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2007-11-13
Cologne, Germany
Evangelical Bishop Wolfgang Huber’s Keynote address "How do you feel about religious freedom?”
Panel Series at the "Encounter Centre for Christians and Muslims"

"How do you feel about religion?” Gretchen asks Heinrich in Goethe’s Faust and immediately follows with the assumption, "I think religion doesn’t matter much to you.” Faust tries to talk his way out of the question by claiming it was too profound, "…who can say I believe in God” and further "who can dare profess I believe in him” or " then presume to say, I don’t believe!”

Let me clearly state that it is impossible to transfer this attitude of prevarication to the issue of religious freedom. The question of religious freedom can only be answered with a yes and not with ifs or buts. One cannot reply with an answer like "Who can say I believe in him and dare profess I believe he is! who can dare profess I believe in him or then presume to say, I don’t believe!” Goethe’s pathos rings really hollow when applied to religious freedom.

It is of course true - and should be emphasized from the outset - religious freedom was fought for in a struggle to a great extent against the major Christian churches. But it is also true - and this should also be highlighted from the outset - that the demand for religious freedom grew out of the spirit of the Christian faith. Certainly Christians have no alternative but to stand up for religious freedom. We must demand recognition of religious freedom by all people and in all places. And this of course applies to Muslims in Germany as much as it does to Christians in Turkey.

I see this as an essential precondition for all further reflection on the matter. Given time constraints I will confine myself to four points, of which the first is the longest.

1.Religious freedom is a human right, and as such, requires universal application.

Article 9 of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights defines this right as follows: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”

Religious freedom has its origins in the conscience of the individual and should not be denied. This is why demands for religious freedom and action to bring it about first came from minorities when freedom of conscience was rediscovered during the Reformation. At the outset, this was intended to be a freedom of religion, but it also included freedom from religion. However, the tables are turned when freedom from religion is given priority over freedom of religion. Christians strongly oppose this sort of imbalance.

Religious freedom includes the freedom to change one’s religion or worldview. This was recognized both in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and in the European Convention on Human Rights of 1950. At the time this led Saudi Arabia to withhold its support from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. When in 1966 the United Nations sought to make human rights legally binding in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the full right to change one’s religion had vanished. It was instead limited (in Article 18 of the Covenant) to the right "to have or to adopt a religion or belief of [one’s] choice”. The exclusion of the right to abandon or change one’s religion was the price that had to be paid before states with an Islamic background would accept the covenant. The 1966 covenant paid a similar price in conceding its recognition of the death penalty to the United States and other countries. Instead merely limiting its application to cases of "the most serious crimes” punishable by death "at the time of the commission of the crime”.

Both of these issues represent ominous constraints to human rights. The situation regarding religious freedom has on the whole not improved since the covenant. Islamic states view turning away from Islam as "apostasy”, which is punishable by death in certain countries. The proclamation of religions other than Islam is widely prohibited. In Turkey, for example, the term "missionary” is used only in a pejorative sense, and used only for Christians who seek to bear witness to their faith in Turkish society. How this can mislead people became clear in April when three employees of the Zirve Publishing House were murdered in the east Anatolian town of Malatya. This included the German Protestant Christian Tilmann Geske. I continue to connect the shock of these events with my admiration for Susanne Geske, who decided to remain in Malatya with her three children following the murder of her husband. However, these events also symbolize the great extent to which religious freedom is under attack in today’s world.

All the more respect should thus be paid to the clear statement by the Central Council of Muslims in Germany’s Islamic Charta (2002) of the acceptance by "Muslims represented by the Central Council [to have the] right to change [their] religion, to have another religion, or none at all.” One hopes for and encourages as wide a diffusion as possible of this view, as well as a gradual shift from this "acceptance” to an "affirmation”. For now, there are indeed former Muslims in Germany who, for fear of reprisals, do not dare to make public their conversion to the Christian faith; and I believe that we all agree that this must change!

When we speak of religious freedom today we must therefore put renewed emphasis on the right of individuals to have a religion or to have no religion, to change their religion and to openly profess their faith. This is an uncomfortable topic in interreligious dialogue, but backing down on this issue would be tantamount to a betrayal of religious freedom itself.

