Provo, 8 October 2015—Organised by the International Center for Law and Religion Studies and held at the Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, USA, the 22nd Annual Symposium considered the role of religion and religious freedom in resolving social and political conflict. Around 90 scholars, jurists, and political and civil society leaders from around 40 countries explored the relationships and tensions among religion, law, and social stability at the event held from the 4th to the 7th of October 2015.
Professor David Little and Dr. Gunnar Stålsett opened the conference with thought-provoking and inspiring addresses. Professor Little is Emeritus Professor at Harvard Divinity School and a Fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, while Dr. Stålsett is a Moderator at the European Council of Religious Leaders, as well as International President of the World Council of Religions for Peace.
Dr. Stålsett, began his address by saying, “There is a world out there, where religion still matters. Ours is a world were religion plays an increasing role for better and worse.” He noted that the meaning of law is as complex as that of religion, and that both are essential to civilization. “The aim of both is to serve humanity and to protect our planetary habitat. Both set boundaries for evil and advance common good.” He said their relationship is seen when religious principles impact law and law regulates religion. “If salvation is about healing and bliss, social stability is about cohesion and integration. It is about welcoming the other in all his otherness as a brother and sister. For this to happen, religion and law are indispensable.”
Gunnar Stålsett highlighted some issues of major concern for both law and religion as they relate to social harmony. This included climate change, human right to peace, impunity, freedom of religion, nuclear arms, and death penalty.
Professor Little focused on human rights and religious freedom in relation to the subject of peace. Citing Todd Landman’s Protecting Human Rights: A Comparative Study, he noted that “There is strong empirical support for the proposition that human rights compliance in general, and religious freedom compliance in particular, increase the prospects for peace.”
As to the connection between religious freedom and peace, David Little referenced a study by Brian Grim and Roger Finke, The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century, which concluded that “violent religious persecution and conflict rise as government and social restrictions on religion increase.” Professor Little mentioned the authors’ observation that the record of compliance with religious freedom standards is deeply intertwined with the record of compliance with other human rights, such that violation of religious freedom is strongly correlated with the violation of rights to freedom of speech and assembly. Religious freedoms according to Grim and Finke “are embedded in a much larger bundle of civil liberties.”
Professor Little conceded that there are strong objections to this picture of the positive connections among human rights, religious freedom, and peace. Nonetheless, he maintained that human rights, religious freedom, and peace are positively related. “Challenges to this conclusion do raise problems that need to be addressed, but they do not refute it.”
On the last day of the Symposium, Ms. Faith Delos Reyes, Research and Project Coordinator of the HRRC, presented key findings of the the Centre’s Keeping the Faith: A Study of Freedom of Thought, Conscience, and Religion in ASEAN. After giving a broad overview of religious diversity in the region and the aims of the ASEAN, specifically with regard to freedom of religion, Delos Reyes discussed the international commitments made by ASEAN Member-States in relation to freedom of religion, their constitutional commitments, as well as the relationship between religion and the state as manifested in their respective constitutions and key state policies. Keeping within the theme of the Symposium, she also shared findings from the report that highlighted situations of social instability in the region and discussed some of the key factors that are seen to contribute to them, specifically: politicisation of religion, ethno-religious nationalism, and weak rule of law.