Religion and Human Rights






Rights Law


  Rule of Law







Religious Support for Human Rights

[Have you done any research in this area?  If so, please share it.]

Robert Traer*

We are challenged both by the events of our time and by our faith commitments to support human rights. Brutal warfare, starvation, ethnic cleansing, and religious intolerance make the struggle for human rights more necessary than ever. At the same time greater cooperation in some places among people of different faith traditions and the support within their communities for human rights make the struggle for human rights more encouraging. Human rights are violated every day, but every day men and women of faith affirm the human dignity of each person by supporting fundamental human rights. 

I say "men and women of faith" are asserting human rights, because human rights are not simply a matter of law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was passed without dissenting vote by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948 and is the foundation of international human rights law, affirms that "the peoples of the United Nations have in the (UN) Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom." (Emphasis added) Human rights cannot simply be derived from legal precedents of the past, nor from empirical evidence or logic, but require a "leap of faith." This is true, whether or not one is "religious."

I have been asked to describe in this essay how other faith traditions understand human rights. One way to do this would be to follow the plan of my book (Faith in Human Rights: Support in Religious Traditions for a Global Struggle, 1991), which has chapters on how various Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists view human rights. Those who might prefer this approach will have to refer to my book, as I have chosen here to describe contemporary issues in human rights involving specific religious communities. This essay is more a survey of existing human rights struggles than a summary of traditional religious teachings.

I begin with a brief sketch of the development of international human rights and support for this development in religious traditions. Then I look at the issues of religious freedom, proselytism and nationalism in order to see both what is at stake in these controversies and the involvement of various religious traditions. I conclude by suggesting that people of faith have an important role to play in the enforcement of human rights.

Human Rights in the 20th Century

Prior to World II international law was simply the law of nations, and thus the rights of a human person were the rights granted by his or her government. No person, therefore, had any rights in a country other than her own, unless through a treaty her own country had secured rights for its citizens in that foreign country. In the first half of this century persons might claim "natural rights," such as those affirmed in the American Declaration of Independence, but these were only recognized and enforceable by the laws of individual countries. Up until the middle of this century legal rights were "citizen rights" rather than human rights.

This understanding of rights was supported by accepted theories of jurisprudence in the West, which defined laws as the decisions of governments and recognized no source of "higher law." Adherence to this theory, however, was shattered by the acts of Nazi Germany during World War II, because the Nazis attempted to exterminate the Jews by means of laws passed by the German parliament. Within the state of Germany, therefore, the arrest, detention, and murder of Jews was "legal." These Nazi laws were morally wrong, but the prevailing theory of law at the middle of the 20th century provided no standard for judging the acts of a state to be illegal.

The Nuremberg trials after World War II asserted a higher standard of law than the sovereign state, and the United Nations codified this as international human rights law. Since 1948 these laws have grown to include numerous covenants (treaties) and international regulatory mechanisms, such as the Commission on Human Rights of the United Nations. At the same time the number of nations in the UN has expanded rapidly, due to the liberation of peoples in Africa and Asia from colonial rule. The UN has become more prominent, if no less controversial, and assertions of human rights have continued to capture international attention.

In the last fifty years human rights have also expanded conceptually. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was dominated by notions of civil and political rights, which are most familiar to Westerners. But economic and social rights concerning employment, food, shelter, education and health care were also affirmed. More recently, accompanying the growing strength of formerly colonized peoples in the UN, cultural and peoples rights have been asserted. We see here a shift (at least in emphasis) from the individual to the group and from protection of the dignity of the individual from state intervention to providing for communities through state intervention the elements of life deemed necessary for human dignity.

Religious Support

When we reflect on the historical development of human rights, we see immediately that for most of human history religious leaders resisted what we today describe as fundamental human rights. Traditionally, religious leaders were primarily concerned with enforcing their authority and with the welfare of their community, rather than with the rights of their followers ů especially if recognizing these rights meant permitting dissent. Religious people who today support human rights need to acknowledge humbly that their traditions and teachings have long been used to deny many contemporary civil and political rights and that, until recently, support for human rights has come more consistently from secular political and cultural movements than from religious constituencies.

This is less true for Protestants than for Catholics, as Protestants were quick to claim their right of conscience in opposition to the religious hierarchy from which they were dissenting. Nonetheless, it is common knowledge that Protestant reformers often suppressed dissent within their own jurisdictions. Religious freedom, as a fundamental right of all individuals, was not effectively institutionalized among Protestants until Roger Williams established Rhode Island as an independent colony.

