Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, according to Article 18 of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights (UNDHR), but is this right “orphaned” in practice?
Anglican Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali discussed increased opposition to freedom of religion in many countries during a talk held Friday, September 21 at the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, D.C.
Bishop Nazir-Ali serves as the President of Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy & Dialogue. Previously he served as the 106th Bishop of Rochester in the Church of England, and the former Bishop of Raiwind in Pakistan.
The UNHDR, first proclaimed by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948, includes freedom to change religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
But several countries, including some U.S. allies, oppose or exempt themselves from the declaration. Nazir-Ali noted that at its introduction, Article 18 was opposed by Saudi Arabia on the grounds that it would lead to aggressive missionary activity by the West. The Anglican bishop found this ironic, since Saudi Arabia heavily funds Islamic proselytization projects.
“Why have so many countries opposed this right?” Nazir-Ali asked, noting that many religious traditions have elements of tolerance within them.
Nazir-Ali recounted visiting Iran when the Cyrus Cylinder – a 6th century B.C. Persian declaration about running an empire tolerant of different nationalities and faiths – was on display in Tehran. Noting that such elements of Iranian history held implications for religious tolerance, Nazir-Ali told of one ostensibly moderate Iranian official dismissing it, saying “we’re not interested in the past, only future.”
But infringements on religious freedom were not limited to Islamic-majority countries, Nazir-Ali reported.
“Who would have thought in Post-Gandhian India that we’d have the position that we have?” Nazir-Ali asked, citing violence by Hindu nationalists. “Why are people not going back to their tradition of tolerance?”
Nazir-Ali asserted that within Islamic tradition, the constitution of Medina recognized equal rights and responsibilities for occupants of the city.
The Anglican Bishop outlined several regions where religious freedom is not recognized: remains of Marxist persecution in China against both Christian house churches and Muslims, along with state repression of religious practice in Vietnam and Laos. Central Asia, Nazir-Ali explained, is still influenced by what transpired during the Soviet era.
Responses vary country to country: Pakistani officials, Nazir-Ali reported, are embarrassed by reported instances of religious persecution, while Indian officials are in complete denial that it occurs.
“Islamic resurgence has led to persecution – part of it has been a kind of inflexible reading of tradition which ignores history, and the way that the tradition has developed,” was Nazir-Ali’s diagnosis. “Inflexibility has arisen not just against non-Muslims but also against Muslims themselves.”
Nazir-Ali cited “Greater isolation, segregation from one another” due to madrassas, Islamist-funded textbooks, etc., as contributing factors to extremism.
There is also, Nazir-Ali reported, more violence.
“Mob violence can be incited quite easily,” the Bishop explained, crediting to that violence the balkanization of cities in Nigeria. A promulgation of Shari’a – Islamic law – as parallel laws within a county means that non-Muslims cannot give testimony – even in cases involving themselves.
“People have been rendered toothless by extremist pressure,” Nazir-Ali declared, citing threats to life, liberty, and office by an encroaching extremism against religious minorities.