Seminar-conference on the theme

From the policy of state atheism to the liberty of conscience

hosted by the Russian Academy of Public Administration

under the President of the Russian Federation

Moscow May 23 — 26, 2000

 

 

Paper prepared collaboratively by

Tore Lindholm

The Norwegian Institute of Human Rights

University of Oslo

email: tore.lindholm@nihr.uio.no

telephone office: +47 22842013, fax +47 22842002

telephone home: +47 22146262, fax +47 22149852

and

Barbro Sveen

The Council for Religious and Life Stance Communities in Norway

email: barbro.sveen@trooglivssyn.no

telephone office: +47 22932855, fax +47 23330921

telephone home: +47 22211178

 

The emergence of interfaith dialogue: The Norwegian experience

Introduction

It is an honor and a pleasure for the two of us, representing the Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief, to be able to address this seminar-conference on the transition from state atheism to liberty of conscience. The Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief is privileged to be able to co-sponsor this timely and appropriate undertaking by the Russian Academy of Public Administration under the President of the Russian Federation.

We come from Norway, a small country with 4.5 million people. Except for five years of Nazi-German rule from 1940 to 1945 Norway has enjoyed uninterrupted constitutional, democratic government since 1814. But only during the last 35 years Norway has also become a rich country, thanks to the discovery of oil and gas in the North Sea.

Norwegians who remember World War II and its Cold War aftermath look to their great eastern neighbor Russia with both gratitude and concern. We hope for the best in your present struggles to ensure good governance, economic prosperity, social equity, and the protection of human rights in your huge and complex country — including the rights of everyone in Russia to enjoy and exercise freedom of religion or belief.

As members of the Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief we know from experience that representatives from different confessional communities can have constructive dialogues about important matters of common concern, for example about moral, educational, legislative, and social issues in the larger society. We hold communication and interaction between differing confessions to be an increasingly important dimension of our exercise of freedom of religion and belief.

Hence, our presentation today gives an account of our experience with interfaith dialogue in Norway, during the last 15 years. We shall report to you on a number of serious and extensive dialogue projects, as well as other cooperative undertakings, across the barriers that separate different religious or "life stance" (or "world view") communities in Norway.

First, however, we need to sketch Norway’s long tradition as a culturally homogeneous and a religiously monolithic Christian State.

The historical background

For a period of one thousand years Norway has been a kingdom with a Christian "state church". When Christianity was introduced, rather violently, a thousand years ago the law of the land soon laid down that "every man shall be a Christian in the Realm of Norway" (The Frostating Code). Being a Norwegian implied being also a Christian. Royal power and Church power were always intimately related, though the balance of power would shift back and forth between royal and church dominance.

When the Lutheran Reformation was introduced in Norway, by royal decree of our then Danish king in 1536, the bond between state and church was further intensified. During the 18th century political control of religion and religious life became absolutist. Appointments and dismissals of bishops and priests, control of church doctrine and church property, the development of church liturgy and the organization of popular religious education, these were all matters decided by the sovereign — and more or less benign — king and his administration. Two cases in point:

In 1814 Norway got a short lease of national independence, as a side-effect of the Napoleonic Wars. Before being forced to form a union with Sweden Norwegians made use of the opportunity to create their own constitution which is by now the oldest constitution in Europe. It was in 1814 also the most liberal, the most egalitarian, and the most democratic constitution in all of Europe. But, with respect to liberty of conscience Norwegians did establish, we must admit, a religiously almost totalitarian state. It appeared self-evident to our constitutional Founding Fathers that in independent Norway the Evangelical-Lutheran Church should carry on as the public religion of the state, just as earlier under the Danish king. A weak provision of religious freedom was proposed, and then dropped. Instead, paragraph 2 of Norway’s new 1814 Constitution was given this wording:

The Evangelical-Lutheran religion shall remain the public religion of the state. Inhabitants belonging to it have the duty to raise their children in it. Jesuits and monastic orders are not to be tolerated. Jews are still to be excluded from access to the Realm.

So, independent Norway got started on a footing of candid religious intoleration. And after 1814 Norway has only slowly evolved toward a modern, multicultural, pluralist, and religiously tolerant society.