The Virginia Bill of Rights of 1776 laid the foundation for modern notions of civil and political rights, and in the United States the Bill of Rights in the Constitution guaranteed these rights for all those who were permitted to vote. In the latter part of the 18th century many of the individuals who embraced the idea of "natural rights" were members of churches, yet it would be misleading to say that religious organizations were active in lobbying for the protection of rights. The protection of civil and political rights was the result of a successful rebellion and the experience of freedom that inspired and sustained it.

America religious leaders were more prominent in the 19th century in promoting the rights of Black Americans, women, prisoners, and children. And in the middle of the 20th century, Christian and Jewish leaders from the United States were among the first to urge that the United Nations promulgate a Declaration of Human Rights. The newly formed World Council of Churches provided leadership among Protestant Christian groups and, since Vatican II, members of the Roman Catholic Church have been in the forefront of the human rights struggle all over the world. Jewish participants in the human rights movement are far more numerous than their small numbers in the world would lead one to expect. And more recently a number of leading Muslim intellectuals have asserted that the Islamic tradition supports fundamental human rights.

Jews and Christians affirm that persons have human rights because they are created in the image of God. Contemporary Jews assert that Pesach (Passover), Succot (Tabernacles), and Shavuot (Pentecost), the three major festivals in the Jewish year commemorating aspects of the exodus from Egypt, provide support for the notion of political liberty. Purim (Lotteries), which recalls the danger to the Jewish people portrayed in the story of Esther, is said to affirm the rights of minority peoples. And in remembering those who were martyred for their faith on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), Jews today affirm the fundamental right of conscience.

Jewish scripture and law is also used by some Jews, however, to claim the land of Israel exclusively for the Jewish people and to deny the rights of Palestinians to live where their ancestors have made their homes for centuries. Whereas organizations such as Rabbis for Human Rights file lawsuits in Israeli courts in order to defend the human rights of Palestinians, fundamentalist groups such as Gush Emunim have supported terrorist attacks and attempted to blow up the Dome of the Rock, the sacred Islamic shrine located on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

Among Christians there is considerable debate about whether human rights are adequately supported by the scriptures of the Old Testament or can only be affirmed on the basis of the saving event of Jesus Christ. Christian evangelicals have expressed concern, as have Muslims, that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not acknowledge God as the ultimate source of human rights and have accused Christian liberals of making Freedom their god, rather than Jesus Christ. Catholics have since Vatican II embraced human rights as the social conditions for human dignity, and many priests, nuns and lay leaders have been martyred in human rights struggles in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Divided by doctrine about human rights, Christians are united in supporting religious freedom. Evangelical Christians aggressively send missionaries to Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe and urge the United States government to impose economic sanctions on any foreign country that seeks to restrict the fundamental human right of freedom of religion or belief. In the United States, however, these same Christians may well support attempts to legislate Christian values and to require that the Christian belief called "creationism" is taught in public school biology classes as an alternative to evolution.

Muslims affirm that governments have a responsibility to enforce divine law. In Islam the people are not sovereign; God alone is sovereign. Human rights, therefore, are to be enforced only insofar as they reflect divine law. Resolutions of the United Nations are not recognized by Muslims as obligatory, but the rights sanctioned by God in scripture are seen as absolute. To be sure there is a significant overlap between the rights asserted through international law and the rights affirmed by Islamic jurisprudence. But where there is a difference, then Islamic law is to be obeyed.

Equality of rights regardless of race or national origin is a firm belief within Islam, and historically Muslims have often been better at putting this ideal into practice than Christians. If men and women are equal before God, however, they are clearly unequal before the judges of Islamic courts. Some Muslims argue that the ideals of Islam affirm gender equality, but governments that have sought to implement Islamic law have distinguished between the rights of men and women. Moreover, Islamic teaching justifies this distinction by arguing that men and women have rights commensurate with their different roles and responsibilities in society.

Religious support for human rights among Jews, Christians and Muslims tends to take the form of arguing that modern notions of rights are implicit in the duties that we have to God and our neighbors, which are revealed in the ancient scriptures of each community of faith. If I have, for instance, the duty to love you as my neighbor, then you have the right to expect and hold me to the standard of conduct that is consistent with my duty. Hindus, who do not generally believe in a Creator, derive rights from social, cultural and religious duties. Buddhists find rights implied in the obligation to be aware of the interconnectedness of all reality and thus affirm animal as well as human rights.

