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Religious Freedom: Symposium of Justitia et Pax


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 4/2009, P. 171-173
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The human right to religious freedom is a constant challenge not only for the state and society. The Deutsche Kommission Justitia et Pax [German Commission for Justice and Peace] held together with the Centre for Inter-religious Studies at the University of Bamberg a specialist conference dealing with the relationship of tension between religion and freedom of religion, conversion and mission.


Pope Benedict XVI's bold gesture of reconciliation to the traditionalist "Priestly Society of Saint Pius X" has triggered a discussion in the church public, which will undoubtedly lead to a new attention to the central statements of the Second Vatican Council. This is particularly true for the declarations "Nostra Aetate" and "Dignitatis humanae" in which the Church's general course correction to the modern world took place by determining anew the relation to non-Christian religions and to religious freedom. Especially freedom of religion was during and after the Council one of the most moving subjects. That's why the two declarations are also the favoured goal in the Pius-Brothers' polemics against the Council (see this issue, 174 et seq)

On the one hand this context helped the high-level conference to get particular relevance and brisance. Together with the Centre for Inter-religious Studies at the University of Bamberg (CIS), co-founded and lead by the Bamberg scholar of social ethics Marianne Heimbach-Steins, the German Commission Justitia et Pax had invited theologians and representatives of different religions and denominations at the end of February to a conference in order to deal with the theme "Religions and Religious Freedom - Perspectives of Human Rights in the Tension Between Mission and Conversion".



According to Heimbach-Steins in recent weeks the negative example of the Priestly Society of Saint Pius X had made clear that freedom of religion is still a great challenge also in Europe.

On the other hand the current confrontation with the traditionalists also reminds of the learning process, which was sometimes very painful and over long distances full of conflicts and in which the Christian churches were at last able to understand freedom of religion as chance and task. At the Bamberg conference particularly Muslim interlocutors, Ömer Öszoy, the holder of the Frankfurt endowed professorship in Islamic Religion and Bülent Ucar, director of the Intercultural Centre for Islamic Studies at the University of Osnabrück, who in view of that Christian learning process and a certain historical "lead" asked for giving also Islam some more time in matters of religious freedom.

Both of them equally denied the often made accusation that Islam was in principle - keyword: prohibition of conversion and apostasy - hostile towards liberty. Ucar asked, inter alia, to bear in mind that Islam did not stand for any particular form of government and that the countries which are today regarded as "Islamic" as well as their practices were not at all moulded by Islam. Öszoy, a representative of the famous so-called Ankara School urged to understand statements of the Koran about religious freedom as embedded in a certain context. The relevant verses were related to specific events and had therefore been revealed under certain circumstances.

The conference in Bamberg took place in the context of a study centring on religious freedom which the German Commission Justitia et Pax has been pursuing for the last five years. Supported by the German Bishops' Conference and the Central Committee of German Catholics it sees itself as a "round table" of all the church institutions and organizations which are devoted to the fields of development, peace and human rights (see HK, February 2008, 94 et seq.). In the context of its main focus of research Justice and Peace published in December 2005 on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of "Dignitatis humanae" a "Memorandum on Religious Freedom". One self-critically referred to the long-lasting learning process of the Catholic Church in this matter and also critically took a stand on problematic reductions in the current disputes on education and integration policy, from the headscarf controversy up to the crucifix verdict or the long-running hit 'mosque building' in Germany. Such conflicts were then also the subject of a technical discussion with representatives of the Catholic offices with the federal government and the federal states (see, HK, January 2007, 44 et seq.) It was about conceptual and practical issues of church representation against the background of a wide ideological variety and in view of the postulate of freedom of religion.

In January 2008 the Justitia et Pax study group under the direction of the philosopher of law Heiner Bielfeldt, director of the German Institute for Human Rights in Berlin had invited politicians and parliamentarians, the spokesmen of the Bundestag on church and religio-political issues to another conference.


A Deeply Religious Idea?

In Bamberg now the challenging and "unwieldy" issue (Bielfeldt) was on the agenda. Religious freedom is not only a challenge for government, politics and society but also for the religious communities (see HK, February 2006), 65 et seq.) For mission, also the mission of the church and the human right to freedom of religion are unquestionably in a certain relationship of tension. What view do the different religious communities take of conversion and change of religion? How are the conditions and possibilities of mission and conversion substantiated? What is the difference between mere tolerance and real inner acceptance of religious freedom?



