In the face of rising persecution of people on the grounds of faith or belief, more than 100 parliamentarians from almost 50 countries met on 18 September in New York to discuss ways to advance religious freedoms.
One hundred and thirty delegates packed into a room that was booked for fewer than 40. Thirty others had to be turned away from the meeting, which was organized by the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief to coincide with the 70th UN General Assembly.
“It’s an idea for which the time is right,” said Aykan Erdemir, a Turkish academic and a member of the Turkish parliament until recently, adding that people advocating rights should be as “outspoken, organised and transnational” as the violent extremists.
Delegates signed the New York Resolution for Freedom of Religion or Belief, which pledges them to advance religious freedoms for all, in accordance with Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The resolution calls on signatories to encourage and equip more politicians around the world to focus on religious freedoms, including those in countries known to violate Article 18.
The delegates also expressed their commitment to advocacy by sending three letters to heads of states considered to be violating these rights.
The letters, which asked for the state to intervene in cases of people imprisoned for their faith, and expressed concern about new laws that will restrict religious freedom, were issued to Myanmar’s President, the Prime Minister of Vietnam and the Speaker of Iran’s parliament. All three countries rank in the top 25 on Christian charity Open Doors‘ list of the places where Christians face the worst persecution.
The network of parliamentarians launched last year at the Nobel Peace Centre in Norway in response to the rising crisis of religious persecution by terrorist groups and authoritarian governments. The International Panel is led by British peer, Baroness Berridge; Norwegian MP Abid Raja; Canadian MP David Anderson, and Leonardo Quintao of Brazil’s National Congress.
Since its inception it has created parliamentary membership groups in Pakistan, Brazil and Norway to add to those already operating in the British, US and Canadian governments and the European Union.
Baroness Berridge (UK), IPP Steering Group member, said: “There is a global crisis for freedom of religion or belief. An international problem requires an international response. Our meetings in New York will bring together parliamentarians, diplomats, civil society and religious leaders to devise strategies to defend this fundamental right. Collective action is needed now more than ever.”
Abid Raja (MP, Norway), IPP Steering Group member, said: “The migration crisis facing Europe is fuelled in part by religious extremism and persecution. It is positive that what we launched at the Nobel Peace Center last year continues to grow, as the problems continue to grow as well.”
Germany, whose Chancellor Merkel threw her European partners into some disarray by announcing last week “If we now have to start apologizing for showing a friendly face in response to emergency situations, then that’s not my country,” had a high profile at the gathering. German foundation, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, had provided funding to bring them together in New York.
Volker Kauder, one of the leaders of the German parliament, opened the meeting speaking about the plight of religious freedom in the Middle East. He urged the UN to address the matter at the General Assembly, scheduled to discuss international security on 1-2 October.
Katrina Lantos Swett from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom and the daughter of Holocaust survivors, said she felt “so happy to see the way Germany is stepping up on so many fronts”.
David Saperstein, the US State Department Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, urged the delegates “not to separate religious freedom from other issues, but to see it as foundational in every kind of policy”.
He encouraged them to hold hearings, issue statements, and attend trials for the persecuted, saying that he was encouraged after attending the trial of two South Sudanese pastors who were subsequently acquitted of serious charges and released.
“The history of Europe shows that we have all been refugees,” said Peter van Dalen, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, who also heads up the parliament’s Intergroup on Religious Freedom. Van Dalen mentioned that his family fled persecution as Huguenots in France and settled in the Netherlands.
Delegates at the meeting also heard from Naghmeh Abedini, an American whose husband, pastor Saeed Abedini, is imprisoned in Iran for his Christian faith.
Parliamentarians from the following countries attended: Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Cambodia, Canada, Central African Republic, Chad, Chile, Costa Rica, Czech Republic, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Georgia, Germany; Honduras; India, Indonesia, Iraq, Ireland, Israel, Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, Lithuania, Malawi, Malaysia, Mexico, Myanmar, Nepal, Netherlands, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Panama, Peru, Senegal, Serbia, Solomon Islands, South Africa, South Sudan, Sudan, Taiwan (China), Tunisia, United Kingdom and Uruguay.
The group plans to meet again in 2016 in Berlin.