Following months of headlines describing violent religious persecution in nations like Nigeria and India, as well as increased concerns about the fate of minorities under Egypt's newly elected Muslim Brotherhood president, a new declaration is calling for greater religious freedom globally.
The Global Charter of Conscience is a reaffirmation and expansion of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that reads, "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief."
"In our global era, it is said that 'everyone is now everywhere,'" the charter's chief drafter, Os Guinness, told The Christian Post. "That means that we must learn to live with our deepest differences. And that is a difficult global challenge, especially when those differences are religious and ideological."
But the need to meet that challenge is urgent, claims the charter's drafters. They point to a 2009 Pew Forum report* that finds nearly three-quarters of the world's population live in countries with "high restrictions on religion, the brunt of which often falls on religious minorities."
But the charter urges protection that goes beyond religion to encompass all freedom of "thought and expression," emphasizing that those who hold "secular and naturalist worldviews" may also find their right to such beliefs threatened and need equal protection.
"We are delighted with the reactions to the charter so far," said Julia Doxat-Purser, Religious Liberty coordinator for the European Evangelical Alliance. "We already have support from people of good will of many and no faiths. Our hope is that many more will join the informal coalition behind the vision of a civil public square."
Guinness contrasts the Global Charter with the Manhattan Declaration of 2009 that urged Christians in the U.S. to refuse to compromise their core beliefs.
"The Manhattan Declaration has become so politicized as part of the anti-Obama movement that much of its principled part has been lost," Guinness told CP. "In contrast, the Global Charter is truly global and does not address a specific political situation. It is a powerful endorsement and expansion of the core principles of religious freedom and therefore should have appeal across political and religious boundaries."
But, says Faith McDonnell of The Institute on Religion and Democracy, the effectiveness of the charter remains to be seen.
"The Global Charter of Conscience is an important affirmation of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," McDonnell told CP. "But just as the Universal Declaration itself is ignored by thug regimes that seek to control thought, conscience, and belief, the Global Charter will remain a great statement that provides little real protection unless nations take seriously the charge to respect and uphold their citizens' religious freedom."
The charter was drafted by a group of 50 international academics, politicians, and NGO leaders representing various faiths and none.
So far, leaders from France, South Africa, Lebanon, Romania, the U.K. and the U.S. have endorsed the charter. Signers include Habib Malik, whose father Charles Malik helped draft the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights; Heiner Bielefeldt, U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief; Prof. Dr. John Warwick Montgomery; and Thomas K. Johnson of the Institute for Religious Freedom of the World Evangelical Alliance.
The charter was launched in the European Parliament in Brussels last week, and will be launched in London today. A U.S. launch has not yet been scheduled.
*Global Restrictions on Religion, 2009, by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life