Promoting Religious Tolerance
We would like to thank Special Rapporteur, Mr. Angelo Vidal d'Almeida Ribeiro, for his excellent report on the "Implementation of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief" (document E/CN.4/1989/44), submitted to this session of the Commission. As he points out, the phenomenon of religious intolerance is extremely complex and, therefore, difficult to combat. The Baha'i International Community is convinced, however, that it can be overcome.
Our optimism stems from the conviction that the world is moving inexorably toward unity and tolerance of diversity -- even diversity of religion and belief. We are encouraged by the goodwill of people everywhere, the determination of the international community to progress in this important area and the practical means which are being adopted to promote religious tolerance.
The adoption in 1981 of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief has set the standard, and although a convention on religious intolerance has not yet been drafted, the principle of religious toleration is gaining acceptance. These initiatives are essential if we are to contain active discrimination against groups of people on the basis of their beliefs.
The challenge before us now is to promote a spirit of religious tolerance, not just among government leaders, but among the generality of mankind. We must change the hearts and the minds of the people, for it is there that religious intolerance first takes root.
Special Rapporteur, Mrs. Elizabeth Odio Benito, has contributed substantially to our understanding of religious intolerance by her 1986 "Study of the current dimensions of the problems of intolerance and of discrimination on grounds of religion or belief" (document E/CN.4/Sub.2/1987/26). She concludes that of all the causes of religious intolerance, the most prevalent is "ignorance and lack of understanding of the most basic elements of various religions or beliefs."
Thus, it would appear that education is the path to the elimination of religious intolerance. By eliminating ignorance of other religions and, thereby, promoting understanding, education would treat the latent causes of intolerance and gradually, over time, deprive those who would distort religious teachings for their own purposes of the support they need. Unfortunately, the task is not quite that simple.
Intolerance of other religions, when it is instilled in childhood as part of one's religious beliefs, is particularly difficult to eradicate.
Mrs. Odio Benito points out that attitudes learned in childhood have a lasting and profound influence upon a person's whole approach to life, and it is almost impossible to set them aside. In fact, she explains, those who follow a particular religion may actively resist any attempt to educate them about other religions... "Familiar only with the tenets of their own religion or belief, they have little interest in learning about, or learning to understand, those of another faith; indeed, their attitude in this respect may be totally negative."
If this is true, it would suggest that strong religious beliefs are incompatible with tolerance of the religious beliefs of others. On the contrary. In the Baha'i view, religious tolerance is not only compatible with strong religious beliefs, it is the hallmark of a clear understanding of the purpose of religion.
The spiritual basis for religious tolerance is the recognition of the common source of all the world's great faiths. A fair-minded examination of the actual utterances of the Founders of the great religions, and of the social milieus in which they carried out their missions will reveal that there is nothing to support the contentions and prejudices deranging the religious communities of mankind and, therefore, all human affairs.
Mr. Ribeiro, in his report, has echoed the challenge Mrs. Odio Benito placed before the international community when she asked for the continuance of "frank, patient and constructive dialogue -- hopefully free of polemics and invective." Certainly consultation and cooperation among diplomats and government officials will be necessary to implement the standards set forth in this declaration, but, ultimately, the dialogue must include the followers of the world's religions.
It is, therefore, the religious leaders of this world who must light the way to understanding and harmony among the people of all faiths. They have a spiritual responsibility to sow the seeds of religious tolerance and understanding in the hearts of their followers. How else will the followers of all religions be able to resolve the differences between them, both in theory and in practice?
The challenge facing the religious leaders of mankind is this: to contemplate, with hearts filled with the spirit of compassion and a desire for truth, the plight of humanity, and to ask themselves whether they cannot, in humility before their Almighty Creator, submerge their theological differences in a great spirit of mutual forbearance that will enable them to work together for the advancement of human understanding and peace.