2021 Global Peace Convention Panelists Warn that Religious Freedom is at Risk Globally
“Religious freedom is a litmus test of all human rights,” said Ján Figel’, Former European Commissioner and Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief. Addressing the Interreligious Freedom Track at the 2021 Global Peace Convention, Figel’ said religious freedom “is the deepest expression of human dignity and freedom. If this most inner freedom is not respected, the others will not be respected.”
Panels over three days covering Government Restrictions on Religious Freedom, Religious Freedom as a Human Right, and the convening of the South Korea Interreligious Freedom Roundtable affirmed that freedom of religion and freedom of conscience are fundamental and the foundation for peace in the world. High levels of religious freedom promote peaceful democracies, tolerance, and interreligious cooperation, panelists said. Despite the importance of religious freedom, it is denied or abridged in most countries.
“Religious liberty is going to have an effect on other beliefs,” said Doug Bandow, Senior Fellow from the Cato Institute. “The government that refuses to accept and recognize the freedom of people to answer to what they perceive to be God, the transcendent, something that is ultimately important for anyone, is not likely to let you make choices about politics, to allow you to make decisions in terms of who governs you. It is not likely to allow you to make decisions on moral issues and how to live your life.”
Other presenters stressed that religious liberty must be seen as an essential aspect of human rights and be given protections by governments.
According to a report presented by Samirah Majumdar, Research Associate at the Pew Research Center, “Among the 25 most populous countries, India, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Russia had the highest levels of government restrictions and social hostilities.” Harsh restrictions on religious freedom, moreover, have increased substantially since 2007. Not only do they exist in authoritarian governments, but also within many democracies in Europe.
Religious persecution is also seen in many countries where women suffer social harassment for wearing clothes that appear to violate either secular or religious codes. In several European countries, the government restricts women’s head covering, and women are harassed for not appearing secular enough. Meanwhile, women in the Middle East and North Africa are abused for adopting secular attire.
“As government restrictions are in place, this exacerbates social tensions, government clamps down even more on society, society gets more tense,” said Peter Henne, Professor of the University of Vermont. Governments putting restrictions on religious freedom will not prevent terrorism as these governments intend, speakers said. Instead, these restrictions will lead to more terrorism. When missionary families are expelled from their countries or when men and women are imprisoned for their beliefs, this builds resentment and leads to further radicalization.
Authoritarian regimes such as China and North Korea view religion as a political threat to their government. China has forced Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic group, into re-education camps and this regime continues to push its longstanding discrimination against Christians which includes imprisoning pastors and closing down churches.
Korean panelists especially emphasized that North Korea needs to respect religious freedom as a critical component to relate to South Korea when discussing reunification in the future. Unlike North Korea, South Korea has a strong foundation of religious freedom, with millions of Buddhists and Christians freely practicing their faith in the country. Bob Fu, president of ChinaAid and a Christian convert from China, argued that South Korea should ally itself with home churches in China which he said will help advance religious freedom in both China and North Korea.
Ensuring religious freedom is a means to foster peace and prevent violence, panelists said. “We need to work together because my faith is personal to me. Your faith is personal to you, and we need to have that freedom,” said Rev. Susan Taylor, National Public Affairs Director with the Church of Scientology.
Greg Mitchell, chairman of the International Religious Freedom Secretariat, said, “Lasting relationships are built, creating something much stronger than tolerance. The longer we gather and share our stories, the stronger the mutual understanding and respect.”
International Religious Freedom Roundtables convene NGOs and individuals from any and no faith and work for freedom of religion or belief. Roundtables are hosted around the world and build mutual reliance and trust among participants from different religious backgrounds.
The August 6-15, 2021 Global Peace Convention, a bi-annual assembly of the Global Peace Foundation, organized some 30 sessions in eight thematic tracks, highlighting values-based peacebuilding, religious freedom initiatives, innovations in education, women and youth leadership, and advances toward a peaceful, reunified Korea.