Freedom of religion or belief — the defining issue of our time

IPPFoRB network participants pose for a photo in front of the German Bundestag in Berlin (September 12 2016). (PHOTO: IPPFORB)

100 parliamentarians from 60 countries met last week (September 12-14 2016) in Berlin, Germany for workshops and seminars under the title “An Embattled Right: Protecting and Promoting Freedom of Religion or Belief”.

ACDP Member of the South African Parliament, Cheryllyn Dudley said: “I came away from the conference with a very real sense that when religion becomes part of the problem it has to become part of the solution. Respecting diversity and freedom to choose cannot be one-sided – the respect must be mutual!”

Dudley was one of three South African MPs who attended this conference. The Berlin conference was Kwankwa’s second conference, and the first for Singh.

“…respecting diversity and freedom to choose cannot be one-sided – the respect must be mutual!”

The first #IPP_FoRB conference Dudley attended was in Oslo in 2014, where the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief (IPPFoRB) officially came into being. That was followed by New York in 2015 and Berlin in 2016.

MP Cheryllyn Dudley with MP Nqabayomzi Kwankwa inside the Bundestag, in Berlin.

IPPFoRB is an informal network of parliamentarians and legislators from around the world committed to combatting religious persecution and advancing freedom of religion or belief, as defined by Article 18 of the UN Universal Declaration for Human Rights: “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.”

Dr Angela Merkel commended for ‘doing good!’

German Chancellor Angela Merkel opened on the last day of the conference in Germany’s Parliament, the Bundestag, on September 14. She was enthusiastically received by the 300 participants – including NGOs, church representatives and media. IPP Executive committee member Elizabeth Berridge (House of Lords UK) commended Merkel for doing good, with reference to Germany’s  “welcome” policy, and the sheltering of so many refugees from countries where minority Christians are being persecuted– such as Syria, Iraq and many others.

“Where understanding dispels fear and respect gains trust there will be greater potential for peaceful co-existence. Agreeing to disagree is an important skill that can be taught!”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel addresses the conference.

Merkel said that better education was the key to understanding and to ensuring a more productive dialogue between cultures and religions. She expressed a desire to see Germany promote compulsory religious education for every child in school. Merkel stressed that the concerns of communities must be taken seriously and while freedom of religion guarantees the right to be different, for her, the wearing of a full veil in public hinders integration and should not be allowed in public places such as courts, or for government employees such as teachers.

Volker Kauder, parliamentary group leader for the Christian Democratic Union of Germany. (PHOTO: Claudia Atts)

Commenting on this, Dudley said: “Where understanding dispels fear and respect gains trust there will be greater potential for peaceful co-existence. Agreeing to disagree is an important skill that can be taught!”

“persecution and the violation of human rights have never been worse…”

Volker Kauder, Chairman of Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union of Germany Party (CDU), who has campaigned against the persecution of Christians for their faith, said: “Persecution and the violation of human rights have never been worse than at this moment… in previous years the persecution came from governments…it is now coming from non-government forces such as ISIS, Boko Haram and others…”

MP Asiya Nasir, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, Pakistan with Cheryllyn Dudley.

Johannes Singhammer, Vice-President of the German Bundestag, expressed concern that the ongoing war in the Middle East was not only destroying the historic Christian heritage of thousand-year-old buildings but that 700 000 or more of the one million plus Christians in Iraq before the 2003 war, have fled the country. Quoting information from Open Doors, an international charity that supports Christians under pressure, he said persecution is on the rise. One solution, he said, could be “to cut the money flow to oppressive governments”.

“…blasphemy law…misused to persecute Christians…”

Asiya Nasir from Pakistan, a founding member of the IPPFoRB, was another speaker. Nasir, a Christian, is in her third term in the National Assembly of Pakistan, where she is in the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Party as a minority MP and has earned the respect of Muslim MPs. She said, churches in Pakistan are allowed to have their own buildings and gather for services, but members are prohibited from sharing their faith with non-Christians. The blasphemy law prevents Christians from doing so — it has also been misused to persecute Christians, she said, citing the example of Shahzad and Shama Masih, a young Christian couple burned alive by a mob after it was announced from a mosque’s loudspeakers that they had burnt a copy of the Qur’an. Due to Nasir’s work as an MP mosques are no longer allowed to use their speakers for this purpose.

“Freedom of Religion and Belief is not freedom to impose on others”

During the conference Dudley said that “South Africa is regarded by human rights monitors as having high levels of freedom of religion and belief and while this is true in many respects, a veiled threat to this freedom exists in the form of intolerance and extremism. Extremism in the name of Islam, Christianity, gender and LGBT activism, rears its head periodically in the form of hatred and violence — both verbal and physical.”

Cheryllyn Dudley in front of the glass dome of the Bundestag.

Living in peace and respecting the right of other people to be different to us must be done on purpose — it also requires determination not to allow emotions and hurts to dictate our actions. Yes, we should be free to express the view that our way is a better way, but we have to accept other people’s right to disagree and express their opinion. We do not have to like it or agree, but we do have to accept their right to hold that view and express it.

Gender and LGBT activists have targeted Christian churches in South Africa, attempting to force Christians and Churches to discard sections of the Bible — through legislative amendments and accusations of human rights abuses. This is a violation of freedom of religion and an ongoing challenge. Fortunately our courts have made some rational decisions in this regard, which have been helpful.

Cheryllyn Dudley at the top of the Bundestag building.

Christians can also choose to be a part of the solution and not part of the problem by choosing to live their values and principles without compromise, yet showing respect, love and kindness toward those who make different choices for themselves. Neither Christians, nor secular activists, are free to impose their choices and lifestyles on others.

Respect for the dignity of every human being must be our priority.

During the conference four advocacy letters addressing specific religious freedom concerns in Eritrea, Pakistan, Sudan and Vietnam were signed by IPPFoRB associates. In them were several names of church leaders who are imprisoned, in detention or under house arrest, solely for practising their religion. Also criticised in the letters were: torture of prisoners, the confiscation and demolition of church buildings, and forbidding the distribution of books and scriptures.

“…freedom of religion or belief is an embattled right and the defining issue of our time”

David Anderson, an MP from Canada and member of the IPPFoRB Steering Group, said: “Make no mistake, with 74% of the world’s population living in countries with high or very high restrictions or hostilities, freedom of religion or belief is an embattled right and the defining issue of our time. Freedom to believe is what shapes our common humanity and, if we are not careful, we risk losing it.”

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