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.
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