International conference on persecution for faith

On November 29, 2023, Institute for Christian-Democratic Politics (abbrev. IKDP) organised already the 7th yearly international conference on persecution for faith. It took place in Hall of Patriots in Carolinum, Prague, Czech Republic. Together with Czech Bishops’ Conference (abbrev. ČBK), Ecumenical Council of Churches in the Czech Republic (abbrev. ERC) and Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic (abbrev. FŽO), and in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), the conference took place already for the 5th time on the occasion of Red Wednesday, the international initiative to commemorate those persecuted for their faith.

This year’s Red Wednesday was held under the auspices of the Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic Mr Jan Lipavský, Minister for Culture of the Czech Republic Mr Martin Baxa and the Rector of Charles University Mrs Milena Králíčková. The conference was organised with the support of Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies (WMCES) and received financial support from the European Parliament. Sole liability rested with IKDP, the European Parliament has not been responsible for the activity.

As usual, the conference was followed by subsequent programme typical for Red Wednesday in Prague: a Jewish-Christian prayer in the Great Hall of Carolinum and a procession around buildings lit up in red, the Church of St. Nicholas at the Old Town Square, the Old-New Synagogue and the Church of St. Giles in which the evening ended with a fund-raising concert which was also broadcasted live by TV Noe.

Please see the detailed programme of the conference and short bio’s of the speakers here. You can read about the contents of the conference in more details below.  You can view the recording from the conference here.

The contents of the conference in more details:

On 29 November 2023, the 7th annual international conference on persecution for faith (the 5th conference on the occasion of Red Wednesday), this year entitled Freedom of Religion in Public Space, took place in the Hall of Patriots in Carolinum in Prague, CZ. Participants of two panels tried to answer two questions: what place does freedom of religion have among human rights and how to bring freedom of religion into the public debate.

The conference which was organized by the Institute for Christian Democratic Politics (abbrev. “IKDP”) was opened with short greetings by the Vice-Rector of Charles University Jan Kuklík, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic Eduard Hulicius, Deputy Minister of Culture of the Czech Republic Ondřej Chrást, and the opening remarks were brought by the general secretaries of the co-organizing religious organizations: Stanislav Přibyl from the Czech Bishops’ Conference, Petr Jan Vinš from Ecumenical Council of Churches in the Czech Republic and Michael Pelíšek from Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic.

The first panel held the name What Place Does the Religious Freedom Have Among Human Rights? The first speaker was Fiona Bruce who is a Member of the British Parliament and the UK Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief. She began her speech by expressing her gratitude for the fact that we commemorate Red Wednesday in the Czech Republic on such a large scale, as this is far from the norm in other countries. She also presented the story of a Christian woman from Nigeria who had survived an attack by Islamist terrorists on the church she had been in at the time, in which 150 people had been injured and 41 killed. The right to freedom of religion, she said, is one of the most fundamental human rights, even from a historical perspective, and unfortunately, it is very often overlooked in discussions about fundamental human rights, even though it is the most violated. It is also one of the most important rights ever, because people cannot be truly free unless they are able to live and act according to their inner convictions and beliefs. The right to freedom of religion is often the first human right to be affected in states where human rights violations occur, and is therefore an indicator of a wider problem in society. She concluded her speech by stressing that we must continue to fight for freedom of religion, as up to 70% of people in the world do not have this option.

The second speaker was Marcela Szymanski, representative of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) and member of the Council of Experts of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance. She began her presentation by introducing ACN and the Religious Freedom Report which the organization publishes every two years and which contains data on authoritarian states and restrictions on religious freedom around the world. According to the information, the situation in this area has worsened, with an increase in authoritarian regimes and, with it, restrictions on religious freedom. M. Szymanski stressed that Africa is one of the most affected areas in terms of lack of religious freedoms, yet there is little focus on it.

The third speaker was Rabbi David Rosen who is a special advisor to the Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi. At the beginning of his speech, he appreciated that the Jewish community in the Czech Republic is part of Red Wednesday, because he knows of no other country where this is the case. He said that he was very happy that the Red Wednesday was about religion and not just about faith, as is very often the case in current public debates. He said that this is because secular Western society often associates the word religion only with what belongs to the private sphere, thus neglecting the importance of religion in the public sphere. Especially neglected is the importance of the power of religion which gives people direction and the possibility to belong somewhere, thus creating our identity, moral values and giving stability to our personal psychosocial but also communal existence (the so-called 3Bs – believing, behaving, belonging). It should therefore be in the interest of society to respect and fight for freedom of religion.

The last speaker in the first panel was José Luis Bazán, Secretary of the Commission on Migration and Asylum of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the EU (COMECE) and Legal Adviser on Migration and Asylum and on International Religious Freedom. He began his presentation by outlining the change in society’s view of religion which is more often perceived as irrational in public debate, with the result that religious values are not admitted into debates on morality and other values. The right to freedom of religion is nowadays often seen as a less important and inferior human right. J. L. Bazán also presented several cases in which people in the Western world have been persecuted for expressing their religious values because they did not agree with the mainstream view on some contemporary issues.

The second panel was entitled How to Get Freedom of Religion Into Public Discussion? The first speaker was Jan Olbrycht, Member of European Parliament, who began by presenting the ways in which we could bring freedom of religion into the wider public consciousness. We need to be able to attract attention in order to be heard, and one way to have a debate about religion is to link it to a debate about freedom and human rights because these are nowadays practically considered as the “new God”. He went on to talk about the issue of the integration of religion into everyday life, which he felt was particularly important now, not least in view of the influx of migrants into EU countries. He concluded his speech by focusing on the loss of a universal definition of human rights which is a major problem today as it is important to maintain the universality of human rights in order to preserve and protect them.

The second speaker was Paul Marshall, a Senior Fellow at Religious Freedom Institute and Hudson Institute, and Wilson Professor of Religious Freedom at Baylor University in the USA. He spoke about the lack of media coverage of religious freedom and religion. Media representatives are also very often poorly educated on religion and therefore report inaccurately or not at all. At the same time, religion is linked to many other areas of our society and it is important to monitor its development, as some of the world’s conflicts are linked to religious strife. In addition, religion is a very important part of human life that defines and determines our behaviour and thinking. It is therefore very important for journalists to understand religion and report on it correctly.

The third speaker was Canon Chris Sugden who works at the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life. He began by mentioning that a great many of the problems in the world today are rooted in inter-religious conflict. However, the media often do not talk about religion and religious conflict because it is not an interesting topic. Reporting on some religious conflicts can affect other areas of life in society, for example, in the case of criticism of Muslims, the price of oil can rise. Debate on these topics is also difficult, he said, because of “cancel culture” and “hate speech”. Nowadays, we also focus more on human individuality than religion which, however, does not quite go together, which is why religion is neglected in the media.

The last speaker in the second panel was Eva Saenz Diez, a researcher on education in the Arab world and freedom of religion and belief in Arab and Muslim countries. She sees the reason for the low representation of religious issues in the media as a lack of education and awareness in the wider society, not least because religion is not taught enough in schools. Religion is treated as a personal matter in Western society and so is not discussed in public or in the media. She spoke of the importance of religious education because schools as institutions serve to ensure that pupils learn basic values and beliefs which include respect for freedom of religion.

The conference concluded with closing remarks by Michael Benhamou, Research Associate at the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies and Executive Director of OPEWI – Europe’s War Institute, and Pavel Svoboda, Chairman of Administrative Board of IKDP and former Member of European Parliament.