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Alliance Aims to Get Past Intolerance

VIENNA, Feb 27 2013 (IPS) - A UN summit designed to promote tolerance, plurality and global inclusiveness of civilisations has opened with dire warnings of the threat of religious and ethnic intolerance – at the same time as many states that have ostensibly signed up to the UN’s ideals continue to enforce laws and practices restricting religious freedom, and implicitly marginalising communities.

The United Nations Alliance of Civilisations (UNAOC) includes more than 130 states and hundreds of thousands of NGOS across the world. It was created to foster cross-cultural dialogue and understanding in a bid to bring cultures and societies closer together.

And at the two-day fifth UNAOC Global Forum which opened in the Austrian capital Wednesday, UN leaders, including U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and incoming UNAOC president Nasser Abdulaziz Al-Nasser warned of the dangers of intolerance and extremism turning diversity into a means to exclude certain groups.

Al-Nasser said: “We live today in a world of xenophobia, conflict and intolerance. In some societies culture is perceived as a source of division instead of a path to inclusion and peace…. and we see dangerous religious intolerance. In some countries, religious symbols are denigrated and literature burnt. We must work (to prevent this) and promote peace and tolerance.”

But while discussions began on the best forms of cross-cultural bridge-building, some participants were concerned about laws that many countries, including some of those who sent representatives to the meeting, retain on their statute books.

Rabbi Arthur Schneier, president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, said: “What needs to be done is for every state law of every state in the UNAOC to be checked to see if matches up with UN human rights charters.”

Religious leaders meeting at the conference told of how minorities in many countries across the world were facing continued problems, including the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and violence against Muslims, both by other Muslims and different religious groups. They talked of documented continued attacks on temples, churches, mosques and synagogues.

But they also warned of the scale of state support or sanctioning of religious oppression, either through laws or policy.

Brian Grim of the Pew Research Centre which researches religious freedom, said that in one-third of the world’s countries people faced high or very high restrictions on religion. He added that the Centre had identified a very strong correlation between certain types of government action to restrict religion, and social hostilities.

And those restrictions are often spread across borders, Grim said, citing an example of a Saudi Arabian man who fled the country over a tweet he sent which was considered blasphemous. He was detained in Malaysia and extradited back to Saudi Arabia.

“What we are seeing is the spread of one legal restriction on religion to another state,” he said.

Some countries are well known for their repressive religious laws. Saudi Arabia which has arguably the world’s strictest laws on the observance of Islam, and capital punishment for conversion to other religions and blasphemy, and outlaws the following of any other religions, has long been criticised by rights groups for repressively enforcing religious exclusivity.

But similar restrictions, if not quite as draconian, are applied in many other states. In Malaysia, often touted as a highly-multicultural and open society, the country’s constitution emphasises the elevated position of the Malay population and also states Islam as the country’s religion and that all Malays must be Muslims.

State policies have been designed to discourage non-Muslim religious activity and promote Islam, including the refusal of permission to build churches and temples for other religions, and not releasing land for burial sites for non-Muslims. Meanwhile, conversions to Islam can also be forced by law.

Malay and Islamic cultural traditions are also overtly promoted, implicitly to the detriment of the country’s Chinese and Indian people, which form more than 40 percent of the population, and who wish to retain their own cultures. Economic policies favouring the Malay community over others have also been brought in. In education and in certain professions, Malays are favoured through quota systems.

In Indonesia, the situation for minorities is perhaps worse. According to the Wahid Institute, in 2011 alone there were 93 government-instigated violations of religious freedom, up from 64 the year before, and there were documented cases of the closure of temples and churches and restrictions on the building of houses of worship.

Meanwhile, in Kazakhstan, which sent a high-level government representative to the Vienna UNAOC conference, a law passed in 2011 saw the number of officially recognised religions cut from 46 to 17. The law forced all religious denominations and faith-based NGOs to re-register.

All religious literature must be approved by a state body before it can be used and distributed while religious activities are banned from state institutions, secondary schools and universities. The law has been enforced strongly by police, and raids on mosques and churches have been widely reported.

The authoritarian regime in Astana said it brought the law in to guard against religious extremism, but Muslim leaders in the country have warned that by restricting religious freedom, the legislation may simply encourage extremism.

But it is not just in supposedly less developed or predominantly Muslim states where there is state-sanctioned religious intolerance.

In Switzerland, the construction of minarets has been banned, and that ban is now enshrined in the country’s constitution. In Austria, the host of the UNAOC summit, a similar ban has been brought in at regional level.

All of these states are members of the UNAOC and have signed up to its ideas.

But despite this, religious leaders at the summit were keen to stress that they had seen positive progress in addressing religious freedom in law.

Grim said: “While many countries do have high or very high levels of religious restriction, in three-quarters of the world’s countries we have registered governments taking some action to reduce religious restrictions.”

Others, meanwhile, said that despite the apparent hypocrisy of signing up to an alliance that condemns religious intolerance and exclusion while continuing to enforce repressive laws on minorities, it is the first step to bringing about meaningful change in promoting social inclusion.

Rabbi Schneier told IPS: “The fact that such countries have signed up to the UNAOC shows that they are, at least in spirit, in agreement with what we stand for. Things don’t change overnight, it’s an evolutionary process. In the U.S. we had discrimination against blacks, slavery. Now we have an Afro-American president for the first time, and we will one day have a female president. It takes time.

“By joining the UNAOC it is a first step, it is a way for a country to embrace the standards of the international community. “All we can hope for is that through joint efforts by those of us in the international community who believe in co-existence that eventually they will open up to this.” (end)

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