25 Oktober 2006 By: Lila Prounis
On November 25, 1981 the UN General Assembly adopted a Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. The unanimous vote was the culmination of almost a quarter of a century of persistent efforts by a small, dedicated group of representatives of several governments, helped and encouraged by several non-governmental organizations including the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese.
On October 25th, 2006, twenty-five years later the UN NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief held a panel discussion commemorating the passage of the Declaration. Unfortunately, violations of the basic human right of people to believe as they choose still occur on a daily basis throughout the world.
The all day session included the following panelists: Dr. J. Paul Martin, Center for the study of Human Rights, Columbia University; Ms. Felice Geer, US Commission on International Religious Freedom; Matt Cherry, President UN NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief; Bani Dugal, Baha’I International Community; Dr. Antonios Kireopoulos, Greek Orthodox Archdiocesan Council; Robert C. O’Brien, US Mission to the UN; Ambassador Roman Sen, Indian Mission to the UN; Ambassador Lauro J. Baja, Philippines Mission to the UN; Ambassador H.E. Adiyatwidi Adiwoso Asmady, Indonesian Mission to the UN and Ambassador Ilya Rogacheb, Russian Mission to the UN.
Dr. Antonios Kireopoulos who is one of the representatives of the Greek Orthodox community at the United Nations, has had many years of experience in the area of religious freedom, most notably as the Greek Orthodox Representative in the late 1990’s to the US State Department’s Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad and as the past president of the UN NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief. Dr. Kireopoulos highlighted the Orthodox position on religious freedom, issues of particular relevance to the Orthodox Church in various National contexts, and persistent problems in the international dialogue on the implementation of religious freedom principles.
Dr. Kireopoulos stated that in both the Greek and Russian traditions, the universality of religious freedom is affirmed by the Orthodox Church. He then proceeded to illustrate the experience of the Church relative to religious freedom in both religious majority and religious minority contexts. In Turkey he pointed out the violations of religious freedom committed against the Greek Orthodox and other minority communities. In Greece he outlined an increasing openness to religious freedom mandates, particularly in light of participation in the European Union; he also made reference to Greece’s relative success within the EU in terms of relations with Muslims. Finally, in Russia and other Eastern European countries, he noted the tensions caused after the fall of the Soviet system by the encounter of new-found freedoms with the manipulation of those freedoms by others from the outside.
With respect to this later situation, Dr. Kireopoulos argued that the distinction between evangelism and proselytism has never been fully appreciated or explored in western circles, including the academic and perhaps most especially the US foreign policy establishment. The importance of this issue, he stated could not be underestimated.
Dr. Kireopoulos concluded his remarks by listing there needs to be taken in account in ongoing religious freedom discussions: one, the need for an intra-Christian conversation on the issue of what is legitimate evangelism and what is aggressive and thus inappropriate proselytism; two, the need for a more honest recourse to legal and human rights frameworks by both majority and minority groups; and three, the need to refrain from the temptation to subjective analysis and politicization when it comes to US foreign policy applications of religious freedom principles.