By Shane McNary
I had previously heard United Nations meetings described as “talkfests.” That description notwithstanding, in November I attended the Sixth Forum on Religious Minority Rights in Geneva, Switzerland. The more than 160 speeches during the two-day Forum were proof that there are many voices competing to be heard on the international stage. Less obvious were examples of participants who were listening with as much anticipation. I discovered by the end of my second trip to Geneva that there are also people who attend these “talkfests” to listen as much as to be heard!
As I watched the interaction around the U.N. facilities, I was struck by the camaraderie of many of the permanent delegations around the room. It was also interesting to watch how coalitions of different delegations were revealed when dealing with topics such as blasphemy laws and how governments treat religious minorities when the minorities are equated with political factions.
At the Forum, the first surprise was learning that Rita Izsak, the U.N.’s Independent Expert on Minority Issues, is a Roma woman from Hungary and Hedina Sijercic, who chaired the meeting, is a Roma woman from Bosnia and Herzegovina. My mind immediately raced to consider what connections I could make between these two influential Roma women and the Roma we minister among in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. When Ms. Sijercic introduced herself as a Roma woman of minority faith in her country, she noted that this made her a “Third” minority.
“The other within the other,” she said.
The goal of the Forum was to share best practices for ensuring minority religious rights. Religious minorities are the most common victims of genocide and the situation is exacerbated when leaders remain silent about instances of religious discrimination. Ensuring religious rights for all and cherishing diversity are viewed as the best prevention against atrocities.
Interfaith dialogue is a strategic tool for preventing violence between majority and minority faiths. Creating and nurturing networks of interfaith dialogue at the local, national and international levels should be understood as actively waging peace in a divided world. I was impressed by the importance placed on faith leaders and clergy in propagating the religious rights of all persons. The church should never abdicate its prophetic role of speaking up for these rights!
During the Forum, the multi-level dynamics of local, national and international actors in the religious liberty arena were pointed out again and again. In truth, little is accomplished if attention to these issues is given only at the international level. The context of situations demands that a coordinated effort at each level by governmental and non-governmental actors is the only way to bring clarity and resolve these issues.
It is simply not enough that delegates meet at international gatherings. Every level of government must be involved and interested groups should have a voice at the table. This is the core of advocacy ministry — seeking to ensure the rights of the disadvantaged through diligently monitoring and participating at every level in every conversation from policy to implementation. The core of advocacy ministry is giving a voice to those who need yet are denied one.
While at the Forum, I had the opportunity to attend a panel discussion titled “Gender, Justice and Religion.” There, Heiner Bielefeldt, the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, noted that it is dangerous to treat freedom of religion and other rights concerns as separate issues. The intersection of religious freedom and secular freedom is where human rights emerge. For those of us who are interested in advocating for religious freedom, the challenge is to look for opportunities to overcome false dichotomies between religious rights and human rights. It is also especially important to unequivocally state that practices such as child marriage, genital mutilation and rape are extremely harmful and can never be justified nor tolerated under any guise of religious freedom.
The second meeting I attended on behalf of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Baptist World Alliance focused on the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) for Eritrea — a nation located on the northeastern horn of Africa. The religious persecution and atrocities committed by the dictatorial regime in this country are an embarrassment to the global community. These abuses should be a point of concern for all.
At the meeting, neighboring countries in Eastern Africa were the most critical of Eritrea’s human rights record as they repeatedly demanded that the government stop persecuting its own people and act in ways to protect all persons so that the flood of refugees would stop overwhelming other countries in the area.
The BWA’s Division on Freedom and Justice worked diligently, preparing status reports on the situation in Eritrea. As part of an ecumenical effort, the Division of Freedom and Justice shed light on the horrific condition of ordinary citizens in Eritrea and gave voice to those who are suffering. The UPR process includes a time for each government to present their plan for addressing human rights issues in their country. It is also a time for other governments to make specific recommendations about how to improve the situation. Reports like the one crafted by the Division on Freedom and Justice helped to shape these recommendations.
To prepare for Eritrea’s UPR, in addition to reading the reports, I contacted CBF field personnel involved in ministry to immigrant communities in Africa and solicited their input. Reading their first-hand accounts of persecution, including torture, human trafficking, kidnapping and punishment of relatives (the relatives of Eritrean expatriates who do not pay an obligatory 2 percent war tax on their earnings abroad face punishment), I was overwhelmed at the hopelessness of the situation.
Despite the suffering, there is hope and an abundance of love. As my CBF colleagues shared, Eritrean Christians are filled with love and hope because of their relationship with Jesus. And the loving care that other believers have shown and are showing to them is a source of hope too.
The opportunity to represent CBF in support of our global partnership with BWA resonated with my own conviction that we as a Fellowship have a missional calling of being more involved in ecumenical and interfaith conversations around the world. Responsibly engaging with our sisters and brothers in the BWA is the most natural expression of our familial connection to global Baptists.
When I introduced myself as affiliated with the Baptist World Alliance, one representative whose country is making life difficult on Baptist believers quickly admitted, “I know who you are.” Already known because of the company we as CBF keep — what a great honor and responsibility!
Shane McNary and his wife, Dianne, have served as Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel since 2004. Native Arkansans, they now live in Kosïce, Slovakia and serve among the Romany people in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Shane represented the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Baptist World Alliance at the Sixth Forum on Religious Minority Rights at the United Nations Office in Geneva, Switzerland on November 26-27, 2013, and returned February 3-6, 2014, to attend the public meetings of the 18th session of the Universal Periodic Review.