Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit

General secretary, World Council of Churches

ISFiT, Trondheim, Norway

Discrimination and religion are vital and volatile issues, and the combination of the two creates a high risk for many. This is a growing problem in the world today and affects believers of all religions. It contributes to polarization and tensions among peoples, religions, cultures and nations. It undermines the justice and peace we long for as human beings.

Visiting Iraq and Kurdistan some weeks ago, I met with people who had escaped from the most brutal and inhumane form of discrimination: Elimination because of their religious identity. Christians, Yazidis, and some Muslim minorities have all been targeted, many have been killed, and thousands have had to flee from their homes in cities like Mosul. Facilitated by some kind of religious legitimation for holy war against non-believers, assaults on their religious identity have led to a brutality the world has not seen in many years.

The recent example of religious discrimination most well-known to all of us is the ban on persons entering the US from certain Muslim-majority countries. The ban applies even to refugees, that is, people in desperate need of the basic provision for protection. Their religion is being used as a barrier against them.  We can list many other countries in the world where the rights to religious freedom of peoples of other faiths—I know particularly about Christians, but others as well—are undermined by open, active, or more subtle discrimination.

If discrimination is understood as an unacceptable restriction, limitation, disregard or even ban on other human beings, attacking their dignity, their integrity, their freedom to be who they are, and sometimes their very lives, then this can and should indeed be discussed from the perspective of rights. Discrimination is all about justice, and justice must be expressed in rights. The World Council of Churches has since its very beginning been involved in formulating and calling for an implementation of the international conventions on human rights. They are universal rights because they pertain to all human beings. Rights require structures of accountability. The national states should implement these rights in their legislation and systems of justice.


When we connect the theme with “religion,” we add further dimensions to the discussion. Particularly we add basic questions to the aspect of accountability: What does it mean that we are accountable to God when we discuss religion and discrimination? Our faith in God as the creator of all makes us accountable to God. Discrimination is a disregard of the value and dignity of other human beings, and therefore it is an attack on God, the creator of all. Discrimination is an issue at the centre of what it means to believe in God.

Is religion itself discriminatory? There are several important questions in one here. First is the historical, descriptive question: Has religion – in its many expressions as systems of belief, as practices, as cult, as moral framework and code for a community, as institution, and as part of the systems of national legislation and power—been leading de facto to ideologies or politics or practices that are discriminatory? The answer is quite obviously: yes. We can point even to the laws of this country, Norway, including the liberal constitution of 1814, to say so, in which the confessional Lutheran state did not allow other religious communities and particularly not the Jews and the Jesuits to enter the country. This has been changed. Still, we can today point to many other examples of discriminatory laws and reigning politics and practices of other countries, as we have heard from Iran today, and as we know from many sources about many others. Religion is used as a criterion to make discriminatory rules and regulations.

Another question: Should religion – if religion is true to its own roots, its holy scripture, its true meaning and purpose (to the extent that something like that can be defined) – be discriminatory? Should religion and those who belong to a religion stand up and fight for their faith, their group, their influence, for domination by our religion, even when it implies clear discrimination and even violence against others? Or should religion rather be in the forefront of fighting against all kinds of discrimination, because that is the core value of true faith and commitment to anybody that duly can be named “God”? Establishing justice and peace means to a large extent addressing all forms of discrimination. It means mobilizing against discrimination, and particularly addressing the root causes of discrimination related to religion.

Religion has become in many eyes the core issue of both discrimination and violence. The picture is more nuanced than that. Yet I believe we live in a time when there is a struggle going on about the core values of religion, or the soul of many religions, whether we are agents of exclusion or inclusion, whether we are the guardians of our own privileges, building new borders, barriers, and walls between human beings; or whether we are the bridge builders, the gate-openers, the communities of faith, the open-minded pilgrims that bring us forward together as one humanity on the one planet earth. This is a struggle going on within Christianity, yes, but also in the Muslim world, in Jewish communities, in contexts where Hindu and Buddhist communities have a dominant role.

Initiatives to combat racism and discrimination in the name of religion must come from religion itself. Discrimination, as a downgrading of some in terms of their basic value or dignity or rights, as racist legislation in the pre-Civil War US did by saying that the black people were 3/5 of a human being, is an attack on God. The same was expressed in Apartheid ideology and theology. But it was a heresy, nothing less. Racism is “America’s original sin” (Jim Wallis). It echoes a European sense of superiority, which has been exposed in colonialism, slavery, and in the so-called Doctrine of Discovery that has been so detrimental to many Indigenous Peoples. Theological language and argument are actually quite relevant to understanding the depths of the issues we are discussing when we address discrimination.

There is no partiality in God, writes the Apostle Paul in the New Testament (Romans 2:11), arguing that we all, whatever religion or ethnicity or gender we might have, are equal before God – and all need the grace of God.

