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Religious Defamation Off United Nations Agenda -- For Now

Dr. Carl Moeller | Open Doors USA | Monday, April 18, 2011

Religious Defamation Off United Nations Agenda -- For Now

In a victory for worldwide religious freedom, a measure that criminalized criticism of other religions (namely Islam) has been removed from the United Nations docket.

Pakistan introduced the Defamation of Religions Resolution to the United Nations Human Rights Council in 1999 on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, an association of 56 Islamic states promoting worldwide Muslim solidarity. Each year the resolution passed, though in recent years with fewer votes. The OIC sought U.N. approval, hoping to make the resolution an accepted international norm.

Over the past two years Open Doors USA advocacy director Lindsay Vessey joined other religious liberty advocates who have lobbied U.N. member nations to vote down the resolution. Vessey's tireless work made a big difference. She and representatives of other non-governmental organizations met with U.N. delegates from many countries that had not understood the impact this resolution would have on everyday freedoms worldwide. Countries that had been neutral or favorable toward the resolution began to turn against it. 

But two assassinations within two months ultimately doomed the OIC's bid. On January 4, a bodyguard of Salman Taseer, governor of Pakistan's Punjab province, shot Taseer 26 times with a submachine gun. The governor had vocally opposed Pakistan's blasphemy laws, often used to falsely accuse Christians. Taseer had defended Christian mother Asia Noreen, also known as Asia Bibi, sentenced to death on false blasphemy charges. He even visited her in prison. Mosques throughout Pakistan praised Taseer's assassin as 2,500 Pakistani lawyers offered to defend him pro-bono.

The second assassination, on March 2, was perhaps even more ominous for Pakistan's Christian minority. Shahbaz Bhatti, elected to Pakistan's National Assembly and the only Christian ever to serve in Pakistan's cabinet, was gunned down at his mother's home. Bhatti had also spoken out against the blasphemy laws. The militant Islamic group that claimed responsibility for his assassination declared Bhatti to be a "known blasphemer."

Were Bhatti alive, the OIC's backing down from pushing a de facto global blasphemy law protecting Islam would be a remarkable turnabout. The defamation of religions resolutions gave international legitimacy to national blasphemy laws, such as those in Pakistan. In countries with national blasphemy laws, stating truth claims contrary to Islam can result in imprisonment or even death. Passing the non-binding resolution each year erased any moral authority of the U.N. to criticize outrageous jail terms and the death sentence levied against Aisa Noreen and others under heinous blasphemy laws.

But following the martyrdom of Bhatti and Taseer, the victory is admittedly small. The OIC could revive the religious defamation resolution this year in the same or some other form. After 12 years of the OIC's pursuit of a measure that would make criticizing Islam a crime, it is naive to believe this group has abandoned its core aims. But dwindling support for this resolution, combined with two high-profile assassinations, prompted changes in the OIC's tactics.

The U.S. government put extensive effort into working with the OIC to draft a resolution that would be acceptable to most countries and also gathering support for it. The text of the new resolution that was passed in the Human Rights Council contained a few phrases that could be twisted to once more restrict religious freedom. Its name: "Combating Intolerance, Negative Stereotyping and Stigmatization of, and Discrimination, Incitement to Violence, and Violence against Persons Based on Religion or Belief."

Vessey notes that the countries introducing such measures are the very ones that year after year top the Open Doors World Watch List of the worst persecutors of Christians. The true test is this: at the end of the day, has this resolution improved religious freedom? No. Behavior has not changed as a result. Christians continue to suffer. But thankfully the U.N. no longer is providing legitimacy to national blasphemy laws and that is a victory.

But we must remain vigilant. Hate speech laws are in place throughout the West except for the United States. The next OIC approach may be to exploit these laws to crush any comment deemed negative concerning Islam. The next front could be a separate Islamaphobia resolution that the OIC is said to be writing. This would likewise criminalize any criticism of Islam as well.

Religious freedom is good for America's national security. It's good for every nation in the world. We cannot hope for governments to develop stable democracies without this essential freedom. This basic liberty directly correlates to other democratic freedoms and to overall prosperity. The United States government must promote this first-named of the five freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment.

To this end, Vessey is working with Virginia Congressman Frank Wolf's office to promote and gain co-sponsors for House Resolution 440, legislation that would create a special envoy for religious freedom for minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia. This region, which includes much of what in mission circles is termed the “10/40 window,” has long been an area of concern. Minority Christians in this window suffer extreme persecution.

We celebrate a rare win for religious freedom. For the first time in more than a decade the religious defamation measure was not introduced to the Human Rights Council. But the battle isn't over. We must press forward and persevere in prayer and advocacy until the entire world is free to believe.

Dr. Carl Moeller is president and CEO of Open Doors USA, the American arm of Open Doors International, a worldwide ministry which has supported and strengthened persecuted Christians in restricted countries since 1955.