This is very different from the view of those who drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and promoted the development of human rights law in the first part of the second half of the 20th century. From this other point of view, which is at the core of recent Western political thought, rights are inherent in the nature of the individuals who join together to form communities. Thus rights are brought into society by individuals who, in theory, form a "social contract" with one another in order to live together. In this perspective the community is like a voluntary association, which the individual can leave or join as he or she chooses.

When Asians or Africans practicing Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic or indigenous traditions assert their cultural rights today and complain that international human rights law is dominated by Western individualism, they are challenging the universality of the idea that communities are formed by individuals who enter into a social contract. In historical terms, of course, they are correct. Until very recently, all societies were formed more around kinship and ethnic identities, than by the voluntary decisions of their individual members. Prior to modern democratic forms of government, individuals had little to say about the laws that governed their societies. Any assertion of the universality of human rights, therefore, must be acknowledged as a contemporary claim that such rights are universally the necessary social conditions for human dignity.

Religious Freedom

Freedom of religion or belief as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is primarily an individual right. In the words of the Universal Declaration, it is "freedom of thought, conscience and religion" that is protected and this includes the freedom to change one's religion or belief as well as the freedom to join with others in teaching, practicing, worshipping, and observing the religious disciplines of one's faith community. Religious freedom may be asserted by a group of individuals, but it is fundamentally the right of the individual person.

This understanding of the right to religious freedom implies that religion is a voluntary activity on the part of individuals who join together to practice what their individual consciences tell them is right. As this is largely a modern, Western notion of religion, it is not surprising that more traditional religious communities are less than enthusiastic about this emphasis on the rights of the individual believer. In their view, if rights are given by God to the community of the faithful, then individual rights are secondary rather than primary. The rights of the community take precedence.

For example, many Muslims are loath to support the right of an individual to convert from Islam to another religion. They believe that God has constituted the Islamic community to rule in his stead. To convert from Islam is thus to reject God and those who are charged to rule for God. It is inconceivable, for many Muslims, that one can have a right to turn away from God, to err, and to go astray.

This critique of the right of conscience is not unique to Islam. Prior to the 18th century it was the view of most religious communities, at least among the theistic traditions. It was the position of the Roman Catholic Church until after Vatican II in the 1960s, and it continues to be the basic perspective of many Orthodox churches in Eastern Europe. Based on a similar understanding, Native Americans have gone to court to seek enforcement of their tribal rights over against the rights of individual members of their community.

Muslims who believe that Islam supports the right of a person to convert from one religion (even Islam) to another religion point to the sura in the Qur'an that reads: "Let there be no compulsion in religion." Orthodox Muslims, however, understand this to mean only that no one is to be compelled to convert to Islam. They affirm their community of faith has been constituted by God and is responsible for ensuring that individual Muslim believers abide by the doctrinal and ethical standards of the community. From this point of view it is wrong to convert from Islam and such freedom should not be permitted.


There is considerable opposition to proselytism around the world. Those who support greater restrictions on the activities of missionaries (particularly foreign missionaries) object to proselytizing for several reasons. First, proselytizing attacks other religious beliefs and practices in order to assert that its own way is the only way to salvation. Second, proselytizing is often supported by financial resources and marketing techniques that make local religious activity seem second-rate and shabby. And third, proselytizing is frequently successful.

It must be admitted that a double standard often is present in the argument about proselytism. Missionary activity is limited within certain areas of India on the grounds that indigenous traditions need to be protected, yet groups teaching Hindu meditation demand on the basis of international law the right to proselytize in the countries of Eastern Europe. Muslims in Western Europe expect that their right to seek converts will be protected there, but many governments controlled by Muslims deny that right to other religious communities in their jurisdiction.

Orthodox Churches have long been opposed to proselytism and raised this issue during negotiations for admission into the World Council of Churches. In 1956 the Central Committee of the WCC met in Hungary and discussed a report on "proselytism and religious liberty." A final version of this report was approved in 1961 at the third assembly of the WCC. It defined proselytism as a corruption of Christian witness: "Witness is corrupted when cajolery, bribery, undue pressure or intimidation is used—subtly or openly—to bring about seeming conversion." That same year several Orthodox Churches joined the World Council of Churches.

