During my visit to Buenos Aires, I found myself in a public conversation about religious freedom. This is a topic that I usually avoid, knowing that I get angry, especially at those Christians who reduce religious freedom to their own will to discriminate against others with whom they disagree or of whom they disapprove. To me, freedom of religion is like freedom of speech: to be upheld until it imposes itself on the rights of others to be who they are, or when it becomes a threat to our personal security.
For those of us who identify ourselves anywhere in the LBGTIQ2S+ acronym, freedom from religious fundamentalism and specifically from promotion of homophobia and transphobia is vital. We live in a time when some politicians turn gender justice against women and sexual minorities to win support from religious fundamentalists.
I was attending an inter-faith forum on sustainable development, one of several events leading up to the meeting in Buenos Aires Nov. 30-Dec. 1 of the G20 group of countries.
Having sat through an hour of praise for religious freedom, vitality, and the role of religion in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals—without any of the panelists saying anything about victims of religious fundamentalism—I rose to my feet. I was cautious, and tried to outline a different approach.
Instead of blaming the speakers or making the issue about myself, I pointed to the creation in 2016 of Global Affairs Canada’s Office of Human Rights, Freedoms and Inclusion as a good example of a different approach.
To me—and this is what I said to the panelists—the greatest value of the new office is that it places religious leaders in a space with people who are too often targeted because of their race, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression. I asked how the panelists viewed religious freedom in the context of other freedoms and rights.
In response, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, UN special rapporteur for freedom of religion or belief, said religious freedom cannot be in ways that undermine the rights of others. He insisted on equality. Another panelist, Elder Todd Cristofferson of the Church of Latter Day Saints’ Quorum of 12 Apostles, spoke in terms of “fairness to all”—a pleasant surprise to me. Rabbi David Silverstein—religious freedom ambassador under President Barack Obama—spoke of the rights of groups not to be discriminated against, and said limits on religious freedom are appropriate.
This exchange took place in the plenary of the interfaith summit. We then moved into four parallel sessions, and the one that I attended was on Human Rights, Faith and Sustainable Development. Many of those who had been in the plenary also attended this session, including Dr. Shaheed. And here I learned a few things.
Faith for Rights
Maybe everyone else already knows about the work of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on “Faith for Rights,” the Rabat Plan of Action and the Beirut Declaration, but I didn’t know. OHCHR staffer Michael Wiener walked us through them.
In 2012, section 36 of the Rabat Plan of Action laid out some of religious leaders’ core responsibilities against incitement to hatred:
- refrain from using messages of intolerance or expressions which may incite violence, hostility or discrimination
- speak out firmly and promptly against intolerance, discriminatory stereotyping and instances of hate speech
- be clear that violence can never be tolerated as a response to incitement to hatred: there is no justification for violent retaliation.
This is not white-washing, insisted Mr. Wiener: faith-based actors can do good or bad. His role is to support faith leaders in positive action for rights.
There are also 18 commitments adopted by faith-based actors in the 2017 Faith for Rights Beirut Declaration. These include pledges to ensure non-discrimination and gender equality. They use religious texts and UN declarations to prohibit so-called honour crimes and female genital mutilation, and to call for an end to blasphemy laws and use of the notion of “state religion” to discriminate against individuals or groups. They set out to “de-mystify” or take away the impression that faith is against human rights. They re-affirm humanitarian aid principles of conduct, including that aid cannot be used to promote religion—which would be tantamount to coercion. Faith groups stand up for the rights of all minorities. Faith for Rights is an umbrella to bring them together, and proposes concrete projects to implement the commitments.
Mr. Wiener said that Dr. Shaheed (the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief, sitting in the audience in this session), has described the Beirut commitments as “soft law standards.” They are not formally adopted by states (yet), but by using them, over time they become norms. Along with the official UN languages, nine other translations have been made: for example, Turkish and Greek for use in Cyprus; Serb and Albanian for use in the Balkan region, etc. They have been turned into tweets and given artistic expression in different places.
In our work to overcome religion-based homophobia and transphobia, honour crimes and female genital mutilation, blasphemy laws and anti-sodomy laws, we can use those publicly-stated commitments to remind those who would promote hatred and exclusion that other faith leaders have taken a different stance, and have UN backing.
Dignity Network Canada
Since 2016, the United Church and Affirm United/S’Affirmer Ensemble have participated in the Dignity Network of NGOs, human rights groups and others that are committed to defend LGBTI rights globally and to press the Canadian government to do more.
When faith leaders gathered with politicians and corporate leaders in Buenos Aires at the end of September, some expressed frustration with the slow response to urgent issues of climate change, migration, and economic justice.
“We live in a world that is insanely dismissive of its own future,” said Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury who is now the chair of Christian Aid. “This is stupidity.”
Rabbi Sergio Bergman, a Jewish leader who works in the Argentinian government, said he was fed up with the way the world talks about climate change. Policy-makers debate emissions standards and refuse to answer ethical questions about care for the planet and those who live here.
“It’s like holding a conference on thermometers to (measure) people’s fevers,” he said. “Come on! The problem is we’re ill.”
Inside and outside strategies
They were speaking at the G20 Interfaith Forum that was held in Buenos Aires in the last days of September.
Sometimes in our movements for social justice we talk of “inside” and “outside” strategies. You go “inside” to talk to government or corporate officials. You join a demonstration “outside” when dialogue strategies aren’t working or when you need to engage more people in an effort for change. As I get older and less patient with official processes, I confess I prefer the outside option. But once in a while I go in.