Do religious belief and religious freedom exclude each other - especially in the monotheistic religions? In Bamberg Saskia Wendel, professor of systematic theology in Cologne denied the accusation, recently raked up by the so-called "new atheists", that religious beliefs were irrational and had thus a tendency to produce violence (see HK, July 2008, 359ff.). Is it easier for religions which were in the minority in their initial stage, suffered persecution, and started like Christianity as "loser religion" to deal with the recognition of religious freedom than e.g. for Islam which from the beginning was very "successful" in its spreading?


An Individual Right

On that occasion a few speakers, including Gerhard Robbers, the Trier Professor of Public Law and Director of the Potsdam Institute for Protestant Ecclesiastical Law pleaded for a very careful examination of the various reservations of religious communities and religions about freedom of religion and, in concrete terms, e.g. of the resistance to mission and change of religion. The religions, Robbers said, had to be won over to the discovery that true and genuine belief could only grow and exist out of free will. Freedom of religion was a deeply religious idea.

From a quite different perspective and with a view to the new social awareness of religion Dagmar Mensink, speaker for churches and religious communities at the SPD party executive urged politics to a "sentire cum religione", to a special sensitivity also to the "unwieldy normative obstinacy of religious beliefs".

In concrete terms the conference dealt also with various central issues of the difficult relationship between religion and religious freedom. From his many years' experience the Munich social ethicist and Jesuit Johannes Müller gave a very positive picture of the till now harmonious but currently endangered coexistence of different religions (and tribal cultures) in Indonesia, the country in the world with the most Muslims.

Otmar Oehring, adviser in the Catholic Missionswerk Missio and one of the most profound authorities on Turkey within the German local church, vividly described the current kulturkampf in the country at the Bosporus, which is in all respects an exceptional case in matters of religious freedom. Though the recognized religious minorities theoretically can freely practise their faith, practising other religions but Islam, however, is de facto subjected to many, especially bureaucratic restrictions. He was assisted here by the human rights campaigner Sema Kilic. From Brussels she has been responsibly taking part since 1997 in the membership negotiations between the EU and Turkey and was thus able to point in some places at least to signs of hope, where the process of rapprochement between the EU and Turkey in terms of religious freedom has already led to slight improvements, and the process of EU integration has triggered reforms.

Another central issue was brought up with the actual highlight of the Bamberg conference: Pakistan is the home country and at the same time the excellent field of experience of the human rights lawyer Asma Jahangir who since 2004 has been working as UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or world-view and who in Bamberg reported on the latest developments in the relevant international debates. On that occasion she urged that freedom of religion as a personal, individual right to protection must not be watered down - a tendency that becomes noticeable for example in the debate on the protection of religions in the context of international anti-discrimination campaigns.

On the part of Christianity it is often the Greek Orthodox Church which, by its close connection between religion, nation and ethnos, is considered to be particularly closed to the idea of religious freedom. That's why the experts paid particularly attention to the remarks by Konstantinos Delikostantis, Professor of Philosophy and Systematic Theology at the Theological Faculty of Athens, who for many years has been devoting himself to ecumenism at various levels. He vividly described the tremendous challenge that the dialogue about human rights means for Orthodoxy, and showed at the same time how the religious freedom can perfectly be substantiated by the Orthodox tradition and its conception of truth.

Thomas Schirrmacher, sociologist of religion and express representative of the "Worldwide Evangelical Alliance" called religious freedom a genuine "Protestant idea". Here he attested primarily and almost exclusively Evangelical groups from the USA a problematic relationship to religious freedom and to the dialogue between religions and saw mainly there those unfair methods of mission and refusal of dialogue of which one wrongly accused the Evangelicals worldwide. From the Protestant view-point a relationship with God that was bought, got by devious means or by force could not be a relationship with God. Schirrmacher remarks provoked the question from the audience whether in all religions only the fundamentalists were the actual problem.

If one looked for a common feature in the diversity of approaches to the field of tension between religion and religious freedom in the various papers, opinions and contributions to the discussion, it would probably be the in Bamberg frequently expressed belief that the debate on human rights and particularly on freedom of religion had a salutary function for the religions themselves. Also the connection with the current debate within the Catholic Church was thus re-established.


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