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On Our Shared Dignity: Intensifying multi-religious cooperation to advance freedom of religion or belief for all

29 Oct, 2015


  • By +John Cardinal ONAIYEKAN, Catholic Archbishop of Abuja – Nigeria

NEW YORK, 19 September 2015 – In the face of rising religious persecution of people on the grounds of faith or belief, on September 18-19, over 100 parliamentarians from almost 50 countries assembled in New York City to discuss ways to advance freedom of religion or belief.

The event was cosponsored by the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief (IPP FoRB), a network launched last year in response to the rising crisis of religious or belief based persecution, both by terrorist groups and authoritarian governments.

The IPP is an alliance of parliamentarians committed to advancing religious freedom for all, as defined by Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Following is the address of +John Cardinal ONAIYEKAN, Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, Nigeria, to the assembly.

+John Cardinal ONAIYEKAN

Let me first sincerely thank the Baroness Berridge, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, and the other organizers of this forum for inviting people like me and the Ayatollah Damad, who has just spoken, to contribute from our particular perspectives to the topic of this forum. I thank God for the concern and interest which you all, as parliamentarians from many parts of the world, are showing about this very important topic of religious freedom. This gives us great hopes that from you parliamentarians the interest and concern will reach your governments and then real change will begin to happen where it needs to happen.

As would be expected, since I was given the assignment before leaving home to speak at this occasion, I did prepare the short five minutes observation requested of me. But having heard much of what has been said since this session began, I have decided to put my prepared text aside and to share a few brief reflections with you from my own perspective as one who could be called “a religious leader”.

Permit me to simply list out my observations as follows, in no particular order or logical sequence.

NY2015-invitation-modifieda).  In the matter of restriction and harassment of religious freedom, an important distinction has been made between what governments do by law and what is the result of social habits and pressures [see The Price of Freedom Denied, Cambridge Univ. Press]. As regards legal framework, religious freedom has been an important provision of the universal declaration of fundamental human rights, a code that every member of the United Nations has agreed to respect. However, the reality on the ground still leaves much to be desired. Some nations still have laws, which are against at least the spirit, at times even the letter of the code. The UNO should no longer allow such countries to continue to get way with going against the rules that they themselves have signed on to. There should be no more benign neglect or diplomatic double talk in this matter. As parliamentarians, it is your duty to make sure that the laws of your nations uphold and defend the fundamental right of freedom of religion for everyone, citizens and visitors alike. We hope that a strong resolution will come out of this forum on this matter.

b). As for the so-called “social” restrictions which derive from traditional habits, to the extent that such behavior are outside the law or even against the law, the state must take effective action to uphold the law. Where such discriminatory behavior claims to be based on religious tradition, there is need to review such traditions.

c.) Let me at this point focus on the responsibility of religious leaders in this regard. In many cases, the negative attitudes of some religious communities against others are determined by the teachings and examples of the religious leaders themselves. They therefore have the duty to correct traditional religious teachings and habits, which wound or kill religious freedom. If it means reviewing their theologies, they should do so. My Church, the Catholic Church, went through such a review of theology fifty years ago during the great Second Vatican Council. Two important documents of that council deserve special attention here.  The first is the dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium which explains the theological nature of the Church in such a way that we can now have a positive view of other religious communities, both Christian and non-Christian. The second is the Declaration Nostrae Aetate, which gave practical directives on how to relate in a positive manner with people of other religions. These documents, and the entire work of the Council have had a great positive impact, both within and outside our Church. This should be an on-going project for all religious communities.

d.) A particularly urgent task for religious leaders is to clearly disengage themselves from government restrictions and harassments of religious minorities. Often, rulers and politicians claim to be promoting the interests of the dominant religion by oppressing and suppressing other faiths. Unfortunately sometimes the religious leaders make themselves willing partners in this ungodly policy. It is time that religious leaders stand up against laws that restrict religious freedom and work for a change in such laws, even if they have for long been the legal basis for long established practice. Serious examples of this kind of situation are the cases of so-called “blasphemy laws” or laws against conversion, or the imposition of the religious law of a particular creed on all citizens.

e.) In the same vein, religious leaders ought to be in the forefront to defend the right to differ in religious conviction. This should be done, not only for other faiths but also for dissidents within the dominant faith. The right to freedom of religion is a gift of God to every individual. Religious leaders should be seen to be defending God-given rights, not destroying them.

f.) What about the violent religious extremists who commit crimes and acts of terrorism claiming to be acting in the name of God? We see here the limits of freedom of religion. They now constitute a major challenge in our world of today, with the exploits of groups like the Boko Haram in my county Nigeria, the ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Al Shabab in Somalia, etc. They are a small minority, but as dangerous to the entire community as a dose of poison is in a dinner. All the groups mentioned above claim to be Muslims. This puts a great challenge on the Islamic community globally. It is good that the main Islamic organizations have consistently condemned the terrorists, although unfortunately the mass media seems not to be able to give such statements the coverage that I believe they deserve. But I have always insisted that there is need to go beyond mere condemnation. There is need to engage the terrorists, as erring members of the same faith family. Our experience in Nigeria has shown that military engagement is important and necessary but not enough. There is also need for religious and theological dialogue within the house of Islam, a dialogue that only Muslim religious leaders have the capacity to undertake successfully, thereby building a much needed bridge between the extremists and the rest of the community.

g) Finally, let us not forget that violent religious extremism is a product of some non-violent religious extremism. Before people begin to throw bombs in the name of religion, they have already been exposed to the use of “verbal bombs” from extremist preaching that have nothing good to say about anyone who does not agree with them. It does matter what people preach and what people believe. There is need for vigilance.

h.) In conclusion this forum, and especially this session brings out the need for joint reflection and action between politicians and religious leaders in the task of upholding and defending freedom of religion, which is the greatest of all fundamental human rights, after the right to life itself. This joint task must be tackled both nationally and internationally. It is then that we can have religious peace and cooperation. Above all, it is only then that religion will be liberated from all charlatans and manipulators, liberated to do good, not evil, to promote the well being of humanity, not kill people, IN THE NAME OF GOD!