As a young person in Greece, Elsa Stamatopoulou didn’t see much evidence of church support for human dignity in the struggle against dictatorship.
But after she joined the U.N. human rights office in 1980, she became familiar with religious groups who were doing “amazing work” to promote human rights.
Stamatopoulou, now a professor at Columbia University, cited the U.N.’s voluntary fund for victims of torture as an example. “In many countries, we cannot even channel the money easily to NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) who can help victims of torture,” she explained. “So faith-based organizations become vehicles through which the United Nations is able to channel this particular humanitarian aid.”
As a church youth leader, student activist and then a staff member of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines during the last brutal years of the Marcos military dictatorship, the Rev. Liberato “Levi” Bautista learned that restoring human dignity to the poor, deprived and marginalized was an important task for the church.
Faith-based work at u.n.
This inaugural symposium is expected to be first of a series on the role of religion and faith-based organizations in international affairs sponsored by the U.N. offices of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, World Council of Churches and United Methodist Women.
The reasoning behind the series: religion is once again emerging as a critical player “in advancing peace and security, human dignity and human rights and social and sustainable development,” according to the sponsors.
A larger audience was able to view the symposium via the Internet, prompting this message from Glory Mulimba, a Global Mission Fellow assigned to the Philippines by the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries:
“I am actually live streaming the symposium which is really a great opportunity to learn mostly about the role of religion vis-a-vis the issues we face in the world, especially the violation of human rights.”
Global Ministries was among the event’s additional co-sponsors, along with the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s Women’s Missionary Society, The Episcopal Church, The Presbyterian Church (USA) and The Salvation Army.
Today, in his 18th year as the main U.N. representative of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, Bautista continually witnesses the intersection of faith-based groups and the secular and political world on issues of human dignity and human rights.
“At the core of religious understandings and beliefs are precepts that enlarge freedoms, secure rights, promote development and sustain peace,” he noted.
Focus on human dignity
Both Bautista and Stamatopoulou were among the speakers on “The Role of Religion and Faith-based Organizations in International Affairs” during a Jan. 21 symposium at the United Methodist-owned Church Center for the United Nations.
With a focus on human dignity and human rights, the event was designed to provoke conversation and build engagement among diverse partners on the international level.
From both religious and secular perspectives, noted the Rev. Ganoune Diop, permanent representative for United Nations of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, human dignity “is accepted as a foundation” for life.
Within the People’s Movement for Human Rights Learning, said Robert Kesten, executive director, the belief is that all are born with dignity, even though that dignity has to be continually reclaimed.
Professor Heiner Bielefeldt, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, pointed to the first words of the declaration’s preamble: “Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family...”
Such recognition “is not the result of a negotiation process,” he said in a pre-recorded video presentation from Germany, where he is teaching. Instead, that recognition is a more profound insight that is the precondition of any negotiations.
“That’s why the human rights which institutionalize your recognition of everyone’s human dignity are necessarily everyone’s rights, everyone’s equal rights,” Bielefeldt said.
Working for human rights
To be “duty-bearers” for human rights, Stamatopoulou said, faith-based groups need to:
- Respect human rights in their own communities and through their own leaders and officials.
- Be careful not to encourage or endorse human rights violations by the state.
- Become advocates of human rights in the broader community.
“I also believe that faith-based organizations have to go on that path… of bringing people together, with modesty, integrity, consistency and determination,” she said.
The common setting of the U.N. has allowed faith and cultural groups to examine “shared burdens, vulnerabilities and aspirations” even as they and the international community are sometimes challenged by fanaticism, adherence to ideology, oppression and exploitation, Bautista said.
Despite those pitfalls, “the quest for sustainable peace and justice and the need to overcome violence binds religions, governments and the U.N. together,” he wrote in a paper for the symposium.
“The engagement (with the U.N.) has changed the ecumenical and church community itself,” he told the participants.
Ecumenical work in international affairs is an “inseparable dimension” of the World Council of Churches and its members, said Rudelmar Bueno de Faria, the WCC’s U.N. representative.
When churches become engaged together in human problems and issues “they find themselves in a form of unity that transcends conventional backgrounds, ecclesiastical barriers and national boundaries,” he added.
What church has to offer
Faith-based groups can bring assets to the international arena that are not financial but are tied to the grass-roots quality of such organizations, said Bishop Stacy Sauls, chief operating officer for The Episcopal Church.
“We derive our real potential from how deeply we are connected with people,” he explained. “For one thing, what the church does that no other organization can do as well is to reach into the nooks and crannies of humanity, wherever it is found.”
Faith groups also use that connection with people for disaster relief and development work. Pauliina Parhiala, director and chief operating officer of ACT Alliance, a coalition of more than 140 church and affiliated relief organizations, can attest to that.
“Religious institutions may lack technical solutions or even skill or knowledge to address some of those problems they would be highlighting, but they can be offering a perspective of hope beyond business as usual,” she said.
“They can bridge divides in societies and among communities and they can speak truth even if it’s difficult and hold governments accountable to the commitments they have made.”
But the Rev. Kathleen Stone, U.N. representative for United Methodist Women, said she found herself concerned over how faith groups can ensure human dignity or even, in some cases, survival.
“I’m thinking right now of women and men with their arms up in the air either surrendering or standing with firm resolute against all risk to life and limb, stating that they have a right to breathe and live and love,” she said as the symposium concluded. “And wondering what the place of our churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, shrines... is in all of this.”