Comment on Religious Freedom to the WCC

Consultation on Religious Freedom, World Council of Churches
October 15, 1999

Based on my experience in the field of human rights, I would make three suggestions to the World Council of Churches and to this consultation on religious freedom.

First, I suggest that you use the definition of "freedom of religion or belief" in international law even if you wish to take exception to secular arguments supporting it or to some of its present interpretations. Freedom of religion or belief is clearly articulated in both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The first document is incorporated into the constitutions of many countries and in translation has been widely disseminated. Except for the United States, "freedom of religion or belief" under international law is the standard definition of "religious freedom."

Governments that have ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights have often done so with reservations, and there is no reason why religious communities cannot take the same approach in clarifying their distinctive understanding of human rights. In addition, the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches have affirmed international human rights law including the right of freedom of religion and belief, and under international law these standards are "in force" throughout the world and are used constantly at the United Nations in the cultural and political dialogue there.

Second, I suggest that the World Council of Churches (and perhaps this consultation) encourage churches to enter into dialogue with Muslims in their own countries and regions in order to formulate guidelines affirming religious freedom that condemn proselytizing but affirm witnessing. Given the distinction made by the Vatican and the World Council of Churches, suggestions can easily be formulated, but it would be best if such a dialogue about guidelines reflects the cultural, religious and political realities of a particular context.

In this regard I recommend eschewing arguments against the universality of human rights, as these will not only generate opposition among secular human rights advocates but also reflect an abstract rather than contextual approach to dialogue (although such arguments are asserted on behalf of diverse cultural contexts). History shows that even as Buddhism once was foreign to China but now is not, human rights that originated in the West cannot now accurately be characterized as simply Western. Pragmatically, it is more helpful to seek areas of agreement among religious leaders about human rights and then strategies for educating and encouraging religious constituencies to endorse these rights. Areas of difference can also be taken up in dialogue, where there may be over time some change on the part of all those who participate.

Third, in conversations about human rights by religious leaders on behalf of their faith communities I suggest that a spirit of repentance would be appropriate. After all, many of those who piously look to our religious teachings for justification have contributed very little to the defense of human rights, and some have violated the human dignity of others in the name of their religious faith. Surely it is not sufficient to say that they were mislead by unscrupulous politicians, or that they misunderstood the teachings of the Qur'an or the Bible, as if this frees those of us who are leaders of our religious communities from any responsibility for their misguided behavior.

I have participated in a number of interfaith programs where religious advocates were quick to affirm the teachings of peace and justice in their traditions but reluctant to acknowledge that their community of faith had failed to live up to these teachings. I think it is time to reverse this. We should be honest about the failure of our religious communities to manifest the ideals of our teachings and, therefore, humble about the contribution that our religious traditions might make in relieving the suffering of the world's peoples.

In conclusion, I suggest that Christians and Muslims embrace repentance together for the sins of our religious communities and for the sake of our world. If we were to share in admitting that we have fallen short of the truths of our teachings, we would not only by doing so affirm the truths of our traditions but also our common commitment to live more faithfully. © Robert Traer 2016