Module 1: Freedom of conscience


Full text of commitment I:


Our most fundamental responsibility is to stand up and act for everyone’s right to free choices and particularly for everyone’s freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief. We affirm our commitment to the universal norms3 and standards4, including Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which does not permit any limitations whatsoever on the freedom of thought and conscience or on the freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of one’s choice. These freedoms, unconditionally protected by universal norms, are also sacred and inalienable entitlements according to religious teachings.

- There shall be no compulsion in religion. (Quran 2:256);
- The Truth is from your Lord; so let he or she who please believe and let he or she who please disbelieve (Quran 18:29);
- But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve... (Joshua 24:15)
- No one shall coerce another; no one shall exploit another. Everyone, each individual, has the inalienable birth right to seek and pursue happiness and self-fulfilment. Love and persuasion is the only law of social coherence. (Guru Granth Sahib, p. 74)
- When freedom of conscience, liberty of thought and right of speech prevailthat is to say, when every man according to his own idealization may give expression to his beliefsdevelopment and growth are inevitable. (Abdul-Baha)
- People should aim to treat each other as they would like to be treated themselves with tolerance, consideration and compassion. (Golden Rule)5

3 These include the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948); Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951); International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965); International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966); International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966); Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979); Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984); Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989); International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (1990); Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006); and International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (2006).    

4 These include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948); Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (1981); Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities (1992); Principles of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Response Programmes (1994); UNESCO Declaration on Principles of Tolerance (1995); Final Document of the International Consultative Conference on School Education in Relation to Freedom of Religion or Belief, Tolerance and Non-Discrimination (2001); Toledo Guiding Principles on Teaching about Religions and Beliefs in Public Schools (2007); United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007); The Hague Statement on “Faith in Human Rights” (2008); Camden Principles on Freedom of Expression and Equality (2009); Human Rights Council resolution 16/18 on Combating Intolerance, Negative Stereotyping and Stigmatization of, and Discrimination, Incitement to Violence and Violence against, Persons Based on Religion or Belief (and Istanbul Process, 2011); Rabat Plan of Action on the prohibition of advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence (2012); Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes (2014); Secretary-General’s Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism (2015); as well as the Fez Declaration on preventing incitement to violence that could lead to atrocity crimes (2015).

5 All quotations from religious or belief texts were offered by participants of the Beirut workshop in relation to their own religion or belief and are merely intended to be illustrative and non-exhaustive.

Context

Conscience shapes human choices and distinguishes human beings from other creatures. Freedom of conscience is at its heart but still larger than the freedom of religion or belief. It covers all ethics and values a human being cherishes, whether of religious nature or not. There are no admissible limitations to this freedom, as long as personal convictions are not imposed on others or harm them. While it may seem evident, respect for freedom of conscience is hard to attain. People tend to judge convictions of others. Furthermore, it is very common that those who hold a conviction defend it. What is less common but more needed is that we all stand up to defend everyone’s right to their own convictions. This shift is at the heart of module 1.

Additional supporting documents

The text of each of the 18 commitments on “Faith for Rights” is the main learning topic for the 18 corresponding modules of this toolkit. For gender balance’s sake, each module starts with the reading by two participants (female and male) of the commitment under consideration. Practicing what we preach is a rule that can never be over-emphasized. Reading aloud the commitment under consideration at the outset ensures that all participants focus their minds on it. Facilitators may then refer to a list of additional documents included in their file in support of this commitment. This conveys to participants the dynamic nature in real life of the interaction between faith and rights. This reminder is pedagogically useful as it stretches the participants’ mind into wider horizons than their familiar discipline. For the same reason, each commitment can be accompanied by a quote of a famous writer, which also conveys the elements of that commitment in different ways (e.g. the Rumi quote at the outset of the Beirut Declaration: “There are as many roads to God as there are souls on Earth”).

Additional documents may vary in nature and substance. The selection indicated in this #Faith4Rights toolkit is merely illustrative and non-exhaustive. Facilitators need to familiarize themselves with such additional documents but they would ultimately design their own training. Factoring the cultural specificities of the audience and topical issues, facilitators may choose to remove or add documents of their own choice. A key objective in this respect is to stimulate the participants’ interest to explore and to depart from their intellectual comfort zones. The additional supporting documents enlarge the scope of reference beyond participants’ usual boundaries. This renders exchanges more interesting and injects elements of interdisciplinary and multi-culturalism.    

