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The address by the WCC general secretary at the conference “Religions, creeds and/or other value systems: joining forces to enhance equal citizenship rights”

The address by the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit at the World Conference: “Religions, creeds and/or other value systems: joining forces to enhance equal citizenship rights”

27 June 2018

The address by the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit at the World Conference: Religions, creeds and/or other value systems: joining forces to enhance equal citizenship rights

Your Royal Highness Prince El Hassan bin Talal of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, Your Eminences, Excellences, brothers and sisters, I deem it an honour and a privilege to join other faith leaders and government ministers in offering my thoughts during this opening session of the World Conference on “Religions, creeds and/or other value systems: joining forces to enhance equal citizenship rights”.

The focus on this need for equal citizenship rights is timely in a global context such as ours – which has seen also the rise of instrumentalization of religion for deeply polarizing causes. Hence, it is all the more necessary for people from different religions, creeds and value systems to unite together for the cause of equal citizenship as an antidote to the scourge of xenophobia, racism and other forms of intolerance. Therefore, I thank the Geneva Centre for Human Rights Advancement and Global Dialogue under the patronage of His Royal Highness Prince El Hassan bin Talal for taking the initiative to draw us to make a positive difference together. We need to address the issues confronting humanity as one humanity in the spirit of justice, peace and love.

Today as I reflect upon the theme of equal citizenship from my own perspective as a Lutheran pastor, as well as the representatives of a worldwide fellowship of churches, my primary starting point as a Christian is the theological concept of God as the creator of our common humanity and all human beings as bearers of the image of God (imago dei). Last year at the second meeting of a delegation of the World Council of Churches (WCC) and a delegation of the Muslim Council of Elders led by the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, His Eminence Professor Dr Ahmad Al-Tayyeb that took place at Al Azhar, Cairo, Egypt, I emphasized that the principle of citizenship is a proper way to express in the realm of politics something that is also important in our faith in God. The principle of citizenship belongs to the realm of politics and legal systems, but can provide the rights and the protection we need whoever we are and whatever faith community we belong to.

We share a common humanity under God. Such an understanding - that each member of humanity is a valued creation of God’s act of love - inspires Christians to cherish the sanctity of each human being.  The theological foundations call Christians to an ethic of care. We are called to the care of the life of everybody created by God. This ethic of care calls us to a dual-accountability. We need to recognize and respect the image of God in the other. At the same time, we should not mar the image of God that we bear within ourselves by indulging in any irresponsible act of violence and violation of the dignity and rights of others. The injunction to ‘love my neighbour as myself’ encompasses this double-bind which values the image of God both within me and in my neighbour. Today this conference is a call to share through word and deed our commitment to show what the belief in our common humanity created by God means in practice. It is a call to our mutual accountability to one another and to every human being, whatever belief or non-belief we have.

If on the one hand the WCC is driven by its spirituality in this pursuit of equal citizenship as a means of peace-building and equality, on the other hand it is also driven by a principle of solidarity. While states bear the primary responsibility for promoting and protecting all rights for all, individually and collectively to enjoy a dignified life free from fear; we, as religious leaders do bear a distinct responsibility to stand up for our shared humanity and equal dignity of each human being.

The WCC’s long involvement (70 years) in the protection of human rights and promotion of dignity has always focused on the question of most vulnerable. In such a context the call to equal citizenship is also actively a call to solidarity to safeguard some of the basic rights of all including the protection of freedom of religion and belief. The concept of equal citizenship is rooted in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which stipulates inter alia that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”. As such equal citizenship provides a vital safeguard of religious freedom in belief and practice in the public as well as in the private spheres. Therefore, it can serve as an important foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world by providing a common platform whereby we can achieve equality both in rights and duties. We should all have the right to hope.

The World Council of Churches in its last general assembly in Busan chose to embark on a pilgrimage of justice and peace. This pilgrimage of justice and peace is carried out in solidarity with the marginalized. The Statement on ‘The Human Rights of Stateless People’ adopted by the WCC’s 10th General Assembly in Busan affirmed that “Solidarity and compassion are virtues that all Christians are called to practice, regardless of their possessions, as signs of their Christian discipleship.” It is in line with these principles of compassion and solidarity that we also share with other religious traditions that we are involved in this quest for equal citizenship.

Having emphasized the value of spirituality and solidarity from the point of view of my own Christian faith, let me also emphasize that strategy is an important aspect of the effective translation of an idea such as this into an effective outcome. This is a challenge which needs to be tackled at various levels. The outcome declaration of this conference is a good starting point but there are also other levels at which the leaders of religions, creeds and value systems can be more actively involved.  Of primary importance  is the need to work strategically with the state which is primarily responsible for providing the frameworks in which all are treated with equal rights and given the same responsibilities. We are all aware that states have the sovereign right to determine the procedures and conditions for acquisition and loss of citizenship. Statelessness and disputed nationality can ultimately only be resolved by governments. However, given that state determinations on citizenship must, however, conform to general principles of international law it is important that we also focus on training and education in citizenship so that an awareness of the international frameworks which ensure citizenship rights is created. Education on citizenship rights is an important step for empowerment in this regard.

Dear sisters and brothers even as I conclude allow me to turn to the theme of love. For Christians the mandate to love God and one’s neighbor as oneself offers the strongest motivation to work for equality, peace and justice. The Bible clearly states that “everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever who does not love does not know God” (1 John 4:8). Today is a time to think what the concretization of this love means in practice. It is not an abstract question or a soft wish in a hard reality of life. This is indeed an urgent and basic question in a time when different groups and leaders want to use religion as a means to divide, or polarize, or even legitimize conflict and war. The challenge is to express our humanity with the best of our humanity in the face of the most pressing challenges of our times. It is this expression of love in the service of our common humanity that makes us really human.  May this conference be an opportunity to build together a safe and stronger humanity. Let us commit to lay together a solid foundation on which just and inclusive communities can be built for our multi-religious world.

Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit,
general secretary of the World Council of Churches