Religious liberty experts are calling for a "responsible dissemination of religion or belief" by members of religious communities.

News January 2000

Madrid, Spain ... [IRLA News] Religious liberty experts are calling for a "responsible dissemination of religion or belief" by members of religious communities.

A 14-point statement of "Guiding Principles" was adopted by a 25-member Board of Experts of the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA) who are challenging religious communities around the world to recognize the "increasing reality of religious pluralism" and an urgent need to improve the way religious convictions are shared.

"In witnessing to others or in planning missionary activity, the inviolable dignity of the addressed persons requires consideration of their history, convictions, way of life, and cultural expressions," the document states.

"With this declaration we are taking an important step forward an issue which historically has been very difficult. The issue of proselytism is touching the nerve of most religious communities," said Gunnar Staalsett, Bishop of Oslo and IRLA president for 1999. "The fact that we have addressed this issue in the context of dissemination of religion or belief makes it possible to transcend narrow definitions."

The document is presented as guiding principles and refers to "dissemination of religion or belief" rather then using the term "proselytism." The term "proselytism" is often used in a pejorative way to refer to the outreach activities of religious communities.

"Religions have differing beliefs about how they should disseminate their convictions. The question of 'proselytizing' or making converts inevitably affects interreligious relations. The term 'proselytism' has various meanings and connotations. To avoid ambiguity ... this document does not use it."

Reacting to the document, Abdelfattah Amor, Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance, UN Human Rights Commission, called it "a good text, but it will take time to bear fruit."

"The importance of this document will be measured by the way it is integrated into legislation, both nationally and internationally. The effectiveness will depend on the wisdom and efforts of those who will promote it," Amor said.

The principles expressed in the statement have "primarily an ethical character and provide criteria to guide individuals and communities in their relations with each other." The human rights experts conclude that these principles "also have relevance for relations between religious communities and states."

The document refers to international human rights instruments as a point of reference and calls for truthful and fair dissemination of faith or beliefs, and that adherents to a particular religion, faith, or belief should practice what they preach.

Another principle deals with the language used when referring to other religious and belief communities. The statement calls for "respectful and non-offensive terminology ."

The document speaks against competition between religious communities and calls for respect for "both the rights of majority and minority should be protected in accordance with international human rights instruments which condemn all forms of discrimination and intolerance" when religion or beliefs are shared.

The document also calls for "comparing the ideals of one's own community with the ideals of other communities, and not with the alleged failures of others."

One of the principles addresses the connection of the social and humanitarian activities with sharing of one's religious faith. Such activities "should not be linked to the dissemination of faith or beliefs in a way that exploits the poor and vulnerable members of society by offering financial or other material incentives with the intent to induce people to keep or change their religion or belief."

Coercion should never be used when one's religion is shared, comments one of the experts, Professor Alberto de la Hera, director general of Religious Affairs, Ministry of Justice of Spain.

"It is necessary to guarantee all religions the right to disseminate their beliefs, as well as the right of each individual to join a religion or belief, or change it, without coercion," he said.

He also added that "the continuous growth of religious pluralism in a wide range of countries traditionally influenced by a predominant religion, brings today the need to create a climate of respect among all religious confessions."

"With this declaration we are taking an important step forward on an issue which historically has been very difficult," comments Staalsett. "The issue of proselytism is touching the nerve of most religious communities. The fact that we have addressed this issue in the context of dissemination of religion or belief makes it possible to transcend narrow definitions."

According to Dr John Graz, secretary general of IRLA, the document will receive wide distribution. "We will send it firstly to the religious communities around the world, but the declaration will also be of interest, we believe, to the governments and the international bodies who are concerned with making the world a better place to live," said Graz.

The participants of the discussion about the statement expressed a conviction that the churches and religious communities should be "challenged to use their spiritual resources for tolerance, reconciliation and peace."

"I believe that at the beginning of the new millennium it will be crucial to raise the human rights issues on the government and church levels, nationally and internationally. This is exactly what these guiding principles are intended for," said Staalsett.

Participants at the IRLA Board of Experts meetings included representatives of human rights organizations, faith communities, and academic centers internationally. [Ray Dabrowski]

Guiding Principles for the Responsible Dissemination of Religion or Belief

 

With increasing globalization and growing interreligious and ideological strife, a constructive relationship among religions has become imperative. To deal with these issues, the International Religious Liberty Association convened meetings and conferences of experts, who met in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Spain in 1999 and early 2000 and adopted the following statement on specific points of agreement.

Freedom of religion or belief is a basic human right. Despite the strong support given to this universal right during the past fifty years by the various international instruments, beginning with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, and including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966, the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief of 1981, and the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities of 1992, widespread violations of this right continue to occur and are to be deplored.

