Religious Tolerance

In New York, panelists stress importance of interreligious dialogue

NEW YORK — Governments should fight increased religious intolerance around the world by promoting dialogue both between and within religious groups — and by ensuring that women and political leaders are involved in such dialogues.

Those were among the points made by a panel of experts on the topic of freedom of religion and belief at a two-hour symposium held at the Bahá'í International Community offices in New York on 25 October 2005.

Titled “Freedom to Believe: Upholding the Standard of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” the panel was composed of Piet de Klerk, Netherlands'Ambassador at Large for Human Rights; Asma Jahangir, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief; and Felice Gaer, Director of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights.

All three panelists stressed the importance of upholding the right to freedom of religion and belief, which is outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and other UN treaties.

“Some say freedom of religion is the mother of all human rights,” said Ambassador De Klerk, adding that he believes all human rights are indeed universal and interconnected.

Further, he said, “the degree to which freedom of religion or belief is upheld reflects the general human rights situation in a particular country.”

Ambassador De Klerk said that while “classic” concern about government repression of religious freedom has not lost its importance, recent trends that have led to increased tensions and intolerance between religious groups themselves have given rise to new concerns over the right to religious freedom.

“In our globalized world, certain religions or believers feel more and more threatened than before,” said Ambassador De Klerk, adding that this trend seems to have led to a rise in fundamentalism and accompanying clashes between man-made law and religious interpretations of divine law.

“Religious tension seems to be increased,” he said. “First migration has increased and religions are less confined to one particular region than before. The second reason is that after the fall of the iron curtain, it has become more difficult to rally people around political ideologies. But religious ideology has not lost its influence.”

Beyond strictly upholding laws that provide for religious freedom, Ambassador De Klerk said the best way for governments to deal with religious tension and intolerance is to promote interreligious dialogue, both within and between religious groups.

“Intrafaith and interfaith dialogue make it more difficult for extremists to encourage religious violence,” said Ambassador De Klerk. “States should support these dialogues both morally and financially.”

Ms. Jahangir agreed that interreligious dialogue is today an “essential” element for defusing religious tensions. In her visits as Special Rapporteur last year to three countries — Nigeria, Sri Lanka, and France — she likewise saw evidence of “renewed competition among religions and the fear that one religion is going to overtake the other.”

But religious dialogue should not be held just among religious leaders, she said. “Dialogue would remain meaningless unless politicians are involved,” Ms. Jahangir said. “More so, women, who remain on the fringes and are often the victims of religious intolerance.”

She said for example one of the most contentious arenas between religious groups and others, including the state, is the area of family law. Sometimes religious interpretations of divine law conflict with principles of national and international law, she said, such as regarding the equality of women.

“I believe it is time now for take a lead in the dialogue on how these tensions can be removed,” said Ms. Jahangir. “Because some of it may be purely because of belief and some of it may be a jostling for power — and it is the jostling for power that must be addressed.”

Ms. Jahangir also said that she has observed a relationship between religious freedom and development. “Where you have religious oppression,” she said, “it makes poverty worse.”

Ms. Gaer spoke about her experience as a member of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), established in 1998 to monitor the freedom of religion or belief outside the United States with reference to US foreign policy.

In her remarks, Ms. Gaer said she believes that some governments misapply the limitations on religious freedom that are specified in international treaties, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

For example, while the ICCPR upholds the right to “freedom of thought, conscience and religion,” including the right to “manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching,” it allows governments to curb the open expression of religious belief if “necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”

Ms. Gaer said that many governments have unjustifiably taken this clause as a license to suppress minority religions.

In Saudi Arabia, she said, members of the USCIRF were told by government officials that the open expression of religion — such as the existence of non-Muslim houses of worship and religious symbols — must be restricted because “the Saudi people would not tolerate it and they might violently oppose the public expression of religion by non-Muslims.”

“If this is accurate,” she said, “then the remedy must not lie in the suppression of religious expression but in the teaching of tolerance.”

Ms. Gaer said, likewise, that during a visit to Egypt in which the USCIRF investigated concerns over the oppression of Coptic Christians, Jews, Bahá'ís and certain “unorthodox Muslims” in the summer of 2004, members of the USCIRF were told by government officials that any such restrictions were required to protect public order.

However, she said, when USCIRF pressed Egyptian officials for evidence that such groups posed a threat to public order, they offered unsupported arguments.

“They said the Bahá'ís had engaged in political activity and that the community participated in immoral acts,” said Ms. Gaer. “But they had no facts to back up their denunciations in formal meetings. And when we pointed that out to them, it made absolutely no difference to those officials, who continued in other meetings where the very same arguments were made.”

Bani Dugal , the principal representative of the Bahá'í International Community to the United Nations, acted as moderator for the panel. She said the Community sponsored the event “to stimulate discussion and thinking about the challenges associated with the implementation and protection” of the right to freedom of religion and belief.

“Against the backdrop of accelerating processes of globalization, the search for meaning, rootedness, and community is manifesting itself in diverse expressions of worship and belief,” she said.

“At the same time, we witness persistent intolerance and discrimination based on religion and belief, the proliferation of violence and hatred in the name of religion, and religious extremism.”