Last week, I attended the first AGM of the newly formed All Party Parliamentary Group on International Religious Freedom, set up to look at ways of protecting basic human rights in the face of mounting religious bigotry in many parts of the world, To date it has received evidence from persecuted B’hais in Iran, Muslims in Burma, Christians in North Korea and Saudi Arabia, and Hindus in Pakistan and many others. Little is now left of a once thriving Sikh community in Afghanistan. The list is virtually endless.
As a first step the newly formed Group will continue mapping the extent of religious persecution in different parts of the world, and lobby the government to take the lead in ensuring international aid is strictly tied to full observance of freedom of religion and belief as detailed in Article 18 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. It also has the difficult task of trying to ensure that we, and others do not turn a blind eye to human rights abuses in so called ‘friendly’ countries. It was the great human rights activist Andrei Sakharov who observed that there will be no peace in the world until we are even- handed in addressing such abuse.
The question we all have to ask is, why do religions which talk of peace and forgiveness, themselves promote or get actively involved in horrendous violence against those of a different faith? How can we get followers of our different religions to respect the clear teachings of tolerance and respect for others found in our scriptures?
To me as a Sikh, the answer lies in the fact that while the core teachings of religion are easy to understand, living true to them is far more demanding. We find it much easier to turn to and import negative culture into our different religions which often carries with it false and divisive notions of superiority. With the passage of time, these negative cultural attitudes to those that are different often trump underlying ethical teaching.
The Sikh Gurus observed in some memorable verses how such negative and divisive culture masked and distorted true religious teachings in our different faiths and urged drastic spring cleaning of that which passes for belief, to bring uplifting ethical teachings of responsibility and concern for others back to the fore. Much the same task faces all religions today.