< Viewpoints < 2006

“Religious leaders needed for rights cause”

[15/05/06] There is a core of ethical values within each of the major religions – Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism. The morale they express relates closely to human rights principles. Indeed, when the Universal Declaration was drafted after the Second World War these values were a source of inspiration.

Religious leaders and teachers have also played a significant role in explaining and defending human rights within their communities. An essential element of this message has been tolerance towards people who are different, including those who belong to another community.

However, the religions have also attracted extremist elements who have distorted the core values. Militants have agitated against “the others” as a threat against their own community, even portrayed them as enemies. Hostility against those others has become the essence of their own togetherness. This is a tragic perversion and a tremendous challenge for enlightened teachers.

More than ever, there is a need to build bridges. My predecessor as Commissioner organised several seminars with religious leaders and thinkers in Europe. I took part in the most recent one in February in Kazan and could see the value of this dialogue – learning from one another in a spirit of mutual respect.

Interestingly, the Kazan seminar recommended that a European centre be established to service systematic education about religions (plural). The reasoning is logical: ignorance may lead to prejudices, which may lead to intolerance, which may lead to discrimination and human rights violations.

To mention one example, knowledge of Islam is thin in several European countries today and this has created a basis for discriminatory treatment of Muslims.

Ideally, interreligious dialogue meetings like the one in Kazan should also be organised on a national level. The purpose would be to facilitate mutual understanding and to define concrete measures to improve education about religions.

Respecting one another is not only a question of preventing tensions and conflicts, it is also about protecting the freedom of religion – a cornerstone of all human rights work. The European Convention on Human Rights formulates this right as follows:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”

“Everyone” means everyone. This right should be implemented without discrimination against any religion or belief. Countries with a state religion are, in this respect, faced with a challenge – how to ensure that individuals belonging to “other” religions or beliefs do indeed have the same possibilities “in worship, teaching, practice and observance”.

The same dilemma is facing those secular states where one religion dominates. In both such societies the importance of teaching about other religions tends to be of particular relevance. In reality, the struggle for freedom of religion or belief (including atheism) is often about minority rights.

It is also clear that no freedom is total. The European Convention admits that there may also be limitations of the right to manifest one’s religion. However, this can be determined only by law and when necessary, for instance, to protect the rights of others.

One category of “others” is children. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child seeks to strike a balance between the right of parents and guardians to guide the child in matters relating to religion and the right of the child to form his or her opinions and have them respected. The key phrase there is “the evolving capacities of the child” – the older and more mature the child is, the more obvious that he or she has an individual right of thought, conscience and religion.

For this to be genuine, it is important that the child can learn about religion at school, including about the faiths of “others”. The Convention on the Rights of the Child gives support to the spirit of Kazan: that children have the right to know about their own cultural identity but also about cultures and civilisations different from their own.

The two go hand in hand. With a clearer cultural self-image, people tend to be more open to messages which demystify the stranger. The aim should be to promote not only tolerance, but respect for others.

Thomas Hammarberg

This Viewpoint can be re-published in newspapers or on the internet without our prior consent, provided that the text is not modified and the original source is indicated in the following way: "Also available at the Commissioner's website at www.commissioner.coe.int".