Freedom of Religion and the Right to Be Respected

As the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s Ambassador to the United Nations in New York, I have recently attended for the second year in a row a special commemoration event at the Park East Synagogue in New York in conjunction with the U.N. International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Every year, Rabbi Arthur Schneier, the respected and veteran interfaith dialogue contributor, brings together his congregation with the members of the U.N. diplomatic community, including the U.N. Secretary General, to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust, pay tribute to survivors and underline the commitment of the international community not to allow religious persecution and genocide.

This year, I attended the ceremony with my 12-year-old son out of a deep conviction that we need to educate the new generations on the merits of human dignity, respect for the other, co-existence and the horrible consequences of hatred. It is our responsibility to utilize the opportunities that interfaith and faith based civil society has to develop early childhood multi-culturalism and peace-building programs. Would it not be encouraging to see individuals, families and civil society partner together to educate the next generation on human dignity and respect?

Recently, the situation of Christian minorities in OIC countries has become a concern for Christian institutions in the West and for those committed to religious freedom. However, we should not ignore the promising trend of interfaith cooperation in many of these countries. I am writing this article on my way from Helsinki, where I attended (as a cosponsor together with Finn Church Aid, Religions for Peace, and the UN Mediation Support Unit) an important seminar on strengthening the role of religious and traditional actors in peacemaking. A network of peace practitioners from universities and think tanks — evangelical, Catholic, Orthodox and Lutheran Christians, as well as Jewish and Muslim grassroots peacemakers — came together to discuss various conflict case studies. This synergy created among faith-based institutions is becoming a global movement and also can be seen in the field of humanitarian assistance.

The United Nations has intentionally joined these interfaith efforts with the establishment of the U.N.’s Alliance of Civilizations (AoC). The AoC was initiated by Turkey and Spain to foster inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue and combat the voices of extremism. On the eve of the AoC annual forum in Vienna, former President of the U.N. General Assembly, Qatar’s Nasser al Nasser, replaced Portugal’s former president, Jorge Sampaio, at the helm of the AoC. Sampaio exhibited courageous leadership in steering AoC forward and expectations are high that the new High Representative would bring a renewed sense of purpose and fresh ideas. The new era of the Alliance coincided with the recent inauguration in Vienna of the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Interreligious Dialogue Center (KAICIID) founded by Spain, Austria and Saudi Arabia. The Center will be guided by a board of nine Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu members. Significantly, the Holy See is a Founding Observer of the Center. Furthermore, Common Word and World Interfaith Harmony Week initiatives of Jordan met with unprecedented global acceptance.

All of these efforts were consolidated by a U.N.-wide consensus reached in 2011 based on a common understanding forged among OIC-U.S. and E.U. with the adoption by the U.N. Human Rights Council of OIC sponsored resolution 16/18 on combating religious intolerance and discrimination. For the second year, in December 2012 the U.N. General Assembly unanimously confirmed the approach of 16/18. The General Assembly also adopted by consensus an EU sponsored resolution on freedom of religion. While the trajectory at the intergovernmental level is important, action is also needed at the national level.

Despite all of these efforts toward cooperation and interfaith understanding, some unfortunate developments have also occurred, including attacks against places of worships, which are certainly source of great concern. However, they should be seen against the backdrop of positive developments such as the expansion of the church city in Qatar, the planned construction of the biggest Catholic church of the Gulf in Bahrain, and Turkey’s decision to return all confiscated immovable property belonging to religious minority foundations. Recently, Turkey’s Council of Foundations affiliated to the Directorate General for Foundations agreed to return 190 hectares, some 470 acres of forest land, back to the Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary as the biggest property return to a minority group in Turkish history. In another vein, dismissal by the Pakistani Supreme Court of the blasphemy case against Christian girl Rimsha Masih could also be seen as a glimpse of hope.

Naturally, while positive developments in interreligious relations are underlined, concerns increase over the rise of intolerance among Muslim sects in a way alien to the fabric, history and cultures of Muslim societies. In this regard, hopes are pinned on the wisdom of the leading Islamic scholars, the OIC institutions and the King Abdullah Intra-Islamic Thoughts Center to be established in Riyadh.

As President Obama reminded us in his recent proclamation of U.S. Religious Freedom Day, religious liberty is a universal human right to be protected as an essential part of human dignity and without it our world cannot know lasting peace. I personally see the freedom of religion as an important component of the “right of every individual to be respected.”