Religious Freedom as a Human Right

A contribution of Dr John B. Taylor Representative at the United Nations (Geneva)UN – of The International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF)

For over 100 years the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF) has upheld the right to freedom of religion, both within a particular religion and between religions. The context today is one where for over 50 years the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in article 18 affirms this right, but where violations continue and preventive strategies are agreed but too seldom applied. There is also widespread recognition of the principle of Professor Hans Küng that there can be no peace in the world without peace among the religions of the world.

My work in inter-religious dialogue with the World Council of Churches, with the World Conference on Religion and Peace and with the International Association for Religious Freedom confirms the connections between the quest for peace and for justice, the connection between conditions for peace and the respect of the basic human right for freedom of religion or belief. My work has also confirmed the important and even disproportionately great contribution made by small “liberal” religious communities – drawing, for example, on Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and/or Buddhist traditions, as was the case for IARF for over a century.

I wish to address three key aspirations: peace, freedom and tolerance.

1. Peace:

Peace is not only external political or social peace but also inner peace which may draw on religious experiences. Religious people often preach the supreme value of peace, drawing from and contributing to ongoing religious and cultural traditions which extol peace; but they can sometimes misinterpret or misuse their religious traditions to justify exclusion or violence. Inter-religious dialogue can be a profoundly self-critical exercise as well as one to mobilize common visions and energies for peace-making.

International peace is often disturbed by national or local tensions, injustices and conflicts. The role of religion in provoking or healing such tensions often depends upon whether rights which one claims for oneself are also being coveted and protected for one’s neighbour, especially when that neighbour is of another faith tradition and is part of a vulnerable minority. Rights must enjoyed but that confers responsibilities to protect them for all communities. Peace among religions cannot be maintained by domination or control by the strong over the weak, but mutual respect for differences should lead to equal enjoyment of rights.

A particular context for inter-religious peace must be within the local community where ignorance may breed arrogance, privilege may blind people to injustices, strong and legitimate cultural identities my submerge minorities’ cultural expression. Migrant workers and asylum seekers are particularly susceptible to frustration and even, in extreme cases, violent reaction if they are denied recognition of their roots and their rights to religious and cultural identity and allowed only a suspicious or reluctant “welcome” into a new society.

2. Freedom:

As well as the political and social rights and responsibilities which should exist in all societies, there should be a particular concern to uphold freedom of religion or belief. Freedom is not only liberation from oppression or imposition but it is also liberation for participation in building a community. It may be necessary to ensure freedom from tyranny or exploitation, but it is equally important to mobilize freedom of choice and freedom of expression. Liberal religion does not mean an irresponsible freedom of intellectual or spiritual relativism nor yet a laissez-faire disengagement from social duties.

Freedom of religion also implies a commensurate freedom to choose not to believe in any religious tradition or not to belong to any particular religious community. The discrimination suffered by many religious communities in the context of atheistic or secular ideologies or governments should not justify any reprisals against “non-believers” once religious communities attain access to authority and power. The dialogue and quest for peace among religions is not to be conceived as a front against the “wicked world” of secularism! Partnerships to build peace and justice and to create social harmony and equality may develop between people of all faiths or of none.

Freedom is to be protected not only by protesting against violations but also be creating conditions where injustices and discriminations cannot survive. The General Assembly of the United Nations agreed to a request from the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief that a consultative conference on the theme of school education as a preventive strategy against intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief be held in Madrid on the 20th anniversary of the 1981 United Nations “Declaration on the Elimination of all Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination based on Religion or Belief”. This Madrid conference recognized the different approaches to religious education about one’s own tradition, about the need to understand the wider field of world religions and about learning values from religion; it made recommendations for the teaching of tolerance, not least as drawn from the ideals of world religions.

3. Tolerance

The Preamble to the Charter speaks of “tolerance” as an active value; it should not be understood simply as passive toleration. Just as dialogue should not be understood in terms of compromise or syncretism but as a constructive confidence-building method to build shared community, even so tolerance should be seen as a dynamic expression of acceptance of diversity and respect for differences.

The current UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief has made recent visits to countries like Sri Lanka, France and Nigeria. She has investigated abusive forms of proselytism but also of legislative repression of religious freedom; she has pointed to the counterproductive legislation that excludes especially young Muslim women from public education because of prohibitions against culturally specific dress; she has examined punitive legislation directed notably against women for example infringing marriage regulations. In every case she has identified problems of religious or ideological or cultural extremism and fanaticism which are better regulated by education and dialogue than be restrictive or punitive legislation.

The ethos of “liberal” religionists has always been to deplore intolerance and discrimination, extremism and fanaticism; but there is also a danger of moral superiority or impatience whereby one fails to persuade or even to engage in conversation or co-operation with those whom one considers as “illiberal”. One of the greatest challenges of dialogue is to listen, to seek to understand opposing positions, and, without compromising fundamental rights and duties, to offer mediation, to seek mitigation of conflict, and to attempt reconciliation. Sometimes the minority community, with least to lose, can succeed in such restoration of religious peace, of respect for fundamental freedoms and of conditions for a just and sharing community.

Dr. John Taylor hat diesen Vortrag von seiner englischen Vorlage in fliessendem Deutsch an der zweiten Kappeler Milchsuppe vorgetragen. Ich habe ihm eine eigentlich für unsere Veranstaltung fast nebensächliche Frage gestellt: Welche Religion haben sie persönlich? Er ist Methodist und vertritt damit indirekt die 8. verschiedene Glaubensrichtung an unserer Tagung. Einerseits kam diese Frage von mir als Leiter durch die Referate und andererseits vielleicht auch, weil mein Referat «die Religionslandschaft in der Schweiz» sich mit der Statistik beschäftig hat.


Jean-Claude A. Cantieni im Gespräch mit Dr. John Taylor

Fotos und Zusammenstellung: Stephan Marti-Landoltfinanzblog

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