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Recommended Reading List

The European Union and International Religious Freedom

  1. Law and Religion in the 21st Century, by Silvio Ferrari

  2. Law and Religion in Europe: A Comparative Introduction, by Norman Doe

  3. Religious Freedom in the European Union: The Application of the European Convention on Human Rights in the European Union, by Achilles Emilianides

  4. Religious Freedom and Neutrality of the State: The Position of Islam in the European Union, by Shadid

  5. Religious Freedom, Religious Discrimination, and the Workplace, by Lucy Vickers

  6. Religious Discrimination and Hatred Law, by Neil Addison

  7. Religion and the Public Order of the European Union, by Ronan McRea

  8. International Religious Freedom Advocacy: A Guide to Organizations, Law, and NGOs, by H. Knox Thames

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The UN building
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The Development of International Religious Freedom

International religious freedom, as a concept, did not begin to exist until the late nineteenth century. Several factors explain this tardy entrance onto the international scene. Even though nation states had been in existence for nearly two hundred years, international relations had not developed sufficiently to warrant the inclusion of language and concepts based on human rights. National leaders did not foresee the necessity of an international organization dedicated to overseeing relations among the nations until the beginning of the twentieth century. It was not until the Armenian genocide at the turn of the twentieth century and World War I, and subsequent wars, that the depth of wickedness, prejudice, and depravity existing in the human heart of man against man became fully evident. Improved communication, through the trans-Atlantic telegraph, and increasingly advanced technologies leading up to the internet era further contributed to a sense of an international community in which national events became known on an international scale.

The first religious organization to promote and defend international religious freedom was the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In 1893, with the founding of the National Religious Liberty Association (NRLA), which a few years later became the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA), Seventh-day Adventists began to promote, as well as defend, the right of each human being to freely exercise his or her free will in the election, or rejection, of religious belief. Some sixty years in advance of the United Nations, Seventh-day Adventists proclaimed the dignity of the human being and his inalienable right to follow his conscientious convictions without compulsion. IRLA has become one of the foremost leading non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) to advance the cause of religious freedom in the global community.

Among secular organizations, however, one may date the promotion of international religious freedom to the decade of the 1940s. In light of the atrocities and crimes against humanity committed under Nazi Germany, the idea of international religious freedom guarantees, among other human rights, came to the forefront of concern among leading nations in the growing global community.

After the failure of the League of Nations, the Allied powers at the close of World War II determined to establish a viable means of promoting societal peace. Their efforts produced the organization of the United Nations, which drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) in 1948. With particular regard to the religious animosity toward the Hebrew race as revealed in Nazi Germany, and recognizing religious prejudice among religious groups, as well as non-believing, secular groups toward religion, the UNDHR Article 18 contains language broad enough to embrace the diversity of world practice and orientation toward the Deity.

There are several challenges facing international bodies such as the UN, and at a lower level, such regional bodies as the European Union, in the area of religious freedom. The increase of fundamentalist religious groups, as noted by Martin Marty, and a growing indifference toward religion in society have heightened the tensions and differences among these groups. Current religious freedom issues being debated on the international level include: 1) freedom of religion versus freedom of expression, which includes the topic of “hate speech;” 2) the right to proselytize versus the right to convert out of one’s faith; 3) the display of religious symbols in public spaces; and 4) the legal status of Muslims in western countries.

Looming on the horizon of the near future, economic wellbeing enters the arena of international relations, with its corollary impact upon religious freedom. Through globalization, economic ties among nations produce a rebound effect, with one nation’s economy affecting that of other nations. In the midst of such phenomena, religious bodies opine their views regarding economic justice, the plight of the poor, the brotherhood of humanity, and the corresponding obligations of the more wealthy. In his encyclical, Caritatis en veritate, Pope Benedict XVI expressed his belief of the need for a universal authority to help regulate the world economy; Muslim scholars express their concern with regard to principles of capitalism; and among conservative, evangelical Protestants, who adhere to Dominion theology, there is a growing belief that biblical principles should regulate economic practices. The belief that religious norms should guide economic exchange confronts secular economists with the dilemma of advancing principles of economic justice that are not rooted in religious norms.

Embarking into the twenty-first century, with its multitudinous challenges, the global community faces this question: How can each nation best respect the freedom of conscience of the individual (or group), whether he or she is a religious adherent, or an unbeliever? Much discussion needs to take place regarding principles that can apply across the ideological divide that include mutual respect, mutual understanding, and mutual toleration. At the core of such discussions, all parties need to recognize that while there may be some areas in common, there will certainly be some areas of difference. World history, across the span of civilizations and centuries, demonstrates that humanity has always struggled to embrace the latter of these two positions.

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