On May 1, Atheist Ireland attended a seminar on freedom of religion and belief organised by the Irish Network Against Racism, also known as ENAR Ireland. The aims of the seminar were to improve understanding of issues related to freedom of religion and belief and religious diversity in contemporary Ireland, to identify what is needed to improve the situation, and to network with members of like-minded groups.
The seminar was chaired by Anastasia Crickley of NUI Maynooth, who is a member of the United Nations committee on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination. Atheist Ireland has recently met with and made written submissions to this committee regarding its monitoring of Ireland’s human rights record in this area.
The Department of Foreign Affairs was represented by Colin Wrafter, who is head of the department’s human rights and United Nations units. He said that freedom of religion and belief includes the freedom to practice, change, or not to have a religion or belief. He said that this rise was challenged by intolerance and violence and legal restrictions in many parts of the world. He cited examples where minorities face discrimination and attacks in the Middle East, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Iran, Nigeria, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. He said that Ireland, as chair of the OSCE this year, will be hosting a day on freedom of religion and belief in the autumn.
The keynote speaker was Malcolm Evans, professor of public international law at the University of Bristol, who is a member of the OSCE’s advisory Council on freedom of religion or belief, and is chair of the United Nations subcommittee for prevention of torture.
He outlined some of the background to international legal treaties on freedom of religion. He said that the end of World War I, with the risk of anti-Semitism, there were treaties in several countries to protect religious minorities. That expanded into the concept of protecting all religious groups, and then into protecting races as well. Difficulties in agreeing on racial freedom definitions resulted in both concepts being dropped.
At the end of World War II, a different approach centred on the fundamental rights of individuals not groups, with the emphasis on opposing discrimination on the basis of religion, more so than on promoting positive freedom of religion. The relationship with other freedoms, such as freedom of expression, caused some people to see religious freedom as a stumbling block to the vindication of other rights and freedoms.
He distinguished between internal and external freedoms of belief and religion. Internal freedoms, such as thought and conscience and religion, can in principle be unlimited. However, external freedoms, based on the manifestation of religious or other beliefs, are subject to limitations in order to protect the rights of other people.
He said that the concept of secularism being neutral assumes that religion or belief is an optional concept, that can be limited to the private space. But he said that this is not the experience of many religious people, for whom their religion is a central part of their identity, and who want their religious beliefs and lives to impact on the communities in which they live.
In response to questions from Atheist Ireland, Malcolm Evans said that he believes it is possible for states to lean towards preferring certain religious beliefs, as long as they do so while protecting the religious and other beliefs of all citizens. He also said that there was surprise and consternation internationally when Ireland passed a new blasphemy law. He said that the international expectation had been that blasphemy laws were going only in one direction: that they were being repealed where they existed, rather than being reintroduced.
The seminar then broke into three workshops, covering crime and Justice, services and goods, and education and training.
The crime and Justice workshop concluded that religious and racial discrimination and targeting exist and that recording systems need improvement; that there is not enough information provided to staff in prisons and other public service locations about religious and cultural needs of people they are dealing with; and that the requirement of judges to believe in God and to swear a religious oath should be removed.
The services and goods workshop concluded that the state should guarantee in practice that the rights of people of different religious belief groups are respected; that regulatory bodies should be given the resources to be able to vindicate these rights; and that staff should be trained properly about the religious and cultural needs of people they are dealing with.
The education and training workshop concluded that there is a need for regulations to celebrate, and not merely tolerate, diversity; that there is a need to recognise that the definition of Irishness has to change to recognise that we are now a pluralist society; and that barriers to accessing education and training on religious and cultural grounds must be removed.
The Irish Network Against Racism will publish a full report on the seminar later in the year. The group is also known as ENAR Ireland, as it is the Irish coordination group for the European Network Against Racism.
This was a useful seminar for atheist Ireland to attend, both in terms of the content of the discussions and the contacts that we have made, and are continuing to make, with people from other like-minded organisations.