Speaker Says Protecting Religious Freedom a “Provocative” Challenge

Contributed By Jason Swensen, Church News staff writer

  • 18 October 2016

Professor Heiner Bielefeldt, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, speaks at Brigham Young University’s 23rd Annual International Law and Religion Symposium October 2 in Provo, Utah.  Photo courtesy of BYU Law.

Article Highlights

  • Professor Bielefeldt spoke at BYU’s International Law and Religion Symposium.
  • He stated that religious freedom is provocative but not impossible to obtain.
  • He addressed the complex relationship between religion and government.

PROVO, UTAH

Freedom of religion and belief is a “surprisingly provocative” right that warrants intellectual, political, and emotional commitment.

“So let us be provoked,” said Professor Heiner Bielefeldt in his recent keynote address at Brigham Young University’s annual International Law and Religion Symposium.

Held October 2–4 at the university’s J. Rueben Clark Law School, this year’s symposium brought together almost 100 invited scholars, jurists, and religious leaders from 45 nations. The delegates spent three days exploring contemporary and often divisive issues such as religion, pluralism, and religious rights.

In his symposium-opening remarks, the German-born Professor Bielefeldt called freedom of religion “a most fascinating task.” Some in academic circles have dismissed it as “an impossibility.” Not true, said the professor—but it is a “highly provocative” issue for governments, religious communities, and societies.

On the surface, there is broad support for freedom of religion. But stretch the surface a bit and there are challenges, he said. Many governments frame religious freedom as a “Yes—but …” proposition.

Yes, there is freedom of religion—but only for “real religions.” Yes, there is freedom of religion—but only for religions that have been granted formal recognition. Yes, there is freedom of religion, but “only within limits of law.”

Some authoritarian governments identify a national religion and then act as custodians of that religion. But even secular states can limit or restrict religious freedom in defense of a national identity, he said.

Professor Bielefeldt said allowing freedom of religion can be complicated for governments. Intrinsically linked to the freedom of religion is freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. “It is a gallery of freedom.”

For some states, freedom of religion then becomes dangerous “because it brings people together who convene and start talking.”

Freedom of religion reminds governments that respect for human rights “lies at the heart of democracy.”

Freedom of religion, he added, can, ironically, frighten religious communities because such rights are extended to rival religions. It benefits and protects the individual.

Religious freedom, he said, is about “empowering human beings to stand up for their beliefs and to organize their lives in accordance with their preferred convictions.”

During the symposium Professor Bielefeldt was awarded the center’s distinguished service award in recognition of his contributions to freedom of religion and belief worldwide.

Professor Heiner Bielefeldt, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, speaks at Brigham Young University's 23rd Annual International Law and Religion Symposium October 2. Photo courtesy of BYU Law.

Professor Heiner Bielefeldt, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, speaks at Brigham Young University's 23rd Annual International Law and Religion Symposium October 2. Photo courtesy of BYU Law.