Seventh-day Adventist scholars in partnership with an international body of specialists are studying what they call a disturbing paradox: while the principle of religious freedom has gained a strong foothold within international law, restrictions on religious practice are actually on the rise around the world.
The group of scholars, who met at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, expressed concern that the ideal of religious freedom as a universal human right remains elusive in practice and religious repression continues unabated in many countries despite decades of international support and promotion.
This paradox is a critical challenge, and one that’s preventing real progress in advancing this basic human right, the scholars said in a statement released after three days of study and discussion.
“In sum, a major shift in the debate about freedom of religion or belief may well be occurring in its intellectual heartlands,” the statement said. “Until recently, religious freedom norms were widely accepted; debate was about their details, about how they should be applied in different contexts, and about how they could be more effectively extended and implemented. Now their very legitimacy is being challenged, whether explicitly or implicitly.”
Recent studies, such as one released by the Pew Research Center earlier this year, indicate that around three-quarters of the world’s 7.2 billion people live in countries with high or very high restrictions on religious practice or high rates of social hostility related to religion.
The international panel of some two dozen scholars and attorneys — known as the “Meeting of Experts” — is convened annually by the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA), an independent advocacy organization founded by the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Ganoune Diop, secretary-general of the IRLA, said the reluctance of many countries to adopt international religious freedom standards is driven by cultural, historical, philosophical, moral, and political forces. To understand why these barriers exist, Diop said, it’s important to study the various critiques of religious liberty that are often advanced by these countries, many of which have either a strong anti-Western bias or are influenced by a politically powerful religion or ideology.
“For some countries, religious freedom is closely linked with the idea of ‘individual rights,’ and this doesn’t sit well with cultures based on a more communal and community-based approach to rights,” Diop said in an interview. “Other cultures equate religious freedom norms with liberal permissiveness, which will inevitably lead to a moral breakdown in society.”
Diop continued: “Some countries fear that religious freedom will undermine a dominant religion that’s seen as having vital historical or political importance. Examples of this are some forms of Islam in many Middle Eastern countries, or Orthodoxy in some Eastern European countries. Still others, particularly within Asia, reject religious freedom ideals as far too ‘Western.’ They’re seen as incompatible with the local culture, or even as a tool of western imperialism.”
Diop said, however, that resistance to religious freedom norms doesn’t just come from non-Western countries. He noted that a pervasive influence of postmodernism — which is highly skeptical of overarching or universal norms — in many European countries and the United States has led to waning interest in religious freedom ideals.
Growing secularism also leads some people to question why religious expression deserves special consideration and protection, he said.
Diop, who presented a paper on the first day of the Meeting of Experts, said disillusionment was growing, especially among younger people, in ideologies from communism to liberal democracy.
“We all see double-standards, corruption, and the inability to translate ideals into practice,” Diop said. “So it’s little wonder that many people dismiss international institutions and laws — even those that purport to promote universal human rights — as futile, at best, or as a political tool of repression, at worst.”
Among the scholars who presented papers at the meeting were David Little, professor emeritus of Harvard Divinity School; Cole Durham, professor of law and founding director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah; Rosa Maria Martines de Codes, history professor at Complutense University in Madrid, Spain; Pasquale Annichino, research fellow at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy; Dudley Rose, associate dean of Harvard Divinity School; Mohamed Mahfoudh, dean of the law school at the University of Tunisia, T. Jeremy Gunn, professor of law and political science at the International University of Rabat in Morocco; and Amal Idrissi, law professor at the University of Moulay Ismael in Morocco.
The Meeting of Experts will meet next year at Princeton University in New Jersey. Diop, who is also director of public affairs and religious liberty for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, said these meetings are immensely valuable in bringing focus and attention to important religious freedom concerns.
This is the 18th time the group has met, and through the years, many of the papers presented have been published in the academic journal of the IRLA, Fides et Libertas. Previous editions of Fides and more information about the activities of the IRLA and the work of the Meeting of Experts can be found at its website: irla.org.