Freedom of religion or belief includes the right to manifest and communicate one's faith or belief to others. Religions have differing beliefs about how they should disseminate their convictions. The question of "proselytizing" or making converts inevitably affects interreligious relations. The term "proselytism" has various meanings and connotations. To avoid ambiguity, hereinafter this document does not use it.

Accepting the increasing reality of religious pluralism and with the aim of strengthening religious liberty, tolerance, dialog, and respect for equal rights of all, the Conference of Experts suggests the following guiding principles regarding the responsible dissemination of religion or belief. These principles have primarily an ethical character and provide criteria to guide individuals and communities in their relations with each other. They also have relevance for relations between religious communities and states. These principles are based on the dignity of the human person and the person's freedom to follow the voice of conscience.

The Conference participants are convinced that the observance of the following guiding principles is invaluable in enhancing a culture of peace, social cohesion, personal and collective responsibility, and the upholding of equal rights for all.

The Conference participants hope that all individuals and religious communities will look at these principles in the light of their own beliefs and practices, and make them their own, thus being fully committed to the divine mandate or high ideals in which they believe.

 

PRINCIPLES

 

1. To teach, manifest, and disseminate one's religion or belief is an established human right. Everyone has the right to attempt to convince others of the truth of one's belief. Everyone has the right to adopt or change religion or belief without coercion and according to the dictates of conscience.

2. Aware of their common responsibilities, religious communities should build relationships through contacts and conversations, manifesting convictions with humility, respect, and honesty. Dialog should replace confrontation. In witnessing to others or in planning missionary activity, the inviolable dignity of the addressed persons requires consideration of their history, convictions, way of life, and cultural expressions.

3. Religion, faith, or belief is best disseminated when the witness of a person's life is coherent with the message announced, and leads to free acceptance by those to whom it is addressed.

4. In disseminating faith or beliefs, one should be truthful and fair towards other religions and beliefs. This requires comparing the ideals of one's own community with the ideals of other communities, and not with the alleged failures of others.

5. In the dissemination of religion or beliefs, both the rights of majority and minority should be protected in accordance with international human rights instruments which condemn all forms of discrimination and intolerance.

6. In referring to other religious and belief communities, respectful and non-offensive terminology should be used.

7. Social and humanitarian activities should not be linked to the dissemination of faith or beliefs in a way that exploits the poor and vulnerable members of society by offering financial or other material incentives with the intent to induce people to keep or change their religion or belief.

8. While the right to hold and manifest religious beliefs and convictions is recognized, interreligious strife, hatred, and antagonistic religious competition are to be avoided and replaced by dialog in truth and mutual respect.

9. No one should knowingly make false statements regarding any aspect of other religions, nor denigrate or ridicule their beliefs, practices, or origins. Objective information about these religions is always to be desired in order to avoid the spreading of ill-founded judgments and sweeping prejudices.

10. Dissemination of religious faith or belief should respect the addressed person's freedom to choose or reject a religion or belief without physical or psychological coercion, and should not force that person to break the natural ties with family, which is the foundational component of society.

11. Using political and economic power or facilitating its spread under the guise of disseminating religious faith or belief is improper and should be rejected.

12. Responsible dissemination of religious faith or belief should accept that it may invigorate the faith of the persons or groups addressed, or lead to a free and unfettered choice to change one's religious affiliation.

13. Bearing in mind their responsibilities for the common good of society, religious communities should, where feasible and in harmony with their convictions, join in efforts aimed at improving justice and welfare, and peace among peoples and nations.

14. Where conflicts arise with respect to dissemination of religion or belief, the relevant communities should consider entering into a process of conciliation.


Abdelfattah Amor, Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance, UN Commission of Human Rights, receives a IRLA Award for his contribution to promote religious tolerance around the world.

The IRLA Board of Experts met is a historical setting of a 16th century Castillo-Palacio Magalia near Madrid.

A library ambiance of the Magalia Palace contributed to the meeting.

Msgr Roland Minnerath, second left, was one of the rapporteurs of the joint statements accepted by consensus by the Board of Experts.

On a morning sightseeing the participants visited the ancient city of Avila, well known for its surrounding walls and a birthplace of St. Teresa of Avila.

The meeting convenor, Dr John Graz in conversation with Bp Gunnar Staalsett.

The meeting in Magalia was a meeting of friends. This contributed to its success. Farewells were difficult to make. Bp Staalsett and the host, Prof. Alberto de la Hera, saying good-bye to each other before departing.

Amomng the contributors to the discussion and the final statement was UNESCO's Doudou Diene from Senegal.