Sur 29 – Letter to the readers

Maryuri Mora Grisales

Executive Editor

Magali do Nascimento Cunha and Paul Freston

Guest Editors

Religions and Human Rights

Are religions a legitimate language for us to discuss human rights? Are religious players considered to be valid social and political interlocutors in the context of human rights? What is the role of the State regarding religious plurality, its responsibilities and limits in assuring rights to citizens with different, perhaps conflicting, religious expressions, including those with no religion? These were just some of the many questions that appeared when preparing this issue of the Sur journal.

The mere plurality of experiences, discourses, records and images associated with religions was our main challenge. From the outset, a classic human rights approach seemed insufficient to achieve our purpose of understanding the ambiguities involved in this interaction. If, on the one hand, religious groups are involved in the articulation of political domination and rights denial processes around the world, the religious world also possesses an undeniable mobilization potential in subjects that involve human rights, both in the construction of an ethics of coexistence and in the creation of means to protect and assure rights.

Thus, gathering a sufficiently plural and simultaneously critical content was our intention for this issue of Sur, which, for the first time, entered the complex landscape of religions and their intersection with the universe of human rights – a universe whose discourses, rules and subjects are substantially secular.

Sur’s readers will now encounter, in various formats and from different perspectives, the result of a dialogue between religions and human rights. This interface showed both the obstacles resulting from a historically romanticized – or even denied – relationship and the lack of awareness of the hard core of human rights regarding the religious world, its ambiguity and its power. The results were sometimes evident, other times unexpected.

I. International perspective of human rights and religions: a complex relationship

We open this issue with a question made by professor Valentine Zuber (France) in her text: “do human rights have a religious origin?”. In her article, the author problematizes the historical relationship between human rights and an alleged religious origin, which to this day haunts modern political thinking in regards to the universal nature of human rights and the debate regarding secularization and the secular State.

In an attempt to show the extent of mistrust that the international human rights system carries in relation to religious organizations, even when many of them are aligned in subjects such as development, safety and humanitarian issues, Azza Karam (Egypt), coordinator of the United Nations’ Interagency Task Force on Religion, reports a recent experience involving this approximation, which took place in the context of a pioneer exercise of Strategic Learning Exchange that she designed and moderated. A clear example of a multi-religious dynamic promoted by the UN and oriented towards inter-religious collaboration, with interesting and challenging results.

Next, Dennis Hoover (United States) expounds upon the absence of religion in academic journals on international affairs, displaying its peripheral placement in discussions on international affairs. Not taking religion seriously has deprived both academia and international diplomacy of an important analytical factor, preventing religion from being seen as a potential ally in the promotion of human rights. Hoover presents a case study on the Review of Faith & International Affairs, the first academic journal to focus exclusively, since 2003, on the roles of religion in international affairs.

II. Religious freedom as a right

In this section, Ahmed Shaheed (Maldives) sheds light on the importance of the right to religious freedom and belief in assuring plural, peaceful and inclusive societies. In his attributions as the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief and in dealing with constant complaints regarding the increase in religious persecution and discrimination worldwide, Shaheed highlights the challenges countries have in promoting and protecting this right.

Rey Ty (Thailand) emphatically criticizes the political instrumentalization of religion to violate the rights of religious minorities by describing the Rohingya refugee crisis in Asia. Over one million Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority, are persecuted, excluded and abused by Buddhists in Myanmar. For Rey Ty, there is a dissonance between, on the one hand, the reality of aggressive attacks from Buddhists and Hindus against people from other religions and, on the other hand, the romantic and idealist view of Buddhism and Hinduism as religions that promote peace and harmony. The historic colonial context and the political use of hegemonic Buddhism in Myanmar have created the setting for one of the largest refugee crises in the world.

Addressing religious freedom as a right also involves a discussion about its own legitimacy. In the context of Brazil, as a result of colonial heritage and the hegemonic character Christianity still possesses, followers of religions of African origin have suffered throughout the country’s history to freely experience their religiousness and to have their rights acknowledged. In Brazil, the marks of structural racism, which operates with legitimacy granted by the State, directly affect black bodies, which are the major contingent of these religions.

