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Freedom of religion is a cornerstone of democracy

Freedom of religion and within it especially the right to change one’s conviction without consequences is a Litmus test for society. If this right is realized, usually other human rights and the state of democracy are doing well too. Freedom of religion has become more and more important in international politics. A few years ago, the EU decided to add freedom of religion in the human rights clause within its external agreements. Out of EU member states Italy, the Netherlands and Germany have adopted freedom of religion as a focal point in their human rights policies. Actors in Finnish foreign, security and development policies also need to be challenged to actively work for strengthening freedom of religion.

The freedom to believe or not to believe and to change religion is a basic human right. It deals with values and beliefs held sacred and holy. Therefore, violations of freedom of religion are fuel for tension, violence and even armed conflict. For dictators and authoritarian regimes oppressing religions also serves as a tool for limiting civil society.

Every year the World Watch List, a global indicator of countries where Christians face religious persecution, is published, and every year it is a tough read. For us Westerners martyrdom is repulsive even as a thought. Yet, three fourths of the world’s population live in countries, where religious persecution is a reality. The list of countries that persecutes Christians based on religious conviction hasn’t really changed over the years, because persecution has mostly grown due to increasing radical Islamism and religious nationalism. The only exception on the ”black list” is North Korea, where Christians are persecuted by the totalitarian regime.

On the other hand, there are many countries in Europe that want to sweep religion under the rug and marginalize it. The aim is to exclude religion from public life. This doesn’t adhere to the basics of freedom of religion either, because it creates a bias in favor of non-religious world views. At the same time, in Turkey at the boarders of Europe, it is becoming more and more difficult to be an atheist.

In countries with a plethora of religions there is always a religion or religions in the minority. The maturity of democracy is measured by the willingness of those in power to protect these minorities. As much of a cliché as it might be, peace cannot be built without increasing knowledge and understanding on one another’s situations and religions. We have to learn how to live with differing world views and cultures, but it does not mean we have to hide our own values and culture – quite the opposite. I believe that knowing your own religion well is the best starting point to understanding other religions and convictions. There is a lot to learn in order to make the world a better place to live in. Respecting things scared to others, their human dignity and life are at the core of our joint vision of humanity.

Sari Essayah
Member of Parliament
Chair of Christian Democrats in Finland

* Demo Finland regularly publishes columns by representatives of its member parties. The views expressed in the columns are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Demo Finland. 

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