International Religious Liberty Experts Speak at the U.N.

V Hughes, J Gallagher (moderator) and J Graz

March 25, 2004, New York, NY--In a meeting held at the United Nations Church Center, International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA) Secretary General Dr. John Graz and Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Specialist Viola Hughes discussed current religious liberty concerns in Europe and Asia. 

Bureau member and Deputy Secretary General of the IRLA, Dr. Jonathan Gallagher, moderated the meeting, which was sponsored by the U.N. Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief.

Dr. Jonathan Gallagher, IRLA deputy-secretary general and moderator of the event for the day. Dr. Gallagher also serves as bureau member of the U.N. NGO Committee on Religion or Belief.

Graz addressed the current situation in France and the recent banning by the French government of all religious symbols in public. The ban has caused controversy among many Muslim girls who wear headscarves to schools and, under the new legislature, could face expulsion. 

Graz said that religion for the French is something expressed privately. “Religious freedom to them means freedom from religion,” he said. He also said that in some countries religious freedom is viewed as a threat to their societies. “Religious freedom is seen as a way the United States uses to interfere in other countries.”

Graz hopes the government will re-examine their position. He fears the new law will alienate Muslims and other religious groups. “The French government should know the international community doesn’t appreciate this legislation,” he said. “It’s not the best thing to do to try to build bridges between people.”

L to R: Drs. Gallagher and Graz.

Hughes addressed current religious freedom and human rights issues in the Far East. She described legislation in China like the “Evil Cult” law of 1999 that left the definition of “evil” up to the prosecutors. She also talked about restrictions against minors that prohibit them from entering certain places of worship. She emphasized China’s fear of outside influences. “State rather than religion dictates symbols of wisdom, morality, and common good,” Hughes said. 

Hughes also touched on the current religious climates in Tibet, North Korea, Burma, Laos and Indonesia. Stressing the importance of religious freedom in all countries, she said, “Religious freedom and freedom of speech are directly related to human rights. True religious freedom is described in Article 18 of the U.N.’s Declaration on Human Rights.”

Hughes talked about human rights and religious liberty issues in the Far East and Southeast Asia.

Highlighting the importance of education, Hughes said, “If a child is not taught tolerance, they will grow up to be an adult who is intolerant.” Gallagher added that the IRLA is working to develop a curriculum for teaching tolerance in schools. 

Graz emphasized the IRLA’s continued role in addressing religious liberty concerns. “We defend the principle of religious freedom,” he said, emphasizing the inclusion of all religions wherever they are attacked. 

Some of the attendees.

“Advancing free speech, freedom of religion, and freedom to receive information represents not only core American values, but international standards of human rights,” said Hughes.

The Committee on Religion of Freedom or Belief holds educational meetings on the third Thursday of every month at the United Nations Church Center. The meetings are designed to educate members on issues of religious freedom and to promote a culture of dialogue. [Rachel Bostic/Kelly Razzouk]