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Religious Freedom on Shaky Ground at the United Nations

An Iraqi Christian girl attends a Christmas mass at Chaldean Catholic church in Amman

There is once again cause for concern on the religious freedom front at the United Nations (UN). And this time, the United States is at the forefront of that concern. The issue is the most recent iteration of what used to be the Defamation of Religions resolution, and is now a resolution aimed at “condemning the stereotyping, negative profiling, and stigmatization of people based on their religion.” As with so many UN initiatives, the goal sounds laudable, but the complications are in the details.

By way of background, the ACLJ has long been opposing an effort by the newly-named Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to essentially criminalize criticism of Islam (and in later iterations, all religions). This effort originated in 1999, and has undergone a number of substantive changes. Over the years, as the ACLJ and others have worked to educate member nations about the negative impact that this resolution has on religious minorities, support for the concept has dwindled dramatically. In fact, support has deteriorated so significantly that the OIC fundamentally altered its strategy this March at the Human Rights Council.

The new strategy abandons the concept of “defamation” (a hugely significant achievement for those of us advocating for individual religious freedom), but continues to call for a UN role in combating religious stereotyping and profiling. Because the language was substantively improved and more narrowly worded, this approach earned the support of the U.S. However, ACLJ Chief Counsel Jay Sekulow, while acknowledging the progress of the resolution’s language, urged caution about how the resolution would be implemented around the world.

Fast forward to this week, and there are two new developments. First, the UN General Assembly also approved the new resolution on Monday. But more significantly, the U.S. State Department has just wrapped up a multi-day conference hosted by Secretary Hillary Clinton at which “implementation” of the resolution was on the agenda. In anticipation of these meetings, the ACLJ sent a letter to Secretary Clinton outlining our concerns about the negative impact that implementation of this resolution could have on religious minorities around the world.

The OIC had a prominent seat at the table for this conference, and while it is still too early to know the precise forms that “implementation” of this resolution will take, history suggests that it will not be pretty in many places. After 12 years of fighting for resolution language that was openly hostile to the proclamation of the Gospel, it is difficult to believe that a government like Iran will incorporate this mandate in a non-discriminatory way while continuing to pursue the death penalty for Christians like Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani.

We remain encouraged by the progress we’ve been able to make on this resolution, but continue to call for great caution as nations with long histories of religious persecution begin to implement it. Many of these nations have not earned, nor do they deserve, our trust.

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