Here are a few main steps in this slow process:

1. 1845: Lutheran religious monopoly partly lifted. Only in 1845 legislation was passed that lifted the ban on religious dissidents, a ban barring any religious affiliation other than that of the Church of Norway, i.e. the evangelical-Lutheran state church. The new 1845 Act on Religious Dissidents recognized, for a limited set of protestant denominations, their right to exist in Norway.

2. 1851, 1897, and 1956: Constitutionally mandated intoleration repealed. After intense public debates and against much resistance liberal forces succeeded 1851 in having the constitutional provision excluding Jews from access to Norway reversed. Similarly, the constitutional ban on monastic order was lifted 1897, and the ban on Jesuits only as late as 1956. (The banning of Jesuits from Norway was incompatible with Norwegian compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights, which Norway had already helped draft, and had ratified.)

3. 1878: Civil service careers opened to non-Lutherans. The Constitution originally required that all public servants should belong to the Church of Norway. This rule was revoked in 1878 and civil service careers became open also to people who were not members of the state church.

4. 1919: End to exclusion of non-Lutherans from ministerial posts. The constitution originally required that all cabinet minister should belong to Church of Norway. In 1919 this rule was modified to the effect that at least 50 % of government ministers must belong to Church of Norway.

  1. 1964 and 1969: Breakthrough for religious non-discrimination. The 1960s are crucial for two reasons:

In 1964 freedom of religion becomes guaranteed by the Constitution by insertion of the following provision into the text of paragraph 2 (quoted above; as reported the three original provisions of religious intoleration in paragraph 2 had already been deleted): "All inhabitants of the Realm shall enjoy free exercise of religion."

In 1969 new legislation regulating the legal status and the public support of all religious communities was passed. A new Act on Communities of Belief provides that any religious community outside the Church of Norway (and, as amended 1981, also any non-religious "life stance" community) is entitled to receive annually from the Norwegian state and municipalities the same financial support per member as is received per member by the Church of Norway. (All costs of running the Church of Norway are covered by the government and financed from ordinary taxes.) This new arrangement means that the Norwegian state has taken on a general obligation to support all religious communities and all non-religious life stance communities in Norway without any discrimination. As a consequence, dissident belief communities of all descriptions receive more generous financial support from the public purse in Norway than in any other European country. Incidentally, in Norway legal registration of new religious communities or of non-religious belief communities is relatively easy: To become recognized and registered you need a written statement of a creed (or a world view, or a life stance) and a list of members who adhere to this doctrine. Once a belief community meets these conditions it is eligible for public support, without being subjected to any additional governmental "quality control".

6. 1999: Major international human rights treaties incorporated into Norwegian law. In 1999 Stortinget (Norway’s legislature) passed the Norwegian Human Rights Act, making the European Convention on Human Rights with its several Protocols, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social end Cultural Rights directly applicable by Norwegian Courts, and with legal priority over conflicting provisions in other Norwegian laws. Henceforth the major international human rights provisions on freedom of religion or belief (including those expounded at this conference by Silvio Ferrari) may be enforced by Norwegian courts.

Especially in light of the last two steps one might think that all is now well for freedom of religion or belief in the social-democratic petrolium kingdom of Norway. But not so — not in the eyes of many thoughtful Norwegians, within or outside the Church of Norway. Why?

These, then, are among the controversial matters addressed in the sequence of noteworthy interfaith dialogue and inter-confessional cooperation projects that have been conducted in Norway after 1985.

Interfaith dialogue emerges in Norway 1985 to 2000

Having indicated the historical background we can now report on seven major events in the emerging interfaith dialogue in Norway during the last 15 years of the 20th century:

1985: Christians and Humanists start interfaith dialogue at Lillehammer

Norway’s Humanist Association is the largest national Humanist Association in any country and now has more than 70 000 members. Founded in 1956 the Humanist Association has been the standard antagonist of the Church of Norway, both criticizing the Christian religion and combating the existence of a state church and its predominance in Norwegian schools and in many other arenas of public life. — 1984 in the town of Lillehammer regional chapters of the Humanist Association and of the Church of Norway Association, cooperating with the Nansen Academy, opened Norway's first organized interfaith dialogue, on the theme: "Humanists and Christians: What separates us — what unites us?"