Additional documents related to each of the 18 commitments provide a space of creativity to be managed by the facilitators. It may include legal texts, political declarations, a poem, a novel, a song, a film, a video clip, a news article, a quote or a statement of particular significance to the commitment under consideration, chosen by the facilitator in light of their context and objectives. Quotes that transcend the evident choices and employ artistic expressions attract attention and incite reflection. Poetry, music, dance and paintings can all provide such opening.

Compiling and presenting the content of these additional documents is itself part of the learning exercise. Defining each document and hinting to its relevance widens the scope of reflection by participants and stretches their cultural horizons. This reflects the interdisciplinary nature of the peer-to-peer learning exercise. It also enhances the engaging capacity of faith actors to strengthen the resilience of their respective communities against xenophobia and violent extremism.

Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is core for all 18 commitments and provides the most logical supporting document for commitment I in particular: “(1) Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching. (2) No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice. (3) Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. (4) The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.

The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (1993) provides a key political statement for understanding and implementing commitment I by faith actors. It refers to “cultural and religious backgrounds” as follows: “All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis. While the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Peer-to-peer learning exercises

Warming up: As a first substantive “icebreaker”, the facilitator could start with warming up questions, such as: “What does freedom of conscience mean to you?” or “How do human rights relate to your faith?” (Collective exercise for 15 minutes). Facilitators could also request participants to share examples from their experiences that demonstrates practical implications of the above-mentioned Vienna Declaration provision, i.e. while various cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms. A stimulating question in this respect could be to ask the participants’ views on the relationship between the duty of States and those of non-State actors in establishing this delicate balance. This notion of balance is omnipresent all along the #Faith4Rights learning methodology. Faith actors need to conceive their role as a constant decision making of the best suited balancing act between competing considerations in a given situation.

Unpacking: Unpacking is an exercise consisting of three complementary elements. On each of the 18 commitments on “Faith for Rights”, participants start by simply listing the different components of each commitment. They also list the corresponding action points they can identify in association which each element of the commitment under consideration. Participants further indicate which stakeholders they believe should take the lead on each of these action points in their respective spheres. The aim of this triple listing exercise is to stimulate action-orientated thinking and to foresee achievable change.

 The facilitator could suggest creating a visual stakeholder map on the board, with all participants sticking their input on it. The facilitator needs to make sure the participants are also included as stakeholders on the map. With another colour, they could draw lines between the stakeholders that are connected or acting together, and suggest how they can collaborate. Participants would discuss what each stakeholder currently does and what they could or should do to enhance the commitment under discussion.

 The unpacking exercise could also include identifying key words in commitment I. Such a technique invites participants to be focused and precise in their analysis. This individual exercise, in writing, should take only 5 minutes, to accelerate the pace of group thinking and responsiveness. A printed template can be prepared in advance so that learners use the same format to express their views on the above-mentioned three questions (listing the elements, action points and lead stakeholder) on one sheet. A discussion on the differences between individual sheets would constitute another segment of this exercise, which can take 10-15 minutes. The aim is to enable participants to benefit from their various readings of the same commitment and the corresponding responsibilities, at both State and non-State actors levels.

Tweeting: The idea of this exercise is to summarize commitment I within 140 characters (as an individual exercise or one-on-one discussion for 5 minutes) and try to find few words which encapsulate this “Faith for Rights” commitment. Participants can then vote on which summaries are best formulated, provided they do not vote for their own summary. This part of the exercise is meant for simplifying the commitment under discussion and “social-medalizing” it while also re-energizing the discussions. One possible result of this tweeting exercise could be as follows: “We commit to stand up and act for everyone’s right to free choices, particularly for everyone’s freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief”.

Translating: Similar to the tweeting exercise, participants could be asked to “translate” this commitment into child-friendly language or into a local dialect. Again the idea is to stimulate discussion about the most important elements and appropriate ways of transposing and simplifying the message, without compromising the substance of the commitment.

Critical thinking: This exercise consists of a critical group discussion on the relationship between the components of each commitment. It is meant to enhance the understanding by learners of the complex chains of causality leading to human rights violations and the corresponding remedial responsibilities. The facilitator could ask if any participant disagrees with any component of the commitment under discussion and whether they could identify missing elements in that commitment. This collective exercise can take 15-20 minutes.

