Although Africa is characterised as a very religious continent, with high levels of religious identification and practice, the value of legally ensuring the protection of religious freedom is often overlooked – which is an opportunity missed! Global lived experience shows that where religious freedom is correctly integrated into the legal system (and social fabric) of any nation, the whole of society benefits greatly socio-economically.
In view of this, the Institute For Global Engagement (“IGE”) – a USA-based non-profit committed to catalysing freedom of faith worldwide – and Freedom of Religion South Africa (“FOR SA”) eagerly took hands to present the first African IGE conference on “Religious Freedom and the Rule of Law”.
The incalculable societal value of religious freedom
The purpose of the conference was to “initiate new multi-faith and multi-sector engagement opportunities” across sub-Saharan Africa to “assess and address societal conflicts and political instability”.
In his welcoming address, FOR SA’s Executive Director, Michael Swain, noted that “we reflect our faith in our relationships and further manifest it in the societies we build”. The inalienable fundamental right to freedom of religion – which necessarily includes the freedom, as individuals and religious institutions, to practice faith without fear in private and public – is foundational for establishing and maintaining vibrant democratic societies that celebrate diversity and tolerance of a plurality of ideas. In turn, healthy democracies are crucial for sustained peace, political stability, and socio-economic prosperity.
Drawing together as experts and leaders, coming away as friends
Delegates (which included academics, senior religious leaders, political representatives, legal experts, and civil society leaders) expressed their sincere appreciation – and delight – for new relationships made and existing relationships deepened. For many, this was the highlight of the conference – and rightly so. Only by working together, can we achieve the laudable societal objectives of religious freedom, good governance, and sustainable peace and prosperity.
For this reason, FOR SA is particularly excited that delegates from numerous sub-Saharan African countries, expressed the desire to establish organisations similar to FOR SA in their nations. We believe such a development is vital for constructively influencing law and policy to protect faith and freedom across the sub-Saharan region.
“A democratic society that respects and protects freedom of religion is one that values diversity, inclusivity, and human rights, and is better able to promote the well-being and flourishing of its citizens.” – Michael Swain
Engaging with critical topics and trends
The conference drew together a wide range of local and international speakers, who delivered thought-provoking talks on topics ranging from protecting and promoting religious rights and freedoms from a South African and international human rights perspective; to global trends in religion and governance; the concept of ‘rule of law’; and the role of faith communities in the democratic process.
FOR SA’s legal advisor, Daniela Ellerbeck, addressed delegates on “Religious Freedom and the Rule of Law in South Africa’. She discussed what ‘rule of law’ and ‘religious freedom’ means in our constitutional context, what (should) happen when freedom of religion and other fundamental rights come into conflict, and highlighted several law and policy developments impacting religious freedom in South Africa.
She emphasised that the purpose of the rule of law is to protect fundamental individual rights (such as freedom of religion), which in turn maintains the legitimacy of the legal systems in the citizens’ eyes (i.e., their sense of justice and fairness), she noted that:
“Should a State, even in the name of equality, try and stamp down uniform beliefs, thoughts and opinions on its citizens, or try and stamp out the expression of beliefs, thoughts and opinions it deems unwanted and unwelcome in society, it will find itself at loggerheads with its citizens, who will likely no longer respect the law (and government) that treats them as enemies.”
Experts from several Asian nations – namely, China, Singapore, Indonesia, and Taiwan – discussed the approach to religion and the rule of law in their nations, equipping delegates with critical knowledge from a global comparative perspective.
It is a privilege for FOR SA to engage with critical issues at the nexus of religion, law, and governance. The conference was an invaluable opportunity to learn how religious freedom is implemented in different political, social, and cultural contexts.
As FOR SA’s Michael Swain, remarked: “If we wish to see the peace and liberty that we desire – and its blessing upon our peoples – the perspectives of the faith communities must be properly integrated into the political debate”.
If we want to protect our constitutional democracy and promote the well-being and flourishing of each and every person within South Africa’s borders – if we want to live in a society that celebrates diversity, true inclusivity, and fundamental human rights – we must value and uphold freedom of religion.