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Religious freedom requires vigilance

HJ International Graduate School for Peace and Public Leadership (former UTS) held its forty-seventh Commencement in New York City. Ján Figeľ has received a Dr. h. c. Award and delivered a speech to the faculty and graduates.

In 2016, I became the first-ever Special Envoy for the Promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) outside the European Union. It was a time of mass atrocities committed by terrorists and militants of so-called ISIS against religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq and Syria, and for four demanding years, I visited many countries to promote interfaith dialogue and responsibility. The most satisfying reward of that time was seeing the liberation of several prisoners of conscience in Sudan and Pakistan.

I have seen a lot of human suffering but also unbeatable courage and hope.

Since 2016, many European States followed my pioneering role by nominating their special envoys, ambassadors and plenipotentiaries. Thus, the FoRB protection has become a visible and vital part of European and international cooperation.

If the majority of people come to care about peace, we may indeed see a more humane, more peaceful 21st century. But what is the reality of religious freedom in the 21st century?

The Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., reports that 84% of the global population claims some form of religious affiliation. However, 79% of the global population lives in countries with high or very high obstacles to religious freedom. In short, hundreds of millions of people do not enjoy full religious freedom.

We can see this in government oppression, social hostilities, violent extremism and terrorism. Examples? Christians in Nigeria, Uyghurs in China, Rohingyas in Myanmar. Religious freedom is under growing pressure even in some democratic countries: In Japan, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification is facing painful times.

Religious freedom can be restricted due to necessary public interest, but only in line with three conditions: Legality, legitimacy, proportionality. (For instance, was it right or wrong for governments to put extensive restrictions on communal worship services during COVID-19 pandemics?) Vigilance is crucial for rule of law and for religious freedom to be duly respected in free and democratic countries.

I wish to share three important messages.

The right to religious freedom is the basis for other rights

International law defines FoRB as a freedom of thought, conscience and religion. It is a very central human right – defining issues of personal conviction, lifestyle, the basis of cultural and spiritual life, identity, and the principle of belonging to the community of the like-minded.

FoRB is also a very complex right, as it concerns teaching, practice, worship and observance, in private or in public life, alone or in a community, for believers and non-believers. Therefore, one can say FoRB is a litmus test of all human rights.

FoRB represents the triune dimension of the human person: Homo rationalis, h. moralis, h. religiosus. Our rationality, morality, religiosity are inseparable.

Religious freedom requires maturity and responsibility

Freedom is a beautiful but fragile, vulnerable child. She needs to stay close to her wise and brave mother called, Truth. Freedom without truth will die, and will cease to exist. Crisis can be interpreted as a lack of maturity and an absence of balance. There are two sides of each valid coin: Freedom and responsibility, rights and duties.

Whenever I met religious leaders—the grand imams, grand ayatollahs, the Roman Catholic pope, the Coptic pope, the Tibetan dalai lama, and chief rabbis, patriarchs and bishops—I always spoke about religious social responsibility. The integration of Central European nations into the EU and NATO, into Euro Atlantic community of democracies was a result of responsible freedom.

Religious freedom is inextricable from human dignity

If there is a meeting point between the religious and secular worlds, it is human dignity. For true peace, we must dig deeper: We are all different in identity, but we are equal in dignity.

To me, the culture of human dignity operates on two very ancient ethical principles: The silver one stresses equality, respect and tolerance. It says: “Don’t do onto others what you don’t want others to do onto you.”

The golden ethical principle stresses solidarity and reciprocity of justice and common good. It says: “Do unto others what you want others to do unto you.”

Upholding human dignity is so essential that in 2018, international scholars, religious and political leaders adopted the Punta del Este Declaration on Human Dignity for Everyone Everywhere. This living document is open to signatories from all over the world (

Evil remains widespread because it has strong allies: Indifference, ignorance and fear. If we don’t care, if we don’t know, if we are scared to say or do something on behalf of the voiceless or the defenseless, evil flourishes.

Let us nurture allies of common good: Education, active engagement, and courage. We can strengthen a growing global religious freedom movement, such as the International Religious Freedom Roundtables, International Religious Freedom Summit, G20 Interfaith Forum, and the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance.

  • Jan Figel, who lived half his life under a communist regime, became the chief negotiator for Slovakia to enter the European Union and became its first EU Commissioner.


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