Saturday, April 4, 2015

On preserving freedom and diversity of religion in Lebanon

It seems so appropriate to speak of diversity and freedom of religion in Lebanon in this Holy Week, leading up to Easter Sunday. There is nowhere else I have seen practices as it is during Passion week.

So it is with great interest that I read, and want to share, the preliminary report by United Nations Special Rapporteur Heiner Bielefeldt on freedom of religion or belief in Lebanon.

On Thursday (April 2) he praised the country’s unique tradition of religious diversity, in particular in the Middle East region, and urged the Lebanese people to protect and preserve it.

 “Diversity as well as freedom of religion or belief must be preserved and further developed in order to build resilience against the spiraling religious extremism in the Middle East region,” Bielefeldt said at the end of an official visit to the country.

“In face of the challenging time, Lebanon could be the ray of hope in the region and beyond for as long as it preserves and promotes its legacy of religious diversity,” he noted.

Bielefeldt (Germany) assumed his mandate as Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief in August 2010. He is Professor of Human Rights and Human Rights Politics at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg. From 2003 to 2009, he was Director of Germany’s National Human Rights Institution.

The human rights expert emphasized that people in Lebanon have learned the importance of coexisting even under precarious conditions. In his view, other enabling factors include active interreligious dialogues or cooperation and Lebanese citizenship.

“Religious diversity is a visible and audible reality, as Churches and Mosques often stand in close vicinity and the ringing of bells at times blends with the Muslim prayer call. Some Lebanese openly declare themselves as agnostics or atheists and express critical views on religion in general, which is mostly appreciated as something quite natural in an open society.

“Lebanon’s pluralistic heritage represents a counter-point to aggressive agendas of sectarian homogenization, which haunt some of its neighboring countries. Over the centuries a culture of interreligious coexistence has emerged, which today helps to build resilience against extremist interpretations of religious traditions. Due to mixed marriages, many families comprise persons of different religious orientations. Many people live, learn and work together across confessional lines, a situation which quite naturally fosters the discovery of common interests…” Bielefeldt wrote in his preliminary statement.

“Overcoming the political confessionalism is nonetheless important in order to live up to its aspiration to become a civil state based on rule of law,” the Special Rapporteur said. “Disentangling the tightly knit web of religious loyalties, political affiliations, social positions and societal opportunities may then enhance the prospects of common citizenship.”

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

On “Why Lebanon?” Bielefeldt wrote: “…Lebanon has successfully managed to keep the society together, across religious boundaries and to build resilience against the virus of religious extremism. Indeed, the main purpose of my visit has been to better understand what facilitated these surprising accomplishments and which measures can be taken to further strengthen peaceful interreligious coexistence of people across the broad range of confessions…”

“Even though equal power sharing on one hand maintains stable relationship among religious denominations, it may on the other hand weaken the civil structure and reinforce political fragmentation,” Bielefeldt further explained.

He noted that allowing civil marriage in Lebanon will be a test case in further strengthening diversity. “Mixed marriages are a reality in Lebanon and the absence of a civil marriage law may create problematic situations from the perspective of freedom of religion or belief and exacerbate discrimination against women,” he said.

“It is furthermore inevitable for the society, especially the younger generation to tackle complicated facts of recent history in Lebanon,” he added. “Without proper history teaching and memorialization process, a climate of mistrust against each other between different religious communities may persist.”

Bielefeldt concludes: “In discussions on how to preserve and further develop religious diversity in the face of external threats and internal challenges I have experienced a surprising readiness for reforms… Disentangling the tightly knit web of religious loyalties, political affiliations, social positions and societal opportunities may thus enhance the prospects of common citizenship while at the same time ensuring that the inner attractiveness and persuasiveness of religious messages can unfold without getting mixed with non-religious incentives. Similarly, I have sensed much willingness to introduce optional civil marriage in Lebanon, in order to accommodate the realities of modern life in a more honest and open manner. Also in discussions with religious leaders and dignitaries I rarely came across a wholehearted and clear defense of the status quo. Fears that the option of contracting civil marriages in Lebanon would erode the existing religious diversity would indeed betray a lack of confidence in the inner persuasiveness of religious traditions.

“In order to preserve and further develop the Lebanese legacy of religious diversity in an increasingly complicated region, religious communities and civil society organizations will have to cooperate more closely to build trust based on a common commitment to human rights, including the right to freedom of religion or belief. I am grateful for having seen promising initiatives pointing in this direction.”

During this 11-day mission to Lebanon, Bielefeldt met with various government officials, representatives of religious or belief communities, including the refugees, civil society organizations and the UN.

Bielefeldt’s full end-of-mission statement can be read here. The final official report will be presented to the 31st session of the Human Rights Council in March 2016.