Living Together in Peace: The Importance of Interreligious Harmony for Religious Freedom

David N. Saperstein
Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom 
Caravan's "The Key" Art Exhibition Opening, Riverside Church
New York City
September 21, 2016

As delivered

Thank you for inviting me to celebrate this artistic commemoration of the UN International Day of Peace and to speak about the importance of inter-religious harmony. First, let me say how much I welcome Caravan’s initiative, and how impressed I am with Caravan founder Reverend Paul-Gordon Chandler, whom I had the honor to meet in July. I am also very impressed with Caravan’s creative and unique approach toward building religious harmony and peace through art using ancient symbols displayed in sacred spaces.

Using art to convey this message is so powerful because art is profoundly personal yet has a global impact. It is a shared expression that stimulates thought, provokes discussion, and conveys messages beyond words, as the artists of diverse faiths have done brilliantly in this exhibit. Their artistic expressions of the desire to unlock a more peaceful, tolerant world using the “Key of Life,” the Egyptian Ankh, an ancient symbol of harmony, illustrate that women and men of all faiths and non-faiths share a basic humanity, the human need to create and to express themselves freely and the human desire to live in peace. This is an important message that the world needs to hear more clearly, because achieving a world in which diversity of thought and belief is respected and not targeted requires tenacity, creativity, and vision.

And I particularly appreciate the significance of this art centering on an ancient symbol. Symbols, especially religious and ethnic symbols, are often used to tear people apart, to divide them into separate groups as “different” or “other,” or even to become targets for hatred, intolerance, or violence, as, for example, when Jewish children going to school in the aftermath of the terrorist attack at the HyperCacher Kosher supermarket in Paris refrained from wearing their symbols of faith, “Kippahs,” head coverings, or necklaces with Jewish stars were not worn on the way to school, for fear of being targeted for murder. Another example is of Muslim women removing their hijab on public transportation in Sydney, afraid of being targets after the Sydney terrorist attacks in 2014, which gave rise to the inspiring inter-religious social media campaign “#illridewithyou,” in which non-Muslims offered to keep hijab-wearing women riding to work company to reassure them of their safety. So accepting other people’s symbols of expression, of faith, of meaning, that is a critical component of interreligious harmony. And we know that the more people know about “the other,” the more open they are to them, which creates a more peaceful co-existence. And inter-faith dialogue, talking together, is a necessary step toward reducing “otherness,” and it’s the engagement on which we most often focus; but acting together is also a critical step, doing something together to benefit society, through arts, or sports, or community-restoration efforts, to create a better world—those endeavors unify us as people. So Reverend Chandler, Caravan artists and members, I commend your action through art. And I hope that your message is heard and replicated and expanded around the world, along with other artists of all faiths speaking out through art for peace. The timing of this exhibition during the high-level week of the United Nations General Assembly is very appropriate, as nations are coming together to work together toward a more peaceful, just and harmonious world.

As the United States Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom, I spend a lot of my time talking about, as you might guess, religious freedom. And I am particularly honored to have this opportunity to highlight the critical and sometimes overlooked nexus between inter-religious harmony, especially as created through inter-religious efforts, and religious freedom. Without inter-religious harmony, freedom of religion is almost impossible to achieve in a society. If one faith group does not tolerate another group’s symbols or practices, how can the members of that group without fear feel free to practice? Or without fear choose to not practice? So aspiring to inter-religious harmony is a critical goal to achieve religious freedom, and it is an issue that the U.S. government actively supports and promotes, particularly through inter-religious initiatives. Inter-faith engagement unites people across faith and ideological lines and encourages mutual trust, shared values, and understanding.

Religious freedom and tolerance are instrumentally important in forging a better world. Four out of five people on Earth align themselves with one religious tradition or another. And being able to decide not to align with a tradition is an important freedom too. Religious teachings and beliefs affect the values, actions, choices, and views of people all over the world. The U.S. Government promotes freedom of religion and belief internationally as a human right that is a source of stability for all countries. In our office of International Religious Freedom at the State Department, we work with U.S. Missions all over the world to empower civil society, including religious leaders, religious communities, and human rights NGOs, to partner with us in promoting and protecting freedom of religion and belief for all. And we coordinate closely with the Secretary’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs, established to build our institutional capacity and our international partners’ capacity to engage religious leaders and religious communities on foreign policy priorities.

Today the U.S. government engages with religious leaders and organizations that are making significant contributions in fields ranging from human rights to economic justice, to climate change, to anti-corruption efforts and conflict mitigation. In building these relationships, we identify shared values that transcend geography and religious traditions. Despite restrictions on their activities in many countries, religious actors are deeply engaged in creating more peaceful, stable, and secure communities that can meet modern challenges with approaches that are grounded in local traditions and culture.