At the 1985 Lillehammer dialogue participants were very candid, giving free outlet to many years of stored up mutual aggression, prejudice — and ignorance. But, the air was cleared: Surely, old grievances were expressed and important divides between Christian believers and Humanist non-believers were underlined. But, by engaging in serious discussion participants were also profoundly surprised to discover large and significant areas of common moral concern, e.g. about abuse of drugs, treatment of the elderly, how to combat xenophobia, and the moral education of the young. And many participants not only learnt to know, but also learnt to like, persons on the other side of the confessional fence. Personal and institutional bonds were established across confessional divides and a tradition of annual interfaith dialogues at the Nansen Academy was initiated. In this way boundaries have become less rigid and black-and-white images of one another modified. Through dialogue based on mutual respect old disagreements have become better understood, and to some extent even appreciated, and have been supplemented with a widening area of publicly significant normative agreement and common causes.

1988: Muslims and Christians begin serious dialogue in Oslo

The presence in Norway of a sizable number of Muslims is a very recent phenomenon, predominantly due to immigration of workers during the last forty years, mainly from Pakistan, Turkey and other Muslim countries. Muslims now count about 60 000 people.

Organized dialogue between Muslims and Christians in Norway started in September 1988 at the invitation of Vestre Aker congregation (Church of Norway) in Oslo. The topic for this first public Christian-Muslim dialogue was "Norway as a multicultural society". This dialogue was to initiate a series of Christian-Muslim conferences and projects in the Oslo region, addressing both spiritual questions and secular issues of concern to both parties. The foremost Church of Norway personality in this process has been, and still is, Oddbjørn Leirvik, a priest and a scholar whose deep knowledge of Islam and practical grasp of dialogue is widely recognized. An important feature of the Oslo dialogue between Muslims and Christians has been the unobtrusive emphasis on equality and mutual respect between the two parties.

In 1992 the Islamic Council Norway and the Church of Norway Council on Ecumenical and International Relations institutionalized a permanent link, thus launching a publicly formalized cooperation between the largest religious minority and the majority religion in Norway.

1991: Nansen Academy dialogue "Communal ethic in multicultural Norway"

Before the arrival in Norway of guest workers from abroad in the beginning of the 1970s only The Humanist Association (1956), The Mosaic Community of Faith (1892), and The Baha’i Community (1948) represented organized alternatives to Christian majority society.

Around 1970 several of the great world religions arrived in Norway and gradually established organizations of their own. The number of organized Muslims has grown steadily from about 1000 in 1980 to about 60 000 today. Also Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs have formed organizations and so have new religious movements. Religious and life stance pluralism has gained momentum and become a challenge to the state church and majority religion.

On this background the Nansen Academy in 1991, having got financial support from the Norwegian government, initiated a dialogue project called "Communal ethics in multicultural Norway". It purpose was to:

On the part of Christians Church of Norway, The Catholic Church, and The Methodist Church were represented; beyond that representatives of Islam, Humanism, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and the Baha’i community were participants. This group of 16 people undertook something hitherto untried in Norway: by way of dialogue to seek out a maximally extensive set of shared value commitments, to identify foreseeable conflicts, and to find constructive ways of handling these conflicts.

The dialogue was founded on a number of core values: a considered toleration that may be grounded in various normative traditions; an aptitude for empathy across border lines; a readiness to appreciate and learn from others; and the ability to put up with what one is critical of. Fidelity to fundamental values implies readiness to be clear about limits to toleration. Therefore candid interfaith conversation include conflicts and confrontations.

The dialogue group agreed that conversations had to be conducted in a spirit of unimpeded truthfulness where one is ready to recognize destructive features of one’s own traditions. Religions have been deployed in the service of good and evil, destructively as well as constructively. Here the concept of truth is crucial. The group agreed that peaceful coexistence is possible, provided each party permits the other party to testify to the truth it has found — and simultaneously recognizes that the whole and perfect truth belongs to no party.

Open and candid dialogue is predicated on equal dignity. No party must feel it is overruled due to basic inequalities of power and life circumstances. To establish such equality within the group conversations started with each participant telling her life story. The group did not begin with doctrines but with human beings who are always more than their opinions and positions. The upshot was that getting to know others as human beings, made it is easier also to relate constructively to the opinions of others.