We cannot avoid the accountability; we have to discuss what has happened and daily happens in the name of religion, my or your particular religion, in the past and today. There is no way we can run away from that discussion about, for example, how the Lutheran tradition was used to legitimize discrimination of Jews and, even more than that, the elimination of Jews from Europe. We cannot run away from how the so-called Doctrine of Discovery was used – the justification for taking over land populated by Indigenous People and for dominating them. This is also a dark side of Norwegian history and of the history of the church. Even more in many other countries like the USA, Canada, Australia, where the discrimination and even elimination of Indigenous Peoples was accepted for the sake of the “enlightened,” mighty colonizers, who also wanted expansion in the name of their culture – and religion. Likewise, Muslims cannot ignore the problems that many Christians and other faith communities experience in many Muslim countries or countries where Muslims have a clear majority; and I am encouraged to know that many Muslim leaders do take these problems seriously, as we see in the Marrakesh Declaration from 2015.

Here I represent a global ecumenical organization which represents a fellowship of 348 different churches around the world. The objective of this fellowship is unity among the churches, a unity that is based on dialogue about the basis of our faith and practices as churches, but also a unity expressed in solidarity and for the sake of the unity of all human beings of all categories. This commitment has been guiding our work to combat racism, to address violations of human rights, to address the situation of women and children, to be advocates for Indigenous Peoples. We call our vision today for this work and this time “A Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace.”

When we address the issue of religion and discrimination, the most obvious and always relevant entry point is the specific discussion of religious freedom. Protection of one’s rights regarding religious belief, belonging, and practice really pertains to the most significant dimensions of human identity and the integrity of a human person. To be denied the right to practice one’s religion is often connected to other dimensions of discrimination because of one’s religion. It is such a basic issue that it could be identified as one of the most significant indicators of the fundamental problem of discrimination.

One of the ways that we can keep in check the religious tendency to be discriminatory therefore is to be absolutely committed to freedom of religion—even if that is counter-intuitive from a religious point of view. Even if there are aspects of our sacred texts which seem to encourage us to feel that our religion is “better” than that of others and therefore deserves special privileges.  We have to uphold the right of others to choose not to be like us and with us; the document “Christian Witness in a Multireligious World” emphasizes the need for equality rather than discrimination among its other aspects:

Religious freedom including the right to publicly profess, practice, propagate and change one’s religion flows from the very dignity of the human person which is grounded in the creation of all human beings in the image and likeness of God (cf. Genesis 1:26). Thus, all human beings have equal rights and responsibilities. Where any religion is instrumentalized for political ends, or where religious persecution occurs, Christians are called to engage in a prophetic witness denouncing such actions. (Paragraph 7)

Another way of keeping in check the tendency of religions to be discriminatory is to be aware that religions as institutional structures are not enough.  There has rightly been a tendency of many Christians to be aware that religions are dangerous. Faith, spirituality, and religion are not identical. The dramatic cleansing of the Temple by Christ himself is a visible demonstration of the need to challenge religious structures.  Karl Barth rightly encouraged us to realize that religions are a human construct, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously spoke of “religionless Christianity.”  Religion is quite a static phenomenon, so as Christians we need faith and what we might call spirituality to “vivify” the body of religion, which otherwise can all too easily end up lifeless as a corpse! One of the tasks of spirituality is to be part of a process of change and transformation, spilling out and across boundaries, breaking down the walls of partition, a counter-balance to the immobile tendencies of religions.

Religious freedom is a fundamental human right. The formulations in paragraph 18 in the UN Convention on Human Rights were carefully considered with representatives from the WCC. This has been and will continue to be a significant task for churches and interfaith initiatives. Religious freedom is our common responsibility, whatever religion we belong to. My own participation in this kind of interfaith cooperation for religious freedom here in Norway through the Oslo coalition has given me a lot of insight for continuing these efforts. I think we should do much more together. At the WCC, we are committed to addressing the needs of Christians discriminated against and persecuted, as well as of others who experience attacks on their religious freedom.

Religious freedom is definitely not an issue of protecting the marginal interests of a few with a special interest for religion as their hobby, as one might surmise from the attitude in some secular circles. Religious discrimination is often connected to other mechanisms and dimensions of discrimination; if you have limitations in your religious freedom, you are often discriminated against in other ways than the right to practice your religion.

However, we should also be very aware that the claim for religious freedom can be in conflict to other serious issues of discrimination. I am sure a discussion like tonight’s will show this clearly.

Indeed, there are many other expressions of discrimination that are or could be connected to religion, and they are not first and foremost about discrimination due to religious identity or belonging. Rather, it is the other way around: They are practices of discrimination motivated by religious convictions and practices. We could mention more general phenomena such as discrimination based on religious influence or religious convictions or practices materialized in gender discrimination, discrimination based on sexual orientation; discrimination against children and ignorance of their human rights for protection against violence, their rights to health and education; discrimination due to ethnicity, nationality, and race. To some extent you can say that old systems of discrimination like the caste system in India and its many subtle expressions are based on religion. The WCC and other organizations have tried to address the situation of Dalits also from this perspective.

