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Combatting Religious Hatred
Religious minorities must take leadership in establishing dialogue within a country with government officials, with the media and with other religious groups.

This is the text of a speech Dr. Janet Epp Buckingham gave at the World Congress of the International Religious Liberty Association.

I confess that this is a difficult topic for me to address. I am an evangelical Christian living in the very secular country of Canada. Over the last 20 years, it has been increasingly difficult to publicly be a Christian. Evangelical Christians are stereotyped. In general, the media has a very negative portrayal of us.

… persecution has three stages: disinformation (usually through the media), discrimination and persecution.

In 2000, the leader of one of the leading political parties was a Pentecostal and made known his strong religious views. He was publicly ridiculed. One news magazine had a cover story, "How Scary?" as though Pentecostals have beliefs that are totally out of step with normal people.

In 2001, I made a formal complaint about a newspaper article in a national newspaper that said that Evangelicals teach their children to throw stones at other children in the schoolyard and that we are responsible for violence against gays.

In Canada, we are facing battles over public funding of religious schools. And even over whether religious schools and institutions can continue to teach our historic beliefs about sexuality, marriage and family.

The constitutionally protected right to freedom of conscience and religion is being withdrawn from those considered "public officials" like teachers and marriage commissioners on issues of how marriage should be defined.

This is only a small taste of what many minority religious groups face on a continual basis in countries around the world.

I have long been an advocate of dialogue, believing that understanding one another's points of view will lead to tolerance and respect, even when we agree to disagree. However, when I witness venomous attacks on believers, I am less optimistic about the success of dialogue.

In Canada, I have witnessed attacks in the media and in academic writing. In some cases, the attacks have been on an ideological basis. In other cases, it has been to score political points. I believe this can be universalized. And if people are trying to win politically by tearing down minority groups, there is little one can do to have dialogue towards understanding and tolerance.

The World Evangelical Alliance has noted that persecution has three stages: disinformation (usually through the media), discrimination and persecution.

In order to combat religious hatred, it is vital to address things at the disinformation stage. This includes trying to have input into school curricula. It includes trying to counteract negative images in the media. It also includes raising the alert in international fora when a pattern becomes evident.

In combating religious hatred, there are international documents and mechanisms one can utilize. In 2001, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Religious Freedom, Mr. Amor, convened a special conference on religious education in Madrid. The final document from the conference called on countries to promote education about religion in order to foster tolerance and respect. This document has not received sufficient attention and deserves to be supported and promoted.

It is notable that there has been a call at the United Nations Human Rights Council for a dialogue on combating religious hatred. Yet some of the countries that are issuing the call are ones where we know there is educational material that denigrates other religions, particularly the Jewish religion. This kind of hypocrisy cannot go unchallenged. Islamic states have issues a call for religious tolerance, and rightly so, but they must be willing to examine their own record and ensure that they are practicing religious tolerance themselves.

There is an international trend to legislate to combat the spread of religious and racial hatred. While this sounds like a good idea, it has been used to limit expression related to genuine religious concerns. It is deeply concerning when the very legislation that is meant to protect religions and promote tolerance is used as a weapon against religions. The most recent example of this was in Uzbekistan where a Pentecostal pastor was convicted of spreading religious hatred and treated like an extremist simply because he was preaching about the truth claims of Jesus in the Christian faith. He was not vilifying other religions.

What this points out is that even well-intentioned legislation can be used for mischief.

Religious minorities must take leadership in establishing dialogue. This dialogue must be fostered within a country with government officials, with the media and with other religious groups. The dialogue must also be fostered with the international community, officials at the United Nations and like-minded international organizations. We must build religious civil society and strengthen our organizations structures.

Religious communities of good will must also be willing to work together to foster religious freedom. This does not mean that we do away with our differences but that we be seen to respect one another and be willing to stand together to promote religious tolerance.

With new structures at the United Nations that make human rights a high priority, it is a strategic moment to highlight religious tolerance and the importance of religious liberty.

Janet Epp Buckingham is the director of Trinity Western University's Laurentian Leadership Centre in Ottawa.

Originally published on the Internet, February 28, 2007.




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