Once initial procedures and principles were settled, the group started their conversation about questions related to the course of human life, from conception to death. On each theme "shared positions" as well as "peculiar or conflicting positions" were expressed and noted. Themes addressed were: biotechnology, abortion, naming of persons, circumcision, children and youth, freedom and limits to freedom, marriage and divorce, equal rights and equal dignity, polygamy, homosexuality, old age, euthanasia, autopsy, funerals, the value basis of public schools, same public schools for all/private schools, education in religion and life stance, celebration of public or religious holidays and feasts, economic support of religious or life stance communities, access to Norway for religious leaders.

The purpose of these first discussions among participants of all major religious and life stance communities in Norway was not to discover a shared ethic, but to elaborate a communal ethic. A shared ethic would only touch on themes where consensus was available and also grind down diverging views to generally acceptable minimum standards. A communal ethic, on the other hand, addresses all themes of importance to a decent community and examines basic values about which binding agreement can be achieved (on diverging grounds) — including how competing values frequently must me weighed. It deals with how a multicultural and multi-religious people may live with their differences in institutions that can accommodate differences in mutually acceptable ways.

In their dialogue about a communal ethic in multicultural Norway participants were forced to attend both to the beauty of a good compromise and the voice of individual conscience. After six two-days discussions spanning one year, the dialogue group expressed what really separated them in the following terms:

Our dialogue group has conducted several discussion of whether basic differences in ethical thinking separate "religious" from "secular" worldviews, or whether we are in crucial questions confronted with alliances that transgress against "spiritual" and "this-worldly" positions and also against the divides between religions. I seems that differences within religions and life stances are often as great as differences between them."

The above statement is borrowed from the 108 pages report on the Communal ethic in a multicultural Norway dialogue project published by the Norwegian University Press in 1993. (Oddbjørn Leirvik, ed. Fellesskapsetikk i et flerkulturelt Norge, Oslo: Universitetsforlaget 1993) The report contains a wealth of specific and more general proposals, recommendations, and analyzes, and has functioned as a fountain of ideas for interfaith dialogue work in Norway.

1996: Nansen Academy dialogue "Religions, life stances, and human rights in Norway"

One of the crucial themes addressed by the 1991 dialogue group was the challenge of universally binding human rights: a challenge both to religions and ideologies ("How does each community of faith or belief accommodate, support, and justify a commitment on internally credible grounds for the endorsement and observance of human rights?") and a challenge to the state and the larger society ("How well are all human rights pertaining to the recognition, unimpeded exercise, and enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief catered for by society?")

In 1996 the Nansen Academy got governmental financial support for another similarly organized dialogue project devoted exclusively to the theme "Religions, life stances, and human rights in Norway". The purpose was:

It would lead too far to report, even in outline, on the ramified discussions about these matters, during more than one year between Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, Catholics, Pentacostals, Buddhists, Baha’is, Humanists, New Age people, Greek Orthodox and Lutherans. Lofty issues of high principles as well as practical realities of public administration; thorny issues of past failures in each tradition and recent reinterpretations of scriptures and principles in support of equal dignity and human rights; the testing of minority demands on state and society in Norway against the practice of coreligionists in majority positions in other countries — these are matters addressed by the dialogue group. Many issues of principle and a host of practical proposals can be found in the 250 pages dialogue report published by the Norwegian University Press (Inge Eidsvåg and Lena Larsen eds., Religion, livssyn og menneskerettigheter i Norge, Oslo: Universitetsforlaget 1997) To a large extent agreement was reached without having to compromise on specificity.

This dialogue report was more controversial than the earlier one on communal ethics because some recommendations, especially on education in religion, life stance, and ethics in Norwegian schools, went against political majority compromises reached by the legislature (Stortinget). We cannot spell out details here and shall turn to another inter-confessional undertaking that further demonstrates that such enterprises, though peaceful and orderly, may also indicate deep conflicts of value and interests but — hopefully — facilitate their long-term resolution.

After 1994: Interfaith "Campaign for freedom of belief in Norwegian schools"

Norway has few private schools. 98 percent of all children attend public schools. For more than 150 years, there has been some possibility for pupils not belonging to the state church to be exempted from the school subject "Knowledge of Christianity. Since 1974 such pupils have had the option to attend the subject "Education in alternative world views".

