Joining 97 delegates from over 40 countries, a representative of the Baha’i community of Canada was invited as one of three Canadian delegates to attend the annual conference on law and religion organized by the International Center for Law and Religion Studies (ICLRS). The conference, “Religious Rights in a Pluralistic World”, was held at Brigham Young University, October 2-5.
Dr. Gerald Filson joined Professor John Borrows, an expert on Indigenous law from the University of Victoria, as well as Sandra Pallin, Director of Public Affairs of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints as Canada’s representatives.
The outgoing UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, Professor Heiner Bielefeldt, gave the keynote talk at the conference. Other sessions were addressed by leading legal and policy thinkers and activists, including Ján Figel’, Special Envoy for the Promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief Outside the European Union, Archbishop Bernardito Auza, Permanent Representative to the Holy See at the United Nations, and Tassaduq Hussain Jillani, Former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan. U.S. human rights expert, W. Cole Durham Jr, Founder of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies, chaired the conference .
Professor Bielefeldt commented on the persecution of Baha’is in one of the plenary sessions after several presenters had spoken about the decline of religious freedom in recent years. After noting his agreement with the comments that addressed the challenges religious freedom faces around the world, he said, “but there is a silver lining.” He then gave two examples of gestures that give hope. He recounted how at a recent U.N. meeting the Baha’i representative spoke up against attempts to attack and persecute Shia Islam. This, Professor Bielefeldt reminded the delegates, was from a representative of a Faith that is, itself, severely persecuted by a misguided branch of Shia Islam in Iran that is doing all it can to persecute Baha’is. That, he noted, is how to advance religious freedom, by those of different religions stepping forward and, with sacrifice and moral courage, to change the climate and, with interreligious cooperation, reinforce efforts that can help to eliminate religious discrimination and bigotry by demonstrating religious harmony and understanding.
Professor Bielefeldt’s keynote talk on “Religious Freedom as a Provocation” was greeted with applause by delegates. He outlined how religious freedom as a human right is a provocation to governments, especially those who curtail religious freedom by creating a short list of “official” religions, denying freedom to others, or by dictating which freedoms are to be enjoyed by religions, and which aren’t, often restricting minority religions in the name of public order while privileging majority religions. He commented that other governments, often in the West, are using equality and anti-discrimination laws in ways contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in order to trump religious freedom rights. Religious freedom is also a provocation to religions, Professor Bielefeldt continued, as many religionists continue to privilege their own religion, often a majority religion, over other religions in ways that are unjust, sometimes through the use of anti-conversion and anti-proselytizing laws which they urge governments to impose, and by denying freedom of speech and expression to those who wish to engage, even in thoughtful and respectful ways, in a critical study of religious teaching. Finally, Professor Bielefeldt noted that religious freedom can also be a challenge to the human rights community when some of its proponents turn human rights into a kind of civil religion, misusing the concept of human rights, which are important legal standards but which provide minimal levels of protection. He summarized his talk by noting that many governments and religions still have a hard time understanding religious freedom’s special characteristics and its central place in society.
In Dr. Filson’s contribution to the panel presentation, the fundamental importance of human rights was recognized, but he went on to explain how the ethical values and norms of religion can contribute to society in ways that go well beyond the minimal threshold of human behaviour that human rights provide as legal safeguards, pointing out that ethical and moral values draw inspiration and normative force from God rather than resting solely on the moral self-sufficiency of individual autonomy and freedom that are today understood in purely secular and highly individualistic ways. A religious perspective also goes beyond the more limited demands that national or state laws and human rights standards require, developed as they are, even in the most developed democracy, to meet the lowest common denominator of accepted behaviour.
Filson’s presentation pointed out that the more comprehensive ethical norms that draw their breath from religion involve individual and collective responsibilities to society that help to uphold and reinforce human rights standards while going beyond that necessary but only minimal level of what it means to be a citizen. Through such virtues, or capacities, of generosity, fellowship, love and sacrifice, to mention a few, a society of mutual respect, cooperation and universal participation in community building is fostered. Interreligious cooperation is important as religious communities and institutions learn to work together to take advantage of the rich language and enduring experience shared by all religions in order to generate a more genuine understanding and practice of unity and justice in society.
Dr. Filson agreed that human rights are an important part of this picture, of course, but interreligious collaboration can serve to reinforce a respect for those rights while striving to go beyond those rights by advancing the role of religion in the public sphere. Religion needs today to serve society’s best interests and, thereby, demonstrate a more compelling and comprehensive understanding of human dignity, than an exclusive focus on human rights alone, provides. After all, human dignity is the basis of both human rights and the larger realm of individual and collective responsibility we all share in advancing civilization.