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Eighty parliamentarians from 45 different countries, together with over one hundred representatives of civil society, governments, and religious groups, gathered to hear from experts and religious leaders the best strategies to promote freedom of religion or belief, and to find new ways to enforce that freedom worldwide. The diversity of attendees was a critical focus on the conference, “Parliamentarians are only one cog in the wheel: one piece of what needs to happen” said Baroness Elizabeth Berridge, member of the House of Lords and chair of the IPPFoRB steering committee. Ultimately, the parliamentarians crafted and signed a resolution which outlined steps that they would take to defend of religious freedom in their own countries and throughout the entire world.
The Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung partnered with IPPFoRB, an informal grouping of global parliamentarians, organized by a steering committee, which seeks to promote legislation and other parlia-mentary actions in support of religious freedom worldwide. The global nature of this conference garnered support from a wide range of additional partners including the CDU/CSU Parliamentary Group, the British Council, St. Mary’s Twickenham London, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Stefanus Alliance, the United States Committee on International Religious Freedom, the International Religious Liberty Association, the Church of England, and the Hanns Seidel Stiftung.
The conference titled, “Multinational Efforts to Promote Freedom of Religion or Belief: Joint Action for the Common Good,” took place September 17 to 19 at the One UN Hotel, on the margins of the United Nations general assembly meeting. Parliamentarians learned about, discussed, and debated the best practices to enforce the rights of re-ligious and other thought minorities together with their global partners. NGO and civil society representatives met independently of their joint sessions with the parliamentarians to craft recommendations to assist them in their efforts. Academics, government officials, and religious leaders from multiple world religions shared their thoughts and experiences in panel discussion. A resolution, was signed on the last day of the three-day conference, committed the Parliamentarians to the following
Advocate for individuals suffering from persecution because of their religious or other forms of belief and urge greater respect for freedom of religion or belief;
Strengthen and promote freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief as a universal, established and non-derogable human right, as set out in the Universal Declaration, in international customary law and treaties, and in the work of national, regional, and global agencies and political bodies;
Enhance global cooperation by working across geographical, political, and religious lines to mobilize effective responses through regular communications, sharing of information, and endeavoring to meet annually;
Expand the network of parliaments focused on freedom of religion or belief around the world by supporting the creation of new parliamentary platforms or groups that support Article 18 and that are politically and religiously diverse;
Build capacity among parliamentarians committed to advancing religious free-dom, both for those in stable countries and those in countries with problematic records on freedom of religion or belief, so as to equip parliamentarians to advocate for change at home and abroad;
Increase the number of governments and international institutions responding to the growing crisis of persecution of believer and non-believers and encourage the com-mitment of increased resources to ensure greater respect for this fundamental freedom; and
Build a stronger linkage between members of parliament and civil society organi-zations, religious leaders, and members of academia so as to find more impactful ways to advance freedom of religion or belief globally.
The context of this conference revolves around recent, but significant moves by parliamentarians worldwide towards the promotion of freedom of religion. Responding to a massive uptick in oppression of individuals based on religious preference, groups of Parliamentarians met in Oxford, England, and in Oslo, Norway, at the Nobel Peace Center in 2014, founding IPPFoRB at the latter meeting. Basing their goals around article 18 of the UN Charter, organizationally these parliamentarians worked their efforts through new parliamentary panels in Pakistan, Brazil, and Norway, and existing panels in the European Union, the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada. Additionally, the International Contact Group for Freedom of Religion or Belief became a mechanism for governments to work directly with one another on these issues. This conference, intended as a follow up to the conference in Oslo in 2014, sought to bring all interested parties together.
