Can we as people of faith speak for freedom for “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40) around the globe? In conjunction with the World Religions Summit – the June 21–23 gathering of interfaith leaders from G8/G20 nations at University of Winnipeg – a panel addressed the challenge of ensuring human rights and religious freedom in light of poverty, environment degradation, and threats to security.
The panel included Payam Akhavan, former legal advisor of the international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda; Mishkat Al Moumin, first Iraqi minister of the environment; Janet Epp Buckingham, Trinity Western University professor; and Gerald Gall, a University of Alberta professor.
Panellists expressed three reoccurring themes: people of faith can promote human rights by meeting bodily needs, strengthening family and community relationships, and using words for change.
“I was thirsty”
Al Moumin spoke about her work in Baghdad, a city where three million are without safe water. The poorest area, Sadr City, five percent Sunni Muslim and 95 percent Shia, is a base for Shia militia. When she launched a water distribution program, she observed “the two sects were willing to work together because both needed the same thing.”
“Most conflicts are about wealth or power,” said Al Moumin. “If we say it’s a religious conflict, we think, ‘we cannot change people’s beliefs,’ so we won’t do anything.” She urged, when we enter a community, our first question must be: are their physical needs met?
“I was a stranger”
Akhavan said consumerism has come at the cost of the breakdown of families and communities. “The problem with our understanding of human rights in our society is we place too much emphasis on the formal institution of law; we forget that the vast majority of our lives are intimate relations:” parent–child, husband–wife, co-worker–co-workers.
Al Moumin responded to an audience member’s concerns about residential school abuses against Aboriginals: “[The solution] will start by how each of us is brought up,” indicating our responsibility to teach our children a new way. Buckingham noted she advocates for religious education in schools because we must teach children to understand one another if they are to build peaceful communities.
“I tell you the truth”
“The Holocaust didn’t begin in the gas chamber; it began with words,” said Akhavan. He urged people of faith to use words for change. The World Religions Summit did so by submitting a statement, “A time for inspired leadership and action,” to the G8/G20, calling world leaders to address global poverty, prioritize sustainability, and end cycles of violent conflict.
The Human Rights Museum’s Judith Dueck, a member of Fort Garry MB Church, Winnipeg, asked how we can introduce spiritual dialog into the public space. Akhavan responded, “We need many voices. It’s the task of educators, journalists, and political leaders with vision to introduce a different discourse.”
A Hindu delegate from India asked whether religions with programs to “bring others into the fold” are violating human rights. Buckingham said Christians don’t see followers of other faiths as inferior; “We see our faith as good news and want to share it.”
We all are naked
“We may be born naked in this world, but we’re born with a garment of nobility,” remarked panel chair Redwan Moqbel. As Akhavan said, “The human heart is the beginning and end of every problem and solution we’re facing.”
Eighty-four leaders of 47 religious groups from more than 20 countries gathered in Winnipeg June 21–23 to encourage governments to keep their promises to vulnerable people groups. Speakers included senator Romeo Dallaire, Africa Conference of Churches general secretary Andre Karamaga, Sojourners founder Jim Wallis, and World Vision Canada CEO Dave Toycen. Since 2005, prior to each G8 Summit, interfaith leaders have met in the host country to urge politicians to meet their Millennium Development Goals by 2015. “A time for inspired leadership and action” can be found under “statements” at www.faithchallengeg8.com.