Religious liberty: Continuing efforts by NGOs needed

22 August has been set by the United Nations General Assembly as the “International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief”.  Due to Nazi and Japanese militarist persecution of religious groups during the Second World War, freedom of religion and belief was on the U.N. agenda from the start of the organization.  The issue is at the heart of article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed in 1948.

Religious non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were active during the San Francisco conference at which the drafting of the U.N. Charter was completed.  It was due in part to their active efforts that an article creating a consultative status for NGOs was included into the U.N. Charter. NGOs in consultative status with the U?N. can make U.N. bodies aware of issues by providing timely, factual information.  Often NGOs will address matters to U.N. agencies when governmental delegations keep silence.  The duty of NGOs is not to speak against States but for the interests of humanity and human rights.

Although religious NGOs have had a wide range of interests to stress at U.N. meetings and conferences such as the status of women, ecology, food policies, liberty of religion and belief has always been a concern.  The concern of religious liberty is not limited to religious NGOs but is also championed by secular NGOs such as Amnesty International and the Association of World Citizens.

Over time, there has developed a fairly large number of people who consider themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”  There has been the development of a growing  number of associations devoted to practices which have their roots in religious traditions but can also be independent such as yoga, meditation, Chi Quong.  Such associations often fall outside the usual governmental protection of religions – their tax status or other facilities concerning their buildings and properties.  The U.N. holds that the religious liberty provisions of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration are not limited in their applications to traditional religions or to religions and beliefs with institutional characteristics or practices nalogous to those of traditional religions.  Thus, newly established movements and religious minorities should be protected.

Article 18 of the Univesal Declaration of Human Rights is developed in detail by the “Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance nd Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief” adopted by the General Assembly on 25 November 1981.  The Declaration recognizes that every individual has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, expression, and religion.  The importance of inter-religious dilogue is stresssed as is the need for intensified efforts to protect the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief and to eliminate all forms of hatred, intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief.

There is a hope that tolerance and pluralism will strengthen democracy, facilitate the full enjoyment of all human rights and thereby constitute a sound foundation for civil society, social harmony and peace.Yet we are fully aware that forces of aggressive nationlism, absence of religius tolerance, religious and ethnic extremism continue to produce fresh challenges.

A tragic current example of victims of acts of violence based on religion or belief is that of the Yazidis of Iraq at the hands of the Islamic State (ISIS). The structures of the Yazidi world view is Zoroastrian, a faith born in Persia proclaiming that two great cosmic forces, that of light and good and that of darkness and evil are in constant batttle.  Humans are called upon to help light overcome evil.

However, the strict dualistic thinking of Zoroastrianism was modifies by another Persian prophet: Mani of Ctesiphon in the third century CE.  Mani tried to create a synthesis of religious teachings that were increasingly coming into contct through travel and trade: Buddhim and Hinduism from India, Jewish and Christian thought, Helenistic Gnostic philosophy from Egypt and Greece as well as many smaller, traditionl and “animist” beliefs. He kept the Zoroastrian dualism as the most easily understood intellectual framework though giving it a somewhat more Taoist (yin-yang) flexibility.  Mani had travled in China.  He developed the idea of the progression of the soul by individual effort through separate lives through reincarnation – a main feature of Indian thought.  He combined the idea of spiritual progress through different lives with ethical insights of Gnostic and Christian thought.  Unfortunately, only the  dualistic Zoroastrian framework is still attached to Mani’s nme: Manichaeism.   This is somewhat ironic as it was the Zoroastrian Magi who had Mani put to death as a dangerous rival.

Within the Mani-Zoroastrian framework, the Yazidi added the presence of angels who are to help humans in the constant battle for light and good.  The Yazidi place great emphasis on Melek Tauis, the peacock angel.  Although there are angels in Islam, angels that one does not know could well be demons, and so the Yazidis are regularly accused of being “demon worshipers”.

There are probably some 500,000 Kurdish-speaking Yazidis in Iraq.  Iraq demographic statisitcs are not fully reliable.  Yazidi leaders may give larger estimates by counting Kurds who had been Yazidis but had been converted to Islam. There had been some 200,000 Yazidis among the Kurds of Turkey, but now nearly all have migrated to Western Europe, Australia and Canada.  There are smaller groups of Yazidis in Syria, Armenia and Georgia. (1)

The Yazidis have often been persecuted for their beliefs and as part of the Kurdish-speaking community.  This was true during the period of the Ottoman Empire as well as during the Arab Ba’th Socialist Party rule of Iraq.  However, the most recent and dramatic form of persecution came at the hands of the Islamic State (ISIS).

The Association of World Citizens stressed that the policy of the ISIS leadership was genocide – the destruction in whole or in part of a group.  The killing of the Yazidis is a policy and not “collateral damage” from fighting.  While ISIS has lost much of the territory in Iraq and Syria that it once held, the trama of the survivers continues.  The Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief call upon NGOs for continued speedy and effective action.


1) See Nelida Fuccaro. The Other Kurds in Colonial Iraq (London: I.B. Tauris, 1999)

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Rene Wadlow

Rene Wadlow is the President of the Association of World Citizens, an international peace organization with consultative status with ECOSOC, the United Nations organ facilitating international cooperation on and problem-solving in economic and social issues.

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