Religious Freedom and Liberty in the Emerging Context
Presentation by Peter Weiderud, Director, CCIA, at the EKD Working Group on
Religious Freedom, Hanover, 18 December, 2003
Ecumenical concern for religious freedom and liberty is older than the World
Council of Churches. The Oxford Conference on "Church State and Community"
in 1937 first elaborated the understanding of the notion of religious freedom and
liberty and named several freedoms that were necessary for the church to fulfill
its obligations to society. These inter-alia were:
- the right of public and private worship, preaching and teaching;
- freedom from imposition by the State of religious ceremonies and forms of
- freedom to determine the nature of its government and the qualifications
of its ministers and members;
- freedom of the individual to join the church;
- the right to control over the education of ministers and the right to provide
religious instruction to youth;
- freedom of Christian service and missionary activity, both at home and
- freedom to cooperate with other churches; and
- freedom to use public facilities available to all citizens or associations as
will make it possible to accomplish these ends.
This early understanding of religious freedom is all encompassing. It comes out
of the colonial context of which the missionary enterprise was an integral part.
Subsequently, however, nearer to the period of the drafting of the Universal
Declaration, the understanding of the right to religious liberty was set in the
wider context of universal human rights which were the essential basis of a new
just and peaceful world order.
The first Assembly of the WCC (Amsterdam, 1948), meeting soon after the second
World War, took cognizance of the work done by the Life and Work Movement
and issued a Declaration of Religious Liberty that articulated a broad consensus
among WCC member churches and was closer to the provisions of Article 18 of
the Universal Declaration, with a focus on the rights of the individual rather than
the rights of the Church:
- Every person has the right to determine his own faith and creed.
- Every person has the right to express his religious beliefs in worship, teaching
and practice, and to proclaim the implications of his beliefs for relationships
in a social or political community.
- Every person has the right to associate with others and to organize with them
for religious purposes
- Every religious organization, formed or maintained by action in accordance
with the rights of individual persons, has the right to determine its policies
and practices for the accomplishment of its chosen purposes.
The Amsterdam Declaration of 1948 was prophetic. It not only emphasized the
importance of religious liberty but also called for elaboration of an international
bill of human rights to protect the rights of minorities, eliminate racial segregation
or discrimination; guarantee freedom from arbitrary arrests and promote the
realization of human freedom through social legislation. These rights together
were seen as foundational pillars for building just and peaceful international relations.
The early discourse on the subject emphasized the responsibility for the protection
of the right to religious freedom is a shared obligation: between State and
Church, between the churches themselves, between individual Christians and the
churches themselves, between Christians and people of other faiths.
Religious freedom and the return of religion in the political sphere
The above definition of religious freedom and liberty served the WCC well during
the Cold War period; over the years it was argued and refined by the variety
of concrete experiences of its member churches around the globe. In the post Cold
War reordering of societies and their international relations, the time has come
to review and revisit the definition in light of the experience of the churches in
their local, national situations and in the realm of international relations where
religion has emerged as a key factor in the civil and political life of nations.
For the individual believer, religion is a single totality, but when reflecting on its
political impact it can be helpful to explain the phenomenon of religion by classifying
it according to its different forms of expression:
1. Religion as spiritual experience. In this aspect there are only very slight differences
between the world religions - Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism,
2. Religion as theology. In the past there were great differences between the
major religions in this area, but in recent years they have moved towards a deeper
3. Religion as ethics and values. In this area there are much fewer differences
between the religions than the individual believer and general public might think.
For example, the three monotheistic religions have a similar basis for the ethics
of economic management and how to put one's gifts to good use - ideas about
social justice, about the individual's responsibility for his or her neighbour and
the global neighbourhood. In broad terms they all share the view that the earth
can provide "enough for everyone's need but not for everyone's greed".
4. Religion as a bearer of culture. This is the area where the greatest differences
are to be found, not only between the world religions, but also within them.
This aspect of religion is also increasingly important as the underlying cause of
conflict - or as a tool easily manipulated in order to stir them up.
The two last-mentioned roles of religion - as an upholder of ethics and a bearer
of culture - are the aspects of religion that are not only the concern of individuals,
the churches and religious organizations. I believe these aspects to be of concern
for the whole society and that it is absolutely necessary to bring them into
the decision-making and political processes of our societies.
The fundamental transformations taking place in our societies mean that it is
more urgent than ever to understand the role of religion in political processes.
