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UN Establishes Annual Day for Victims of Religious Persecution

The United Nations General Assembly has established Aug. 22 as the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief.

A resolution to establish the annual commemoration was submitted on May 13 by Poland, with sponsorship from Brazil, Canada, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Nigeria, Pakistan and the United States. It was adopted by the assembly on May 28.

Among its 15 points, the resolution reaffirms the right to freedom of thought, religion and conscience affirmed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Article 18 of that declaration states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

The resolution expresses concern about “continuing acts of intolerance and violence based on religion or belief against individuals” and recognizes “that the open, constructive and respectful debate of ideas, as well as interreligious, interfaith and intercultural dialogue, … can play a positive role in combating religious hatred, incitement and violence.”

According to a May 28 U.N. press release, “The resolution does not relate to any specific religion or belief, but to all victims of violence and seeks to raise awareness of the importance of respect for religious diversity.”

When introducing the draft resolution to the assembly, Poland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Jacek Czaputowicz expressed “hope that it will help combat hate crimes and acts of violence related to religion or belief and will further strengthen interreligious dialogue.”

Human rights advocate Ewelina U. Ochab noted in her May 28 Forbes.com article that, in contrast to most other U.N. observances, “the date for the commemoration was intentionally chosen to be neutral (not associated with any specific event of violence based on religion or belief).”

While supporting the resolution, Ochab questions whether this could minimize its impact.

“The United Nations General Assembly has taken an important action, drawing much needed attention to rising violence against people of faith,” said EthicsDaily.com Executive Director Mitch Randall. “My hope is that Aug. 22 will mark a date in history when the world works together for a better tomorrow by demonstrating respect, offering inclusion and living peacefully.”

EthicsDaily.com reached out to several Baptist leaders for comment:

“Attacks based on religion are attacks on religious freedom,” said Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. “For many of our neighbors at home and abroad, more than their freedom to worship is at stake; their very existence is being threatened based solely on their faith.”

“Efforts like this ‘International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief’ are important signs of solidarity,” she added. “We all have a role to play as upstanders, calling out religious bigotry and denouncing violence based on religion whenever we see it.”

Scott Stearman, pastor of Metro Baptist Church of New York City who represents the Baptist World Alliance and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) at the United Nations where he leads the Human Rights Cluster of the NGO Major Group, praised the action as “a very positive step forward in global religious liberty.”

“The day is meant to create a platform for further action on something discussed, but rarely acted upon in the U.N. universe: religiously based violence,” he said. “It is a strong affirmation of the advocacy efforts that BWA (and its partners like the CBF) do at the U.N. Our NGO [nongovernment organization] partners were part of the effort to scuttle an earlier version, which would have been too vague and broad. It is no small step toward multiple actions to provide a freedom that many of us take for granted: to worship in safety and liberty.”

Elijah Brown, general secretary of the Baptist World Alliance, called the resolution “an important step to call attention to the pressing need for religious freedom around the world, made all the more significant by honoring the victims who far too often suffer in silence.”

Noting the BWA’s “small role in this important development,” Brown said he was “prayerful that many Baptist denominations, churches and individuals will use this day as a springboard for intentional prayer, teaching and action on behalf of religious freedom for all.”

“American Baptists prize freedom of religion and conscience, affirm the rights of religious minorities and oppose all forms of violence and terrorism against those who practice religious faith,” said Lee Spitzer, general secretary of American Baptist Churches USA.

“I hope that many of our churches will read and study the statement and utilize this date to celebrate and promote the historical core convictions that Baptists historically have proclaimed regarding religious freedom and human rights.”

Tony Peck, general secretary of the European Baptist Federation (EBF), also welcomed the establishment of this annual day while noting “a marked increase in violent attacks on religious minorities” in the EBF region.

“In first advocating religious freedom for all in the violent context of the 17th century, the early Baptists were directly addressing violence in the name of religion from wherever it comes,” he said. “In marking this new U.N. day, we stand with their legacy today.”

Shane McNary, a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel ministering among the Roma people in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, observed that the need for such a day is “a grim reminder that attacks based on religious affiliation are on the increase” and called it “an opportunity to prophetically speak for those who have lost their lives due to religious violence.”

“As Cooperative Baptists, we believe that ‘Imago Dei’ means that all persons are image-bearers irrespective of their religious beliefs,” he said. “Our commitment to life together in community demands that we seek the good for all including religious minorities, those holding no religious belief, and even those in our own communion with whom we disagree.”