In 1995 the Norwegian government presented plans to replace "Knowledge of Christianity" and "Education in alternative world views" with an integrated, and mandatory, school subject: "Knowledge of Christianity and information about other religions and beliefs".

Minorities perceived that their parental rights to freedom of belief was jeopardized. Their protest against the mandatory new school subject gave birth to a broadly based "Campaign for freedom of belief in Norwegian schools". Leaders of minority religious communities and life stance organizations came together, Jews and Muslims, Humanists and Buddhists working side by side, along with some members of Church of Norway. Several political youth organizations, some trade unions, and some student organizations also joined this interfaith campaign for religious freedom and equality in Norwegian schools.

In the course of working together for campaign targets minority representatives became aware of several additional matters of common concern — issues that it would be fruitful to discuss and try to tackle cooperatively. Gradually the idea matured that what was needed was a national forum for interfaith dialogue and cooperation that would embrace as many religious and life stance communities as possible. The attempt was made to include all major religious and belief groups in Norway including the Church of Norway. In this way the experience of divisive struggle about freedom of belief in Norwegian schools gave rise to the founding of a common interfaith institution that now enjoys wide political support. The aims of the Campaign for freedom of belief in Norwegian schools have not been achieved, the struggle is still being waged against majority political decisions, and cases filed by minority communities (Humanists and Muslims respectively) are still pending before Norwegian courts.

1996: The Council for Religious and Life Stance Communities in Norway is founded

The Council for Religious and Life Stance Communities in Norway was established 30 May 1996. Representatives from eight major belief communities came together in the quarters of a Muslim congregation. It was a very special occasion when one by one their leaders rose and said: "Yes, we want to be part of the proposed interfaith council in Norway."

The Council for Religious and Life Stance Communities is unique because of the broad scope of member communities, because members work together on a platform devised entirely by themselves, and because they operate independently of government interference. Presently the member communities include: The Alternative Network (a New Age group), The Baha’i Community of Norway, the Buddhist Community of Norway, the Jewish Communities in Norway, the Norwegian Humanist Association (that organize non-believers, agnostics and atheists), the Islamic Council of Norway, the Council of Free Churches in Norway (Protestants), and the Church of Norway.

The only major group still not participating is the Catholic Church. The first elected leader of the Council was a Pentecostal pastor. The present leader is a Buddhist.

The goals of the Council for Religious and Life Stance Communities are defined in the statutes as follows:

From the beginning the Norwegian government took a great interest in The Council for Religious and Life Stance Communities in Norway. A quotation from a 1996 parliamentary document is a case in point (Stortingsmelding nr. 17, 1996/1997):

Information exchange and dialogue between religious and humanist communities, public authorities, and the general public are important in order to avoid regarding other people as enemies and to prevent conflict. The Council can be a useful partner in a dialogue with the authorities. The relevant public authorities should encourage this type of dialogue and assure that the Council is heard in issues that arise.

The Council for Religious and Life Stance Communities in Norway never practice majority voting. Everybody has to agree before the Council goes public with a position. This does imply quite a bit of work, but it is absolutely necessary to sustain trust among the members.

A key word is dialogue — dialogue without a hidden agenda. The agenda of such dialogues does not include proselytizing, it does not aim for comprehensive consensus, and it does not strive for agreement in theological matters. In Norway where the state church has enjoyed a near monopoly in public theological and moral discourse, the minorities will never trust a decision taken by the religious majority on their behalf. Mutual trust is grounded on co-operation and in the possibility of making oneself heard.

Each member organization is expected to put in an equal amount of work and an equal financial contribution. Each member organization has two members on the board of the Council. It is strange that the majority religion, covering about 83 percent of the people, has the same formal influence as have the Baha’is with only few members in Norway. But this arrangement enhances the sense of equality.

As from 1999 The Council receives an annual grant from the government, enabling it to have a small administration, and making it possible for the Council to keep up its inter-religious dialogue work. The Council has to apply for a grant each year, and the government may say yes, or say no. As a consequence the Council also has to submit an annual report and a financial account of its operation.

All issues where religious faith and humanism have significant social repercussions are discussed by the Council, including questions about human rights, genetic research, euthanasia, educational policies, the role of media in society, contested court and administrative decisions etc. The Council hosts interfaith seminars and, hopefully, it will inspire scholarly research.