National change and global exchange have led to economic development of considerable
magnitude. As hundreds of millions of people leave extreme poverty
behind, this potential offers hope to the world's poor.
Simultaneously, however, new patterns of exclusion and inequality have appeared,
with marginalization, insecurity and powerlessness as real consequences for many
people. Such a situation may generate feelings of social and cultural insecurity.
These transformations in society also change the role of the nation-state. It would
seem that the very rhythm and scale of the transformation exceed the capacity of
national governments and policies to shape and influence the process.
We have a global economy. But the legal, moral or democratic framework vital
to an economy if it is to be able to serve the common good continues to be a basically
The nation-state is not going to disappear. It will remain the most important
political instrument in the foreseeable future. But global interdependence makes
it increasingly difficult for the nation-state alone to deliver what people expect
for a good life. This is a fact in both the northern and the southern hemisphere.
Consequently, people will look for supplementary communities with which they
can identify, both larger and smaller than the nation-state. But people will also
turn inwards. Cultural factors - such as ethnicity and religion - will be more
important in people's search for fundaments on which to build their hopes for the
future. Socially and politically marginalized young people, who 30 years ago
turned to Marxism in their search for a better future, might today turn to religion.
We know - both from history and contemporary experience - that religious influence
on politics can be both beneficial and detrimental. Religious-political conflict
is not a new phenomenon. Let me focus on three examples:
1. Historically, the role of religion in political conflicts has been to increase tension
- even cause clashes - between civilizations. This can only happen if religion
is used by political leaders to emphasize the exclusiveness and primacy of one particular
group at the expense of others - be it Christian, Jewish, Muslim or some
other religious faith. It is necessary for all actors - in particular churches and ecumenical
organizations - to counteract all such mono-cultural political tendencies
and prove that the Samuel Huntington theory of an inevitable clash between civilizations
is part of an outmoded way of thinking.
2. In modern societies, in particular in Europe, religious-political friction has
mainly occurred between clerical and secular authorities. Basically this is a healthy
conflict which has helped - and continues to support - the development of universal
social values in modern society, for example, pluralism, democracy and
3. As a consequence of the transformation taking place in our societies, a third
kind of religious-political clash has become more evident in recent years both in
domestic and international politics. This is the split within religions and cultures.
A split between "fundamentalists", who see their traditional scriptures and
teachings as so absolute as to divide humankind into irreconcilable believers and
infidels, and others, who see their ancient traditions or spiritual insights as raw
material for wider human reconciliation, as the basis for an intensified search for
community among people of differing races, creeds and national origins: a split
between those protecting the "truth" and those searching for the "truth".
The World Council of Churches has a long-standing history of advocating the
need for universally applicable standards. This goal, in the present context, can
only be obtained through interaction and dialogue.
For many years ecumenical social thought regarded the secular state as the ideal
for social harmony in a religiously plural society. Today, however, the resurgence
of religious belief and resulting inter-religious tension has led some to subscribe
to other models such as a multi-confessional state. Others call for deeper understanding
of the rule of law and of new processes of democratic participation. There
are renewed claims on the state by the churches. Presently, few states can claim
guarantees of religious liberty within their jurisdictions to be free from problems.
Still, the secular state provides a good basis for a multi-confessional society.
However, the state needs to be sensitive to and understand religious needs.
Post-Harare framework for work on religious liberty
The current framework for the CCIA's work on religious freedom and intolerancewas spelled out at the consultation organized by the CCIA on "Human Rights andthe Churches - New Challenges" at Morges, Switzerland, in June 1998. TheConsultation had two main objectives - to sum up the findings of the Global Reviewof Ecumenical practices and policies on human rights and to prepare the DraftStatement on Human Rights for adoption by the 8th WCC Assembly in Harare.It may be worthwhile to recall here the extracts on religious liberty from theConsultation Report.
"We reaffirm the statement of the Nairobi Assembly that religious liberty
should never be used to claim privileges. For the church this right is essential
so that it can fulfill its responsibility which arises out of the Christian faith.
The list of countries that have declared an official state religion grows, giving
to religion constitutional and legislative powers and privileges. In a number
of these cases the freedom of citizens to choose and practice the belief of
their choice is more and more severely restricted. The secular and plural basis
of the state is under widespread assault and religious extremism and intolerance
is on the rise.
