December 10 was the United Nations' International Human Rights Day. Jamaica celebrated the day with high international recognition and commendation for religious freedom.
In the proliferation of rights, the right to freedom of religion remains a foundational right. Immediately after declaring as the first of its 30 articles that "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights [and] they are endowed with reason and conscience", Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) follows, stating, "Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status."
Article 18 is even more specific: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."
The UDHR, which was adopted by the General Assembly of the then fledgling UN on December 10, 1948, was fashioned out of the blood and ashes of the Second World War.
During the war, the Allies had declared the Four Freedoms as their basic war aim: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from fear, freedom from want.
Further back in time, what has become the greatest republic yet established by humankind anchored its Declaration of Independence and its constitutional Bill of Rights in the ideals of religious freedom. The preamble of the United States' Declaration of Independence anchored that revolutionary declaration in the self-evident truth "that all men are created equal, [and] that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights".
When a Bill of Rights was to be added to the Constitution as a set of amendments, the very first amendment began: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ... ." That is, there was to be no state church or religion, and citizens would be free to adopt and practise their own religion according to their conscience.
The American founding fathers understood religious freedom to be fundamental to the existence of a free and democratic republic. While a few of them were primarily commercial ventures, many of the original 13 colonies had been founded as havens from religious oppression and persecution in Europe. Thanksgiving derives from the arrival of the Pilgrims in 1620 to form Plymouth settlement in what became the colony, then state, of Massachusetts. American colonists themselves, however, turned around and practised suppressing and persecuting religions other than their own. The federal republic of the United States of America was founded to be a free and democratic state without a king and without a pope.
Our own young state, internationally recognised for its religious freedom, has embedded the right to religious freedom in its new Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms at Section 17. Adopting the language of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, our constitutional provision reads: "Every person shall have the right to freedom of religion, including the freedom to change his religion and the right, either alone or in community with others and both in public and in private, to manifest and propagate his religion in worship, teaching, practice and observance."
The law protects the constitution of religious bodies from interference and defends religious instruction by religious bodies while protecting persons from forced instruction and participation in religious ceremony or observance that relates to a religion or religious body that is not their own.
We are so used to these freedoms, happily entrenched in both the law and the culture, that we are prone to take them for granted and not realise that this is not the case across most of the world.
On January 24 next year, a Festival of Religious Freedom, spearheaded by the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA) and the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Jamaica, will be held to celebrate the high level of religious freedom enjoyed in our country.
The 2013 Report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom estimated that 76 per cent of the world's people were experiencing varying degrees of infringement of religious rights and freedoms.
Citing numerous cases, the report said: "All around the world, individuals were subjected to discrimination, violence and abuse, perpetrated and sanctioned violence for simply exercising their faith, identifying with a certain religion, or choosing not to believe in a higher deity at all."
Governments around the world, the report noted, were subjecting "members of religious groups to repressive policies, discriminatory laws, disenfranchisement, and discriminatory application of laws".
The US, the investigating and reporting state, comes up for its fair share of criticisms of the State trespassing upon religious rights and freedoms in what the law demands some citizens to do in violation of their religious beliefs and their consciences. The US report notes, "Religious freedom is a human right knitted into the fabric of our founding and enshrined in our Constitution."
Governmental actions around the world, the report noted, "not only infringed on freedom of religion themselves, but they also often created a permissive environment for broader human rights abuses. Restrictive policies included laws criminalising religious activities and expression, prohibitions on conversion or proselytising, blasphemy laws, and stringent registration requirements or discriminatory application of registration requirements for religious organisations".
Jamaica is, thankfully, free of these infringements. The recent passing of flexible work arrangements legislation has raised fears that religious rights and freedoms could be infringed by employers. The Government has repeatedly given the assurance that the law protects the right to a day of worship and that redress for trespass upon religious rights and freedoms in employment can be had through its Ministry of Labour although the mechanism behind the guarantee remains fuzzy and unspecific.
The Jamaica chapter of the IRLA to be launched on January 24 during the Festival of Religious Freedom should take the lead as an advocacy agency on the matter, an agency to which people who feel that their religious rights have been infringed can turn to for help.
The International Religious Liberty Association wants to showcase to the world that the freedom of religion that exists in Jamaica is an example of true religious freedom. As the secretary general of the 121-year-old IRLA, Dr John Graz, said while visiting: "Religious freedom is almost a part of the culture of the Jamaican people where each individual can choose their religion and even have no religion, or to change their religion without being discriminated, arrested, assassinated or executed for blasphemy or apostasy."
Originally organised by the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1893, the IRLA is a non-sectarian, non-political NGO recognised by the United Nations. The mission of the association is to "disseminate the principles of religious liberty throughout the world; defend and safeguard the civil right of all people to worship or not to worship, to adopt a religion or belief of their choice, to manifest their religious convictions in observance, promulgation, and teaching, subject only to the respect for the equivalent rights of others; support the right of religious organisations to operate freely in every country by their establishing and owning charitable or educational institutions; and organise local, regional, and national chapters as well as seminars, and congresses".
Once again, Jamaica holds a light to the world. And as one newspaper editorial proudly put it, "World Festival of Religious Freedom a feather in Jamaica's cap."