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Religious Liberty: Challenges and Tasks Ahead for Nongovernmental Organization Action

In Being a World Citizen, Conflict Resolution, Cultural Bridges, Current Events, Human Rights, International Justice, Religious Freedom, Solidarity, The Search for Peace, United Nations on February 2, 2015 at 4:21 PM

RELIGIOUS LIBERTY:

CHALLENGES AND TASKS AHEAD FOR NONGOVERNMENTAL ORGANIZATION ACTION

By René Wadlow

Every year, January 30 is a most appropriate day on which to reflect on issues of religious liberty and to the challenges facing us as members of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as the Association of World Citizens (AWC). January 30 is the anniversary of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by Nathuram Godse, an agent of the semi-military militant Hindu organization RSS (Rashtriya Swayam-sevah Sangh). In the eyes of Godse, Gandhi was too tolerant of Muslims in the riots then going on at the time of independence and partition between India and Pakistan. Currently, the RSS is still very active trying to force with its militias Indian Christians to become Hindus. The RSS is backed by some factions within the Indian government. The RSS is a good example of the fact that efforts to destroy or limit strongly freedom of thought and religious liberty come from both governments and from religious organizations.

As the AWC has been very active on religious liberty issues within the United Nations (UN) human rights committees in Geneva, I will list briefly the types of challenges which we face and then mention UN standards which we can use in our efforts to promote religious liberty.

  • The first situation is when a State has a State Religion and persecutes minority religions within the country. An example is the Islamic Republic of Iran which has banned the Baha’i religion (which began in Iran) and persecutes its members.
  • The second situation is when a State has a State Religion and persecutes branches of that religion with which it disagrees: the Pakistan government persecution of the Ahmadi branch of Islam (which began in what is now Pakistan) is an example.
  • The third situation is when a State has a State Religion and persecutes those who wish to bring about reforms within that religion. A recent example is in Saudi Arabia where a young man posted on his Internet blog a plea to limit the powers of the “moral police” who try to enforce what the government considers “moral behavior” such as women not driving an auto. For his blog statement, Ralf Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes of a whip (50 lashes in public each week during 20 weeks). The AWC’s External Relations Officer, Bernard Henry, was among those protesting this decision in front of the Saudi Embassy in Paris a few days ago in a demonstration led by Amnesty International.
  • The fourth situation is when a State has not State Religion and is against all religious movements and institutions in general. The Soviet Union from 1922 to 1942. In 1942, Stalin changed his policy to encourage religious people to fight the German invaders. Mainland China during the Cultural Revolution years and the Pol Pot government of Cambodia are examples of governments hostile to all religious movements.
  • The fifth situation: Armed movements which control some territory and who wish to create a State with a State Religion and who are hostile to religious minorities. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a dramatic example of an armed movement which controls an area as large as France, partly in Iraq, partly in Syria. There are forced conversions to Islam and girls and women from minority religions are sold as slaves. The Boko Haram movement, active in nearly as large an area as France in northeast Nigeria, northern Cameroon, and part of Niger acts in the same way. Boko Haram and ISIS follow the same policy and ideology and cooperate when possible. We have very similar patterns, but on a smaller scale, in the Central African Republic where Christian militias have attacked Muslim communities so that the majority of Muslims have fled to neighboring countries. However, the Christian militias have not said that they wish to set up a State with Christianity as a State religion.
  • The sixth situation are States which have no State Religion but where there are popular, nongovernmental currents or movements against specific religions. France, Germany and Myanmar can be good examples. France, most recently after attacks against journalists of a satiric journal by two brothers of Muslim religion, has seen a relatively large number of people attacking Islamic institutions largely at night. In Germany, there is a movement which is holding large demonstrations against Muslims. The German government has been against these demonstrations but is limited in what sort of police actions it can take to prevent them. In Myanmar (Burma) although Buddhism was never officially proclaimed a State Religion, the military-led government favored Buddhist groups to such an extent that Buddhism could nearly be considered a State Religion. Currently there are Buddhist monk-led attacks against the Rohingyas − a Muslim minority − and the government has done nothing to prevent such attacks.
On January 23 Amnesty International France and Reporters Without Borders held a protest before the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Paris in support of blogger Raif Badawi. (C) Bernard J. Henry/AWC

On January 23 Amnesty International France and Reporters Without Borders held a protest before the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Paris in support of blogger Raif Badawi. (C) Bernard J. Henry/AWC

These six situations highlight violent situations in which religions are banned, followers killed, imprisoned, sold into slavery and living in fear of being attacked.

