Advancing Religious Freedom in Different Political Regimes: Personal Stories

Dmytro Vovk is Director of the Centre for the Rule of Law and Religion Studies, Yaroslav Mudryi National Law University in Kharkiv, Ukraine, and co-editor of Talk About: Law and Religion

In June 2021 the ICLRS Blog, “Talk About: Law and Religion,” hosted a webinar on advancing religious freedom in different political regimes. The panelists (Brett G. Scharffs, Seng Mai Aung, Ján Figeľ, Mine Yildirim, Knox Thames, and Elizabeth A. Clark) talked about their personal experiences in Iraq, Myanmar, Pakistan, Turkey, and Uzbekistan focusing on challenges and restrictions religious and belief communities face in these countries and other parts of the world. They shared their thoughts on human rights compliance, the basics of religious freedom advocacy and internationals’ interacting with local authorities and religious communities, discussed what worked and did not work in promoting religious freedom globally and why efforts to promote religious freedom was sometimes a matter of both international and domestic politics.

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Religious Freedom in Difficult Places

Brett G. Scharffs
Brett G. Scharffs

Brett G. Scharffs is the Rex E. Lee Chair, Professor of Law, and the Director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies, J. Reuben Clark Law School, Brigham Young University

Seng Mai Aung is a Program Officer for Myanmar at the Institute for Global Engagement

Background

Myanmar is, and for several years has been, included on the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom Annual Report’s “blacklist” as a Country of Particular Concern. In 2012, an incident in Rakhine State occurred between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslims, escalating into nationwide religious conflicts between different faith groups. Then came the rise of the Buddhist Nationalist Group, Ma Ba Tha also known as the Association for Protection of Race and Religion. This Ma-Ba Tha movement promoted fear of being invaded by foreign religions and influence along with damaging relations between other religious groups. Social media played an important role in spreading false news and hate speech and further dividing people of different faiths.

Seng Mai Aung

A reconciling peacebuilding effort was introduced—the religion and rule of law training program—to assist Myanmar in promoting religious freedom. In 2015, the Institute for Global Engagement in partnership with the International Center for Law and Religion Studies of Brigham Young University Law School were invited to give the religion and rule of law training in Yangon by local religious leaders providing them with resources, tools, and lessons learned from similar international cases.

Identifying Local Stakeholders

For the successful implementation of the religion and rule of law training programs in specific regions, identifying key stakeholders was the first pressing matter. Due to the sensitivity of the topic and how the subjects of “religion” or “rule of law” are perceived, it was vital to identify key stakeholders who understood the risks and benefits of such programs, recognized the importance of the topics, and were willing to get involved in the process of implementing the program in their city. To identify the stakeholders, it was important to talk to people who knew the area before approaching any stakeholders. It was also essential to approach them humbly and respectfully that included a willingness to listen to their challenges and needs.

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Advancing Religious Freedom in Different Political Regimes

Ján Figeľ is a former EU Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the European Union

Why is religious freedom important? Because it is a measure, principle, and instrument of humanization and civilizational process. It makes every society and time more humane, more respectful, and just.

It is important because freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) is an expression of human dignity belonging to each person and community, society, nation. The primary role of any power and authority is to provide peace to its people. Peace is the fruit of justice, and justice today is centered around human rights for all.

Human dignity is a foundational principle of all human rights. We have rights and duties because we are endowed with the dignity of the person.

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