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Like ‘Water on a Stone’: UN Expert on the Hard Work of Religious Freedom

Image: United Nations
Ahmed Shaheed, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief

Religious freedom requires global consensus.

Despite the best efforts of the Trump administration to prioritize the issue in its foreign policy, the Pew Research Center highlights that government restrictions on religion have hit an all-time high worldwide.

In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights included clear language on religious freedom, including the right to change one’s religious affiliation. But it was not until 1981 that the UN issued its Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.

Declarations are of little value without accountability.

In 1986, the UN created the position of Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB). And in 2006, it created a process called the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), in which nations report on their human rights development every 4.5 years and are required to address the recommendations of the global community.

Ahmed Shaheed, the current special rapporteur, was appointed in 2016 after serving six years as the UN human rights watchdog on Iran.

Formerly a foreign minister of the Maldives, Shaheed was declared an apostate from Islam in his home nation following his efforts to restore democracy and advance human rights.

Prior to this month’s third Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, CT interviewed Shaheed in April as COVID-19 upended the world about recent American efforts to advance international religious freedom (IRF), the balance involved with gender equality, and the best methods to secure the right to religious conversion in the Muslim world:

How has COVID-19 impacted global freedom of religion and belief?

The pandemic is unprecedented in how it is impacting everyone.

As special rapporteur, I have issued three statements so far. The first concerned the cremation of bodies of those who died from the virus—can it be made compulsory, and can relatives attend? Religious practices can be limited to some extent during a time of public health emergency, but I wanted to remind the authorities of their obligations under international law and to be respectful of religious and cultural beliefs within the law.

The second statement was on hate speech targeting minority Christians, Jews, and Muslims. They have been scapegoated and attacked with conspiracy theories claiming they are the ones who spread or even originated this virus. And besides scapegoating, in some cases they were denied access to health care facilities.

The third statement raised alarm specifically on anti-Semitism, which was spiking across the globe.

My statements also highlighted the role that faith-based communities can play at this critical time, in terms of virtual pastoral care and the preservation of community cohesion. And I have applauded how most religious leaders have responded to the humanitarian and socio-economic challenges we have witnessed.

Many American evangelicals have been supportive of the Trump administration’s advocacy for international religious freedom. From your perspective, has it created an atmosphere where there is greater worldwide respect and attention, or has it politicized the issue and been detrimental to the global cause?

I look at US policy in a comprehensive fashion, and not just the president’s remarks. The State Department’s IRF report—covering every nation in the world—and the work of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) have played an invaluable role over the years. I’m happy that the Trump administration…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on November 16, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Conversion Confusion

Conversion Confusion Image

From my latest article in Christianity Today, from the April edition and published online on the 18th:

Nadia Mohamed Ali was raised in a Christian home, but when she married Mustafa Mohamed Abdel-Wahab in 1990, she converted to Islam. After his death, she obtained new identity cards—required under Egyptian law—that declared her and her seven children Christians.

Then came the ruling by a criminal court this January: “Egyptian Court Sentences Family to 15 Years for Converting to Christianity” read the Western headlines. Several U.S. religious freedom watchers declared Ali’s sentence a “real disaster” that “underscores the growing problem of religious intolerance” under Egypt’s new, Muslim Brotherhood-backed government. A shocking headline, indeed.

A cut-and-dry case of religious persecution? Not quite.

“They were imprisoned for fraud, not for conversion,” says Mamdouh Nakhla, founder of the Word Center for Human Rights in Cairo. The Coptic lawyer claims the family paid government workers to forge new identity cards. They registered their religion as Christian under Ali’s maiden name so that she could obtain her inheritance.

There is an underground market for such fraud:

“I was introduced to a certain priest—now deceased—who knew a certain Christian who works in the Civil Registry,” says Sheikh Saber (using his Muslim name, not his forged Christian identity). “He takes the bribe and distributes the money around for assistance in covering it up.” In 2003 Saber obtained new IDS, birth certificates, and a marriage license for his family. The cost of this illegal “service” now runs up to $2,500 per person.

The article proceeds to discuss in some depth the role of inter-religious love affairs and marriage in conversion, to which difficult social conditions also contribute. But there are accusations the conversions are not just a product of sociology:

Meanwhile, some Muslims target Coptic Christians for marriage to convert them. “The Coptic people are downtrodden,” says Isaiah Lamei, a priest who provides pastoral care for troubled Copts. “Muslims take advantage and get them to sign papers of conversion [so Copts can] fix their problems.”

Every year, Lamei ministers to 30-40 families in his diocese that have been approached by Muslims offering such “help.” “These problems can be emotional or financial,” he says. He estimates that in his diocese every year, “two or three convert to Islam.”

It’s hard to verify whether Muslims really marry Copts just to draw them into Islam. But it’s also hard to verify the sincerity of Muslim conversions to Christianity.

“We must be cautious,” says Cornelis Hulsman, editor in chief of the Arab West Report. “I have met converts who are sincere, and I’ve met converts who have other interests.”

Nakhla agrees. “Some converts come to me and say they want to marry a Christian. Or they request money, or work, or an apartment,” he says.

From time immemorial mankind has known of the power of religion in both fraud and piety, manipulation and sincerity. It is frustrating to navigate the divide.

Examples of grace and ‘ungrace’ abound, but in service of both mankind and God, toward whom religion is said to direct, the navigation is necessary.

Please click here to read the full article on Christianity Today.