And that in a sense is what I was doing at the G20 forum. One of the United Church’s partners, CREAS (the Regional Ecumenical Centre for Advice and Service) has developed good working relationships with the United Nations Development Program, various inter-faith groups, and several parts of government in Argentina. Together they have hammered out some useful ways to collaborate on programs that improve livelihoods and education, all under the banner of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
Having gone “inside,” they found some interesting allies—among them the network of people run the G20 Interfaith Forum. The one held in Buenos Aires Sept. 26-28 was the fifth such forum. (I had forgotten, but one was held in Winnipeg in 2010, just ahead of the infamous G8/G20 summit in Toronto.) This was one of several sectoral consultations that are leading up to the summit that will be held in Buenos Aires Nov. 30-Dec. 1 of the G20 (made up of the European Union and leaders of the richest seven countries plus the next tier of a dozen-plus countries that together make up 85 per cent of the global economy).
Ethics and economics
A permanent feature of CREAS work is on the theme “Ethics and Economy.” This work has built from previous work on Faith, Economy and Society in the Latin American Council of Churches and on work in global ecumenical organizations towards a new international financial architecture. Working within the framework of the G20 Interfaith Forum, CREAS was able to build in two half-days of dialogue—a “high-level forum”—to advance discussion toward “an economy of life and sustainable development.”
CREAS was born in the excitement of the early World Social Forums that began in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in January 2001. There, social movements connected their different struggles under the banner, “Another World is Possible.” It was a time when it seemed progressive parties could take power (beginning with Venezuela in 1998 and Brazil in 2001) and that a new, more democratic left might be born in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Social movements from Canada to Argentina came together to overcome the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, a struggle we won in 2005.
By going “inside,” CREAS and its allies carry those messages to decision-makers. They help people of faith become more accustomed to advocacy roles and engagement with political and corporate people who have different frameworks and institutional demands. They explore the potential and limits of corporate social responsibility strategies. They challenge the politicians on climate, migration and inequality.
Having learned language that the political and corporate leaders understand, they speak out when economics overcome ethics, and when new financial architecture looks too much like old architecture.
In the morning, I turn on CBC radio, gather the print edition of the Globe and Mail from outside my door, feed the cats and, as the coffee drips, I open Facebook. There, I have the English-language service of TeleSUR set so that its feed opens first. It’s not that I believe everything that TeleSUR publishes, but it does broaden my horizons. It provides a certain take on what is important today in Latin America, Africa and Asia, just as the CBC and Globe and Mailprovide different takes on what is important today in Canada and the world.
And so today, Sunday, August 5, 2018—no Globe on Sundays—I learn first that there was an attempt on the life of Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro. There is a sudden resurgence of violence in Ciudad Juárez (on the U.S.-Mexico border), where 30 people were murdered in the previous 48 hours. (It’s a city that I have known well over many years, and I grieve.) In the Philippines, former boxer and now senator Manny Pacquiao disagrees with Pope Francis over the death penalty.
Elsewhere in my Facebook feed, I see that Winnie the Pooh is banned in China because, somehow, he is a symbol of resistance.
On the radio, I hear the persecuted Turkish novelist Elif Shafak speak of discerning truth in the world today: “I cherish confusion, I cherish doubt.”
Her words resonate with me as I move on to read a very reasonable article about Nicaragua where everything is contested. This piece, by Katherine Hoyt, is from one of the sites detested by opponents of the government, but she says this:
“On the personal, family, and neighbourhood level, Nicaragua has been ripped apart by this crisis. Both sides apparently have lists of people they want to harm or even kill. Whether Nicaraguan society can knit itself back together again will depend on the actions of the President [Daniel Ortega], the investigative commissions, and the Catholic Church and other religious bodies that the people look to for moral guidance. We have to wish them well.”
In the early 1980s, when many people were beginning to have access three or even more television stations, I read The End of the World News, a novel by the British writer Anthony Burgess. Still thinking of doubt, confusion and Nicaragua, I climbed over several boxes and retrieved my dusty copy. The publisher’s blurb, penned by the author himself, says that the novel is derived “from the new way of watching television… the family of the middle and late 1980s will have to be a three-screen family.” He could not imagine me with my phone, computer, radio, television (silent, but on) and old-fashioned Globe and Mail trying to discern what might be true.
Burgess presents three stories without chapter breaks. One is a Broadway musical about a visit to New York City by Leon Trotsky shortly before the Russian Revolution. A second tale covers the life and career of Sigmund Freud. The third part is set in the future, shortly before the impact of a rogue planet with the Earth. (As I write, my partner is awake now and watching My Best Friend’s Wedding while flipping to Univision where they’re excoriating both Maduro and Ortega. And the CBC is going with the exploding gas canister version of the Maduro incident.)
Having moved beyond mere “truthiness” in the age of young George Bush, we are now in the time of fake news. We all need to embrace confusion and doubt. For the moment, most mainstream media seem heroic in challenging the lies of Donald Trump, but we need to hold that in tension with the memory of their acquiescence 15 years ago to the White House version of “weapons of mad destruction” in Iraq, and more recently in the face of grotesque schemes for “regime change” in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Honduras.
So look at TeleSUR, RT, Al Jazeera, The Intercept, The Tyee and others, while also following some of what is going on in the mainstream. Think of who you have trusted in the past. Your opinions about specific issues may differ, but you should consider their voice and what it meant to you. In confusion and doubt, some clarity about what is to be done may emerge—if not to alter, yet, local or world events, at least to shape your next steps.
Finally, a few words borrowed from near the end of The End of the World News:
“There’s nothing but this. All the rest is a fairy story.”
“What is a fairy?”
“The thing in your brain that makes you tell lies.”
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