We believe that governments of nations around the world reap a clear benefit from promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and religious freedom. But this respect cannot just stem from the governments, it must come from the people themselves. And it is – all over the world, including in many countries where we see enormous challenges to religious freedom, we also see men and women of courage who are willing, sometimes at great cost to themselves, to stand up for their rights and for the rights of others. It is a source of great inspiration that my colleagues and I can work alongside such brave people around the world for the same goals.

Inter-religious cooperation today flourishes at a level unprecedented in human history, and religious communities contribute significantly to social welfare and can serve as a moral compass to their nations.

In the United States, inter-religious coalitions of religious leaders from every major religious group in the United States have confronted the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment, denounced threats of Qur’an burnings, opposed rhetoric calling for barring Muslims from America, and stood up to those who take a not-in-my-backyard view of mosques being built in their neighborhoods. As Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore said: “What it means to be a Baptist is to support soul freedom for everybody.” Now that’s a powerful message of solidarity in spirituality, one which Caravan is also conveying in this exhibition today.

Looking beyond our borders, we support and engage in multi-faith efforts through formal and informal international government exchanges, including parliamentary efforts. We support the work of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief (IPP), a global, multi-faith, cross-party platform of parliamentarians advocating for the individual right to freedom of religion or belief, as set forth in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At a time of rising restrictions on freedom of religion and belief in many parts of the world, as well as an increase in violence attributed to sectarianism and religious differences, this effort is desperately needed.

The U.S. Government in April 2016 launched a “Days of Inter-religious Youth Action” (DIYA), which brings together young alumni of all U.S. Government programs to collaborate with peers to develop and implement community projects aimed at tackling important local issues while building intra and interreligious cooperation. Young leaders in Islamabad, Pakistan, have organized a DIYA Arts for Peace connecting members of the country’s Muslim, Hindu, Christian, and Baha’i communities to paint and share “Peace Messages” to the World. A group of Muslim, Hindu, and Christian young leaders from Rawalpindi, Pakistan, also joined forces to lead an interreligious DIYA Sports Gala aimed at teaching lessons in teamwork and sportsmanship to local children. Another youth group in Uganda participating in DIYA organized a job skills workshop to teach economically disadvantaged women of all faiths how to make soap and mats to help provide financial stability.

Like these examples, some of the most inspiring examples of inter-faith and inter-community engagement come from youth. I am particularly inspired by a transnational initiative called “Streams of Hope”, in which youth from Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, and Vietnam rehabilitate polluted creeks and rivers in some 22 communities in five Southeast Asian countries. Religious communities played a vital role in the success of “Streams of Hope”.

And where are these creative inter-religious efforts and inter-religious harmony most critical? In places of sectarian conflict, where inter-religious cooperation eases diffuse tensions and can often make the difference between life and death.

Some inspiring examples include:

In Burma, the inter-religious coalition, including Buddhists monks, acted to curtail the communal violence that struck Mandalay, Burma in 2014.

Against daunting pressures the Interfaith Platform of the Central Africa Republic (CAR) has taken difficult but significant strides aimed at promoting peaceful coexistence of Christians and Muslims in CAR. Their encouraging messages of religious unity and tolerance helped stem some of the violence of 2013 leading to the ceasefire of 2014. Nevertheless, sectarian strains still exist. Progress needs to be made toward integrating Muslim and Christian areas of the country. Displaced citizens, whether Muslim or Christian should be able to return to their communities and all citizens should be able to move freely and have access to schools, hospitals, and work. I look forward to my trip to CAR next week to learn how to help facilitate this process, and how we can rebuild diversity and unity in communities.

In countries with a history of sectarian violence, blasphemy and apostasy laws make achieving inter-religious harmony an even more formidable task, as they are too often used by individuals to justify violence in the name of their religion or to settle personal grievances. But even under those constricted circumstances, courageous people standing up for those of other faiths can make a difference. For example, in July 2015 in Lahore, Pakistan, a group of people accused a Christian man of blasphemy for allegedly burning pages of the Qur’an. Three Muslim leaders reacted swiftly, physically standing between the angry mob and members of the local Christian community until the crowd dispersed. Civil society contacts have told us that interventions such as these have helped prevent violence in more than 40 cases in Pakistan recently.

On many occasions, it is not just religious leaders but ordinary folks who show extraordinary examples of interreligious harmony and cooperation sometimes at a moment of crisis. In Kenya, when al-Shabaab gunmen attacked a bus in December 2015 and demanded that Christians and Muslims be separated, the bus driver said that the Muslims on board refused to be separated from their fellow Christian travelers. They told the militants to kill them all or leave them all alone – and incredibly only two were killed. One of the men killed, Salah Farah, was shielding Christians from the attackers. His brother Rashid told media that he hoped Salah’s example would encourage Kenyans to live as one community and promote religious harmony.

