The Words of the Zoehrer Family

Religious Freedom as the Prerequisite for Interfaith Dialogue - The Minaret Ban and its Implications

Peter Zoehrer
December 3, 2009

The speech below was given by Peter Zoehrer, the Secretary General of the Forum for Religious Freedom in Europe (FOREF-Europe) on December 03, 2009, at the Vienna International University. The speech was Mr. Zoehrer's response to a referendum in late November in Switzerland in which a majority of voters approved a ban on the building of minarets on mosques in Swiss territory.

Mr. Zoehrer addressed 80 students and faculty from his chair on a panel of scholars, including respected priests from the Syrian Orthodox and the Roman Catholic churches and a high-ranking Muslim scholar. Founded in 1998, FOREF has held press conferences and published numerous press releases exposing religious-freedom violations. During the past 10 years FOREF scored more than 30 victories in helping victims of religious intolerance to regain their rights or get vindicated from injustice, discrimination or persecution. In 2007, FOREF-Europe was registered as an official Non-governmental Organization (NGO) directed by an international board of legal experts and scholars of religion. The official web-portal of the Austrian state-schools has listed FOREF as one of its top-info-links for human rights education.

Mr. Zoehrer is also the president of the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification in Austria and a life-long Unificationist.

Ladies and gentlemen: in 1948, exactly 61 years ago, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which operates as an authoritative guide in the field of human rights. FOREF Europe seeks to promote the vision of religious freedom found in Article 18 of the Declaration.

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, alone or in community with others, and, in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has largely been drafted by experts of religion. Yet, in spite of the existence of those clear standards during the recent decades humanity has suffered numerous conflicts that have been marked by religious intolerance.

The possibility of religious wars looms ominously above our heads like the sword of Damocles.

Therefore, continuous inter-religious dialogue is of paramount importance to overcoming misunderstandings among peoples of differing religious backgrounds. One popular Austrian saying contains a simple, yet profound truth: "Talking to each other brings the people together!"

From the viewpoint of human-rights standards, there is no doubt that [the Swiss ban] on building minarets is violating religious freedom. The point, however, is that in recent years the fear of Islamist extremism has swept throughout the European continent. These concerns are very real. They don't just go away by governments, religious leaders, liberal media or rights defenders preaching to people or accusing them of intolerance or xenophobia.

The outcome of this referendum expresses an immensely populist sentiment in most European countries. Thus, the nationalists and right-wing demagogues are having a feast misusing this angst for their own political agendas.

Just as the initiators of the Swiss referendum have used the discrimination against Christians in the Islamic world (where no Christian churches are allowed, where Christians are persecuted in 57 countries, etc.) as a powerful argument to back up their case, so do the right-wing political leaders in Austria (i.e. H.C. Strache) and their colleagues in most EU countries.

Yet, the United Nations as well as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has called the minaret ban a clear violation of religious freedom (Art. 18 -- Universal Declaration of Human Rights). More importantly, the leaders of mainstream churches have joined in solidarity with the Muslims all over Europe in denouncing the Swiss minaret ban.

The Current Crisis Affords Opportunity for Religious Freedom

As Confucius has written: "In every crisis there is also a great opportunity!"

Ladies and gentlemen, this current crisis is definitely to be seen as a great opportunity for religious leaders to engage in serious inter-religious dialogue.

Especially for Muslim religious and political leaders outside the EU it is not enough to voice their anger and complaints. It would be more helpful if they would view this crisis as a chance to reciprocate the goodwill of the Christian leaders in Europe. This would mean for them to review and change their extremely strict, discriminatory laws in their home countries which severely infringe upon the religious freedom of Christian and other religious minorities.

Why not? Such a move would take out some wind from the sails of the "anti-Islam preachers". As I am repeatedly told by my Muslim friends, the true meaning of "Jihad" is "great effort towards Gods will." If that is so, there could be a theological justification for declaring "Jihad" against religious discrimination. In any case, it would be a great leap for inter-religious reconciliation and world peace

Religious Freedom as a fundamental human right

As the late Cardinal Franz Koenig of Austria has said, "The right of freedom of conscience and belief… religious freedom constitutes the very foundation for the other fundamental freedoms of man!"

For a religious person, can there be any other right more important than the freedom to worship your creator and follow his will in the way your conscience commands you to do? Ladies and gentlemen, the importance of religious freedom has been dismally neglected by political leaders! On the other hand, great human-rights defenders have always regarded the freedom of faith and conscience as the "mother of human rights". Therefore, the significance of religious freedom for creating social harmony and world peace cannot be emphasized enough.

Religion can be a powerful force for World peace

Sadly, throughout history religion often has been misinterpreted, misunderstood and misused for partisan interests, discrimination and even violence. If a particular religion claims to be exclusively assigned by divine providence to be the only one, the human rights of people of other faiths or convictions can be severely endangered.

As a great Christian leader from Geneva, Rev. Dr. William McComish has recently stated: at a UN meeting: "Never quote a spiritual source to justify discrimination or violence!"

That is the very reason why true religious leaders and defenders of religious freedom always emphasize the importance of religious tolerance. Religion always has played a central role in the protection of human rights, especially in the promotion of human dignity. For example the abandonment of slavery was inspired by the biblical concept of "Imago Dei" (Genesis: All men are created in the image of God).