So far the Council has hardly conducted theological dialogues. But it has discussed how to make authors of school textbooks give a better and more correct presentation of each religion or belief. And, the Council has addressed a host of issues of particular concern to religious communities, e.g. advised against modernization of the spelling of religious terms, protested against a proposal from a political party to forbid circumcising baby boys, and requested that political parties not use religions or beliefs as tools in their electoral campaigns. The Council has also pointed out that it is unsatisfactory that Norway gives only a four years residence permit to most Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or Buddhist clergy coming from abroad, whereas Christian priests who can document a higher education have no problem getting residence permits lasting more than four years.

Of course, the Council for Religious and Life Stance Communities in Norway is still very much occupied with the new mandatory school subject "Knowledge of Christianity and information about other religions and beliefs". The subject will be assessed by parliament (Stortinget) in Fall 2000. The Council is collecting as much material as possible in support of its views, it is conducting discussions with local and national authorities and with scholars, and it is hosting public seminars on this theme.

The Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief

In 1997 the Council for Religious and Life Stance Communities in Norway was approached by a group of academics from Norway and abroad and some prominent religious leaders who wanted to organize a large international conference in support of Freedom of Religion or Belief. The Council for Religious and Life Stance Communities was invited to hosts what became The Oslo Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief.

The plans were ambitious. Supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Norway and later also by the European Communities the Oslo Conference took place in August 1998. It was a success. More than 200 religious leaders, academics, experts, and resource persons participated. At the conclusion of the conference the Oslo Declaration on Freedom of Religion or Belief (appended below) was unanimously adopted, identifying directions for future action. In accordance with the Declaration, the Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief has been established as a non-governmental and internationally responsive organization.

The Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief is a new international network consisting of experts and representatives from religious and life stance communities worldwide. Academics are one important group, so are representatives from NGOs, from other international organizations, and from civil society.

The Council for Religious and Life Stance Communities in Norway is the national underpinning of the Oslo Coalition and presently has three board members.

The activity of the Oslo Coalition is based on the Oslo Declaration on Freedom of Religion or Belief. As a follow up of the Oslo Declaration the Coalition has worked out a strategic plan for development and practical support for Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The work of the Oslo Coalition addresses the United Nations System, prodding for an increase in resources, financial and otherwise, in support of freedom of religion or belief. It endorses the implementation of the work and recommendations of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance, and encourages the High Commissioner for Human Rights to develop a plan for co-ordination of resources for freedom of religion or belief within the UN.

High priorty tasks of the Oslo Coalition are promotion of interfaith dialogue, reconciliation and education.

The Oslo Coalition is prepared to works with academic institutions, the media, and political institutions at different levels and in various countries, and with different religious or belief communities, NGOs and international organizations.

The Oslo Coalition has an International Advisory Council consisting of distinguished persons from all over the world. The president is the Church of Norway bishop of Oslo, Gunnar Stålsett. The small coalition administration is at the Norwegian Institute for Human Rights, University of Oslo. A board of seven members and a coordinator have the responsibility for running the administration.

In 1999 the Oslo Coalition co-sponsored three international conferences: "The Sixth Annual International Law and Religion Symposium: Emerging Perspectives on Religion and Human Rights" at the Brigham Young University 3 — 5 October 1999; "Law, Religion and Democratic Society" 19- 20 October in Tartu, Estonia; and "Religious Freedom in Post-socialist Countries: Legal and State Guarantees" 21-23 October in Kiev, Ukraine.

For 2000 several elements of the Coalition plans have been carried out. A delegation from the Coalition recently visited China and conducted extensive talks with administrative and religious leaders about the situation for different faith communities in China. The visit was the beginning of an extensive cooperative process of dialogues and mutual visits between the two countries dealing with freedom of religion or belief.

And, of course, participating in the present seminar-conference on the transition from state atheism to liberty of conscience and co-sponsoring this important undertaking is one of the major undertakings by the Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief in the year 2000.

Among Oslo Coalition plans for the immediate future are:

In 2001 the Oslo Coalition will publish a practically oriented, scholarly anthology: Facilitating Freedom of Religion or Belief: The Oslo Coalition Deskbook (editors: Cole Durham, Bahia Tahzib-Lie and Tore Lindholm). The purpose of the book is to analyze, elucidate, and inform competently about important issues and problems in the field of freedom of religion or belief and to facilitate the implementation of international conventions and declarations in this field.