The conference took place over the course of three days. The goals were not only the dissemination of information and production of a document outlining the ways participants would protect religious freedom in their countries; it was also to allow religious figures, civil society representatives, the parliamentarians, and diplomats to create personal contact, and to learn from one another. The first day’s events began in the evening, and featured a reception for the speakers and representatives of the sponsor organizations, Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation colleagues, and Parliamentarian attendees to meet one another in a semi-informal atmosphere, to lay the interpersonal groundwork for the rest of the conference. The first half of the second day featured a series of panels for all participants, including NGO registrants, diplomatic delegations, and the parliamentarians themselves. Following opening remarks from UN officials, and conference organizers, panels from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, IPPFoRB, and Religions for Peace, featured academic, governmental, and religious perspectives on issues of religious freedom. The second half of the day consisted of break-out sessions: the parliamentarians adjourned for discussion at the German and British missions to the UN, while the NGO and other participants had the option of participating in a discussion at the Bahai’i International Community UN Office, to craft recommendations for the parliamentarians’ resolution. On the third and final day, parliamentarians met again in the German mission to sign the resolution committing themselves to specific ways to protect religious freedom in their respective countries, and spent one final session together with select invitees from NGOs and civil society. The conference on all three days allowed, to varying degrees, the interaction of parliamentarians, civil society, and government officials from all different regions of the world. Not only did this conference strengthen the formal mechanisms of protecting religious freedom, it increased the informal social capital of those wishing to promote this right independently, with cooperation from others.
The opening statements were given by a host of representatives from various or-ganizations and governments sponsoring the conference. The cumulative effect of these remarks set a tone for the conference by elucidating the enormous institutional support for the conference from both international organizations, and national governments. The introductory remarks by Volker Kauder, given on the morning of the second day during the public session of the conference, spoke of Germany’s commitment to the ideals of religious freedom, and the important role that all nations have to play in supporting this critical value. Hans-Gert Pöttering related the importance of the image of God in the Christian tradition, how this undergirds support for human rights in historically Christian countries, and how this is reflected in other religious traditions around the world. MP Abid Raja, a parliamentarian from Norway and member of the IPP steering committee, took the time to commend the German government for its strong leadership in response to the current refugee crisis in Europe, the origins of which are in part caused by an intolerance for the right to freedom of religion or belief: “I applaud the moral courage Germany is exhibiting, and I urge all countries to follow the German example”; he then asserted that setting an example was in fact a primary reason for the conference as a whole. Baroness Elizabeth Berridge, in addition to representing IPPFoRB and moderating the discussion, took the time to commend all of the organizations supporting the conference for their efforts. H.E. Nasser Abdulaziz Al-Nasser the UN High Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations delivered welcoming remarks on behalf of General Secretary Ban ki-Moon, who was followed by Ivan Šimonović, United Nations Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights. Relating the beliefs of General Secretary Moon, Al-Nasser declared that “Parliamentarians must set the highest standards and lead…. in this you have my full support”, a sentiment later echoed by Mr. Šimonović, who offered his support: “The office of High Commissioner of Human Rights admires your efforts, and remains at your disposal”. Both also intoned the important role of the UN in promoting these freedoms, and relayed the UN’s support for the Parliamentarians’ efforts.
The first panel, “Our Common Challenge: Developing a Multinational Effort to Deliver Freedom of Religion or Belief for All,” was moderated by Dr. Robert George, Chair of the United States Center for International Religious Freedom, an NGO focused on issues of tolerance, and consisted of prominent international political leaders addressing a broad overview of the struggle to protect religious freedom from a governmental perspective.Ambassador David Saperstein, the American Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom spoke about the importance of governments in stopping interreligious violence, and the pedagogical value of the law in setting an example for society. Speaking of the danger of government inaction he stated “When the government gives its stamp of approval to intolerance it creates impunity for those who mimic that on a social level, and almost inevitably leads… to increased violence.” He also described the U.S. government’s efforts to support religious freedom. Ambassador Petter Wille relayed his experiences supporting human rights as Norway’s official ambassador at large on the subject and described the importance of joint action to send “a message to oppressors everywhere”, and called for a transnational response to these transnational threats. Dr. Peter Henne, in charge of research on the subject for the Pew Research Center, gave a detailed understanding of the statistical approaches taken to appraise religious freedom. He relayed that threats against religious freedom are a problem world-wide, and stem not just from governments, but from non-state actors as well. For instance, hostility to women over religious dress tripled from 2007 to 2013, whether because they were, or were not, wearing religious dress. He noted worldwide increases in hostilities against Jews in civil society, as well as some increase in hostility towards Christians and Muslims, the former typically from governments, and the latter typically from civil society. He also noted that Europe had seen an increase in religious intolerance that put it currently on par with the Asia-Pacific region, with the MENA region being higher, and the Americas being lower.
