[notice]On International Woman’s Day this year, African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) MP, Cheryllyn Dudley reminded the President of South Africa and Members of Parliament that freedom of religion will not hold up on its own, saying: “If we stand by while global terrorism destroys freedom of religion around the world, we will stand alone when we are under siege”.
Last month, Dudley was among 30 parliamentarians from around the world who signed an unprecedented joint statement committing themselves to advance religious freedom for all. This is her report back.[/notice]
Why is religious freedom important?
In the face of escalating violations of religious freedom worldwide, the International Panel of Parliamentarians (IPP) was launched at the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo, on November 8, 2014, to create a global religious freedom coalition. The IPP statement, the Charter for Freedom of Religion or Belief, commits parliamentarians to promote religious freedom or belief for all persons through their work and respective institutions and enhance global cooperation.
United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) Chairperson, Katrina Lantos Swett, said: “This historic event brought together individual parliamentarians from a wide range of nations and religious communities in a united effort to galvanise support at a time when religious freedom increasingly is under attack.” She continued: “Despite great religious, political, and regional diversity, they were unified in agreeing to combat persecution and support the principles of religious freedom that are found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury had also expressed grave concern about the violence in Iraq calling for reassurance that a commitment to religious freedom will remain a priority for the UK Government – he called for the appointment of an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom and a serious commitment to developing an overarching strategy against Islamist extremism and violence as it is developing across the globe.
Human rights: Freedom of religion has taken on orphan-like status
Human rights are not a list of rights from the most important to the least important — they are a collective and are all important. Freedom of religion and belief however, has taken on an orphan-like status. For this reason the need to remind ourselves and the global community of the importance of freedom of religion and belief is not just evident but urgent.
Freedom of religion or belief gives people their identity and the freedom to form and express personal beliefs. It is also a protection of human rights in general. Freedom of religion or belief protects not only those who believe in a God (Religious groups) but those who do not (atheists) and those who believe it is impossible to know whether their is a God or not (agnostics).
Violence and other evils often follow where religious freedom is restricted
Freedom of religion is restricted in many parts of the world and it is restricted in different ways. According to NGOs working on the ground, there is often a connection between high restrictions on freedom of religion and belief in a society and high levels of violent conflict and military spending. Poor economic development, a low status and participation of women in social and economic matters and poor health are also generally evident where religious freedom is curtailed.
It is important to note that protecting freedom of religion or belief is not about protecting religions and beliefs from criticism or even ridicule — it is about the freedom of people themselves to believe in different religions or concepts.
The rights agreed on in international documents such as Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights stress that everyone has a right to:
* HAVE a religion or belief
* CHANGE his or her religion or belief
* MANIFEST or show his or her religion or belief.
I have contemplated these complex issues for years as a leader in a political party which not only represents people with very strong religious beliefs but stands in elections with a mandate to offer all people a government that cares and has workable solutions, and I have come to the following conclusions:
- that everyone must have the right to decide for themselves what to believe or not believe and this must include the right to change or abandon a belief and this should never be legally limited.
- Everyone must have the right to express his/her religion in both private and public — this right however could need to be limited in certain situations, like practical reasons where it unnecessarily imposes on other people.
- No-one should have the right to force someone to have, maintain or change their belief.
- There should be no discrimination due to religion or belief.
- Parents and guardians must have the right to raise their child in their own religion.
- Religious groups must have the right to register as communities/organisations and receive legal rights and responsibilities.
The State has a responsibility to respect, protect and promote human rights but many States are the ones committing human rights violations so it is important for people to know what their rights are. Violations can come from restrictive or unfair laws and regulations, state harassment, monitoring, raids and imprisonment without legitimate legal processes. They can also occur at the hands of neighbours and communities if the state fails to take action against acts of hostility.
For these reasons I accepted the invitation to join the IPP and work with growing numbers of Members of Parliaments across the world in protecting freedom of religion and belief. I will also be working on various initiatives to encourage our Parliament in South Africa to be better equipped to protect freedom of religion and belief in the future.