Also in 2001 the Coalition plans to organize an international conference in co-operation with the European Community, the Council of Europe, and the Migration Policy Group, with the intention of following up the 1998 conference on "Religion and the Integration of Immigrants".

Summing up:

Religion and belief is a powerful tool, and in the wrong hands it may, as we know, lead to bitter, bloody, and prolonged wars. Not necessarily because of the religious belief or ideology itself, but because some persons or some groups use religion or belief as a tool to gain power or maintain special interests. In Norway we have been spared such calamities. But, in our history we have ample experience of another troublesome aspect of religion and belief: Intrinsic in religions and other comprehensive normative traditions is the temptation of excluding outsiders from equal public status and from equal respect, as persons and as communities.

Our recent experience in Norway is that religion and belief can also serve as a basis for eliminating animosities and for the strengthening of understanding and cooperation across ethnic, ideological and religious divides. Here interfaith dialogues, as described in this report, is a commendable option, also from the vantage point of the society at large.

Our experience in Norway also demonstrates that the modern state has an important role to play, if our goal is to nurture the potentials of religions and life stances for dialogue, reconciliation, and mutual understanding and respect in society at large.

The state is responsible for the space between and around the communities of faith, for protecting their exercise of confessional freedom, and for safeguarding the rights of individual human beings to enjoy real freedom of religion or belief.

Exercising these freedoms, leaders and individual members of confessional communities should be ready to engage in serious interfaith dialogue.


 

Attachment to paper by Lindholm/Sveen:

 

THE OSLO DECLARATION ON FREEDOM OF RELIGION OR BELIEF

Whereas the Oslo Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief, meeting in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, reaffirms that every person has the right to freedom of religion or belief;

And whereas participants in the Oslo Conference have accepted the challenge to build an international coalition and to develop a strategic plan of action to achieve substantial progress in and give practical support to the implementation of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the 1981 United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief;

Therefore, we the participants in the Oslo Conference:

Recognize that religions and beliefs teach peace and good will; Recognize that religions and beliefs may be misused to cause intolerance, discrimination and prejudice, and have all to often been used to deny the rights and freedoms of others;

Affirm that every human being has a responsibility to condemn discrimination and intolerance based on religion or belief, and to apply religion or belief in support of human dignity and peace;

Consider the founding of the United Nations and the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be watershed events, in which the world community recognized for the first time that the existence of human rights transcends the laws of sovereign states;

Confirm that Article 18 of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights together with other instruments create both a mandate for freedom of religion or belief and a universal standard around which we wish to rally;

Recognize that the U.N. has made significant accomplishments in strengthening this universal standard by passage of the1981 U.N. Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, by the appointment of a Special Rapporteur to monitor its implementation, and by further defining freedom of religion or belief in the General Comment on Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights;

Recommend that the U.N. Commission on Human Rights change the title of the Rapporteur to Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief; Urge increased financial and personnel support to the U.N. to implement the work of the Special Rapporteur and his recommendations;

Request the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights to develop a coordinated plan to focus resources of the United Nations, including all specialized agencies and bodies such as UNESCO, ILO, UNDP, and UNHCR on problems involving freedom of religion or belief;

Call for UNESCO to expand work for peace through religious and cultural dialogue and encourage intensified co-operation with UNESCO in this field;

Urge scholars and teachers to study and apply the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1981 Declaration as universal standards on freedom of religion or belief and as a way to solve problems of intolerance and discrimination caused by competing beliefs;

Challenge governments, religious bodies, interfaith associations, humanist communities, non-governmental organizations and academic institutions to create educational programs using the 1981 Declaration as a universal standard to build a culture of tolerance and understanding and respect between people of diverse beliefs;

Further urge U.N. member states to use the 1981 Declaration and other relevant instruments to mediate, negotiate, and resolve intolerance, discrimination, injustice and violence in conflicts where religion or belief plays a role;

Support research and development of other informational resources and methodologies for collecting information, monitoring compliance and initiating comparative country studies to strengthen the work of the United Nations and protect freedom of religion or belief;

Urge the organizers and sponsors of the Oslo Conference, in consultation with Conference participants:

 

Oslo 15 August 1998