Former communist countries struggle to revise or adopt new basic laws on
religion and religious practice under pressure to pattern such legislation after
Western models, creating a "free market" of religions. Churches and other
faith bodies argue for protection against an invasion of exogenous religious
movements and proselytism as they seek to recover from decades of repression
and atheist rule. Difficult new questions arise for the ecumenical movement
which has declared opposition to proselytism and at the same time advocates
for religious freedom based on the provisions it has been instrumental in having
included in international human rights standards."
Significant issues of concern
It is in the above context of the Global Review process and the Harare Assembly
Statement that the CCIA identified the following areas where the WCC needed
to focus its attention in the coming period.
- Issues facing religious minorities in Eastern and Central Europe, where societies
are in transition, and in the process of drafting new constitutions and
- Issues of religious minorities in Islamic countries where Shariah is being
made applicable in the civil and political life of nations.
- Role of religion in conflict - looking at intolerance as a major contributor
of human rights violations and inter-religious dialogue as a vehicle for promotion
and protection of human rights.
Religious minorities in Eastern and Central Europe
Most societies in Eastern and Central Europe are in transition. The previous political
equation of religion and state has been overturned and unresolved historical
tensions have resurfaced, while powerful foreign religious political and economic
interests have intervened at all levels of society.
Unchecked activities of foreign missionaries and new religious movements have
had a negative effect on inter-confessional and interfaith relations. In the emerging
context national governments and civil administrations are being reconstituted
to guarantee the integrity of the state. Steps are also being taken to provide
constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion. The paradox is that while many
constitutions guarantee freedom of religion, conscience or belief, the growing
concern is that freedom to preach and to choose one's religion is misused, both
by established or majority religions or by new religious movements. There is also
the question of how to encourage the practice of tolerance, both in the governments
as well as in the religious communities.
In a consultation organized by the WCC in 2001 the participants from Central
and Eastern Europe identified the following as crucial areas where churches need
to pay attention:
- legal provisions, including registration, the consequence of a multi-tier system
and restitution of church property;
- relationship between majority and minority churches;
- new religious movements;
- religion and conflict;
- education for tolerance;
- the effects of September 11.
Some key areas on which work has already started but where much more needs
to be done include teaching of tolerance. The issue of tolerance for other religious
beliefs and organizations is a matter of priority in Central and Eastern Europe. It
has to begin to take place at local and national levels in the context of the understanding
of tolerance within a Christian value system.
The WCC in cooperation with CEC could organize meetings between minority
and majority churches to address problematic issues in their relationship. This is
a major issue of discord, where despite new-found freedom and respite from com-
munist rule, religious minorities in the region feel intimidated, harassed and
oppressed by the majority. While the initiative to build bridges between the
majority and the minority has to come from local churches, WCC and CEC can
provide expertise and experience to build and strengthen healthy relations based
on justice and fairness.
A considerable amount of advocacy work needs to be done in respect of the requirement
of registration, religious education and restitution of church property. The
WCC and CEC could undertake a comprehensive and systematic analysis of these
issues throughout the region. A compilation of such data on the issue listed above
could serve as a resource for churches struggling in their particular situations.
Ecumenical support should be mobilized for the OSCE expert panel on Freedom
of Religion and monitoring implementation of the OSCE human dimension by
making these mechanisms known to the churches. These two regional initiatives
are carrying out important work on religious freedom that need to be known more
widely amongst the churches.
The issue of proselytism continues to be a central theme in discussion of religious
freedom and ecumenical relations. This is an issue that has resonance in all the
regions, particularly the relationship between mission and religious freedom.
Church-state relations should not be seen in the national context alone but also
in relation to the European Union which is a trans-national body, and need to
study pluralism in Europe - how it is incorporated into constitutions and other
Religious minorities in Islamic countries
The international human rights law prohibits discrimination against any religion
or belief not only at the level of the state, but also at every level of society. This
means that religious communities are themselves under duty to treat those of different
beliefs fairly and with tolerance. The interpretation of Islamic Shariah laws
in countries like Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, Indonesia and Nigeria is in contradiction
with the principles of the primacy of international law. Also, practices based on
national law in some Islamic countries ignore requirements of the right of freedom
of conscience, religion and belief.
The rise of militant Islam in parts of Asia and Africa has galvanized popular Islamic
movements against Western Christian values. This rejectionist trend is accompanied
by the desire to implement the Islamic code of Shariah. One of the challenges
for the WCC is how to respond to the cries of Christian minorities in Islamic countries,
who suffer persecution, discriminatory practices and policies that are in violation
of the principles enshrined in the international human rights regime.
