Article written by Ján Figeľ, Special Envoy for promotion of FoRB outside the EU
International Day of Religious Freedom (October 27) is a reminder that freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) is neither self-evident reality, nor broadly winning international trend. Quite opposite, tendency is negative. This essential, universal human value is currently seriously restricted or attacked in majority of world countries and territories representing 74% total population (Pew Study Center Report, 2013). The Day also reminds people of the hard, long, often bloody road from serfdom, deep societal divisions, sectarian hatred and violent oppression to free, pluralist and tolerant societies respecting the rule of law, human rights and basic universal values. None of them is the perfect role model in this, but we learn as we go. Many peoples, communities, leaders and governments in Europe, Asia, Africa, Americas, Australia and Oceania struggle to improve quality of democracy, to embrace and care more about these principles and values. Many dictators, autocratic regimes and violent groups struggle in the opposite direction: the rule without law instead of the rule of law, the rule over people instead of the service to people…
While more than 84% of people in the world can be described as “religiously affiliated” (ibid), FoRB is not just related to them. It doesn’t only concern them. It is for all, as it covers atheists, agnostics, everybody. Right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or conviction is linked to freedom of expression, of assembly and other important civil and political rights. It is a litmus test of all human rights. Because when the religious freedom is missing then other civil freedoms are missing as well. Culture of human dignity is inconceivable without FoRB. In my homeland Slovakia, then Czechoslovakia, struggle to overcome totalitarian, communist regime peaked after Bratislava Great Friday 1988 when peaceful prayer manifestation of citizens in the center of the capital city with requests for religious and civil rights was brutally attacked by police forces. Since then a trend towards “Velvet revolution” and overall political change in 1989 became unstoppable.
Freedom is not purposeless and cannot survive without shared responsibility. Therefore claims for more religious liberty are in my mind implicitly linked to active engagement of religious leaders and communities for peace, justice, human togetherness and solidarity. This is very much needed in the 21st Century. Since 1915 – 16 systematic extermination of 1.5 million Armenians, which constituted first recognized genocide of the 20th Century, mankind went through similar horrors on religious, racial, national or ethnic base in many parts of the globe – in Nazi and Soviet concentration camps, gulags and mass graves, in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia… “Never again” promise from Nuremberg Tribunal 1946 was broken repeatedly, again and again. We abandoned commitment to prevent genocide or inhumane treatment too often. In reality, we abandon people in need, those persecuted for their religion, conviction, race, ethnicity – for their human identity.
Current systematic murdering, torture, enslaving, kidnapping, raping and persecution of religious and ethnic minorities on territories dominated by ISIS constitute the very same type of top crime – genocide. This position was strongly expressed by parliamentary bodies of Council of Europe, EU, USA, UK and Australia. Therefore here a very timely and alarming question comes: Shall the century of genocides end or continue?
Which group and territory, after Christians, Yezidis, Shia-Muslims and some other communities in Iraq and Syria, will follow next time? Answer is crucially important and commitment is decisive. I am sure with many like-minded, that better century is possible. Better, more human century is our moral obligation! If we want to share more peaceful and better times, we have to prevent that repetitive tendency, returns of inhumanity. This means to stop persecution of innocent people, to help voiceless and defenseless victims, and to bring perpetrators of crimes to justice. Ignorance, indifference or fear helps fanatics and perpetrators of crimes; our silence hurts the victims.
Beside genocidal persecution there are many other forms of religious oppression – anti-blasphemy laws, anti-conversion laws, sectarian violence, totalitarian regimes which try to eliminate religious manifestations and freedom of conscience and conviction for the sake of their ideology and uniformity. By the way, Marx and Lenin hated religion as “opium of mankind”. And they have created their own “religion” – new coercive and militant ideology. Recent major dictators – Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot – fiercely suppressed FoRB.
Without understanding religions, including abuse of religion (like the one done by Islamic terrorists), we cannot understand what is going on in our world. Subsequently we cannot find efficient healing therapy. Promotion of FoRB and ethics of responsibility, education for living in diversity is the principal way to tackle religious fundamentalism, violent extremism and terrorism. When we continuously cut the roots of ignorance, indifference and fear, culture of human dignity for all and everywhere may grow and bear positive fruit in our century.