Religious Freedom: 1998 UN Presentation

UN Department of Public Information Briefing 
Non-Governmental Organizations Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief
Dag Hammarskjöld Auditorium at the United Nations, November 5, 1998

His Excellency Ambassador Karalesh Sharma, Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations, Professor Abdelfattah Amor, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance, other officials of the United Nations, and NGO representatives, I am humbled by the invitation from Sue Nichols of the NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief to speak to you this morning. I am well aware that there are many others with greater qualifications who might have been asked to address our topic, but I hope my comments will help us all see how we can play an important part in promoting freedom of religion or belief in our troubled world.

As I expect that Ambassador Sharma and Professor Amor will comment on legal and political issues concerning the enforcement of freedom of religion or belief, I will suggest how we might more creatively understand various situations involving religious conflict and how communities of faith and NGO representatives might contribute to our common quest for peace and reconciliation.

First, I want to recommend that we encourage more effective enforcement of human rights in countries formerly part of the Soviet Union but avoid singling out freedom of religion or belief, as though this right is more important than other fundamental human rights. The great challenge facing countries that were part of the Soviet Union is the creation of representative and democratic government and the voluntary institutions of a civil society that are necessary to sustain the rule of law. This should be the primary focus of our efforts.

There are, for instance, reasons to be concerned about religious freedom in Russia, and yet such concern is often unfair and self-serving. Criticism of Russia is at times unfair because it seems to link human rights to the creation of a secular state. Moreover, such criticism may also be self-serving because many of those protesting the establishment of the Russian Orthodox Church represent religious organizations seeking greater membership in Russia by converting Orthodox believers.

A more constructive critical approach would acknowledge that international human rights law is being violated in many respects today in Russia but does not require a secular state or "separation of church and state" to use the phrase familiar to most Americans. The standard of international human rights law is non-discrimination by the state. We should not expect Russian law to look like American law but instead should encourage the Russians to follow the example of a country like Norway, to name only one of the Western European nations with an established church that nonetheless enforces international standards concerning freedom of religion or belief. In addition, religious NGOs should be at least as committed to the creation of a civil society in Russia as to securing opportunities for membership drives in Russia on behalf of their religious organizations.

Second, I wish to recommend that we enter into dialogue with Muslims about the restrictions on fundamental human rights that are imposed in many countries with Islamic majorities. Again, it is important not to single out freedom of religion or belief, because other fundamental rights may also be threatened. Furthermore, it is essential that we do not characterize the teachings of Islam as repressive, but rather enter into a dialogue with Muslims about the application of international law in pluralist societies with Islamic majorities.

I have personally been involved in both Bangladesh and Pakistan in public discussions about human rights that involved Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Christians in Bangladesh and Muslims and Christians in Pakistan. The rights of religious minorities are often violated in these two countries, and these violations should be condemned. But in societies with predominately Islamic populations, it may be more helpful to encourage interfaith dialogue and cooperation in the creation of the civil institutions and activities required by representative and democratic government. The government of Bangladesh should be commended for the progress it has made in this respect, and the government of Pakistan should be encouraged to make greater efforts to ensure the protection of fundamental human rights.

I do not mean to single out either Bangladesh or Pakistan for praise or criticism but mention these two countries to remind us that the protection of freedom of religion or belief varies in countries that have Islamic majority populations, as it does in other countries where Christians, Jews, Buddhists, or Hindus have considerable influence over the government. Thus, I suggest that it is not helpful to generalize about "Muslim countries," or to talk about "Islamic fundamentalism" as if these phrases have clear meanings and are the result of consensus among Muslims.

Instead, it is best to encourage dialogue with leaders of the religious groups in a particular country and to leave questions about Islamic teaching concerning human rights to the recognized leadership of Muslim communities. It may well be, for instance, that Muslim leaders will be able to agree that repressive laws such as the blasphemy statute in Pakistan are not supported by Islamic teaching, if those who oppose such laws because they violate international human rights are careful not to characterize these offensive laws as Islamic.

Third, I would like to recommend that we take more care in the way we talk about our religious faith or belief and the religious faith or beliefs of others. This is particularly important if we are to persuade governments to avoid using language about "sects" and "cults" in statutes regulating the practice of religion, and also if we are to encourage religious communities to avoid legally permissible but offensive practices in promoting their faith or beliefs.

International law clearly supports the right of a person to change her or his "religion or belief" and the right of communities to witness to their faith or beliefs through teaching, preaching, publishing and other forms of public activity. It is clear, however, that aggressive tactics by missionaries in many countries have prompted political leaders to impose restrictions on religious witness that violate international human rights standards.

Religious NGOs can provide creative leadership in this regard by encouraging governments to avoid legal restrictions based on status distinctions and to regulate the rights of free speech and religious expression by specifying conduct that is impermissible. This means not restricting religious activities because they are sponsored by a foreign organization or a new religious movement, or on the basis of some other distinction in the status of the sponsoring organization, but only imposing reasonable limitations concerning the time, manner and place permitted for the exercise of the fundamental human right of freedom of religion or belief.

Religious NGOs can also help to encourage governments to enforce human rights standards with respect to freedom of speech and religious expression by urging faith communities that engage in missionary activities to exercise self-restraint in their conduct. Both the Vatican and the World Council of Churches discourage "proselytism" as "a corruption of Christian witness," because they understand proselytism to involve cajolery, bribery, undue pressure, or intimidation (even if in subtle ways) in order to bring about a seeming conversion.

Under international law proselytism is not defined in this way or distinguished from more appropriate forms of witness, thus missionary organizations can and do claim the right to proselytize. Nonetheless, we can urge religious leaders regardless of their faith tradition to accept voluntarily the distinction suggested by the Vatican and the World Council of Churches, between proselytism and witnessing to one's faith or beliefs, as a way of fostering mutual respect and trust among religious communities. Surely, this kind of interfaith cooperation is crucial for the creation of a civil society and for the effective enforcement by governments of international human rights standards.

In closing I ask your forgiveness, if I have failed to denounce a violation of freedom of religion or belief of great concern to you, or if I have said anything that seems to divert us from the struggle to secure human dignity through the protection of fundamental human rights. I did not believe it best to concentrate on the condemnation of human rights violations, although one can only admit with sorrow that there is much to condemn. Instead, I have invited you to consider ways that we, and our religious organizations and our NGOs, might contribute to the realization of fundamental human rights. It is my prayer that, despite our different cultural and religious traditions, we will be united by our faith in human rights and by our commitment to ensure freedom of religion or belief throughout our earth community.

bob@rtraer.com © Robert Traer 2016