INTERVIEW - Protecting religious freedoms and sites: The UN takes action

Dina Ezzat , Friday 17 May 2019

UN High Representative for the Alliance of Civilisations Miguel Moratinos was in Cairo for talks with the grand imam of Al-Azhar this week. He spoke to Dina Ezzat about the efforts to protect religious freedoms and sites

Miguel Moratinos
A file photo of UN High Representative for the Alliance of Civilisations Miguel Moratinos (Photo: Reuters)

“It has been really devastating to see the eruption of violent extremism that has been targeting places of worship and killing scores of innocent worshippers. The world cannot just stand by not doing anything about this,” said Miguel Moratinos, UN high representative for the Alliance of Civilisations, in Egypt for a visit this week.

Moratinos spoke in Cairo as part of a wider tour to communicate with religious leaders in pursuit of plans to protect the world’s religious sites.

“We saw what happened in New Zealand with the bloody attack on the mosques, and we saw what happened in Sri Lanka with the bloody attack on the Catholic churches, and then again on the synagogue in California. This is not something that the world can live with,” he said.

The core of the problem was clear, he added. “Whether the perpetrator is an individual or a group, it is terror and violence that come from the rejection and the hatred of the other.”

There was a need for action on two parallel paths: combating a culture of hatred and violence and working out plans to protect all the world’s religious sites against violent manifestations of rejection and hatred, “because we cannot let the world lose its religious sites to the madness of the terrorists.”

During his visit in Cairo, Moratinos met with Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, “to discuss ideas on how to work on a plan for the protection of the religious sites. He has some very clear and important ideas that he shared with me, and I find that we can work on them together,” he said.

Moratinos left Cairo at the weekend for Rome, where he was to meet the leaders of the Vatican as part of a wider dialogue with religious leaders.

“We are in the very early stages of formulating a plan, but we have a clear concept that relates to the need to work on national programmes and legislation that can provide protection for religious sites against the kind of horrible attacks we have seen during the past weeks and months,” he said.

Moratinos said that the issues of the protection of religious sites and the promotion of inter-faith dialogue to underline the need for the acceptance of others had been a subject of talks held by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres during a visit to Egypt earlier this year.

With his own mandate initiated in January this year, Moratinos has also been in touch with the leaders of other faiths to pursue plans that will have a universal character and will come with clearly defined national commitments.

“The challenge is huge because we have to draw up maps of the sites from all the faiths that need to be protected,” Moratinos said. “Of course, every single site is important and the life of every single worshipper is valuable, but clearly there are particular sites that the world cannot possible lose to suicide attacks. Member states of the UN will have to take action,” he said.

Member states will have to work to make sure that hate speech is controlled particularly on social media and that the awareness of the need to protect these sites is firmly underlined.

“We cannot accept that Silicon Valley escapes its responsibility, because the perpetrators of the violence have used information technology to execute and promote their crimes. We need to strip them of this ability,” Moratinos said.

There is no clear timeframe for the completion of the maps of the sites to be protected, but Moratinos is hopeful a blueprint will be ready for the UN General Assembly meetings towards the end of September. “We need to have proper consultations to make sure that what we agree on will be executed by the member states with dedication and faith,” he said.

Moratinos realises that there are tough issues at stake, including the case of religious minorities that have been subject to hatred or rejection in their own communities.

“Part of the mandate I am working on is to promote the protection and inclusion of minorities, but to do this one has to be sure about the real volume of the violations that any particular minority is going through and to find the right way to talk to the governments concerned about the protection of this minority,” he said.

Whether the Muslims of China or the Christians of the Middle East, Moratinos is convinced that each case must be approached independently and tactfully.

“For example, one cannot compare the situation in Sri Lanka, where there has been a civil war for years, to the situation in New Zealand. In China, one needs to learn the facts,” he said.

Moratinos acknowledged political conflicts as a catalyst for violence or terror. He also acknowledged the rise of extreme right-wing politics in many countries of the world today as another reason for the rise of hatred and anger.

However, he argued that the world could not wait for conflicts to be resolved before it acted on the protection of religious sites, “because unfortunately resolving these conflicts or facing these politics could take years.”

“We need to act on a step-by-step approach,” he said.

“The right to religious freedom and belief is a universally acknowledged human right, and we need to add another inherent right, which is the right to pray safely and in peace,” he added.

The UN Alliance of Civilisations was launched in 2005, and as High Representative Moratinos has been committed to forging partnerships with a wide range of stakeholders, including religious leaders, representatives of civil society organisations, youth, women, media professionals, and the business community. 

“For the plan of action we are currently working on, we will be joining hands with all possible stakeholders because the commitment of governments cannot work without the help of all the actors concerned,” he concluded.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: UN action to protect religion 

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