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Freedom of religion must not encroach on other rights, say academics

10 December 2020


Thai Police officers blocked several roads in Bangkok to prevent protests by people calling for political reform on International Human Rights Day on Thursday

Thai Police officers blocked several roads in Bangkok to prevent protests by people calling for political reform on International Human Rights Day on ...

THE right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) should not be seen as separate from other human rights, or allowed to infringe on them, campaigners have said.

A group of academics, leaders, and civil-society representatives published an open letter to coincide with Human Rights Day on 10 December.

They write: “We are concerned with political or ideological tendencies that obscure the human-rights nature of FoRB. With this letter, we wish to reaffirm the status of FoRB as a human right, on a par with other human rights and firmly anchored within the broader international human rights system.”

The letter was presented to the public at a virtual event, “Close to Our Hearts: Freedom of religion or belief as a human right”, on Thursday by the Danish Institute for Human Rights. It was followed by another online event, “A Faith Imperative for Human Rights” an hour later, which examined faith, human rights, and gender issues.

Signatories include the former UN special rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Heiner Bielefeldt; the director of the Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Lena Larsen; the representative to the UN for Minority Rights Group International, Glenn Payot; and the senior researcher at the Danish Institute for Human Rights, Dr Marie Juul Petersen.

The letter also expresses concern that “dichotomized views, which pit FoRB against other human rights, exist in various ways. For example, some contend that FoRB is inherently in opposition to freedom of expression, thereby obscuring the fact that the two rights have much in common and can mutually reinforce each other.”

The signatories insist that, “while tensions between different human-rights issues can always occur in concrete contexts, it would be dangerously misleading to turn such inevitable tensions into abstract dichotomies. Policies to promote one specific human right with the strategic intention of de-legitimizing or minimizing other human rights will ultimately erode the integrity and normative force of human rights in general.”

The letter urges people to remember that freedom of religion or belief “plays a crucial role in that it reminds us that human beings can search for meaning in various ways and cherish profound identity-shaping convictions, in conformity with which they may wish to live their lives, as individuals and in community with others. Without adequately recognizing this central dimension of the human condition, human rights would cease to be fully humane.

“We, therefore, pledge our continued commitment to freedom of religion or belief as an inalienable human right, convinced that such a commitment can only be meaningful within the broader human-rights approach. In the face of growing political and ideological tendencies towards normative fragmentation, relativism and selectivity, this elementary insight warrants public re-affirmation.”

The letter is available for anyone to sign online here.

The Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, who was announced in July as the chair of a new forum on FoRB (News, 10 July), said on Thursday: “I fully agree with the contention that freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) is not to be side-lined as a human right. It is rightly enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“Indeed, the work of the review I undertook demonstrated clearly to me how, in most of the world, FoRB does not conflict with other rights but rather reinforces them, so that for instance gender justice is better guaranteed when FoRB is upheld.

“Conversely when FoRB is denied, women are exposed to greater risk and minority communities become yet more marginalised. So to uphold FoRB is to uphold a plethora of other critical rights.”

On Wednesday, it was announced that the Church of England would play a lead role in a government-funded project designed to help leaders in eight African and Asian countries tackle FoRB-related problems in their communities. The project, the Freedom of Religion or Belief Leadership Network, will provide training for political and faith-based leaders on FoRB on issues around health, education, and gender. Its aim to help community leaders to generate solutions for their own cultural contexts.

The research for the project it is due to be co-ordinated by the Centre for Social Cohesion at the University of Oxford, while the Church of England will take charge of operational delivery.

The initiative costs £5.6 million, to be provided by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and will continue until Autumn 2023.

The international-affairs adviser for the Church of England, and operations director for the Freedom of Religion or Belief Leadership Network, Dr Charles Reed, said on Wednesday: “At a time when freedom of religion is increasingly contested as a human right, and when the human-rights system itself is under strain, we shouldn’t forget that everyone, everywhere, has this right by virtue of being human.

“Over the next three years, we will work with parliamentarians and belief leaders from eight countries in strengthening their commitment to freedom of religion or belief as a human right, one that is on par with other rights and one squarely rooted within the broader human-rights system.

“Parliamentarians and belief leaders have considerable untapped potential to make a positive impact on the human-rights landscape whether by reforming discriminatory legislation or by using their influence over the hearts and minds of millions of people.”

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