After the American diplomats and researchers, the second panel, “Our Common Responsibility: Enhancing Global Cooperation between Parliamentarians in Defense of the Right to Freedom of Religion or Belief for All,” consisted of current and former Par-liamentarians from IPPFoRB. It was moderated by Dr. Aykan Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish National Assembly. This panel gave attendees of the conference a broad, international view, of parliamentary work on religious freedom by bringing together MPs from around the world to discuss the issues. MEP Peter van Dalen, from the Netherlands talked about his experiences founding the intergroup organization of European Parliamentarians in support of religious freedom, offering a perspective from an international parliamentary body. He described the main struggle he and his fellow concerned parliamentarians face is influencing the foreign policy arm of the EU to prioritize issues of tolerance: “The most important thing is to give an impetus to the External Action Service to put religious freedom high on the political agenda”, he relayed. MP Maritt Nyakk, the longest serving Parliamentarian of Norway shared her thoughts on the importance of religious freedom, relayed her pride in Oslo supporting the first IPPFoRB conference, and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ continuing support for this cause. She declared “Parliamentarians can make a difference… Parliamentarians do make a difference.” MP Assiya Nasir relayed her experiences as a Christian Member of Parliament for Pakistan, struggling for the freedom of her co-religionists, and those from other minority religions. For example, Christians are not allowed to drink alcohol, also there are no objections on religious matters for Christians, and members of religious minorities are not allowed to be prime minister in Pakistan. She stated that no nation can progress without supporting freedom of religion, and intoned the importance of education in ensuring a population that is supportive of tolerance and understanding.
Religions For Peace Panel
The final panel “Our Shared Dignity: Intensifying Multi-religious Cooperation to Advance Freedom of Religion or Belief for All” consisted of the following religious leaders: Ayatollah Damad, The Academy of Sciences, Iran; John Cardinal Onaiyekan, Nigeria; H.E. Metropolitan Emmanuel, France; Rabbi Rick Jacobs, New York; Vinu Aram, India; Djermana Seta, Bosnia and Herzegowina; and Rev. Kyoichi Sugino, New York. This panel was was moderated by Dr. William Vendley, the Secretary General of Religions for Peace. Religions for Peace is an interfaith association of religious leaders who seek to promote intercommunal understanding and combat extremism. Dr. Vendley said of the gathering “We are convinced that the core strengths of both religious leaders and par-liamentarians can be respectfully aligned, and we can collaborate together. And if we do that, we will be much more effective in advancing freedom of religion.” This panel was important because while there were many civil society, government representatives, and parliamentarians at the conference discussing religious freedom, there was a relatively modest presence of religious figures. This panel allowed that perspective to be given from a diverse group of authoritative religious figures, especially relating to intolerance within the context of their own religions. In his opening remark, Dr. Vendley noted that interre-ligious communication not only opens you to the beauty of the “other” but opens you to aspects of your own religion that were previously hidden to you. H.E. John Cardinal Onaiyekan spoke about how religions needed to figure out within themselves how to combat fundamentalism, which threatens religious freedom, and that this cannot be done from the outside in. He expressed his joy at seeing so many Parliamentarians interested in the freedom of faith communities. Ayatollah Seyed Mostafa Damad from Iran declared that an essence of all religions is the desire to live in harmony with one another, and that any Muslim who compels his religion on another person is not a Muslim. Also, he suggested that no religion should be seen as superior to another, an idea proclaimed by many throughout the conference. Next, panelist Djermana Seta spoke about her efforts as a civil society leader and researcher at the organization "Nahla”, with the sponsorship of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, to create safe spaces for interreligious dialogue in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Rabbi Rick Jacobs of the Union for Reform Judaism based in New York talked about the dual importance that religious tolerance is both the law of our lands, and in the hearts of the religious communities of the world. He also related the concept of “the other” in the Jewish tradition, and the importance of the idea that “you too were once slaves in Egypt”, meaning that you sought to care for and understand the foreign stranger in your midst. Metropolitan Emmanuel, an Orthodox Christian from the World Council of Churches described the religions present “as co-workers of God” who deserved solidarity from one another, and further, deserved love from one another. Dr. Vinu Aram, of India and director of Shanti Ashram, brought an emphasis on engaging youth in learning about other religions, and building tolerance in the new generation. Reverend Kyoichi Sugino from the Kosei-Kai Buddhist Movement of Japan talked about his sorrow at seeing the Buddhist society of Myanmar/Burma engage in repression of Muslims and Christians in that country, his organization’s effort to create Buddhist-Muslim-Hindu-Christian dialogues for religious tolerance in South Asia, and even engagement with extremist groups.
