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The Rising Tide of Restrictions on Religion: Religions Respond

17 Jan 2014 – by Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Even though the concept of “religion” seems clear in common parlance, it is not that clear sociologically or legally. Too often the word religion evokes images of (often western) post-Constantinian Christianity which tends for the most part to be organized with a readily observable structure. Many Christian Churches would be organized in ways closely resembling a corporate structure. However, it is misleading to take this as normal either in the sense of being a universal phenomenon or of being the measure of what should be. Judaism, Islam and Hinduism are far less structurally organized than Christianity. Yet no one would deny that they are religions. In legal terminology many, if not most, Christian Churches can be a legal — as opposed to natural — person. However, it must also be admitted that the same cannot be said of Christianity as a whole. The situation becomes even more complicated as we move from Judaism, to Islam, to Hinduism, to indigenous religions. It is very easy to see how adherents of these belief systems are the subject of rights, especially the right to freedom of religion. It is less clear how and if the belief systems (and structures) themselves are the subject of rights in the same way. I am not saying they are not. I am saying that it is not clear to me how.

Religion is not something foreign to UN resolutions. However, a closer look at these resolutions shows both a development and a fundamental ambiguity. From 1962 to 2004 the UN General Assembly passed a resolution almost every year on the Elimination of All Forms of Religious Intolerance. In 1992 a new type of resolution began to appear which dealt with the rights of persons who belong to national, ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities. The 62nd Session of the General Assembly (2008-2009) dealt with the problem of global terrorism in two resolutions (A/RES/62/272 and A/RES/62/288). In the second resolution the GA states that “terrorism can in no way be identified with any religion, nationality or ethnic group....” In the following years a controversial discussion began on the so-called defamation of religion. These discussions took place at both the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council.

There are several things to be noted here. Religion is mentioned in articles 2 and 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, for almost forty years there were a series of resolutions which spoke about religious discrimination and freedom. What is important to note is that these resolutions dealt less with religion as such as with religion as it relates to individuals who have a right to hold, change or reject it. This is further underlined by the unusual language of the resolutions which speak of “religion or belief.” This expression, which is still used at the UN does not clarify what, if any, the difference is between religion and belief. Lastly, until the late 1990s no GA resolution made mention of any religion by name, despite the almost annual passage of resolutions against religious intolerance. I believe this underlines my position that the UN was not interested in religion in and for itself but only in religion in its relationship to individuals, that insofar as it relates to a basic human right of individuals. That situation began to change in the late 1990s with a specific religion, Islam, being mentioned for the first time. Likewise the concept of the Defamation of Religion introduced religion as an abstract concept into the discussion. It is extremely important to recognize that the topic was the Defamation of Religion and not the Defamation of Believers. At the same time the expression “religion or belief” continues to be used without clarification.

The Pew Study “Arab Spring Adds to Global Restrictions on Religion” (6 June 2013) is extremely important but poses as many questions as it answers. One of the first things I noted was that in the list of countries in which there was an increase of governmental restrictions and societal hostilities, many or even most of them are countries which use some type of a religious marker in its self-identity. This can be as overt as the Islamic Republic of Iran or less overt like the US where politicians routinely refer to “Judaeo-Christian” roots. This is further corroborated by the fact in the majority of these countries the restrictions and hostilities are not directed at all religions but some religions. Thus a religion/government dichotomy is misleading. There is a great deal of overlapping in fact.

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