2. According to the European Convention on Human Rights, freedom of religion includes an individual’s "freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”

This phrasing expresses the view that religious freedom is not only an individual right, but that moreover this freedom evolves in communal religious practice. This freedom is thus also valid for other religions in Germany, including Muslims and Alevites, and is by no means limited to Christians.

In the German Basic Law this right has taken on a concrete structure moulded by German history. While the role of the churches in Germany strongly reflects their history, they do not in fact enjoy a particular place of privilege denied to others as a matter of principle. On the contrary, both individual and corporate religious freedom is extended equally to all religious and worldview groups. For over ten years, Germany’s Protestant churches have stood up for the introduction of Muslim religious instruction in public schools and have thus worked long and hard for Muslims’ corporate religious freedom.

And yet, the rights afforded religious communities in Germany are geared towards associations characterized by a membership. Such religious communities are organized as associations and are able to apply for and obtain the status of a public corporation (Körperschaft des öffentlichen Rechts) "if they, (as our constitution clearly stipulates) by the means of their number and constitution, indicate to be lasting.” (Article 137 (5) of the German (Weimar) Constitution of 1919 in connection with Article 140 of the Basic Law). Up until now this orientation toward membership has led to considerable problems given Islamic forms of organization. However, this does not have to always be the case, as the example of Austria shows, where an Islamic religious community was already constituted in the 19th century. One can hope that similar steps will be taken in Germany, not as an effort to imitate Christian churches, but for the sake of Muslims having a better claim to corporate religious freedom.

3.In the history of Western Christianity people who think differently have often been excluded, fought and driven away.

Only once the mutual independence of state and religion was in place did it become possible to ensure an appropriate and equal place for different religious beliefs within the same legal order.

This historical lesson supports the view that religious freedom can only be realized and safeguarded as a universal human right if the state order is secular and democratic, and allows for a plurality of opinions and groups. Aspirations by individual religions to political power need to be limited in such a way as to ensure equal treatment and an equal place in society for all religions, while also recognizing the freedom of religious communities to decide on their own affairs and beliefs.

This kind of secular and plural constitutional state should refrain from justifying itself religiously or adopting a form of religious legitimization that stands above the law. However, this does not exclude the state order from being founded on a responsibility "before God and humanity”. The clear expression of the scope of this responsibility in a preamble in no way restricts religious freedom. Even if a European constitution were to expressly affirm a responsibility before God and humanity and attest to the significance of the Judeo-Christian tradition, this would not constitute a restriction of religious freedom. It would rather be the clear indication of why human dignity is inviolable and as such be an asset to any constitutional order.

4.Religious freedom does not always come easily, as religion is not only good. Religion does not only promote peace, but conflict as well.
Religion does not only overcome violence but can also foment it. We know that violence can be justified in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. We will only be able to overcome the unpeaceful consequences of religion in all three religions to the degree that we are willing and able to act self-critically. The religions should support each other to this extent, holding their dialogue in a way as to make this possible. This can only occur, however, if controversial topics are addressed. This includes the topic of "religion and violence”.

The question that is frequently posed is whether extremist groups intentionally abuse the freedoms of open societies as a means to attack them. The Kalifatsstaat organization in Cologne provided an example of the need for state intervention. However, situations such as this should not be seen as grounds for general suspicion of a religion and its adherents. The Evangelical Church in Germany paper [on Christians and Muslims in Germany] does not raise such a general suspicion, but instead seeks a differentiated approach. The temptation to restrict overall religious freedom should very much be resisted. It would certainly not be the best way to strengthen the capacity of religions to act for peace and their responsibility to maintain within a free society.

However, interreligious dialogue does require the understanding that, given religious freedom, not every articulation of opinion should be taken as sacrosanct. Precisely because the state, with its neutral position on religion, must refrain from evaluating religious beliefs, the debate within and among the religious communities must make headway into matters of substance. A fair argument about the nature of truth and the struggle to find positive ways forward are important contributions to religious freedom itself. Tolerance is not about doing things as the mood takes us but has its source in deeply held inner convictions. So let us struggle for this tolerance; we will thus do the cause of religious freedom a good and important service.

Evangelical Church in Germany, Herrenhäuser Straße 12, D-30419 Hanover, Germany
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