Editorial – Religion and Human Rights (February 2013)

By Right Now
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Having focused on the plight of asylum seekers to begin 2013, in February (overflowing into March) Right Now focused on the theme of religion and human rights.

To start with, it’s worth noting the connection between the two themes beginning 2013: most people seeking asylum in Australia are fleeing countries in which they are persecuted for their choice of religion.

The Hazara from Afghanistan are a Muslim minority persecuted by the Muslim majority; the Tamils from Sri Lanka are a largely Hindu minority fleeing a history of tensions between Hindus, Muslims, Christians and the majority Buddhists; Catholics, who make up the majority in the Philippines, are targeted by an Islamist minority in the south; and the story goes similarly elsewhere: persecution for not belonging to the “right” religion. Asylum seekers are seeking freedom of religion and peaceful and prosperous lives – something Australia offers. And the three – freedom of religion, peace and prosperity – aren’t accidental associates.

Freedom of religion is, at the same time, an old challenge and one with new frontiers. Our articles on the theme of religion and human rights explore some of them. But the discussion goes well beyond freedom of religion and into other convergences and clashes of rights and religion.

Laying the groundwork, Professor Denise Meyerson explains the Constitutional protection of freedom of religion in Australia, and compares it to the US First Amendment (on which it was modelled). In a fascinating proposal – digging far below that groundwork – legal historian Dr Jason Taliadoros suggests the notion of “human rights” belonging to the individual originates deep in the history of the Medieval Church’s attempts to understand “natural law”.

Back to the present, World Vision Australia CEO Tim Costello offers some personal views on religion and human rights, and also answers a string of challenging questions from our readers.

Moving onto modern frontiers, Law Institute of Victoria President Reynah Tang considers whether there should be a religious exception to anti-discrimination laws. The issue of a special exception for religiously-inspired discrimination, as Rachel Ball of the Human Rights Law Centre explains, has recently given rise to various reactions following its inclusion in proposed laws. Much of the reaction has been the demand from various Churches for a special exception. Approaching the issue from a different angle, Liz Jakimow questions whether her Christian faith even permits discrimination and exclusion (and thus wonders why it would be so coveted by many Christian leaders).

To a different topical issue, Professor Sarah Joseph considers the conflict between children’s rights and freedom of religion in the context of the “sanctity of the confessional seal” and the disclosure of child abuse in confession.

Addressing perhaps a less evident meeting point between religion and rights, Liz Jakimow discusses the command to “have dominion” over the earth (in the book of Genesis) and environmental rights.

Mohamad Tabbaa opines on a rethinking of rights in his broad commentary “Why do Muslims hate freedom of speech?” – a reaction to the recent visit to Australia by Dutch politician Geert Wilders.

Finally, returning to freedom of religion, in “A Multi-Faith Society: The Pathway to Harmony” Hsin-Yi Lo points out how some religious leaders have recently used their influential status to indict smaller religious groups in Australia. And, looking abroad, Dr Melissa Crouch notes a recent, disturbing trend of political apathy in response to persecution of religious minorities in our closest neighbour, Indonesia.

All food for thought over this Easter weekend and well beyond.

John Alizzi – Managing Editor

For reviews of all of Right Now’s recent themes go here.

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