What makes religion strong in the protection of human rights and human dignity is:

Its emphasis on man's spiritual and eternal nature and dignity as a child of God.

Its rejection of hatred and violence

Its obligation to practice love by living for others (e.g. helping the weak and needy)

Its power to forgive and reconcile

Its vision for a world of peace, harmony and mutual prosperity Tolerance and religious freedom are essential prerequisites for inter-religious dialogue.

As Dr. Hans Küng has stressed in his "Project World-Ethos", there needs to be the mutual affirmation of the fact that different religions have more points in common than there are points of disagreement. To overcome the current impasse in the dialogue among religions and cultures a real paradigm shift maybe unavoidable. Rather than seeing each other as competitors, religious leaders need to see each other as individual members of one global village or even one big world family. That means, in spite of our doctrinal differences we practice mutual respect and love and towards each other. Only by joining our forces we may be able to tackle the real problems of humanity, which are targeted in the UN Millennium Development Goals (extreme starvation, child mortality, epidemics, etc).

Religious Freedom and Tolerance in Europe under threat (not only in Switzerland)

"Each civilization should be judged by the way it treats her minorities!" --Mahatma Gandhi

The escalation of religious intolerance and discrimination throughout the new Europe should be a matter of great concern to our political leaders, the European Union and the United Nations for the following reasons:

1.) Anti-Semitism is on the rise again;

2.) Islamophobia is spreading throughout Western -- and Eastern Europe;

3.) Sectophobia -- the irrational fear of so called "sects" or religious minority groups has been rising during the last 40 years in Western Europe and since the fall of the iron curtain is now also manifesting in Eastern-Europe. This is not just a mere assumption. Even governments and powerful state-sponsored organizations are still supporting the agents of intolerance and discrimination against minor religions and new religious movements.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is exactly this kind of religious discrimination that Article 18 was designed to prevent. This is made clear by the UN Human Rights Committee, which in its Comment 22 states:

Article 18 is not limited in its application to traditional religions or to religions and beliefs with institutional characteristics or practices analogous to those of traditional religions. The Committee therefore views with concern any tendency to discriminate against any religion or belief for any reasons, including the fact that they are newly established or represent religious minorities that may be the subject of hostility by a predominant religious community. Various European governments have created "black lists" of religious-minority groups. Sadly, according to the motto "big fish eats little fish," even mainstream Churches are often promoting state-sponsored discrimination against so-called "sects" or small religions. This has been possible through their powerful constituencies in most European countries. Therefore it is highly hypocritical of religious and political leaders to point their fingers at Switzerland if at home they discriminate their own minorities.

The case of Austria

In Austria, we have a population of which 80 percent are Catholics. Islam, with 500,000 Muslims, constitutes the second-largest faith community. There are approximately 600 religious minority groups. Only 14 faith communities enjoy official recognition by the state. With a population of 8.3 million, Austria has no less than 34 Anti–"Sect" offices operating in the country. Proportionally, this marks an unmatched record in Europe and even on a global scale.

Including the Federal "Sect" Observatory, there are

Six (6) state sponsored sect-observation offices

Nine (9) Catholic Sect Offices

Seven (7) Protestant Sect Offices

Four (4) Private Sect Offices

Eight (8) Family Counseling Offices with special emphasis on "Sectarian issues".

Austria's constitutionally granted neutrality of the state in religious matters is torpedoed by these facts. Members of religious minorities from Austria and neighboring countries report numerous cases of religious discrimination in schools, communities and in their workplace. Even established NGOs with a consultative status at the UN (ECOSOC), who are running peace initiatives or relief projects in line with the UN-Millennium Development Goals reported to FOREF, that their work has been severely hampered by the interventions of the so called "sect experts".

Victims especially hold the state responsible for creating an atmosphere of religious intolerance and spiritual apartheid. As a result, in July 2008 the European Court of Human Rights has rebuked Austria for its discriminating legislation against non-traditional faith communities.

Institutionalized discrimination against religious minorities in Europe In spite of many objections by faith communities, the Council of Europe -- which is now severely condemning the Swiss minaret ban (rightly so) -- has granted FECRIS (Fédération européenne des centres de recherche et d'information sur le sectarisme) consultative status in 2005. The named organization -- under the banner of human rights -- promotes discriminatory, anti-cult legislation throughout Europe. FECRIS receives substantial funding (over 90 percent of its annual budget -- as quoted by the former SG of the organization) from the French government. The numerous protests of human rights defenders in the OSCE, COE, the UN and other Institutions have so far been in vain.

Recommendations to religious leaders, NGO representatives and human rights defenders

Appeal to governments to stop funding prejudiced public and private organizations which promote and propagate defamatory statements about faith communities and religious organizations. Such activities infringe the principles of tolerance and integration promoted by the UN, OSCE, COE and the European Union.

Appeal to religious leaders to promote tolerance toward all religious groups, regardless whether they are weak or strong, large or small.

Appeal to religious leaders to invoke the great power of religion for reconciliation and peace building. After all, we are one family under God.

In the words of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: "We must learn to live together as brothers and sisters or perish together as fools." 

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