Religious Tolerance

Inter-religious Hearing in the United Kingdom
At the House of Commons, London
November 25, 1998

Distinguished speakers and guests, I am honored to be asked to speak to you this evening. I will focus my brief comments on how communities of faith might contribute to religious tolerance.

First, I 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 communities 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.

Second, 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.

The standard of international human rights law is non-discrimination by the state. We should not demand that Russia create a secular state, but instead should encourage Russians to follow the example of Norway, to name only one of the Western European nations with an established church that nonetheless enforces international standards concerning freedom or religion or belief. In addition, religious communities should be at least as committed to the creation of a civil society in Russia as to securing opportunities for membership drives there on behalf of their organizations.

Third, 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. In societies that are predominately Muslim, however, it may be more helpful to encourage interfaith cooperation in the creation of the civil institutions and in the 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 do not characterise these offensive laws as Islamic.

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 our religious communities 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. © Robert Traer 2016