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Human Rights Law and the Formation of Religious Communities

Panel Chair: Hans G. Kippenberg | Thursday, August 27, 3:30-5:30 p.m.

While in most Nation-States religious organizations lost state support and were relegated to the private realm, International Human Rights law defined and enforced establishing religious organizations in public. This international legal framework for religion is the subject of the panel. The first paper explains how jurists and legal bodies understand the concept of religion and how they apply it to quite diverse phenomena. The second paper describes the process by which the concept of freedom of religion was extended to communal rights. Initially these rights were not protected by state law. This changed with international covenants. Since these treaties aimed primarily at prohibiting discrimination against religion, religious freedom was extended to include more and more collective practices and institutions. The third paper traces the transnational disputes and conflicts concerning the concept of religious freedom and their effects on religious diversity and minorities. The fourth paper addresses one of the religious practices protected by International law: social welfare. For students of contemporary religions the Human Rights Laws are of major relevance: they provide legal categories that restrict and enable the process of establishing religious communities in public.

Heiner Bielefeldt

The Concept of 'Religion' in International Human Rights Bodies

The term 'religion' figures prominently in quite a number of international human rights instruments, and it also occurs in the work and jurisdiction of human rights bodies operating on the basis of those instruments. The systematic place for dealing with human rights claims connected to 'religion' is the right to freedom of religion or belief as enshrined in article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. While international human rights documents do not define 'religion' strictly speaking, the applicability of article 18 is determined pragmatically in a case-to-case manner in dealing with alleged human rights violations in this field. Recent decades have seen a clear tendency towards broadening the concepts of 'religion', 'belief' and related notions. This gives rise to the question of how to keep the specific profile of freedom of religion or belief within the broader spectrum of intellectual freedoms.

Hans G. Kippenberg

A Human Right: Manifesting Religion in Public

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights passed by the United Nations in 1948 (Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion) covers the right to manifest religion in public in community with others. Since then the understanding of this article developed a remarkable dynamic of its own. 1. Its emphasis shifted from an individual right that includes even defection to a communal one that is protected against any kind of discrimination. 2. While the “Declaration” of 1948 lacked any legal force, the “International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights” (ICCPR) provided it since 1976, but allowed for national restrictions on manifestations of religion. 3. The European States passed a Convention of Human Rights in 1953 that included legal procedures. Natural or legal persons whose religious freedom was violated could bring their case to a European Court of Human Rights. The court, when reviewing charges, accorded to the National States a certain “Margin of Appreciation” due to the different national constitutions and cultures. The claim, though in itself universal, fostered new kinds of legitimate public religions.

Matthias Koenig

Religious Minorities in International Human Rights Law: Historical Trajectories and Sociological Conflict Dynamics in Europe

This paper argues that religious freedom has remained an essentially contested concept in international human rights law. Following recent revisionist historiography of human rights, it explores the multiple trajectories of religious freedom in international legal history, encompassing state prerogatives in regulating religion, collective rights to religious autonomy, and individual rights to liberty of conscience. Moreover, the paper maps the social actors, religious and secular, that have advanced various interpretations of religious freedom within an increasingly transnational field of human rights law. Episodes of legal mobilization in both pre- and post-UDHR periods show that the multivocality of religious freedom law not only shapes definitions of religious difference but also contributes to new conflict dynamics.

Alexander-Kenneth Nagel

Inventing Welfare: The Transformation of Religious Communities in the Light of Social Welfare Legislation

Religious communities have acted as social service providers long before the modern welfare state entered the stage and today still serve as partners or agents in various settings in order to maintain public welfare. Alongside with politics of privatization and participation, faith-based organizations have been encouraged to play a more prominent role in social service provision and community organizing during the last decades. While legal and social political debates have focused on issues such as religious freedom or the de-professionalization of social work, the transformation of religious communities in these public-private arrangements has been widely neglected. The paper will address the question how religious communities remodel themselves in order to become valid partners of modern welfare states. Drawing on case studies on the US based organization “Hindu American Seva Communities” and the British “Druid Network”, it will comparatively examine the arguments and rhetoric which are put forward by faith-based organizations to comply with given definitions of a ‘proper’ or legitimate religion. In doing so, the question will be discussed if the invention of a social ethical tradition will lead to a persistent decoupling of religious self-perception and public relations or to what extent it entails an actual change of religious practice and worldviews.


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