Storytelling: Participants share situations that occurred to them pertaining to this commitment and how they handled it. Has there been a situation where a participant had to intervene in defence of freedom of religion or belief of somebody who belongs to a different faith? Is this feasible and needed in their view? Are statements by formal religious institutions sufficient or should non-state faith actors also make their voice heard? How? This collective exercise should take 20-30 minutes. Each participant’s storytelling should be limited to two minutes. A discussion then follows on the lessons learned from these stories. Sharing one’s personal experiences also enriches the inter-cultural competencies of all participants and generates new understandings and insights.

UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay noted that the technique of storytelling cultivates “intercultural dialogue through the strengthening of interaction and understanding across differences” and she stressed the importance of “giving opportunities to every woman and man to familiarize herself or himself with intercultural competencies”. The facilitator may list the emerging reflections on a central board or flip chart and could also provide additional examples from UN reports and social media channels.

In this context, the facilitator could show the video on OHCHR’s Instagram with Arizza Nocum, who was raised by a Muslim mother and a Catholic father. She chose to defeat violent extremism in her native Philippines by bringing communities together through her interfaith libraries. Her parents allowed her to choose the faith she would follow. “They said to us, their kids, that we would be taught both religions until we're of age and then, later on in life, we get to choose whichever religion we want. But the key there is that we were taught both of these religions and I think that's really opened the door for me to do the work that I'm doing today,” she says. “I saw with what I've experienced in my home that, even though you have these different religions and different backgrounds present, they are able to coexist”.

Another inspiring artistic example can be found in the Instagram page of urban artist Vhils, notably showing his murals in Sierra Leone: “Just got back from Freetown, Sierra Leone, a truly remarkable and inspiring place, where I was invited to create a mural that celebrated the country's inter- and intra-religious tolerance. This special project culminated in the depiction of two local children, Paul and Alfreda, who belong to the same family – the boy being a Christian and the girl a Muslim. A country where it is common to have members of the same family belonging to different religions can teach us a lot about tolerance.

Furthermore, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief Heiner Bielefeldt provided the following examples in his 2015 report on violence carried out in the name of religion: “Different faith-based and secular civil society organizations work together and have created common platforms. Beyond the pragmatic advantages of joining forces, such cooperation also demonstrates that a commitment to human rights can create and strengthen solidarity across all religious, cultural and philosophical divides. This is an important message in itself. The Special Rapporteur has come across impressive examples in this regard, for example, initiatives taken by Christian civil society organizations in support of atheists or Buddhists under threat and public statements made by Bahá’í representatives against the persecution of Shia Muslims. Such acts of solidarity have a highly symbolic value.

Linking the dots: In light of the previous exercises, a group discussing is conducted on “linking the dots”. The idea is to focus on the relationship between the components of the commitment under consideration. The aim of this exercise is not to define or resolve all related issues but just to highlight their interdependence and intersectionality. In this context, a key risk should be avoided by facilitators: that the discussion derails into too many topics. The aim here is just to train participants on looking at the full picture while remaining focused on each of its angles and distinct dimensions. Not every issue should be resolved or even discussed, but the overall complexity and interlinkages need to be underlined. Asking the right questions is at least as important as finding answers. Questions to be used by the facilitator in this respect can include: What components of this commitment condition others? What elements are in the hands of non-state actors to change and what are those requiring State intervention? Which actors in society have a higher degree of responsibility towards each of the duties contained in a given commitment?

In order to familiarize the participants with the text of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the facilitator could print each of the five sentences of article 18 (see full quote above under additional supporting documents) on a separate piece of paper. Participants will be divided into five groups and each group receives one paper. On the board, the facilitator writes the title “Freedom of religion or belief” and leaves empty space for five bullet points. Each group then has to decide at which bullet point its sentence should be located. Whenever participants are ready, they stick their piece of paper on the board. As they discover other pieces of article 18, they can discuss how much their own sentence relates to the other sentences that their peers have received. Participants negotiate until they agree on the order of all paragraphs. The facilitator finally reveals the full text of article 18, and compares this with the order suggested by the participants. Such an exercise could also provide participants with a flavour of how diplomats negotiate international agreements and how compromises may affect clarity.

