The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the
U.N. General Assembly in 1948 without dissent: "All human beings are
born free and equal in dignity and rights.....Everyone is entitled to
all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without
distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language,
religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin,
property, birth or other status."
Article 18 on religion adds: 'Everyone has the right to freedom of
thought, conscience and religion; this right includes...freedom,
either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to
manifest his or her religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship
The drafters hoped it would quickly be followed by a more detailed
listing of rights in a legally binding form, but it was not until 1966
that two international human rights' covenants - the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International
Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)- were
adopted. Almost a full decade later, the covenants finally came into
force in some countries.
The Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of
Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief was passed in 1981, because
the General Assembly was concerned about continuing discrimination
based on beliefs. It provides for the right to freedom of thought,
conscience and religion, and seeks to ensure that no-one should be
discriminated against because of their beliefs. The General Assembly
reaffirmed this Declaration in December 1997 in a resolution that
focuses on encouraging states to provide within their legal systems
genuine freedom of thought, conscience and religion and effective
redress against violations. The U.N. has to date not been able to
codify the Declaration into a more effective instrument.
The protection of human dignity, including religious freedom, is
better in nations where there are independent judicial systems,
including effective human rights commissions. Canada has been a leader
in upholding the rights promoted in the UDHR. We support international
efforts aimed at protecting human rights by establishing genuine
A half-century later, most of the world's governments have committed
themselves through international agreements to protect religious
freedom for all their nationals. The gap between promise and
performance remains large for believers in many lands who find that
their right to religious freedom is observed more in the breach, or
not at all, by their governments.
Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan admirably sought to make human
rights central to all UN programming: "...I believe human rights are
the core of our sacred bond with peoples of the United Nations." He
spoke not only of advancing rights but of punishing those who abuse
them, "We should leave no one in doubt that for the mass murderers,
the 'ethnic cleansers', those guilty of gross and shocking violations
of human rights, impunity is not acceptable. The United Nations will
never be their refuge, its Charter never the source of justification.
They are our enemies, regardless of race, religion or nation, and only
in their defeat can we redeem the promise of this great organization."
In the 1990s, hundreds of Edmontonians of differing faiths gathered
at city hall to protest the "ethnic cleansing" and other persecution
of our Muslim sisters and brothers in Bosnia? A few years later,
many of us did the same thing at the legislative assembly in Edmonton
to denounce the then serious mistreatment of the Christian community
in Pakistan. Why don't we all do the same thing whenever any faith
community is being persecuted anywhere? One answer is that currently
we would be doing so virtually weekly if not daily.
The first half of the century we left a decade ago saw slaughter,
cruelty, enslavement and torture on a scale that the world had
probably never before seen. Untold millions of human beings died at
the hands of totalitarian enemies of all religions, such as Hitler,
Stalin and Mao. Much of the violence was aimed at women, men and
children whose only "failing" was practising a religious faith. The
same pattern prevails from many of the remaining
authoritarian/totalitarian governments across the world today.
One of the miracles of the 20th century was the failure of God to be
driven from human consciousness by the likes of Marx, Hegel, Huxley,
Nietzsche, Russell, Shaw, Sartre and others who attacked with their
words. Belief in God continued among most of humanity across the
earth and is now growing strongly in many communities.
Religion and Social Harmony
Religion is sometimes abused to justify crimes against people and
humanity in general. Harvey Milk once argued: "More people have been
slaughtered in the name of religion than any other single reason."
Since WW2, as many persons as perished in the Holocaust have died
around the world in other genocides.
In my opinion, using religion as cover for evil stems often from the
notion that religions are exclusive. Religious extremists deny the
rights of others whose beliefs or non-beliefs are different from their
own. This is offensive to the principles of the UDHR. as it is
offensive to the basic foundation of all religions, which is love for
The Qur'an, for example, declares that: "if anyone saves a person it
will be as if he has saved the whole of humanity". In Hinduism, we are
called to live "beyond the reach of I and mine"; in Buddhism, we are
asked to "practise compassion." The Sikh scripture advises us that
"God's bounties are common to all. It is we who have created
Religious freedom is about acknowledging and respecting others' rights
to choose a different belief. If we grant such freedom to each other,
harmony among religions will become reality. I'll attempt briefly to
deal with building harmony among the three Abrahamic religions.
A seminar at the National Prayer Breakfast in Ottawa was told several
years ago that one of the major causes of violence in the Middle East
is the widespread view that Jews and Muslims do not worship the same
God. This misunderstanding, we were told, encourages members of both
faith communities to dehumanize and thus to demonize followers of the
other. When added to other regional issues, the result is terrible
murders, bloodshed and mayhem, often involving children and mothers.
