Religious Intolerance Today
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” Article 18, Universal Declaration Of Human Rights, 1948.
DO YOU enjoy religious freedom in your country? Most countries in the world ostensibly subscribe to this noble principle, which has been included many times in international declarations. It is estimated, however, that in numerous countries where intolerance and discrimination are hard realities, countless millions of people today do not enjoy religious freedom. On the other hand, many people live in multiracial, multiethnic, or multireligious societies where freedom is guaranteed by law and tolerance is seemingly enshrined in the nations’ culture.
Yet, even in these places, some people are affected by threats to religious freedom. “Discrimination based upon religion or conviction exists in almost all economic, social, and ideological systems and in all parts of the world,” noted Angelo d’Almeida Ribeiro, former Special Rapporteur appointed by the UN Commission on Human Rights. In their book Freedom of Religion and Belief—A World Report, published in 1997, editors Kevin Boyle and Juliet Sheen state: “Religious persecution of minority faiths [and] the proscribing of beliefs and pervasive discrimination . . . are daily occurrences at the end of the twentieth century.”
Religious discrimination, however, does not affect just religious minorities. Professor Abdelfattah Amor, Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance, of the UN Commission on Human Rights, considers that “no religion is safe from violation.” It is quite likely, then, that intolerance and prejudice are commonly faced by some religions where you live.
Varied Forms of Discrimination
Religious discrimination can take many forms. Some countries simply exclude all but one religion, making it, in effect, the State religion. In other countries, laws are passed restricting the activity of certain religions. Some lands have enacted laws that have been interpreted in an arbitrary way. Consider the scope for abuse of a proposed law in Israel to punish the importation, printing, distribution, or possession of brochures or material “in which there is an inducement to religious conversion.” Not surprisingly, the International Herald Tribune newspaper reports: “In Israel, Jehovah’s Witnesses have been harassed and attacked.” A Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Lod was broken into three times and trashed twice by fanatic ultraorthodox zealots. The police declined to interfere.
The book Freedom of Religion and Belief cites other examples of intolerance: “Heresy and heretics are not only an image from the past. . . . Rejection, persecution and discrimination towards those who have taken a different path remain a major cause of intolerance. The Ahmadis in Pakistan and the [Baha’is] in Egypt, Iran, and Malaysia are some examples as are the Jehovah’s Witnesses in several countries of Eastern Europe, in Greece and Singapore.” Clearly, religious freedom is under threat in many parts of the world.
In the face of this, Federico Mayor, director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, declared that the emerging world of the near future “does not inspire whole-hearted enthusiasm. . . . The winds of freedom have rekindled the embers of hatred.” Confirming these fears, the director of the Human Rights Centre of the University of Essex, United Kingdom, observed: “All evidence points to the conclusion that religious intolerance . . . is increasing rather than decreasing in the modern world.” Such increasing intolerance threatens religious freedom, perhaps your religious freedom. Why, though, is religious freedom so important?
What Is at Stake?
“Religious freedom is a fundamental requirement before any society can be described as free. . . . Without freedom of religion and the right to disseminate one’s faith there can be no rights of conscience and no genuine democracy,” observed sociologist Bryan Wilson in his book Human Values in a Changing World. And, as a French court recently recognized, “freedom of belief is one of the fundamental elements of public freedoms.” Thus, whether you are religious or not, you should be interested in the protection of religious freedom.
A country’s attitude toward religious freedom also greatly affects its reputation and international credibility. A report presented in 1997 to a meeting of the 54-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe stated: “Religious Freedom is one of the highest values in the constellation of human rights, going to the very core of human dignity. No system that violates, or allows the systematic violation of, such rights can lay legitimate claim to membership in the community of just and democratic states that respect fundamental human rights.”
Freedom of religion is like part of the foundation of a building. Other freedoms—civil, political, cultural, and economic—are built upon it. If the foundation is undermined, the whole edifice suffers. Professor Francesco Margiotta-Broglio succinctly puts it this way: “Whenever [religious] freedom is violated, other freedoms are the next to suffer.” If other freedoms are to be protected, religious freedom needs to be safeguarded first.
In order to discern how best to protect something, it is essential to understand it. What are the roots of religious freedom? How was it established, and at what price?
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Religious intolerance has a long history