Religious Freedom

A discussion about matters of religious tolerance and freedom

MELBOURNE, Australia - How can interfaith dialogue and religious freedom flourish when one religion declares that another is not a religion? Are tolerance and cooperation only possible among people who share the same doctrinal view of the world?

These questions were posed at the Parliament of the World's Religions by Natalie Mobini, a representative of the Australian Bahá'í community, during a 30-minute presentation on 7 December 2009 at a session on religious conflict and persecution that focused on Myanmar, Thailand, and Iran.

Reflecting on the origins of the interfaith movement - in particular the first Parliament of Religions in 1893 - Dr. Mobini noted that its principal organizer believed that it had "emancipated the world from bigotry."

"The interfaith movement has continued to be inspired by the vision of a world in which the followers of different faiths are able not merely to engage with one another in a spirit of tolerance and respect but also to collaborate in contributing to the advancement of society," she said.

"At the same time, the havoc that religious intolerance is continuing to wreak in our world now poses a more serious threat to humanity's progress and well-being than at any previous time in history."

Dr. Mobini asked how dialogue can occur when one religion attempts to delegitimize another because of underlying theological differences.

In the case of Iran, the results of such an attitude have included the imprisonment of the Bahá'í community's leaders, the desecration of its cemeteries, and the destruction of its holy places.

Noting that the Islamic government of Iran has denied that the Bahá'í Faith is a religion, Dr. Mobini asked, "Is this not the same as the past, when Christianity claimed that Islam is not a true religion?"

"And when the machinery of the state is used for the purpose of eliminating that religion, the challenge moves into sharper focus," she said.

The lives lost during the crusades highlighted the prejudice that colored the attitudes of Christians towards Muslims in past centuries because Christianity did not recognize Islam as a "divine" religion, she said.

"Christians today have, however, been able to transcend that intolerance without compromising their own theological beliefs and engage in interreligious dialogue with Muslims with an open-minded spirit. The world needs to learn from this.

"Should not everyone seek to find within the particular framework of his or her beliefs how to set aside exclusionist claims in order to collaborate with followers of religions whose beliefs are different?" she asked.

In the case of Iran, the Bahá'í Faith does not need to be recognized as "divine" in origin, said Dr. Mobini, "but simply asks that the fact of its existence be accepted and the rights of its followers upheld."

She said that the transformation of attitudes begins at the grass roots and urged individuals to take the spirit of the Parliament back to their communities.

"It is evident that growing numbers of people are coming to realize that the truth underlying all religions is in its essence one," Dr. Mobini said.

"This is the challenge of all of us here and to all who desire to overcome religious intolerance and hatred: how to live up to a ‘golden rule' that is at the heart of each of the world's religions; urging us to treat the followers of other faiths as we ourselves would wish to be treated."