Furthermore, the theme of religious freedom can itself be abused, as a pretext to legitimize other forms of discrimination, for example, when women and children are discriminated against in terms of lacking protection against violence. This can happen if these concerns are regarded as issues belonging to the family sphere, and the state’s responsibility to protect against any form of violence is limited due to an understanding that this is regulated by religious practices and convictions.

The word “religion” comes from the Latin religio, whose ultimate etymology is disputed. But it may derive from the Latin verb ligare, “to bind, connect,” which does suggest the “bond” and sense of obligation that religion creates between humanity and the divine order, and among the members of any particular religious community. This is a common thread that runs through most of the definitions set out above. To summarize, religion emphasizes the importance of loyalty to a human community, which intersects with and somehow reflects an absolute supra-natural and cosmic order.

Therefore, in a religion that relates to God as a creator of all, there is no limit to how far we are called to go to show our love in respect and dignity. We are called to do to others as we want them to do to ourselves, to be toward other human beings as we are to our own, regardless of the markers of their identity, be they nationality, race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion.

To a large extent, we understand and act as religious persons and institutions based on a notion that our accountability is to the past, to the texts, to the practices, and to the events of the past – to such an extent that our accountability to the living human beings of today may become subordinated. Being accountable to God, to the living God and the creator of all, means being accountable to the living persons of today. In our discussion about discrimination, we have to be accountable to other human beings, to all who are created in the image of God. To be a human being is to be a fellow human being, always relating to others, even those who unknown or strangers.

Even further, we need to ask: what is our accountability to the human beings of tomorrow? How shall our and their daily lives be inspired by or dominated by religion – or inspired by or dominated by the absence of religion? What can bring hope for the human beings for tomorrow? Is religion something we use to secure our own future, to safeguard the reproduction of our clan, our group, our nation only, or is it a basis and an inspiration for what we can call the future of humanity?

Shall we contribute to the use, indeed abuse, of religion to discriminate against others, or shall we be accountable to God the creator of all and so develop another sense of mutual accountability to one another and our need for protection, dignity, and rights?

This is the time to develop in the name of religions a new understanding of being human, gathering our resources for the care of all that lives with us on this planet and those who shall come after us. This is the time to nurture another attitude to one another – simply as human beings, before we start thinking of all the other identities I have. There is an ongoing fight over the soul of Christianity, and I think also the fight of the soul of Islam, of the Jewish community, of Hindus, of Buddhists: Should religion be our platform for fighting for ourselves, for our rights and privileges, against the rights and the dignity and the future of others, or not? This is a real question in so many parts of the world. I face it every day together with our member churches, but also in meetings with people of all faiths and nations in Nigeria, South Sudan, Pakistan, Iraq, Israel and Palestine, Ukraine, and many other places.

This quest for the soul of religion as an exclusive or inclusive approach, as a legitimation of discriminatory policy, is now at its most visible in the most powerful nation of the world, the USA.

As the WCC, we invite all Christians and people of “good will” (not all Christians are people of good will, either, unfortunately) to join us in a faith-based and faith-inspired journey into the future with the attitudes of pilgrimage: Seeking God, the guidance of God, being open to what we need to correct, repenting from what we need to change – so that the values of the kingdom of God, justice and peace, can become more manifest in our world.

Here we at the WCC have a legacy that makes a difference. The struggle against Apartheid in South Africa was controversial, but absolutely important and honest and serious: The black and coloured needed something totally different than those two ways, two gates, two buses, two benches, two policies, two churches. The struggle against this theologically based racism became a wake-up call for many churches around the world.

We have to be honest and admit, though, that the very nature of religion as fostering allegiance, loyalty and “binding” to a particular human community has within it the propensity to discriminate between those “inside” and those “outside” and to privilege the insiders. Perhaps such discrimination is reinforced by the human tendency to fear what is different from and alien to us. And “fear” is itself a word that finds an all too easy bed-fellow in religious allegiance.

This pilgrimage of justice and peace is a journey of hope, in which we believe more is possible than we see in terms of changes toward justice and peace for all. We also believe that this is what most of us in our heart of hearts really want, and that we therefore should be open-minded in how we relate to others as we seek justice and peace. This means listening, understanding, and walking in the shoes of others. Peace cannot be established by the use of power but only through establishing justice for all.

Therefore, we need students from all over the world, young people seeking the truth about the past but also the possibilities of today and tomorrow, to find a new way to share our treasured values of religion together. Mutual accountability means critique, not least self-critique. Real changes must also come from inside, with our own renewed understanding, discerning between what is good or bad, positively lifting up those who need more support than others, as pilgrims of justice and peace. Faith must be expressed as hope, and a hope for all—if we believe God is creator of all.