Honoring the "unseen" heroes in promoting religious freedom and coexistence

16 May 2014

NEW YORK, United States — In this world of division and conflict, it takes a special kind of courage for those in a dominant group to break ranks and speak out on behalf of the oppressed, especially when this comes at great personal risk.

Examples, often overlooked, can be found in many places, such as when Albanians refused to round up Jews during World War II, when two Italian priests sheltered minority Tutsi orphans from genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s, when Muslim and Christian women negotiated the release of children held hostage by a rebel group in Sierra Leone, or, more recently, when a senior Iranian cleric bravely called for coexistence with Baha'is.

These and other stories of "unseen valor" were highlighted at an event yesterday that brought together United Nations ambassadors, academics, UN officials, and representatives of civil society in a discussion about the importance of citizen action in support of religious freedom and atrocity crime prevention.

"The people we have heard about should become our role models, our champions, and guide our actions," said Adama Dieng, Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide. "Let us be inspired by them to speak out and to act against intolerance, discrimination, and violence."

Sponsored by two NGO committees at the United Nations, "Unseen Valor: Acts of Interfaith Courage in the Promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief" was held at the office of the Baha'i International Community in New York.

Bani Dugal, President of the NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief, one of the sponsoring committees, said the event was inspired by the recent actions of Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani, who publicly gifted to the Baha'is of the world an illuminated work of calligraphy highlighting a passage from the writings of Baha'u'llah, the founder of the Baha'i Faith.

"This is a very courageous act given the systematic persecution of Baha'is in Iran," said Ms. Dugal, who is also Principal Representative of the BIC to the UN.

"At the UN, discussions about human rights and in particular, freedom of religion or belief, often revolve around the role of Member States and international law.

"However, we know that citizen action is equally important in upholding freedom, and this event seeks to highlight those individuals who speak out, often at great personal peril, to demonstrate solidarity with those at risk, to inspire and influence others to enrich the environment with unity and harmony," said Ms. Dugal.

Ferit Hoxha, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Albania to the United Nations, told the dramatic story of how Albanians, as a people and a nation during World War II, welcomed and protected Jews from Nazi persecution – despite German occupation and great risk to those who offered shelter.

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Adama Dieng, Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide, speaking yesterday at "Unseen Valor".

"There were a handful of countries in Europe that stood up and saved thousands of Jews," said Ambassador Hoxha.

But what makes the Albanian story unique, he said, is that "every member of the Jewish community living in Albania survived the Holocaust."

"Like no other occupied country, Albania became a Jewish sanctuary and it had ten times more Jews within its border at the end of the war compared to the beginning."

"There is no need for any imagination or effort to understand that those times and years were dark for Albanians themselves," said Ambassador Hoxha. "Risks were high, threats to life were everywhere, and hiding Jews under Nazi occupation was simply a death threat for the entire family."

Jacqueline Murekatete told a personal story of how, with the help of two courageous Italian priests at the St. Anthony's orphanage in Nyanza, Rwanda, she survived the 1994 genocide, during which more than a million ethnic Tutsis were killed by members of the Hutu majority. Her parents and all her brothers and sisters, however, did not survive.

"Many times these two Italian priests were threatened," said Ms. Murekatete, who is an internationally recognized human rights activist and founder of Jacqueline's Human Rights Corner, a genocide prevention and education program. "They were physically abused. But every time they were called by their embassy and told they could be evacuated, they refused.

"They told the embassy that unless they could bring the children, like myself, they would not leave," she said. "And so over 300 Tutsi children survived."

William Vendley, Secretary General of Religions for Peace International, told a number of stories about religious leaders working behind the scenes around the world to quell religious or ethnic conflict.

In Sierra Leone, during a brutal civil war that lasted from 1991-2002, a group of Muslim and Christian women boldly negotiated the release of 50 child captives held by the Revolutionary United Front, said Dr. Vendley, who is also Chair of the Committee of Religious NGOs at the UN, which co-sponsored the event.

"They went into the bush completely unarmed," he said. "And their strength was that they were women and they were all mothers."

That act of courage helped open the door to the peace accords that finally ended the war there in 2002, said Dr. Vendley.

"I am one who believes that if these women, Muslims and Christians together, hadn't done what they had done, the path would not have been as direct to a final solution," he said.

In the telling of these stories, many of the speakers yesterday said that it is such individual or small-group acts of courage that have broken down the barriers of hatred or intolerance that attempt to strip some groups of their humanity.

In that context, Special Adviser Dieng said he saluted "the wisdom and courage" of Ayatollah Tehrani.

"I echo his call for 'religious coexistence' with Iranian Baha'is," stated Mr. Dieng, saying he "shows us that Islam's peaceful legacy is not just history: it must also be the future.

"Courage is like a flower that blossoms in concrete," said Mr. Dieng. "It can foster human dignity by challenging stereotypes and stigma and – in the best cases – save lives."

Likewise, Borislava Manojlovic, an expert in conflict analysis and resolution at Seton Hall University, referring generally to such actions, said that when individuals or leaders "depart from the norm," it can lead to "a variety of transformational outcomes in support of peace."

She had discussed how individuals had given shelter to Muslims in the recent conflict in the Central African Republic. "Choosing peace in the midst of a conflict can be dangerous," said Dr. Manojlovic, noting that members of the majority risk being shunned by their own communities.

"But a true, sustainable peace comes about when someone in the system is able to imagine a way to create a discontinuity in the vicious cycles of revenge (which often underlie such conflicts) and act upon it," said Dr. Manojlovic.

"This is a choice an individual, a group, or a state makes," she said.