In response to a prayer or when concluding one the word Amen is often used in the same way in Christianity, Islam and Judaism. The three monotheistic religions may have been around for a long time but they have seldom lived in harmony despite their abundant similarities.
Public figures from different religious backgrounds attended an international conference hosted by the Italian Embassy in Cairo last week to build bridges between different religions. Titled “From Freedom of Worship to Freedom of Religion and Belief”, the conference brought together scholars, representatives of international organisations and diplomats to exchange opinions on how freedom of religion is defined and to what extent it really exists.
According to several key speakers, the fact the conference took place in Cairo was itself significant.
“Although the city was governed by Muslim Arabs, its neighbourhoods were populated by people from a patchwork of religious and ethnic communities, including native Egyptians and many immigrants,” the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago posted on its website.
“We are dealing with a topic that is receiving unprecedented levels of attention around the world,” Kishan Manocha, the senior adviser on freedom of religion and belief at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), told conference participants. It was encouraging, he added, to come together to consider freedom of religion and belief as a universal human right and think about ways to sustain and advance this right.
The right to freedom of religion and belief is often violated: churches and cathedrals are burned, shootings have taken place at synagogues, and mosques heve been attacked.
“There are countries in Europe where today Muslims and others are being dehumanised and mistreated and this is simply unacceptable,”said United Nations Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide Adama Dieng.
Safety in places of worship is one of the most basic facets of freedom of religion and attacking religious spaces is not the only way this right has been disrupted.
Religious discrimination happens when an individual is treated differently because of his or her religion. It can happen anywhere, in schools and workplaces, social clubs and public spaces.
Religious persecution or religious cleansing both refer to the removal of a population, through deportation or even mass killings, based on religion.
Examples of brutality on the basis of religion include the massacre of Armenians during World War I, the systematic torture and killing of Bosnian Muslims, the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the brutal persecution by the Myanmar government of Rohingya Muslims and Hitler’s killing of Jews.
“The Holocaust did not start with gas chambers,” Dieng told the conference,but began with Jews being the targets of slurs.
Dieng repeatedly mentioned Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” This article, adopted with 30 others by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, emphasises that individuals have the right to worship, practise privately or publicly, change and teach their religion and beliefs freely, without having to face discrimination.
Silvio Ferrari, professor of law and religion at the University of Milan, argued individuals have rarely been able to exercise freedom of religion or belief.
“The sad truth is that some states and societies tolerate religious minorities as long as they confine themselves to their places of worship and don’t go out into society,” wrote Thomas J Reese SJ in the National Catholic Reporter. “But if they try to convert someone from the dominant religion to another, or if they speak out on public issues, they will feel the full force of the government and society down on their heads.”
Much of the world’s population lives under robust government restrictions on religion and in socially hostile environments. In its 10th annual report on patterns of religious restrictions around the world, the US-based Pew Research Centre explicitly linked government restrictions on religion with wider social hostility to minority religious groups.
According to the 2019 report the more government restrictions on religions there are, the greater the social hostilities minority religions face. The term “governmental restraints”, said the report,covers not only legislation but slurs and antagonistic actions by state officials.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly