Proselytism and Privacy: Some Reflections on the Tantur Conference on Religious Freedom

By Aagaard, Anna Marie | The Ecumenical Review, October 1998 | Go to article overview

Proselytism and Privacy: Some Reflections on the Tantur Conference on Religious Freedom


Aagaard, Anna Marie, The Ecumenical Review


The starting point for the brief reflections in this article is the conference on "Religious Freedom and Proselytism: Ethical, Political and Legal Aspects", held from 31 May to 4 June 1998 at the ecumenical centre in Tantur, between Bethlehem and Jerusalem -- a conference which served as the source for several of the articles in this issue of The Ecumenical Review. The observations I shall make are intended mainly to point to areas which seem to me to bear further consideration within the ecumenical movement in the years to come.

Two further introductory comments: (1) unless otherwise indicated in the notes, the quotations in what follows are taken from the papers given at the conference (the titles are included for those conference papers cited which do not appear in this issue); (2) despite its emotive connotations in the current ecumenical context, I shall use the word "proselytism" here in the neutral sense of meaning efforts of persuasion aiming at a change of convictions.

The issue of universality

Johan D. van der Vyver observes that

   the principle of the universality of human rights is founded on the notion
   that all human rights apply uniformly and with equal force throughout the
   world. It thus opposes the doctrine of the so-called relativity of human
   rights, which maintains that the application of human rights in concrete
   situations should make allowance for particularities associated with
   cultural, ethnic or religious varieties.

The genesis and evolution of the various human-rights instruments elaborated within the context of the United Nations shows that the debate on the "relativity of human rights" goes further back than the controversies arising out of the historical and cultural upheavals of the 1990s. Several of the Tantur conference papers illustrate this by citing the successive changes in the UN formulations of the right to religious freedom.

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) says that "the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion ... includes freedom to change [one's] religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest [one's] religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance" (italics added). Although the UN drafting committee heard objections from Islamic states to the inclusion of "the freedom to change religion or belief", the formulation was maintained.

Article 18 of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) stipulates that

   everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and
   religion. This right shall include freedom to adopt a religion or belief of
   his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others
   and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship,
   observance, practice and teaching (italics added).

This formulation was the result of a compromise in which the words "freedom to change a religion" found in the draft version of the text were omitted.

Article 1 of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (1981) states:

   Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and
   religion. This right shall include freedom to have a religion or whatever
   belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with
   others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in
   worship, observance, practice and teaching (italics added).

Following heated debate, this Declaration avoided the words "freedom to adopt a religion or belief of one's choice". The stumbling block was, once again, the opposition from Islamic states (forty of them in 1981) to any tacit approval of proselytism. As Moshe Hirsch remarks, "the evolution of the text of the universal documents . …

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