Four years later the Roman Catholic hierarchy came to a similar conclusion in the Declaration on Religious Freedom adopted by the Second Vatican Council. A footnote to The Documents of Vatican II makes clear the new Catholic position: "Proselytism is a corruption of the Christian witness by appeal to hidden forms of coercion or by a style of propaganda unworthy of the Gospel. It is not the use but the abuse of the right to religious freedom." This understanding is now reflected in Barrett's World Christian Encyclopedia: A Comparative Study of Churches and Religions in the Modern World, which defines proselytism as "a manner of behaving contrary to the spirit of the gospel" and making "use of dishonest methods to attract" others "by exploiting their ignorance or poverty."

International law, however, does not distinguish between religious witness and proselytism. It simply affirms that everyone has the right to freedom of religion or belief and the freedom, individually or in community with others, to manifest this religion or belief "in worship, observance, practice and teaching." The freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may only be limited by laws that are "necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others." International law was developed to protect individuals and religious groups from the state and not to protect one religious community from being proselytized by another. Thus international law does not reflect the sensitivity expressed by the World Council of Churches and Vatican II in their Christian understanding of religious freedom.

It is no surprise that legal attempts in Central and Eastern Europe to limit proselytizing have been heavy handed. New legislation strongly supported by the Moscow Patriarchate amends the 1990 Russian Law on Freedom of Conscience and Freedom of Religion by restricting the freedom of foreigners in Russian to express their religious faith, a distinction that runs counter to the nature of religious freedom as a fundamental human right. Moreover, the 1997 legislation imposes registration and organizational requirements on foreign religious groups that may be used to discriminate against them.


Anger at proselytising fuels nationalistic resistance to religious freedom. For many in Central and Eastern Europe, religion is inextricably related to culture and national heritage. This is very different than the Protestant concept of a gathered congregation of individual believers, a notion that has shaped the development of provisions protecting freedom of religion or belief under international law. Most Orthodox churches identify strongly with a particular ethnic and cultural history that is represented concretely by a nation. Thus an Orthodox church expects the state that governs "its" nation to represent and protect the interests of the church.

Nationalism, however, is not limited to Orthodox confessions. In India political movements are promoting the idea of "Hindustan," a form of government that favors Hindu cultural and religious traditions. In Sri Lanka the attempt by the majority Sinhalese community to create a political order reflecting its Buddhist orientation is being resisted violently by the minority Tamils, who are primarily Hindu. In Japan Soka Gakai fields political candidates espousing a Nichiren Buddhist vision of Japanese government. In South Africa a nationalistic, Christian doctrine of white supremacy lingers in a nation that until recently enforced apartheid. In the struggle to control the government in the Sudan, conflict between tribes that are largely either Muslim or Christian has led to a protracted civil war.

In Europe Serbian nationalist aspirations that were blessed by the Serbian Orthodox Church stimulated Croatian Catholic nationalism and reinforced new assertions of Bosnian Islamic identity. The tragic war and the tentative peace in the Balkans is a vivid reminder of how many peoples do not separate their religious and ethnic identities in the way that Americans believe they should. Religious support for human rights in the midst of the Bosnian war was relegated to statements of remorse for the suffering caused by the war. In an attempt to achieve a stable peace, however, religious leaders from the Serbian Orthodox, Croatian Catholic and Bosnian Islamic communities have been brought together through the World Conference on Religion and Peace in an interfaith initiative to heal the wounds of the society and to support democratic government. Not surprisingly, leaders from these three religious communities have drawn on the teachings of their traditions to justify their support for human rights and for peace with their recent enemies.

Nationalist movements in some of the newly independent political jurisdictions of Eastern Europe that were oppressed by Communist rule hope to use democratic government to recover indigenous religious traditions. For instance, this is the case in some of the Volga nations, which were annexed to Russia in the 16th and 17th centuries and are national autonomous republics within the Russian Federation. In Mordovia a synthesis of local pagan and Christian folklore is being crafted by leading intellectuals and offered as a national tradition. In Chuvash, efforts by the Orthodox Church to establish itself as the national religion are being resisted by the Chuvash National Congress, whose members promote a return to pagan roots.

In Mari El the foundations of an established paganism have been laid. Mari paganism was fully functional until the Communists took control of the country. The oral tradition survived persecution in mythology, prayers and chants, and now a written scripture has been created to promote Mari pagan practice. The Mari parliament has legislated protection of "religious cult zones" (sacred groves of trees) and reserved a plot of land for the construction of the republic's main temple. The situation in Mari El reminds us that Russian Orthodoxy is a minority tradition in some parts of the Russian Federation, where Russians are an ethnic minority.

