace-building institutions.
But the institute is a congressionally chartered, taxpayer-funded institute. Its willingness to work with religious leaders contrasts with popular conventional wisdom elsewhere in government, Smith said.
"Certainly the guidance to diplomats in the field is that they can meet with religious leaders - but don't go too far," Smith said.
The 325 employees at the independent, nonpartisan institute work outside the administration's foreign policy apparatus at the neighboring State Department, and they can't make government policy. The board, appointed by the president, must be equally divided among Republicans and Democrats.
Its annual $44 million operating budget is dwarfed by the State Department's - $54 billion in fiscal 2010. Congress allotted $100 million for the new, 150,000-square-foot headquarters, which was designed by Massachusetts-based architect Moshe Safdie and will cost $183 million. The institute must raise the balance from the private sector.
A group of donors has paid for a wing named for Madeleine Albright, secretary of state in the Clinton White House, who probed the role of religion in foreign affairs in her 2006 book, "Mighty and the Almighty." Chevron donated a wing named for George Schultz, who held the job under President Ronald Reagan, and Lockheed Martin endowed a lecture series with a $1 million gift.
With advanced teleconferencing capabilities, the building will allow peacemakers from the world over to meet virtually. A large, interactive exhibition space is expected to draw up to 500,000 visitors annually to highlight the institute's scholarship and work in the field.
That fieldwork includes efforts to integrate former rebels in the Niger Delta back into their communities, creating a database on human rights violations in Afghanistan, and hosting a roundtable about the Korean Peninsula.
The agency's religion and peacemaking program, which has a $1 million budget and four staffers, focuses on places where religion could hold the keys to peace.