Reflections on “International Religious Freedom and the Global Clash of Values”

Mark has noted the important and interesting talk that Pope Francis gave about the condition of religious freedom around the world–a very fitting address inaugurating our conference in Rome, “International Religious Freedom and the Global Clash of Values.” It really was quite special and memorable to have the Pope give remarks on a subject that we study here at the Center, at an audience we attended, for a conference that we organized. I thought to add a few thoughts about some of the themes that emerged from the conference presentations.

The keynote address was delivered by the Berkley Center’s Tom Farr, whose primary claim was that in order for international religious freedom to thrive as a human right, we need a deeper grounding–both principled and pragmatic–of the importance of the right of religious freedom as both an anthropological reality and as a practical necessity. I had the honor of moderating Tom’s talk and asked him whether in this particular climate what was needed was a thicker account of religious freedom or instead an (even) thinner account. He gave a thoughtful answer reflecting both the need for deep structures of justification and the difficulty of achieving consensus about them.

The first panel concerned the politics of international religious freedom and included the United States Ambassador to the Holy See, Ken Hackett, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, and Pasquale Annicchino of the European University Institute. It was in Dr. Bielefeldt’s talk that a useful tension began to emerge among some of the speakers–between those who were bullish or optimistic about the prospect that international law can effectively promote religious freedom and those who were a little more skeptical. Dr. Bielefeldt falls into the more optimistic camp–a good thing indeed, given his position. He emphasized the difference between the promotion of religious freedom in order to advance civic peace, on the one hand, and its promotion in order to vindicate a basic human right, on the other. Here I was reminded of the controversial “civic peace” justification in the American law of religious freedom.

The second panel dealt with comparative perspectives on international religious freedom. The perspectives compared included those of the member states of the Council of Europe and of Italy specifically. Here I was particularly interested in Marco Ventura’s lucid presentation about the difference between divergent and convergent approaches to religious freedom among and across European member states. Professor Ventura described the move toward convergence and argued for even greater convergence than has already been achieved. I had some questions about this coming from a country that has also struggled with the issue of convergence and divergence in the constitutional law of religious freedom. Here again, the tension between globalism and regionalism was in evidence in a slightly different way.

The third panel concerned Islamic and Christian perspectives on international religious freedom, and included presentations by Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, Olivier Roy, and Nina Shea. Here the primary point of tension involved the causes or roots of religious persecution of these two major religious groups. And here, too, there was skepticism, principally from Professor An-Na’im, about the efficacy of human rights regimes to protect religious freedom. “There was a world before international human rights, and there will be a world after international human rights,” he said.

In all, a very rewarding set of presentations.

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