It is perfectly understandable that those who were oppressed under colonial or Communist rule now seek to create laws that will assist the recovery of their religious tradition. They do so in the name of religious freedom even if this means that the laws they support do not envision equal treatment among religious groups. They will not easily be persuaded that a neutral state, which does nothing either to help or to hinder religious life, is a better alternative than a state that identifies with and promotes the dominant religious heritage.

In theory Islam does not recognize any nationality but only the community of the faithful in relation to Allah. In reality, however, Islam is used to bolster a number of nationalistic movements. Hamas proclaims through the mosques of Gaza and the West Bank a jihad to achieve Palestinian national independence. Saddam Hussain identifies the enemies of Iraq as devils intent on destroying Islam and names America as Satan. In its constitution Pakistan is defined as an Islamic state, and criminal laws concerning Islamic prohibitions are applied to Christian and Hindu Pakistanis as well as to Muslim citizens. In Bangladesh the secular constitution created after the successful rebellion from Pakistan has also been altered to favor Islamic laws.

For citizens of the United States, religious freedom means separation of church and state. Religious establishment and religious freedom are seen as contradictory. International law, however, does not require "dis-establishment." We need only think of England to see why, because there the Church of England is established by law and the sovereign is the head of the Church. The Church of England enjoys a status not afforded other religious communities in England and, in religious education classes required for every public school, the Church of England generally has a predominant place in the curriculum. Nonetheless, few would seriously argue that there is religious oppression or a lack of religious freedom in England today. Similarly, in many other Western European societies (Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, Greece, to name a few) state churches are established or churches receive favored treatment in some way. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights would never have been passed in 1948, if it had defined freedom of religion, as the United States does in the first amendment of its constitution, to require the separation of church and state.

International human rights law may well favor a "secular" state, as some religious critics claim, but it does not require it. Instead, international human rights law requires states to "prevent and eliminate discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief" and to "combat intolerance on the grounds of religion or other beliefs." International law names the evil as "discrimination" and "intolerance" rather than "establishment," allowing that some sort of "fair and tolerant establishment" of religion is possible. Put more precisely, it leaves open the question of special relationships between the state and one or more religious traditions to an evaluation of the effects of such relationships on religious freedom, rather than asserting in principle that any support for religion by a government will necessarily be discriminatory.

Our Responsibility

Religious communities continue to play a significant role in the enforcement of human rights because of the unique nature of international law in our time. Unlike the laws of a state, international human rights law has no coercive authority to back it up. The United Nations does not have enforcement powers, except as granted by its member nations, and then only for very limited purposes. For many, this fact suggests that human rights law is merely a legal fiction, a romantic idea, until a world government with enforcement powers is created. Others argue, however, that the enforcement of international human rights law is an experiment in nonviolent community building. Nonviolent methods for enforcing human rights laws include encouraging more responsible conduct through interfaith cooperation, exposing human rights violations to public scrutiny and shame, and economic and political sanctions.

Religious ideals and discipline may help keep the human rights struggle nonviolent, may encourage political leaders to live up to the higher aspirations of their religious and cultural traditions, and may help build trust between minority and majority communities in a society. We see examples of this in the movement led by Gandhi in India, in the role of Christians and Jewish leaders during the civil rights movement in the United States during the 1960s, in the leadership of Christians and Muslims in fighting apartheid in South Africa, and in the martyrdom of religious leaders all around the world in the struggle for human rights.

Support in religious traditions not only provides a foundation for human rights, which may otherwise appear to be merely the consensus of a particular culture or a particular time, but also translates the imperatives of human rights into the moral and spiritual language of different religious and cultural traditions. This allows more people to claim these rights as their own heritage and strengthens the contemporary affirmation that fundamental human rights are universal.


Walter M. Abbott, S.J., General Editor, The Documents of Vatican II (Published jointly by Guild Press, America Press, and Association Press, 1966), p. 682.

Barrett's World Christian Encyclopedia: A Comparative Study of Churches and Religions in the Modern World (Nairobi, New York, and London: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 10.

*Robert Traer, Copyright © 1998. This essay was originally published as "Faith in Human Rights" in Church & Society, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), March/April 1998, pp. 46-58.

[Have you done any research in this area?  If so, please share it.]








Human rights are the social conditions necessary for human dignity.