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.

The program is organizing exchanges between Muslims in Iran and the United States. In Afghanistan, it is teaching conflict management skills to Islamic religious scholars. In Colombia, it helped organize a conference of Catholic and Protestant women working to reduce violence through their churches.

David Smock, who heads the religion and peacemaking program, helped broker a 2005 agreement that ended decades of fighting between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria.

Smock, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, worked with a Nigerian pastor and imam at the negotiating table. Their story was featured in a documentary "The Imam and the Pastor," which the agency dubbed into Arabic and sent to Iraq as a model of interfaith cooperation.

Huda also leads a project to distribute a textbook on conflict resolution to Islamic schools in Pakistan. Written in Urdu by Huda and a group of Pakistani religious scholars, "Peace and Conflict Resolution in Islam: A Textbook for Students," explores the personal and societal roots of conflict and encourages students to examine their biases. It is used by 100 teachers in 60 madrassas.

Huda has a doctorate in Islamic studies from UCLA and studied in traditional Islamic seminaries in Pakistan, Egypt and Syria. He said that institute staff members - as government employees - are mindful of the separation of church and state and are careful not to promote any religion. But they don't shy away from trying to work with people of faith and draw upon religious traditions to foster peace.

Seeing religion less as a root of conflict and more as an opportunity for peace is a welcome and somewhat unique approach in American foreign policy circles, said Lisa Schirch, a professor at Eastern Mennonite University's graduate Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.

"Current research is showing how the U.S. government often underplays the role of religion in diplomacy," Schirch said. "For too long, it has overlooked religious leaders' moral influence and their power to promote peace outside more formal diplomatic channels."

- Religion News Service