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Assault on Religious Liberty: July 20, 1937

In Human Rights, Solidarity, The Search for Peace, Religious Freedom, United Nations, World Law, Being a World Citizen, NGOs, Track II, Spirituality on July 20, 2021 at 3:17 PM

By René Wadlow

The Nazi Government of Germany had first moved against the Jews, considered as both a racial and a religious group. The Jews had long been a target of the Nazi movement and the attack on them came as no surprise. However, the July 20, 1937 banning of the theosophical movement and of others «theosophically related» in the Nazi ideology was a turning point in Nazi repression.

On July 20, 1937, the Theosophical Society and the related Anthroposophical Society which had been founded by Rudolf Steiner who had been president of the German section of the Theosophical Society were banned. The banning order was signed by Reichsführer Reinhard Heydrich who warned that “The continuation and new foundation of this as well as the foundation of disguised succession organizations is prohibited. Simultaneously I herewith state because of the law about confiscation of property hostile to people and state that the property of the abovementioned organizations was used or intended for the promotion of intentions hostile to people and state.” Thus, all offices and buildings were confiscated.

At the time there was little organized protest. The League of Nations, while upholding tolerance and freedom of thought in general had no specific declaration on freedom of religion and no institutional structures to deal with protests. Now, the United Nations (UN) has a specific Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief of November 25, 1981 which builds upon Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that “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 or observance.” As with all UN Instruments relating to freedom of religion, Article 18 represents a compromise. One of its achievements was the inclusion of the terms “thought” and “conscience” which quietly embraced atheists and non-believers. The most divisive phrase, however, was “freedom to change one’s religion”.

The Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief took nearly 20 years of difficult negotiations to draft. Preparations for the Declaration had begun in 1962. One of the most difficult areas in drafting the Declaration concerned the rights of the child to have “access to education in the matter of religion or belief in accordance with the wishes of his parents and shall not be compelled to receive teaching on religion or belief against the wishes of his parents or legal guardians, the best interests of the child being the guiding principle.”

The Declaration goes on to state that “The child shall be protected from any form of discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief. He shall be brought up in a spirit of understanding, tolerance, friendship among peoples, peace and universal brotherhood, respect for freedom of religion or belief of others, and in full consciousness that his energy and talents should be devoted to the services of his fellow men.”

The Declaration highlights that there can be no doubt that freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief and the elimination of intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief are of a fundamental character and derive from the inherent dignity and worth of the human person.

The gradual evolution of UN norms on the issue of religious liberty has been a complex process and is often a reflection of bilateral relations among Member States. This was especially true during the 1980s – the last decade of the USA-USSR Cold War. However, the end of the Cold War did not end religious tensions as an important factor in internal and international conflicts.

The 1981 Declaration cannot be implemented by UN bodies alone. Effective implementation also requires efforts by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). NGOs play a vital role in the development of the right to freedom of religion or belief, especially by advancing the cause of those still struggling to achieve this right.

Thus, the Association of World Citizens (AWC) had been active in the late 1970s when the UN Commission on Human Rights moved from New York to Geneva on the formulation of the 1981 Declaration. Since then, the AWC has worked closely with the Special Rapporteurs on Religious Liberty of the Commission (now the Human Rights Council). The AWC has also raised publicly in the Commission certain specific situations and violations. The AWC stresses the need for sound research and careful analysis. Citizens of the World have an important role to play in bringing spiritual and ethical insights to promote reconciliation and healing in many parts of the world.

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

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