After the February 2015 terrorist attacks in Denmark, thousands of people of different faiths formed a human ring of peace around the Copenhagen synagogue at which the attack took place, offering symbolic protection for the city's Jewish community and condemning the attacks. Similar events were held in Oslo, Norway, and throughout other Scandinavian countries to send strong messages of inter-religious solidarity.

In Liberia in 2003, Christian social worker Leymah Gbowee brought women from her Lutheran church to pray for an end to her country’s violent civil war. Calling themselves “the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace”, they using radio broadcasts to recruit followers, and they prayed and protested at the fish market, in full view of the Presidential palace. Muslim community member Asatu Bah Kenneth brought Muslim women to join, and together they persuaded then-President Charles Taylor and the rebel warlords to agree to peace talks. They then went to the site of the stalled peace talks in Ghana, where they physically barred the participants from leaving the meeting site until they came to a resolution. This intervention contributed to the end of their country’s civil war and facilitated the government’s transition to democracy, with Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf becoming Liberia’s first woman president in 2005 and Africa’s first elected female head of state. What a powerful illustration of how inter-religious unity helps to mitigate conflict.

And in Egypt, as we today celebrate the Ankh, the ancient Egyptian symbol of harmony, there are positive moves toward inter-religious harmony. The military has rebuilt a third of the 78 churches burned by Islamist-led mobs in 2013, and plans to complete the re-building in 2016. At a December 22 2015 event, President Sisi told Al-Azhar scholars to refute “malicious ideas and warped interpretation;” to teach “that tolerance does not contradict religion [Islam]; and that accepting the other does not oppose faith” but benefits all mankind. In response to President Sisi’s January 2015 call for a “religious revolution” to combat extremism, the Ministry of Education removed from school textbooks most language which it said “incites violence and extremism” against those of other faiths. Christian leaders interpret these developments as a signal that Christians are accepted as full members of Egyptian society.

On August 30, the Egyptian House of Representatives passed the Church Construction and Renovation Law affirming the right of Christians to build houses of worship, which had previously failed to pass. This law is a good first step, especially given the antipathy of some elements of society against church construction. But we are concerned by vague language that could impede implementation and could justify permit refusals, which could cause the law to fall short of fulfilling President Sisi’s affirmation of equality of Egypt’s Christians.

Although there are regular reports of incidents of societal violence and intolerance of Christians, some Egyptians are hard at work to promote tolerance and coexistence. The ‘Imam-Priest Exchange,’ an inter-religious initiative of the Episcopal/Anglican Diocese of Egypt, brings together Egyptian Muslim and Christian religious leaders to build relationships and facilitate understanding and peaceful co-existence. In Alexandria, Egypt, the Arkan [are KAHN] Center at St. Mark’s Cathedral is using artistic expression to bring Muslims and Christians together for cultural and artistic workshops and exhibits, building “bridges of peace and friendship” to replace “walls of intolerance and fear.”

Despite all the challenges many religious communities face, in the countries I have visited, churches, temples and mosques and other houses of worship are bursting with religious fervor, with prayer, with song, with young families. I have become even more convinced that without the promotion of religious freedom, without inter-religious dialogue, there can be no real democracy, no stability, and no lasting security for any country. But with it, anything is possible.

One of the most effective antidotes to hate, violence, and injustice is the power and effectiveness of different inter-religious communities of the world working together. The inter-religious unity promoted through these artistic expressions of the basic humanity of the Egyptian Key symbol—and indeed all cultural and religious symbols— is a critical piece of the puzzle. It helps us to understand that no matter what faith we are or are not, none of us are “the other.” Women and men of all belief systems, we are all the same in our humanity. We express that humanity through faith, art, poetry, speech, tradition, and other practices, as so clearly illustrated in these beautiful, unique pictures of the same symbol of peace.

In many parts of the world, the process of inter-religious engagement is robust, in others, nascent. But we have a long way to go.

The challenges we face are daunting. But when we can work together we can achieve things none of us can achieve alone. We enrich ourselves not only in learning about others, including those with whom our lack of understanding had long bred mistrust and alienation. Paradoxically, in our exchanges, where we must explain clearly our own traditions to others and test our long-held assumptions by the new perspectives we encounter in others, many of us can deepen our understanding of our own faith traditions. In the very act of meeting and sharing and talking and working together to bridge the divides and enhance the cooperation, we are modeling the kind of world of which we dream and which we strive to create.

So in that spirit I affirm that the goal of religious freedom for all of us is achievable. With the help of good people like you across the globe, it will become a reality. Until then, for the religiously oppressed in every land who live in fear, let us act with courage and determination that we will be a shining beacon of hope and light of freedom. Thank you.