Religious Liberty Congress “Leaves a Bad Taste”
By “Awake!” correspondent in the Netherlands
AMSTERDAM was the site of something unique this year. During March 21 to 23, the Hilton Hotel played host to the First World Congress on Religious Liberty.
Sponsors of this congress officially stated as its purpose: 1. To make the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA) a truly viable instrument for promoting religious liberty on a world level. 2. To bring the International Religious Liberty Association to the attention of world leaders through the mass media. 3. To give an international award to statesmen who have advanced religious liberty within their particular countries. 4. To provide a noncombative forum for an exchange of views on religious liberty.
“A Congress of Non-Commitment”
Official backers of the meeting assured that its intention was one of “quiet diplomacy” and ‘not to expose and condemn abuses of religious freedom.’ In general, speakers praised their respective countries for great strides toward religious freedom, while glossing over instances where that freedom has been withheld.
Certain speeches contained some very good statements. For example, one delegate noted that, following the Protestant Reformation, rulers drew up agreements to defend large segments of religious thought. But what about smaller groups and individuals? The speaker mentioned that on the whole these were left without protection and liberty. He remarked that many freedoms extend only to the large religious organizations.
With regard to denial of religious freedom in some places, the same individual made an interesting point. He explained that the stated reason for bringing colonies into existence was to extend civilization to backward peoples. He noted, though, that it quickly became clear that the real motives for colonization were political and economic.
The overall effect of the gathering, however, was disappointing. There were even some arguments advanced in favor of denying freedom of worship under certain circumstances. The representative of Islam, for example, claimed that where people are hungry, thirsty and oppressed by unfavorable social conditions, they are not able to think clearly and make right decisions on matters concerning religion. In the opinion of this representative, only after rectification of these injustices should Moslems be exposed to foreign religious thinking. Until then, he declared, it may be wise to curb religious freedom.
Delegates at this gathering repeatedly urged reliance on the United Nations as an instrument for guaranteeing freedom of worship. Many expressed concern that the United Nations has not yet adopted a declaration against religious discrimination.a Concerning the general spirit of this special meeting, an observer writes:
“One did not taste the spirit of serious business dealing with the grim reality of trodden-down freedom of worship and expression presently blighting a large portion of mankind. Instead it looked more like a get-together of old pals, shoulderpatting, handshaking and benignly smiling. At any rate, this atmosphere reflected the stated purpose and goal of this congress very well.”
“It was a congress of non-commitment. One was very careful about stepping on anybody’s toes. As one staff official put it during a recess period: ‘Listening to all these good speeches, one gets the impression that there is nothing wrong anywhere in the world as to religious liberty. Of course there is a lot that is wrong. But I suppose that if the speakers did relate the facts they would really get into trouble after they came home.’”
Committee Hears Jehovah’s Witnesses
It was arranged for two observers representing Jehovah’s Witnesses to address a special committee regarding persecution of the Witnesses in Malawi and other countries. The committee listened very attentively and cordially and showed keen interest in the matter.
Later, in private discussions, committee members expressed appreciation for what had been said about the plight of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They admitted that, while aware of such persecutions, they had no idea how bad things really were. The individuals on this special committee gave the impression of sincerely wanting to do something for the victims.
“Quiet as a Mouse”
On its final day the congress issued a resolution. This was not planned originally. Only after hearing the previous evening about ‘various complaints’ of religious intolerance and persecution did the congress see fit to issue a statement. However, nothing was said publicly in the congress meeting hall about the inhuman treatment of Christians in Malawi or in other parts of the earth. In line with the gathering’s spirit of “quiet diplomacy” and intent ‘not to expose and condemn abuses of religious freedom,’ the resolution was inconcrete and noncommittal.
Among other things, the delegates resolved: To request the organizations sponsoring the congress to set up a committee to monitor the situation of religious freedom in the world; to draw attention of governments to the fundamental human right of religious liberty; to urge that governments press the United Nations for adoption of a declaration against religious discrimination.
In news media of the Netherlands the First World Congress on Religious Liberty received scant attention. There was a short report on the national radio newscast. On television, Dr. Philip Potter, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, made some comments about the gathering. Newspapers gave the congress very little coverage. One article, however, deserves mention. In an editorial entitled “Mice in the Hilton Hotel,” Amsterdam’s Nieuws van de dag summed up:
“This meeting in Amsterdam leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth, and that is that one is too afraid to scald oneself with cold water. Hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil. Outwardly, quiet as a mouse in the Hilton. Maybe we can cherish the hope that the three hundred mice will swiftly multiply themselves as it befits mice. But because we cannot count on that, we surely could have done with some more powerful words out of there.”