IRLA Secretary General Highlights Unique Faith-based Understanding of Religious Freedom

This is the text of the address presented by Dr. Ganoune Diop, Secretary General of the IRLA, at the 16th annual Religious Liberty Dinner in Washington, D.C., May 22, 2018. [Photo: Mylon Medley/NAD]

Religious Freedom Beyond Current Polarizations: A Global Vision of Human Dignity

In recent years, what is known as “religious liberty” has been an object of polarized and diametrically conflicting opinions. On the one hand, religious freedom is praised as the first freedom, the freedom which undergirds all fundamental freedoms, the freedom which is so compelling that it needs an ambassador at large to promote it in the international arena.

The United States and then Canada, though for a short time, have appointed an ambassador at large for the promotion of this special freedom. On January 1, 2018, the Danish government established the Office of the Special Representative for Freedom of Religion or Belief to strengthen international cooperation on freedom of religion or belief. Germany, also, has appointed a Commissioner of the Federal Government for International Religious freedom (Beauftragter der Bundesregierung für internationales Religionsfreiheit), Mr. Markus Grübel.

Clearly freedom of religion or belief has gained worldwide recognition. It is an integral part of international laws. It is also enshrined in most national constitutions. It is thus understood as a civil and a political right.

On the other hand, “Once a self-evident truth, religious freedom is now subject to the deepest deconstructionist suspicion.” This is not just a debate among intellectual experts.

In the political realm, not long ago, the chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR), is quoted as saying, “The phrases ‘religious liberty’ and ‘religious freedom’ will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy or any form of intolerance.”

“Religious liberty was never intended to give one religion dominion over other religions, or a veto power over the civil rights and civil liberties of others,” he said in the 307-page document.

At the heart of the “Peaceful Coexistence” report is a USCCR assertion that granting religious exemptions “significantly infringe” on the civil rights of those claiming civil rights protections on the basis of “race, color, national origin, sex, disability status, sexual orientation, and gender identity.” In short, “religious liberty” as such perceived and defined, must yield before anti-discrimination laws.

This framing of the debate positions religious freedom on an unfortunate trajectory that deprives the whole human family of the depth and beauty of the principle of religious liberty inseparable from what it means to be human.

The positioning of religious freedom in a unfavorable light is not the whole story. Obviously, in spite of its importance which we will briefly highlight, one has to admit that religious freedom is not immune from being instrumentalized and used to discriminatory ends. Some critics have argued that religious liberty is part of the self-perpetrating tools privileged people use to subjugate people in developing countries. Religious freedom can also be narrowly thought of when, for example, the plight and predicament of indigenous peoples, natives of the Americas, are ignored.

But a misuse or corruption of a good thing does not discredit the principle of religious freedom itself and make it irrelevant and obsolete.

From a faith-based perspective, which is what more deeply justifies our commitment to the value of freedom, there is more to religious freedom than meets the eye. What motivates our advocacy for religious freedom has a more enduring perspective.

  1. Freedom of religion or belief is a universal value. It is part of a cluster of values the international community has identified as necessary for human flourishing, peaceful coexistence and societal prosperity.
  2. Not only is religious freedom at the intersection of cherished values but it undergirds the fundamental freedoms at the core of a dignified human existence.
  3. Freedom of religion or belief is recognized as a universal human right which is expressed in article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Right (UDHR) adopted by the International community, on December 10, 1948.
  4. Religious liberty is a legal provision inscribed in most national constitutions.
  5. However, the roots of religious freedom go deeper than a human experience of freedom—be it prompted by Greco-Roman philosophies, the European Enlightenment, the British philosophers, the French Revolution or the American experiment.
  6. From a faith-based perspective, religious liberty stems from the freedom of God. It is a divine attribute or virtue. Freedom is a fruit of the Spirit of God, argues the Apostle Paul.
  7. Since human beings are created in the image of God, religious freedom, grounded on freedom of conscience, is part of the image of God. It is a reflection of God’s character. It is destined therefore to become part of the distinctive characteristics and hopefully part of the lifestyle of people who embrace the values God cherishes.
  8. Concretely, religious liberty calls for the respect of every human being, by virtue of the freedom of choice and of conscience, which are inseparable from what it means to be human. Humans live beneath their God-given dignity when deprived of this fundamental characteristic of not only human rights, but of the intrinsic dignity attached to being human in the first place.
  9. In light of the root cause of the gift of freedom, religious freedom is ultimately justified by the reality of God’s covenant of love. Love cannot be forced. It is the condition sine qua non for a covenant to be genuine. Without freedom of thought and of choice and of conscience, a covenant cannot be genuine. This is the main reason why God who has revealed himself as love, has created freedom for humans to choose to fellowship with God in love. It seems that the whole narrative of the scriptures, interpreted as the history of salvation, portrays God’s overarching purpose as the desire to reintroduce love in human hearts. God is love. His Holy Spirit pours God’s love into our heart. The connection between love and freedom is that love is the most efficient antidote against hatred, injustices, discrimination, criminalization suffering, and death. Insightfully, Jesus calls righteousness, the freedom to love which extends even to the love of enemies. Love is the goal of freedom.
  10. Our advocacy of religious freedom in grounded on the conviction according to which humans are sacred. Every person is sacred by virtue of human conscience. People more than temples, cathedrals, mosques or synagogues are inviolable sacred spaces.

The IRLA of which I am the secretary general is grateful for your presence to celebrate freedom of religion or belief, and to recognize people who have contributed to make this world a better place for the free expression of their most intimate convictions. Our gratitude goes to those honored today for having made significant contributions to further the restoration of the dignity of all people, everywhere. Religious freedom for us is more than a human right, it is core to human identity and destiny.


BETTINA KRAUSE | Communication director
International Religious Liberty Association
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