The WCC is called to respond to this challenge in a sensitive manner to ensure
it does not in anyway impinge and/or discourage inter-religious dialogue to resolve
differences and disputes at the local and national levels. At the same time the
WCC has to be seen to support and accompany churches pastorally so that Christian
minorities in such situations do not feel isolated or abandoned. In a low-key consultation
with church leaders from Islamic countries in Asia and Africa in 2000
the following areas were identified for future work:
- In view of the reassertion of Islam, how can the ecumenical fellowship support,
accompany and respond to the needs of Christian minorities, particularly
victims of human rights violations?
- Equip and empower churches in local and national situations to adopt preventive
measures through inter-religious dialogue.
- At the international level, identify appropriate partners to form inter-religious
alliances to prevent human rights violations while ensuring issues of
inter-religious communal violence at the local and national levels are not
- Shariah laws, it is said, are often introduced and adopted through undemocratic
methods with the assistance of funds made available from abroad.
The push for application of Shariah laws that discriminate against religious
minorities is inspired by outside forces and is a source of tension and conflict.
How can this trend be checked?
- Harmonious Christian-Muslim relations exist in some places. What are the
lessons that can be learned from such experiences and situations?
- Muslims tend to see Christianity and Christians as a legacy of the colonial
past. How can Christians be helped to overcome this barrier of guilt by religious
The church leaders from Islamic countries call on the WCC to promote solidarity
and networking amongst churches in Islamic countries and keep intergovernmental
institutions like the UN, Commonwealth, ECOWAS and others informed
about conflicts that have religious dimensions. Muslim organizations in Europe
and North America that advocate for human rights of Muslim minorities should
be made more aware of the situation facing Christians in Islamic countries and
their help sought to address such situations.
Efforts should also be made to strengthen dialogue as a preventive measure. Those
that have worked on successful models should be brought together. Case studies
of successful dialogue situations should be developed and inter-faith groups
strengthened. Churches need to seek allies amongst those concerned about the
rise of religious extremism.
Role of religion in conflict and inter-religious dialogue
As said earlier, the return of religion in the political sphere has fuelled and escalatedviolence and conflicts. In 1986, at the 42nd Session of the United NationsCommission on Human Rights, a Special Rapporteur was appointed to examineincidences and governmental action in all parts of the world that were inconsistentwith the provisions of the Declaration on Elimination of all Forms of Intoleranceand of Discrimination of Religion or Belief and to recommend counteractive measuresfor such situations.Over the years the Special Rapporteur has not only documented cases of discriminationagainst those who differ in religion or belief but also cases of summaryand arbitrary executions, torture, unlawful detention, censorship and suppression.Religious intolerance and restrictions on religious freedom, as stated earlier, havegrown almost universally, giving rise to questions related to the degree to whichreligious freedom is an absolute right. Other related questions are the relationshipbetween religion and culture, the role of religion in politics, the relationshipbetween religion and national and ethnic identity.The elimination of religious discrimination and intolerance is the basic responsibilityof the State within the framework of legal and political commitmentsmade and as a consequence of acceptance of international instruments. Nevertheless,it must be understood that behaviour patterns and attitudes cannot be controlledor regulated through executive or legislative actions. To overcome the present climateof intolerance, churches have to undertake awareness-building and educationprogrammes to change the hearts and minds of the people in terms of understandingthe other.Religious freedom will continue to be a major area of concern for the involvementof the WCC. The Council and its vast network of churches around the worldneed to be mobilized in a major effort to foster understanding of the "other".Today more than ever before there is a need to bring out the liberating and humanitarianaspects of all religions to promote a culture of peace and tolerance.As mentioned earlier, the main problem is not so much between, as within, religions.The clash between cultural provincialism and openness - between thoseprotecting the truth and those searching for the truth - is evident in all culturesand must be addressed with a forward-looking attitude.As the ideologies of modern, industrial society are losing ground, there is growingopenness to the contribution of religion.If religion is used as an instrument to gain political power and emphasize theexclusiveness and primacy of one's own group at the expense of others, it will bea most destructive contribution. The political idea of "the otherness" fuels conflicts.On the other hand,
by emphasising fundamental ethics and humanity,
by giving voice to the voiceless,
by emphasizing the responsibility of the individual,
by focusing on inclusiveness and a deeper sense of hope,
by highlighting the importance of the meeting of cultures,
by being ecumenical,
religion will make a much needed and constructive contribution to our societies.