Freedom of Religion: Liberated From the “Embrace of Power”

Being an agent of peace: Church service in celebration of the 100 years anniversary of The Lutheran Church of Christ in Nigeria (LCCN). Photo: Felix Samari LCCN/LWF
Being an agent of peace: Church service in celebration of the 100 years anniversary of The Lutheran Church of Christ in Nigeria (LCCN). Photo: Felix Samari LCCN/LWF

LWF Reflects on the Report by the Special Rapporteur to the UN Human Rights Council

(LWI) – How do churches become perpetrators of conflict? How can they serve as mediators for peace? As the Special Rapporteur (SR) for freedom of religion or belief gave his report in the 25th session of the UN Human Rights Council, The Lutheran World Federation hosted a side event focused on freedom of religion or belief. In an interview with Lutheran World Information (LWI), the Assistant General Secretary for International Affairs and Human Rights Ralston Deffenbaugh talks about areas and causes of religious hatred, the role of churches, being a nervous system and the difficult task to escape the “embrace of power”.

In terms of freedom of religion or belief, what are your areas of concern right now?

One of the countries we pay most attention to is Nigeria. One of our member churches is based in the Northeast of the country where the Boko Haram (militia) has made attacks. There is a lot of tension. How can that church and its leaders be a force of peace and restrain people from revenge or retaliation? How can they build relationships among communities? That’s a huge challenge.

Another place would be Indonesia. The Lutheran churches are large in members but fairly small given the total population of Indonesia which is mainly Muslim. Again, how can they live peacefully with their neighbors, especially now that there’s a lot more migration in the country, with Christians going into Muslim areas and Muslims trying to come into Christian areas, how can they live together in a way that there are equal rights and opportunities for all?

We are also concerned about the situation in India. We have some fairly large Lutheran churches in India mainly consisting of Dalit people, the so-called Untouchables. They are suffering from discrimination which is partly caste based and partly also religion based, being prejudiced against by the majority Hindu community in India. If a Dalit is a Hindu, they are entitled to certain affirmative action benefits like scholarships and job preferences. But if a Hindu Dalit converts to Christianity, they no longer qualify for those benefits. So there is a direct price for one’s religious freedom, which the government is imposing on the people.

And of course there is the conflict in the Central African Republic. The country is now basically in a chaotic situation with at least a quarter of the population if not more displaced from their homes. A lot of ethnic/religious violence has taken place, most of the Muslim population in the capital Bangui has had to flee from their homes. A big question is how we can be supportive of our member church there in the efforts to try to speak with each other, to help for people to overcome this hatred.

Power and Money “Clothed in Religion”

Do you think religion is the cause of the conflicts in all places?

It is very difficult to identify a conflict that’s purely a religious conflict. We sometimes use the words “conflicts clothed in religion”. Usually there are other causes at the root of this, to do with power, with money or with fear.

How does it happen that churches and religion become perpetrators of conflict?

The majority of believers are genuinely striving for love and compassion and doing good. Most religious people around the world are living fairly decent good lives. The the Special Rapporteur Prof. Heiner Bielefeldt today quoted the philosopher Friedrich Hegel saying that “the pages of good in history books are blank”. But religion can be exploited to be a force for evil.

One of the dangers for churches and other religious groups is that they would allow themselves to be identified with a particular ethnic or political group or government, and thereby allow themselves, as Prof. Bielefeldt said, to be “taken into the embrace of power”. For us Lutherans it’s very important that the church have a healthy relationship with the government. We can work with governments when the interests coincide, but we also have to be prepared to be critical of governments. If we’re going to be truly free in our religion, we need to be liberated from this “embrace of power”.

Most of the countries you mentioned already have freedom of religion written in their constitution and laws. What is missing?

There can be prejudice or even persecution that is state based, legally based, but there is also socially based prejudice. It is first up to the government as the duty holder with regard to human rights to work for equal treatment and non-discrimination. But there is also the responsibility of members of the society and in particular religious leaders to speak out on freedom of religion. Freedom of religion is not something which relates only to a few minorities. It’s a core human right. Almost all human beings adhere to a religion and want to practice it as they wish.

Explaining “Religious Hatred”

In his report, the SR concentrated on manifestations of “collective religious hatred”, joint manifestations of intense and irrational enmity and animosity towards a specific target group or individual which are proclaimed in the name of a religion or belief. What are the causes for these manifestations?

There are several factors. One of them is corruption. If there is endemic corruption in a country, you don’t have a way of people dealing with each other and with authorities in a way that they feel they can trust. Often that causes them to withdraw into their own communities whether defined by family, by ethnicity or by religion, and see their identity that way. From that, fears develop about “the other”, about people that are different.

Another factor is political authoritarianism. When people are discouraged from having an open debate with each other, when it is not safe to talk freely about things that are bothering you and that you want to see changed, that leads to mistrust and suspicion within society.

A third factor is narrow identity politics. Some political groups or governments try to exploit religion for their political purposes in order to win support from the majority religious group by discriminating against the minority.

How is it possible to counter these factors that may lead to religious violence?

The Special Rapporteur’s recommendations to the Human Rights Council were based on building trust in communities and societies. For us in the LWF, a lot of it is about how Christians and Muslims relate. LWF is the largest faith-based implementing partner for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Most of the refugees we work with are Muslim. I think the key there is respect for the other. This is something we as Lutherans feel very strongly about. We are all created in the image of God, we are equal. That perspective goes a long way. We also make sure that any sort of assistance provided is not discriminatory, just as with the Good Samaritan in the Bible. He obviously didn’t ask for credentials. He didn’t check the person’s religion or if he had the right papers. He just attended to a person in need.

Hope from Liberia

Where is the LWF advocacy work on freedom of religion or belief focused?

We try to be aware of situations where freedom of religion is under threat. We’re trying to understand ourselves, and help our member churches to understand, what some of the principles relating to freedom of religion are, what makes for societies where religion is free and what puts that freedom at risk. So one of our roles is being kind of a nervous system in the body of Christ and just like any good nervous system we want to be able to feel the pain, but we also want to be able to celebrate where things have gone well, and share that within the communion and be of assistance to one another.

Where did you have reason to celebrate?

In Liberia which suffered a very long and bad civil war. Thankfully it was not religion based. One of the main groups that helped bring peace to Liberia was an interreligious women’s group that was led by the Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee who is a member of the Lutheran Church in Liberia. She brought together women from various Christian churches and from various Muslim communities. They started a campaign, as they put it, to “Pray The Devil Back to Hell”, which consisted of protesting and insisting that the political groups and the warlords continue negotiating and make peace agreements. This was a wonderful example of where people could work together across religious lines for peace. Some of the male religious leaders were also doing that, there is an interreligious council in Liberia. That was a good example where religion could work for peace.

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