Adding faith quotes: Participants are requested to suggest new religious or belief quotes as grounds for commitment I. These additional quotes can emanate from religious texts, scholarly quotes thereon or stories from different faith traditions (theistic, non-theistic, atheistic or any other beliefs). The facilitator could also prepare some pertinent quotes in advance for their own use, for example taking inspiration from the very rich UNESCO publication “Birthright of man: A selection of texts prepared under the direction of Jeanne Hirsch”, which is available in English, French, Spanish and Italian.    

This individual exercise, in writing, can take five minutes. Each participant then reads his or her additional reference(s), however, facilitators should be cautious to avoid theological divides. Pre-prepared sheets would allow listing these references into a compilation. These additional quotes would enrich the “Faith for Rights” framework by individual learners for their own future use. The generated wisdom would be captured in an individualised exercises book that participants would have practically written by themselves at the end of their peer-to-peer learning exercises. This individualised outcome of the learning exercise can also feed into an overall summary by the facilitators that would be sent to all participants subsequently, if facilitators so choose.

Exploring: The aim of this exercise is to widen the discussion of each commitment to connected issues. It aims at strengthening participants’ capacity to ask good questions. For example, does commitment I on freedom of religion include the right to change one’s own religion? Are there any differences between the human rights answer to this question (which the facilitator would have provided through inserting the UN Human Rights Committee’s General Comment No. 22 in the list of additional documents) and those from a religious perspective? What should be the reaction of a religious leader when facing a situation of a change of religion by one of his or her own community members: object, support, ask questions, respect privacy, express a view or remain neutral? Could the additional religious or belief-based quotes gathered through the previous exercise be used in religious preaching on thematic topics involving freedom of conscience? Would participants find it more useful or rather not advisable to refer to quotes from various faith traditions and not only from their own?

A related exploration of commitment I could be: What is the difference between freedom of religion, freedom in religion and freedom from religion? Are these three issues part of freedom of religion or belief? Does the answer to this question differ between religions or beliefs and human rights law? On opposing positions in the Human Rights Council to the term “freedom from religion” see para. 28 of the Special Rapporteur’s report as well as the positions of the Holy See, Atheist Alliance International and Humanists International. If time permits, the facilitator could divide participants into three groups and give each of them 5 minutes to illustrate what freedom from coercion in the name of religion means to them. (30 minutes). 

Simulating: A simulation of an adversarial debate leading to arbitration on a case related to freedom of religion would require time ranging from an hour up to a full day, depending on the complexity of the case as selected, adapted or designed by the facilitators. Participants may be divided into three groups to simulate a moot court with applicants, respondents and judges. In addition to legal moot courts (which are targeted specifically to law students), shorter and simplified “cases to debate” may be used with broader audiences, including faith actors who face similar situations on a daily basis. Please refer to the annex for selected scenarios.

Inspiring: “Art4Faith4Rights” could also be the title of this exercise. It is not accidental that all faith traditions have enriched human civilization with an impressive artistic heritage. Through beauty and imagination, art conveys values that words cannot equally express. Art touches both hearts and minds. Participants will be asked to mention an artistic expression from their own local culture that captures aspects of the commitment under discussion. The aim of this exercise is to enhance comparative analysis and multi-culturalism among faith actors, particularly those who assume preaching functions.    

In addition, creative expression by participants themselves could be encouraged. Facilitators would have prepared their own examples in advance, along with audio-visual tools ready for such an inspirational ending of different learning modules. Examples can be found in chamber music, orchestra, improvisation, photos, dance and street art. Furthermore, cartoons can trigger related discussions and the modules feature examples from a campaign by OHCHR and the Cartoon Movement. Calligraphies may resonate particularly well in certain contexts and each module of the #Faith4Rights toolkit therefore includes such a calligraphic presentation of the module’s keyword in Arabic (drawn by Abdelrazzak Fadloun).

Learning objectives

  • Participants transcend mere tolerance to full respect of the free choice by individuals of their own beliefs, whether theistic, non-theistic, atheistic or other.
  • Participants not only respect but actively defend the freedom of conscience of others.
  • Participants realize that there are numerous perspectives to everything in life and that this explains our cultural and religious diversity.

< previous module  ¦  overview  ¦  next module >