Religion and Religious Freedom in International Diplomacy

Advancement of religious literacy and religious freedom literacy in international diplomacy is increasingly needed, a panel on religious freedom and international diplomacy stated on 23 September in Geneva.

A panel discussion “Religion and Religious Freedom in International Diplomacy” was organised during the 33rd session of the UN Human Rights Council by the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, the delegation of the European Union to the UN in Geneva and the World Council of Churches (WCC).

The meeting was moderated by Ahmed Shaheed, professor of human rights at the University of Essex’s School of Law and its Human Rights Centre. Participants of the meeting, including representatives of diplomatic missions in Geneva, international and faith-based organizations and non-government organizations (NGOs), were welcomed by Ambassador Peter Sørensen, Head of the European Union (EU) Delegation to the UN in Geneva. “The EU defends and promotes the principled position that freedom of religion or belief is a fundamental right to which everyone is entitled, everywhere,” stated Ambassador Sørensen in his opening remarks.

Baroness Elizabeth Berridge, member of Britain’s upper parliamentary chamber, the House of Lords, addressed the meeting, describing the work of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief, an informal network of parliamentarians and legislators from around the world committed to advancing freedom of religion or belief and combatting religious persecution. The panel also featured Lord Indarjit Singh, Baron Singh of Wimbledon, who raised concern that in foreign diplomacy, greed and economic interests should not trump human rights: “There will be no peace in the world unless we are even-handed in human rights. God is not interested in our different labels. He is interested in how we behave.”

Peter Prove, director of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA) of the World Council of Churches, stated that the WCC has never seen religion as being purely a matter for the private realm – but rather as a reference point and basis for public advocacy for justice, peace, human dignity and care for creation. Respect for freedom of religion is a fundamental prerequisite for democratic and peaceful progress of human society. “The difficult situation of religious minorities in many parts of the world has increasingly become a concern for the WCC – especially in the Middle East region. Religious diversity and religious minorities are crucial for healthy and sustainable societies. Our concern is to bring the situation of religious minority communities to the centre of international affairs, acknowledging the equal rights of all.”

Heiner Bielefeldt, UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, noted that we need to understand the secularity as an open space, not an empty space. “Religion should be visible and audible in public space, rather than silenced or pushed out of it. Therefore international diplomacy should not move away from the secularity paradigm.” Referring to human rights, Bielefeldt said: “I do believe in human dignity, but human rights are not a religion, and must not be turned into religion. Because the function of human rights is to provide equal rights for members of all religions and beliefs.”

The CCIA, an advisory body of the WCC providing a platform for joint advocacy and support initiatives for peace-making, justice and overcoming poverty, was founded in 1946. “As we mark this year the 70th anniversary of the CCIA, it was important to highlight the work, contribution and engagement of the WCC/CCIA on questions of freedom of religion or belief through a public event at the UN,” said Semegnish Asfaw, programme executive at the WCC, and a co-organizers of the public event. “The contribution of religious literacy to religious freedom literacy in foreign diplomacy is a contemporary issue in an increasingly secularized world.”

The public event was preceded by a consultation involving the CCIA and diplomatic representatives from ministries of foreign affairs, developmental aid agencies, permanent missions in Geneva, UN Agencies and NGOs, on 22 September.

Longstanding member of CCIA Duleep DeChickera, Anglican bishop of Colombo, Sri Lanka, who participated in both days of the discussions, noted the meeting was a valuable contribution in advancement of understanding freedom of religion in international diplomacy. “The meeting was a success in setting out the agenda for the future work in advancement of religious literacy and religious freedom literacy more clearly,” said DeChickera. “To our future work in this area I commend the principle from the tradition of Bodhisatva: Go slowly, go carefully, go mindfully.”

[Media release from World Council of Churches]