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Right to religion and its violators

By Peter Nyanzi

It’s in the best interest of society that everyone has the freedom to choose and practice their religion without undue restrictions

The freedom to practise a religion of one’s choice is universally accepted as a fundamental human right. However, the impunity with which this right is being abused by some actors should be a matter of concern.

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) stipulates that; “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.”

Additionally, Article 8 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, an international human rights instrument that is intended to promote and protect human rights and basic freedoms on the African continent and to which Uganda is also a signatory, as well as Article 9 (1) (c) of the EAC Bill of Rights also protect the right to religion.

In our own Constitution, Article 29 (1) (c) and Article 37 also provide for the same right to belong to, enjoy, practise, profess, maintain and promote any creed or religion “in community with others.”

Sadly, this fundamental human right is being violated with careless abandon and nobody including human rights bodies seems to care.  Take for instance the violation of this right that is taking place in schools.

I’m a guardian to a student who recently sat for her ‘O’ Level examinations at a Seventh Day Adventist (SDA)-founded school.  It should be shocking that all the students – regardless of whether they are Muslim, Catholic or Anglican – are forced to practice only SDA religious practices while at school. The activities of all the other religions are banned and if found practicing them could lead to expulsion.

Whenever all the students congregate in the main hall every Saturday (read Sabbath) for prayers, the preacher of the day takes turns to rubbish all other religions as “devilish” and their teachings as “heretic falsehoods.” Incidentally, many other Muslim, Catholic and Born-Again founded schools also force their students to practice another religion imposed on them by the administrators at the expense of their own professed religion.

And it continues to even higher levels of learning.  We all know of a university in Uganda for instance, that forces its students to learn Arabic and all its female students including Christians to dress like Muslims. Unless I’m persuaded otherwise, I want to contend that all these practices are violations of the students’ right to practice the religion of their choice.

Of course, one could argue that the restrictions are important so as to ensure order at the school as allowing everyone to practice their religion could be a recipe for chaos and confusion in the school environment. Well, this fear is unfounded because there are many schools that for decades have successfully allowed students to practice their various religions at school without any problems.

And I think this is absolutely a positive thing as it inculcates a culture of tolerance for others in the children in their formative years. I mean, how can we expect to have citizens who respect the rights of others when we are raising them in an environment that looks at people who are different from them as distasteful and unacceptable? What one senses is that some school administrators want to abuse their power by using their schools as proselytizing centres.

Yet, children who were educated in schools where tolerance for other religions was encouraged tend to be better socialized citizens and more tolerant of other people even at the workplace. On the other hand, it is possible that many children who were forced into a religion at school tend to grow up to resent religion and everyone who practices it.

In some of the countries that are advanced in respecting human rights and democratic values; say Germany and the Scandinavian countries, the law provides that children over 10 years have the right to choose if or not to belong to a religious community.

It is therefore not surprising that these countries also have the most peaceful societies in the world.  In the US, January 16 is commemorated as Religious Freedom Day when activities are held to remind all Americans about the importance of religious tolerance in order to ensure a peaceful society.

Indeed in his book, The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith argued that in the long run it is in the best interests of society people are allowed to freely choose (and practice) their own religion as it helpful for preventing civil unrest and reducing intolerance amongst the various actors.

He argued that so long as there are enough different religions that are allowed to operate freely in a given society, then they are all compelled to be moderate by avoiding extremes so as to be more appealing to as many people as possible – which in the long run would help to maintain civility and ensure social stability, cohesion and eventually peaceful co-existance.

Smith also pointed out that forcing people into a particular religion would in the long run, only serve to weaken and corrupt that religion, as its leaders tend to become complacent and disconnected from their followers and undermines religious toleration – the attitude of acceptance towards other people’s religions.

As an aspect of customary international law, the freedom of religion and belief is protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).  This protection also extends to non-religious beliefs such as humanism – a non-religious philosophy based on liberal human values – and of course traditional religions.

Despite their governments being signatories to all these international treaties and conventions, nearly 70% of the world’s population lives in countries that exhibit heavy restrictions on freedom of religion.  The hostility originates from governments and individuals, organisations and social groups. This, definitely, is a violation of international law and human rights.

Ironically, it is common to hear people who claim to be “champions” of human rights; castigating and ridiculing other people’s religious beliefs. I see this as a contradiction. If you are fighting for the protection of say gay rights, why at the same time do you use derogatory language against other people’s religious beliefs and practices?

I think the right to freedom of religion carries the same weight – and needs as much protection – as any other human right. For a government, parent, employer, teacher or religious leader/follower to abuse another person’s right to religion is as a much a violation of human rights as any other.

Peter Nyanzi is a journalist


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