Freedom of Religion: religious minority in Bangladesh
Barrister Harun ur Rashid
Freedom of religion is a corner stone of the Bangladesh Constitution of 1972. Although the original article was amended in 1988, Article 2A of the Constitution states that “The state religion of the Republic is Islam, but other religions may be practised in peace and harmony in the Republic”.
Two words, such as “peace” and “harmony” need close attention. In this context, peace means absence of violence and harmony connotes absence from strife. It is obvious that practice of religion by all people belonging to various religious groups within Bangladesh have the “constitutional right” to follow their religion peacefully and harmoniously.
Constitutional right is a right given to a person by the fundamental law of the country. In other words, the right of freedom of religion in peaceful atmosphere is not provided by an ordinary law. Accordingly, there is a constitutional obligation of the authority of the Republic of Bangladesh to ensure such right for every group of religions in the country.
Freedom of Religion is a fundamental feature of human life
To practise religion in peaceful environment is considered to be one of the fundamental elements of life of human beings. Human beings do not live only for material necessities. There is a strong need for spiritual nourishment for every human being.
There are many worlds, astronomical, physical and spiritual worlds. There are also visible and invisible worlds. For instance, we cannot ordinarily see a germ or bacteria with our naked eyes but we are able to see it with a microscope. This means that what is not ordinarily visible does not mean that it has no existence.
In the same way, most of human beings believe that there exists a Divine Power and that obedience or complete submission of human beings to a Divine Power is an acknowledgement of the presence of All-Sufficient Transcendental Power, in whatever name one calls it.
The respect for freedom of religion is the foundation of justice, peace and freedom in civilised society. This right is an inalienable right and cannot be derogated or diminished under any circumstances. Therefore the non-derogable right of freedom of religion must be considered as one of those rights that must be guaranteed to all persons within a State, including in Bangladesh.
Freedom of religion is a core of Islamic faith. It does not believe in coercion to change one’s religion or faith. The extracts from Surah Kafirun ( Surah 109) of the Holy Qu’ran are very relevant to the issue that are as follows:
“I worship not that which you worship,
Nor will you worship that I which I worship.…
To you be your Way and to me mine.”
It is very clear from this holy verse that Islam guarantees freedom of religion. It does not believe in forced conversion or in restrictions in professing one’s faith or religion.
The Divine Power is eternal and one but human approach to understanding the Divine Power is varied. Different religions delineate different ways and means of understanding and appreciating the Power. But all enlightened scholars have come to an agreed view that the Divine Power cannot countenance discord and violence among His votaries and the Divine Power is the only judge (and not mortal human beings) over approaches as a means of understanding Him.
International legal instruments
Let us now examine some of the principal legal instruments with respect to freedom of religion.
The 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights in its Article 18 states “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 Article underscores that freedom of religion includes practice of religion in public together with others. That means that it is not a private right, to be practised only in indoors. It is a right to be expressed in public and in community with others.
The UN Universal Declaration, according to many legal experts, constitutes a Charter of Mankind and has become a part of customary international law. This implies that all States are bound by it.
The 1966 UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights not only repeats in its Article 18 the same provision as that of the Declaration but also explains the right further. In Article 18(2) of the Covenant, it provides that “No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.” Here the word “coercion” is significant. The dictionary meaning of “coercion” is act of compelling or restraining by force without regard to individual wishes or desires. This implies that no amount of threat or force is to be applied in restraining an individual to practise his/her religion. It is noted that the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides for immediate protection by requiring States to “respect and ensure all individuals within its territory” (Article 2 of the Covenant).
Furthermore, the UN General Assembly on 25 November 1981 adopted a Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. The Declaration in its preamble, among others, emphasises that “Religion or belief, for anyone who professes either, is one of the fundamental elements in his conception of life and that freedom of religion or belief should be fully respected and guaranteed.”
In Article 2(2) of the UN Declaration it provides that “No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have a religion or belief of his choice.”
UN Commission on Human Rights: Bangladesh’s role
It is noted that the UN Commission on Human Rights, set up in 1946 by the UN Economic and Social Council, deals with human rights issues. It has currently 53 members. Bangladesh has been elected to the Commission as one of its members on regular basis and this demonstrates that international community has confidence and trust on Bangladesh on protection of human rights.
The Commission on Human Rights in 1947, at its first session, established the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities with 26 experts, elected for four years. Bangladesh legal experts were elected to this body to look into any violation of human rights in respect to minorities. It has been a great honour for Bangladesh experts to serve in the Sub-Committee of the UN. This also shows that international community has reposed full confidence on Bangladesh and on its legal experts on protection of minorities, whether it is religious, ethnic or otherwise.
Given the discussion in the above paragraphs with respect to guaranteeing freedom of religion in an atmosphere of peace and the important role of Bangladesh in the UN Commission on Human Rights, it is sad to note that some religious minorities, in particular Ahmadiyya and Hindus, have become victims of violence of certain element of fanatic forces within the country. In my view, Islam totally rejects such violence. It seems to be a serious misunderstanding and misinterpretation of Islam.
The violence against some religion of minorities cannot but have adverse impact on the image of Bangladesh that is perceived as a moderate, tolerant Muslim majority country. Image of a country, like reputation, is an intangible thing and it takes a long time to acquire a good image but can be lost immediately.
Our overwhelming majority of people believe in the freedom of religion, the Constitution proclaims it and the government, irrespective of parties, believes publicly in the freedom of religion. Therefore, there should not be any violence or coercion or compulsion in thwarting freedom of religion in Bangladesh. The government has a solemn responsibility to guarantee freedom of religion to all groups of people in Bangladesh, professing different religions.
The author is former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.
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