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Press release

Asma Jahangir, UN special rapporteur, on European Year of Intercultural Dialogue

Culture - 18-06-2008 - 13:23
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The United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Asma Jahangir, addressed a formal sitting of the House on Wednesday as part of Year of Intercultural Dialogue. She urged that "intercultural dialogue" be understood in a wide sense, bringing together a range of religious and non-religious perspectives; it should include dialogue at grassroots level rather than being conducted purely by leaders; and she strongly opposed the idea of outlawing "defamation of religions".

Welcoming Mrs Jahangir, EP Vice-President Rodi Kratsa-Tsagaropoulou said that her speech would contribute to the EP's message of promoting free dialogue and mutual comprehension.  She also quoted Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which underpins Mrs Jahangir's work: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance".  Lastly, Mrs Kratsa expressed support for Mrs Jahangir's well-known emphasis on the need for wider participation in politics, including by women, and the importance of education.
Intercultural dialogue must be based on real diversity
In her speech, Mrs Jahangir first asked: "does “intercultural” also include “interreligious” dialogue?" and answered in the affirmative "since religions are part of culture".  However, “intra-religious” tensions must also be addressed. "Consequently, intercultural dialogue should also take the believers of different denominations of the various religions on board and their ideas into account".
Similarly, "what about dialogue between theistic, non-theistic and atheistic believers? All of these believers are protected under international human rights law as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief. So in my opinion these dimensions should also be included in initiatives of intercultural dialogue." Ultimately, "government and civil society have a role in creating an environment where people of various religions and beliefs can effortlessly interact".
Dialogue - the only way to bridge divides
Mrs Jahangir stressed that "there have always been individuals who try to prove that their culture, their religion, their language or their history is superior to that of their neighbours." Nevertheless, "religions share many moral values which could and should make it possible for them to come to a common understanding of respect".
Moreover, intercultural dialogue must not be seen as an elite concern.  She had witnessed grassroots examples of successful intercultural dialogue in Israel and Palestine, and in Northern Ireland. "However, the grassroots efforts rarely make headlines in the media – unlike interreligious violence", she said.
Not only religious leaders should be involved

Thus, while recognising that high-level meetings of religious leaders are important, Mrs Jahangir stressed the need for other contributions. Not only should debates "if possible also include believers who are dispassionate about their faith as well as atheistic and non-theistic believers and members of religious minorities. Any dialogue would also greatly benefit from the perspectives of women, who tend to be marginalised in major events of interreligious dialogue."   And, referring to a recent round table discussion in London on legislation against discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, she pointed out "That discussion would have been completely different without the participation of members of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement".
A firm "No" to any ban on "defamation of religion"
Mrs Jahangir then asked "Does dialogue exclude the possibility to criticize the tenets of other religions?"  To applause from the House, she said "In my opinion, in a true dialogue one of the options should also be that the interlocutors ultimately may 'agree to disagree' ". 
But, to further applause from MEPs, she added "I firmly believe, however, that it would be wrong to follow the approach of protecting religions per se rather than individuals or groups of believers as affirmed by international human rights standards. On many occasions I have voiced concerns that criminalizing “defamation of religions” can be counterproductive, since it may create an atmosphere of intolerance and fear and may even increase the chances of a backlash."  And crucially, "accusations of “defamation of religions” might stifle legitimate criticism or even research on practices and laws appearing to be in violation of human rights but that are - or are at least perceived to be - sanctioned by religion".
Values as a bridge between different beliefs
Concluding, Mrs Jahangir Universal said "values should serve as a bridge between different religions and beliefs" and "this may ultimately also lead to the reinforcement of universal human rights".
Mrs Jahangir will take part in a debate with MEPs tomorrow, Thursday, at a meeting of the EP Subcommittee on Human Rights. 
REF.: 20080616IPR31799