In reality, we Muslims, Christians and Jews worship the same God,
albeit in different ways and with differing emphasis. Each of our
great monotheistic faiths believes that life has profound value and
meaning. The widespread profound ignorance about each other is a
continuing major obstacle to mutual respect and building harmony. All
of us must work harder in this new century to eliminate this knowledge
There is another important area of misunderstanding among all three
religions: the large differences of viewpoints within each of them. No
one has written about this more perceptively than Karen Armstrong in
her book, The Battle for God, which examines why fundamentalism has
grown in all three faiths. The Arab-Israeli conflict is one example
she cites. It began as a secularist dispute on both sides, but today
is seen through an almost exclusively faith prism by both. In the late
1970's, each of the three faiths saw fundamentalism among its
followers take centre stage.
How many Canadians know that about 50,000 Spanish Jews were welcomed
by the Muslim Ottoman Empire when they were expelled from Spain after
1492? Centuries later, notes Armstrong, reform Judaism, especially in
the U.S. after 1870, was progressive, liberal and disposed to
privatize faith. Many believers in traditional Judaism felt themselves
besieged; some even refused to participate in secular education or to
participate in modern communities.
Many who led the movement to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine,
she asserts, were in fact atheists, who failed to understand that the
land they sought was occupied by 750,000 Palestinian Arabs, who would
be expelled from their homes in 1948. Religious Jews countered that
secular nationalism in the Middle East or anywhere is usually a recipe
for disaster. As mentioned earlier, the past century is full of
horrific acts committed by secular totalitarians.
The Battle for God notes that in the 16th century Muslims constituted
approximately one third of the world's population. Three new Muslim
empires were founded in that century alone: the Ottoman, the Safavid
and the Moghul, with all three providing a cultural renewal comparable
to that provided by, say, the Italian Renaissance.
According to Armstrong and many other commentators, fundamentalist
Muslims around the world are today deeply concerned about two features
of Western society:
1. the separation of religion from government/politics;
2. the lack of Shariah law as they want their own communities to be
governed by the laws of Islam.
I'd argue that believers of all three religions, each holding that
humankind is no mere molecular accident, should agree on a host of
issues, including the unacceptable growing inequality of world
incomes, the need to protect the natural environment, human dignity,
and the necessity for peace and genuine harmony among all peoples and
The rise of Christian fundamentalism, says Armstrong, parallels that
of the two other religions, although I'll only mention a couple of
features she cites of the American experience with it.
The 1787 constitution of the Unites States does not mention God at
all; the First Amendment formally separated religion from the state.
By the middle of the 19th century, however, most Americans had become
Christian. The American Evangelicals, who seek a "righteous empire"
based on Godly, not Enlightenment, concepts, became increasingly
influential in the early part of the 20th century.
As Armstrong puts it, fundamentalism in all three faiths "exists in a
symbiotic relationship with an aggressive liberalism or secularism,
and under attack, increasingly becomes more extreme, bitter and
excessive." During the 1960's and the 1970's in the U.S., faced with
such an ethos, Protestant fundamentalists grew more vocal. One of
their major concerns was that the First Amendment was to protect
religion from the state, not vice versa.
Post September 11
The author's conclusion in Battle for God is that fundamentalists in
all three religions have succeeded in rescuing their respective faiths
from attempts to privatize or to suppress each of them. Fundamentalism
is now part of the modern world, she concludes, and is here to stay.
Armstrong: "…the liberal myth that humanity is progressing to an ever
more enlightened and tolerant state looks as fantastic as any of the
other millennial myths we have considered in this book. Without the
constraints of a higher mystical truth, reason can on occasion become
demonic and count views that are as great, if not greater, than any of
the atrocities perpetrated by fundamentalists."
Armstrong wrote her book before the events of September 11th, but some
of the related points she makes still seem valid. First, liberals and
fundamentalists in all three faiths must build bridges and attempt to
avoid future confrontations. Each side must try to understand what
motivates the other. Fundamentalists must develop a more compassionate
assessment of their opponents to be true to their religion's
traditions. Secularists, says Armstrong, "must be more faithful to the
benevolence, tolerance and respect for humanity which characterizes
modern culture at its best, and address themselves more emphatically
to the fears, anxieties, and needs which so many of their
fundamentalist neighbours experience and which no society can safely
Finally, a quote from a speech by His Highness, the Aga Khan, given in
India a number of years ago: "In the troubled times in which we live,
it is important to remember, and honour, a vision of a pluralistic
society. Tolerance, openness and understanding towards other people's
cultures, social structures, values and faiths are now essential to
the very survival of an interdependent world. Pluralism is no longer
simply an asset or a prerequisite for progress and development; it is
vital to our existence. Never perhaps more so than at the present
time, must we renew with vigour our creative engagement in
revitalizing shared heritage through collaborative ventures such as
the project we are inaugurating today."
I close with a brief word of prayer: God of mercy; as we gather to
celebrate your gift of love we recall with sorrow the times when we
forget you and are divided one from the other. How often our
thoughts, our words, and our actions, have betrayed the goodness you
have shown to us. Forgive us, merciful God. Mend what is broken.
Heal the wounded relationships that separate us form you and one
* In fact, the nature of the event was such that only the briefest
mention was made of the paper, but I think I indicated that would be
available on my website for those interested.