There are, of course, many examples of more subtle forms of discrimination, the use of tax policies, the non-recognition of a group as a religion, the banning of healing practices, images making fun of a religion etc. It is important to be aware of these more subtle forms. They need to be prevented, but they are less visible than the imprisonment of a person so they lead to fewer protests.

The front door of a mosque in France in 2009, covered by racist and neo-Nazi graffiti. Over the last five years anti-Islam acts have soared in the country, hitting an all-time high in the wake of the terror attack against the weekly satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo of January 7, 2015. (C) Thierry Antoine/AFP

The front door of a mosque in France in 2009, covered by racist and neo-Nazi graffiti. Over the last five years anti-Islam acts have soared in the country, hitting an all-time high in the wake of the terror attack against the weekly satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo of January 7, 2015. (C) Thierry Antoine/AFP

Universal Standards for Religious Liberty

The universal standard is set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 18) “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” Article 18 of the Universal Declaration is reaffirmed in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights but made stronger by adding “no one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.” The Covenant was followed, after many years of discussion and debate in which the Association of World Citizens played an important role, with a UN General Assembly “Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief” of November 25, 1981. This is a strong Declaration. I believe that such a strong and comprehensive statement would not be possible today given the coordinated strength of the Islamic States in opposition to the idea in the Declaration of being able to change one’s religion. Unlike the Covenant, the Declaration is not a treaty and so there is no institution to study the action of governments in the light of the Declaration. Nevertheless, the Declaration, relatively little known, should be widely quoted by NGOs working on religious liberty issues.

What Can Be Done Today?

Governments are relatively inactive − or not active at all − when it comes to States restricting religious liberty. We have seen these recent days government leaders going to Saudi Arabia to wish the new king well, as Saudi Arabia sells oil and buys arms from Western governments. Saudi Arabia is one of the most violent oppressors of religious liberty. Thus I would expect no action on the part of governments toward other governments.

However, we do see governmental action against nongovernmental militias who violate religious liberty. There is a coalition of States, led by the United States, England and France to bomb from the air positions of the ISIS in Iraq-Syria. That such bombing will transform the ISIS into liberal advocates of human rights seems to me unlikely.

Likewise the army of Chad has joined the army of Nigeria to fight Boko Haram. As the Nigerian and Chadian armies are best known for their practice of burning villages and raping women, their contribution to a society of respect and tolerance is to be doubted.

Thus, to sum up: the possibilities for the defense of religious liberty are few. There are norms and standards set by the United Nations: Article 18 of the Universal Declaration and the Covenant, and especially the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. Governments are basically unwilling to do anything in the UN even against the worst offenders. On the one hand governments need resources from the country − oil from Saudi Arabia − or they are more concerned with security issues of the country than with religious liberty issues − the case with Iran and North Korea.

If, as I believe, governmental action is useless and will make situations worse, what can NGOs do? One must not be discouraged. The challenges are great; the resources of NGOs are few. A worldwide erosion of religious freedom is causing large-scale human suffering, grave injustice and serious threats to world peace and security. Yet I believe that NGOs have through UN standards a clear set of international principles and standards to maintain. We must find ways for common action today.

Prof. René Wadlow is President of the Association of World Citizens.

  1. Leaders from every spiritual tradition on Earth change things for the better by simply coming together and making a unified public statement. It may sound like a simplistic resolution, but it certainly couldn’t hurt, wouldn’t cost a penny, and would literally bring positive change you suggest correctly as needed.

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