The NGOs‘ Meeting
Following the opening remarks and the panels, while the Parliamentarians consulted one another at a meeting at the German Permanent Mission to the United Nations, the NGO participants broke off to have their own session at the Bahai’i Mission to the United Nations, where they heard from Dr. Irfan Abubakar who spoke of his struggle as a Sunni Muslim Islamic Scholar to protect the rights of Christians, and Islamic minorities such as Shi’a and Ahmaddiya from religious extremists in Indonesia. He described how in Indonesia religious pluralism is accepted as a fact, but not as a positive principle. Relations between religions are handled by the elites of those religions, and do not filter down into the mentalities of the common people. Additionally, the government gives ambiguous signals towards its own commitment to religious pluralism, and has not reacted quickly enough towards persecution of members of minority religions not listed among the 5 offical religious communities of Indonesia.
Those in attendance, predominantly those in charge of implementing their own projects on religious freedom at various NGOs, saw much of their struggles reflected in the talk of Dr. Abubakar. The NGO participants present then worked together to craft and approve a recommendation to present to the Parliamentarians which would help in-form them of civil society’s perspective on their efforts to protect religious freedom. Unsurprisingly, their recommendations revolved predominantly around the importance of engaging civil society representatives and religious leaders in the crafting of policy. Re-spect for religious freedom cannot simply be reflected in laws, but must be implemented in the heart of society by individuals. The recommendations of the civil society repre-sentatives reflected these concerns, and would help undergird the final shape of the final action plan the Parliamentarians to protect religious freedom. In addition to their formal role: the NGO and civil society representatives used the opportunity to share ideas and techniques with one another, taking the time to support one another in their respective fields of work.
Following these events, the Parliamentarians met together at the German mission to the United Nations in New York to craft their resolution in support of freedom of religion or belief. Together they resolved immediately to send letters to the speaker of Parliament of Iran, and to the prime ministers of Vietnam and Myanmar, lands in which there is an acute lack of religious freedom or belief. This concrete immediate action was matched by formative, but substantive, plans for future efforts to work together as Parliamentarians to support worldwide the freedom of religion or belief.
The culmination of this conference, the resolution from the parliamentarians to support freedom of religion or belief in their home countries, represents the combined efforts of 80 parliamentarians from 45 nations, the consultative perspective drawn from almost 100 civil society and NGO attendees, under the encouragement of the United Nations and many governments. This formal effort simultaneously took place with informal networking and sharing of ideas during receptions, breaks, and in down time at the hotel which will increase the ability of participants to cooperate with one another on an informal basis. But this is only the beginning. This is the start of a multi-year partnership of the Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation and the International Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion to defend the rights of religious and other thought minorities. This problem can only be confronted on a long-term basis, but if there is one thing to learn from this conference, it is that there are allies rising to meet this challenge throughout the entire world.