Panel urges talks on religious intolerance

17 November 2005

UNITED NATIONS — Governments should tackle increased religious intolerance by promoting discussion both within and between religious groups and by ensuring that women and political leaders are involved in the talks.

These were among the recommendations made by a panel of experts in freedom of religion and belief at a symposium organized by the Baha'i International Community in New York on 25 October 2005.

The panel included 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.

Bani Dugal, the principal representative of the Baha'i International Community to the United Nations, chaired the symposium titled "Freedom to Believe: Upholding the Standard of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."

Ms. Dugal said the Baha'i International Community sponsored the event to stimulate discussion and thinking about the implementation and protection of the right to freedom of religion and belief.

"Perhaps now more than ever in our lifetimes, religious ideas and religious actors are asserting themselves at all levels of society," Ms. Dugal said.

"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.

SLIDESHOW
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The panel at the symposium on "Freedom to Believe: Upholding the Standard of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights." (Left to right) Asma Jahangir, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief; Piet de Klerk, Netherlands' Ambassador at Large for Human Rights; Felice Gaer, Director of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights.

"At the same time -- as repeatedly highlighted in the reports of the United Nations Special Rapporteurs on this right -- 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."

All three panelists stressed the importance of upholding the right to freedom of religion and belief 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 Mr. De Klerk, adding that all human rights are universal and interconnected.

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

Mr. De Klerk said that although concern about government repression of religious freedom has not lost its importance, recent trends have led to increased tensions between religious groups themselves and that has caused new worries over the right to religious freedom, he said.

"In our globalized world, certain religions or believers feel more and more threatened than before."

This trend seems to have led to a rise in fundamentalism and accompanying clashes between governmental law and religious law.

Mr. De Klerk said the first reason for heightened religious tension was that increased migration means 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, Mr. De Klerk said the best way for governments to deal with religious tension and intolerance is to promote dialogue, both within and between religious groups.

That would make it more difficult for extremists to encourage religious violence, he said. "States should support these dialogues both morally and financially."

Ms. Jahangir said that in her visits as UN Special Rapporteur last year to three countries -- Nigeria, Sri Lanka, and France -- she saw evidence of renewed competition among religions and the fear that one religion is going to overtake the other.

Religious dialogue should not be held just among religious leaders, she said. "Dialogue would remain meaningless unless politicians are involved -- more so, women, who remain on the fringes and are often the victims of religious intolerance."

One of the most contentious arenas between religious groups and others, including the state, is the area of family law, she said.

Sometimes interpretations of religious law conflicts with generally accepted principles of national and international law such as the equality of women and men, she said.

"I believe it is time now for politicians...to take a lead in the dialogue on how these tensions can be removed 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...it makes poverty worse," she said.

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

Ms. Gaer said 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 then the remedy must not lie in the suppression of religious expression but in the teaching of tolerance," she said.

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

However, when USCIRF pressed Egyptian officials for evidence that such groups posed a threat to public order, they provided no evidence.

"They said the Baha'is 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."