Opinion & Analysis: Violence in the name of religion

(Photo: LWF / Pauline Mumia)UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Heiner Bielefeldt (left) and Ralston Deffenbaugh, Lutheran World Federation Assistant General Secretary for International Affairs and Human Rights.

By LWF Assistant General Secretary Ralston Deffenbaugh

Kenya: University students separated from one another according to religion, with the Christians shot and the Muslims spared. Yemen: Shia mosques bombed by Sunnis. Myanmar: Buddhist mobs attack and isolate the Muslim minority. Nigeria: Churches burned down and women and girls abducted. Syria and Iraq: Religious minorities forced to flee, to renounce their faith, or to die. Central African Republic: Militant Christian groups compel Muslims to leave the country. France: Militants attack a satirical newspaper, a Jewish synagogue, and a Jewish grocery store. Israel: Devout Jews shot while at prayer. Palestine: Jewish settlers seize Arab land and deface churches and mosques.

The world's headlines are filled with reports of violent incidents clothed in religion. It was therefore timely indeed that the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Prof. Heiner Bielefeldt of Germany, should choose this as the theme for his annual report to the UN Human Rights Council, "Preventing Violence Committed in the Name of Religion." (UN document A/HRC/28/66 presented on 10 March 2015) In the following I will lift up some of the report's highlights, especially as they relate to a faith-based organization such as The Lutheran World Federation (LWF).

Bielefeldt started by observing that, "The brutality displayed in manifestations of such violence often renders observers speechless."

Violence committed "in the name of religion" is a complex phenomenon. It may take various forms, among them targeted attacks on individuals, communal violence, terrorism, state repression, or structural violence embedded in the status quo. It thrives where state agencies fail to protect, where there is a culture of impunity. It disproportionately targets religious dissidents, members of religious minorities, or converts. But it also affects those from the majority religion who actively oppose the abuse of their religion for the justification of violence—who are then accused of "betrayal" or "blasphemy." Violence in the name of religion usually displays a pronounced gender dimension, where women and girls suffer disproportionately.


The Special Rapporteur reminded us, as have his predecessors, that "Freedom of religion or belief, due to its nature as a human right, protects human beings rather than religions." He went on to observe that headlines such as "religious violence," "religious civil war," or "sectarian conflicts" tend to obfuscate the significance of non-religious factors, in particular political ones. It is clear, he said, "that religion is almost never an isolated root cause of violent conflicts or attacks."

A key part of the Special Rapporteur's report was his warning that it is important to avoid views that falsely ascribe violence to the essence of certain religions or to religion in general. He deliberately chose the formulation "violence in the name of religion" to emphasize the fact that the perpetrators of violent crimes are always human beings, not religions as such. "It is human beings [...] who invoke religion or specific religious tenets for the purposes of legitimizing, stoking, spreading or escalating violence."

Yet it is also true that a religious motivation can be a very strong one. This powerful motivation can sometimes be misguided - "there are obviously religious fanatics who seem to believe that, by torturing or killing fellow human beings, they actually perform a service to God." The Special Rapporteur called on religious communities and their leaders, including theologians of various denominations, to tackle this problem and to clearly analyze narrow-minded and polarizing interpretations of religious messages.


So, what to do then? Bielefeldt stated that "the scourge of violence in the name of religion calls for concerted action of states, religious and belief communities, interreligious initiatives, civil society and the media to contain and eventually overcome this phenomenon. Human rights provide the normative framework..."

This is because: "Human rights represent a broad moral consensus endorsed by the international community and are binding under international law, thus combining moral persuasiveness with legal force."


"Although human rights as legal norms do not themselves constitute an overarching belief-system, the underlying principles - such as the respect for human dignity, the equality of all human beings and the aspiration to universal justice - have substantive overlaps with many religious, culture and philosophical traditions. Human rights may therefore provide incentives for strengthening the awareness of the charitable messages contained in different religions or beliefs in order to build resilience against messages of hatred and violence."

The Special Rapporteur noted that perpetrators of violence typically represent comparatively small segments of the various religious communities to which they belong, "while the large majority of believers are usually appalled to see violence perpetrated in the name of their religion. It is all the more important," he stressed, "for the majorities and their leaders, who do not endorse the violence, to speak out against it."


Interreligious communication and cooperation are to be encouraged. The Special Rapporteur specifically cited the cooperation between the LWF and Islamic Relief Worldwide in providing aid for refugees and internally displaced persons. "Apart from supporting people who are living under dire conditions, such cooperation also sends a much-needed message of hope to these communities and to the international community, and constitutes good practices that may inspire others."

At the conclusion of his 23-page report, the Special Rapporteur listed 33 recommendations. Here are the four addressed to religious communities:

"When religious communities and their leaders address any violence committed in the name of their religion, they should take seriously the relevance, inter alia, of religious motives often stemming from narrow-minded, polarizing and patriarchal interpretations of religious traditions."

"In situations in which speaking out against violence may be dangerous, fellow believers living in safer political environments should lend their voices and clearly condemn violence committed in the name of their religion."

"Religious communities and their leaders should promote empathy, respect, non-discrimination and an appreciation of diversity. They should challenge the authenticity claims of religious extremists by exposing their views as being ignorant of the charitable core messages contained in religious traditions. Additionally, they should share with others their beliefs in the importance of respecting the rights of others, thereby contributing to a sense that the rights of all will be respected."

"Religious communities should feel encouraged to start initiatives of interreligious communication and cooperation, including the establishment of interreligious councils. A broad representation, including gender balance and participation of different generations, can ensure that larger populations can take active ownership of such initiatives."

At a time when violent acts are so often clothed in religion, the Special Rapporteur underlined that there is no religion that can be said to be a "violent" one. Just as it is human beings who have rights, not religions, so it is that human beings have responsibility for violent actions, not religions.

Ralston Deffenbaugh is Assistant General Secretary for International Affairs and Human Rights at the LWF. From 2011 to 2015, he served as chairperson of the Geneva NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief, and now serves as secretary.

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