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Full text of commitment III

As religions are necessarily subject to human interpretations, we commit to promote constructive engagement on the understanding of religious texts. Consequently, critical thinking and debate on religious matters should not only be tolerated but rather encouraged as a requirement for enlightened religious interpretations in a globalized world composed of increasingly multi-cultural and multi-religious societies that are constantly facing evolving challenges.


Like as any legal tradition, the interpretation of religious texts is a dynamic process that evolves with time and among scholars depending on the variable needs and specificities of their respective environments. This process is understandably slow. However, numerous examples demonstrate that major social changes have been facilitated by enlightened interpretation of religious traditions across the globe. Reformed family codes in many countries are a case in point. Combating female genital mutilation and enhancing the protection of children’s rights are examples in this vein. Both national and international human rights mechanisms collaborated meaningfully with faith actors in many areas of rights, health, education and development at large. Religious actors can play an even greater role in promoting sustainable development in their respective societies. Accelerated progress in science and technology poses new challenges to both spheres of faith and rights. Enlightened interpretation is essential to solve problems. Global vision, meaningful inter-faith engagement and multi-disciplinary approaches are essential requirements for the spheres of both faith and rights to achieve their shared goals through mutual reinforcement. The dichotomy between conservative and liberal views in the religious sphere is actually misleading. There is nothing wrong in holding conservative views, as long as these do neither violate nor undermine human rights. The main context of this #Faith4Rights module is rethinking the role of interpretation in an interdisciplinary manner for the mutual benefit of faith and rights.

Additional supporting documents

In support of the peer-to-peer learning on commitment III, the training file should include the 2007 report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Asma Jahangir, in which it is stated: “The Special Rapporteur would like to reiterate the importance of ensuring that the right to freedom of religion or belief adds to the values of human rights and does not unintentionally become an instrument for undermining freedoms. In this regard she welcomes recent statements and conference recommendations which clarify religious views on female genital mutilation. [Footnote: See the recommendations of the international conference of scholars concerning a ban on abuse of the female body which was held 22-23 November 2006 at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt (available online). For a discussion of female genital mutilation see Amor’s thematic study on freedom of religion or belief and the status of women from the viewpoint of religion and traditions (E/CN.4/2002/73/Add.2, paras. 104-110).]

High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet also referred to this 2002 study, in which “Abdelfattah Amor noted that some religious texts have been interpreted as limiting the worth of female testimony when giving evidence, but he stressed that in modern Muslim countries, including in Tunisia, the testimony of a woman has the same value as that of a man. In the words of Abdelfattah Amor, ‘This shows that religious texts are not closed texts and that cultural practices, even at the State level, can be reshaped according to the requirements of modern life’.” (Commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the 161st anniversary of the Fundamental Covenant ‘Ahd El Aman’ (1857))

Peer-to-peer learning exercises

Unpacking: Along the same parameters outlined for previous modules, participants shall break down commitment III into different elements (individual exercise for five minutes, followed by ten minutes discussion on the differences between individual listings). While animating such a discussion, facilitators can use the key words technique and that of listing roles and responsibilities for needed action.

Critical thinking: A critical discussion on the relationship between these elements should benefit from the diversity of expertise of the participants. As commitment III contains new concepts, questions by the facilitators could include the following: What constitutes a “constructive engagement on the understanding of religious texts”? Who should promote it? How to promote it? Do participants disagree with the need for critical thinking in the religious sphere? Under which conditions should critical thinking be practiced in the religious sphere? Are there limits of critical thinking in this particular area? What are these limits? Who determines them? Are these limits firm or do they change over time and vary between cultures and traditions? Can/should interpretation of the same religious texts vary in time and space? Have participants experienced any examples of such variation in interpretation? Who is authorized to engage on the understanding of religious texts in the context of participants’ experiences? Are there missing elements in that commitment? This collective exercise can take 15-30 minutes.

In this context, the facilitator could also show the video, “Afghanistan: Using religious values to advance women’s rights”. Afghanistan has some of the worst rates of maternal mortality in the world and women have problems accessing adequate healthcare. This video of 2009 presents an initiative of Afghan religious leaders to protect women's rights and health.

Furthermore, in a 2017 report on “Attacks Against Places of Worship, Religious Leaders and Worshippers”, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) documented a consistent pattern of killings, abductions, threats and intimidation of religious figures, mainly by anti-government elements: “The targeting of religious leaders stemmed from their ability to change public attitude through their messages, or their perceived support of the Government. […]

UNAMA reiterates that international human rights law and international humanitarian law uphold the right to freedom of religion or belief, and explicitly prohibit attacks deliberately targeting civilians and civilian property, including places of worship and religious leaders. Attacks directed against places of worship that constitute the cultural or spiritual heritage of peoples are also prohibited under both legal regimes. International humanitarian law further provides that all persons not directly participating in hostilities, are entitled to respect for their religious practices and must not be discriminated against.”

In August 2021, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences Reem Alsalem stressed that “according to the Quran, no one has the right to impose religion, including religious law, on anyone else (verse 2:256). This egalitarian approach to religious authority has found expression in the rich plurality and diversity of religious understanding and schools of jurisprudence (madhahib) which we have till today. Notably, women, like men also have an equal right and responsibility to interpret Sharia. It would be important that this rich diverse heritage would be allowed to continue all over the Muslim World, including in Afghanistan.” See also the Special Rapporteurs’ joint communication to the Taliban of 4 November 2021.

Tweeting: Participants individually summarize this commitment in less than 140 characters. They can select what summaries are best formulated. One possible result of this tweeting exercise could be as follows: “We commit to promote constructive engagement on the understanding of religious texts through critical thinking and debate on religious matters”.

Translating: Similar to the tweeting exercise, participants could be asked to “translate” this commitment into child-friendly language or into a local dialect. The idea is to enlarge comprehension and communication skills. Faith actors thus enhance their capacity of adapting, transposing and simplifying their messages.

Storytelling: Participants share situations they have experienced pertaining to this commitment and how they handled them. Facilitators could provide examples of major shifts in interpretation of religious texts from different faith traditions. Participants could also share how they personally have built their interpretation of religious texts. What skills they believe are needed? These examples would serve the strategic purpose of assuring participants that the history of their own traditions concurs that faith and reflection are mutually reinforcing (collective exercise for 15-30 minutes).

The facilitator could also show the award-winning short documentary “Exorcist of apartheid” by Adam Heyns. The film deals with the role of its maker’s grandfather, the late Professor Johan Heyns, professor of theology at the University of Pretoria, in the 1980s and 1990s – the apartheid years. “Heyns was voted out of the governance structures of the Dutch Reformed Church because of his liberal views in 1982, but elected as its leader in 1986, when he led the church to reject apartheid, against great opposition. […] The film opens with Johan Heyns delivering a sermon in front of the imposing Voortrekker Monument in 1988. He is on stage, draped in the old South African flag, during the day of the covenant commemorations, with thousands of the faithful in attendance. Heyns called for a fundamental change of heart in the Afrikaans society. In cutaway shots, Heyns is seen talking about his own journey away from apartheid. This is contrasted with extracts from interviews from the same time conducted with people in traditional Voortrekker dress who blamed Heyns for the loss of Afrikaner identity. Heyns's widow, Renée, recounts how a right wing group in similar dress came to their home during the last days of apartheid and, when inside, laid a curse on Heyns and his house - and how they dismissed this as childish acts. […] 

Adam’s father, Christof, a professor in the Faculty of Law at [University of Pretoria], says he has the greatest admiration for the way in which Adam tells the story of Johan Heyns. ‘He brought a long-forgotten part of our history as a country – and our history as a family - to the fore, in a brilliant way. He takes us along with him as he discovers the past. I was moreover reminded of how skilled my father was in telling stories. I remember being at the Voortrekker Monument on the day when he delivered that sermon, and thinking why does he tell them about Amos, why doesn’t he just say "Go home and stop this apartheid nonsense?" Reflecting on the movie, I now realise what he was doing: He took the most conservative part of the Bible, the Old Testament, to connect with people who had the same upbringing as him: many of them conservative, from the farm, people whose lives he understood and shared. He was not only talking to them about Amos, whose calls for reform to his own people were resisted by them; he took on the role of Amos. Such a message connects on a much deeper level than simply telling people they are wrong from a dizzy height. The film leaves me with a sense of hope, that people who find themselves within a seemingly impossible situation can bring about change, also from the inside. The actions of individuals - and the stories they tell - matter.’

As a “storytelling on the story”, the facilitator may show the related peer-to-peer learning interview with Christof Heyns from the 2020 Nelson Mandela World Moot Court competition and also refer to the academic article on “Johan Heyns and critique in the Dutch Reformed Church against apartheid: The moderator a prophet?

Adding faith quotes: Participants identify new religious or belief quotes as grounds for commitment III (individual exercise for five minutes, followed by a reading of the added reference).

Inspiring: As always, participants will provide examples of artistic expressions from their own culture that captures aspects of the commitment under discussion. Facilitators can provide examples such as: Alahallaj, a Sufi maître, whose well known mystical poems cost him his life because the mainstream religious thinking of his time took them to be “blasphemous”. Some of these poems provide perfect artistic examples of the debate on the limits of innovation and critical thinking in the religious sphere. Ibn Arabi is another famous Sufi poet whose poem “The religion of love” captures the essence of commitments II and III.

The facilitator may also play a musical improvisation, which is based on a text published in 1980 by eight ministers of the Ned Geref Kerk in South Africa. Their “Getuienis” (Reformation Day Witness) pleads for reasoning together and for striving to eliminate “loveless and racist attitudes and actions which cause hurtful incidents and not the message of God's reconciling grace of its power” as well as “to reform the present order, so that every individual can be given the scope to realise their potential as the bearer of the image of God”.

In addition, please find here the example of a cartoon and calligraphy.

Learning objectives

  • While remaining faithful to their own traditions and related sources of learning and teaching, participants expand their horizon towards human rights norms to enrich their understanding of the interaction between faith and rights.
  • Participants are familiarized with participatory methodologies of engaging believers in their daily work. They realize the benefits of meaningful participation in achieving the goals of their preaching and related faith activities.
  • Participants realize the need to strengthen religious curricula to enable faith actors to assume their human rights responsibilities in solving social problems in a manner that optimizes their moral weight.
  • Participants learn how to develop critical reviews of current interpretations and other possible means to understand texts as needed in light of developments.
  • Participants debate cases showing that there is no monopoly on wisdom and that adapting understandings to new situations leads to creative solutions and achieves positive results.

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