Humberto Manoel de Santana Jr. (Brazil) presents in his text the circumstances of the fight for land fought by religions of African origin in Brazilian soil. From an anthropological and post-colonial approach, Humberto not only sheds light on the conflict of civilizations present in the fight for land, but also concludes that the denial of the right to land is, above all, an attack against the dignity of the povo de santo, and must be considered a centerpiece of the agenda against religious intolerance.

Also related to the claim of rights for religions, Cezar Augusto Dranka and Melissa Martins (Brazil) tackle a debate of international case law associated with Ayahuasca, a Brazilian religion with practices that include the use of psychoactive drinks. The article displays the legal conflict between the recognition of ayahuasca as a religion, the right to religious freedom and the war on drugs, through a comparison between the case law in Brazil, the United States and the Netherlands.

Religious intolerance worldwide causes murders, imprisonment, forced displacements, forced conversion and property destruction, among others.11. “Report of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief,” A/HRC/40/58, Human Rights Council, Fortieth session, March 5, 2019, accessed August 19, 2019, Many of these violations are linked to authoritarian political contexts, social inequality justified by religious discourse or by local ethnic-religious conflicts, among other causes. Thus, the field of complaints and claims for rights, when associated with religion, becomes sensitive due to the involvement of complex political issues.

One such case is the situation of the Uyghur, a Muslim ethnic group present in China. Aware of the sensitivity involved in the issue, Sur is publishing an opinion and complaint written by a young Uyghur activist, Salih Hudayar (East Turkestan), who lives in exhile. His is one voice among many that have taken a stance on the subject, providing an opportunity to initiate dialogue.

On the other hand, Yusef Daher (Palestine), a Palestinian Christian, in another opinion article, describes the frustration of the Palestinian people with the fruitless international attempts at solving the Israel-Palestine conflict. The author even problematizes the constitution of two States in view of a context that, in spite of the discourse and strategies for resolution, increasingly victimizes and reduces the Palestinians’ capacity of living in their territory, free form violence.

III. Religious and political activity: conflicts regarding religion in public spaces

An element that can no longer be ignored or denied in our time is the public visibility of religions. They are broadly evident in our everyday life, in the expressions of the cultural industry, in political representation and participation, whether institutional or not. There is more visibility regarding religious plurality and religions as a component that establishes multiple and plural identities. Thus, we may notice a surge of both new forms of communication and dialogue and reactions with manifestations of intolerance.

In Sur’s space for reflection, we chose to highlight the case of Brazil, a country that has experienced a rise and consolidation of an Evangelical bloc in Congress. This happens in the context of ascension of the pentecostal religious segment in the public eye, in geographic, media-related and political spheres. This public visibility of Brazilian evangelicals, who are no longer a religious minority and are in the process of acquiring a central role in politics, has required more attention from social segments in general, generating curiosity, questions and perplexity.

In order to contribute to reflections on the phenomenon, Christina Vital da Cunha and Ana Carolina Evangelista (Brazil) present parts of a research on evangelical candidacies in the 2018 national elections, pointing to power mechanisms and techniques, exploring convergences between religious and secular interests and narratives and their respective uses during the electoral process and in the period that immediately followed. Through her experience as a lawyer specializing in national advocacy, Silvia Souza (Brazil)  presents and explains in detail the troubled political path of President Jair Bolsonaro’s arms decree and the active participation of the Evangelical bloc in this process.

Religious dogmatism and gender

The problematization of the secular State – as a “legal and political instrument for the management of liberties and rights of all citizens”22. Roberto Blancarte, “Laicidad y Laicismo en América Latina,” Estudios Sociológicos 26, no. 76 (jan.-abr., 2008): 25. and the true possibilities of its implementation are approached, from different countries and perspectives, by two articles – one by Isabela Kalil (Brazil), of the Sexuality Policy Watch, and another by Sandra Mazzo (Colombia) of the organization Catholics for the Right to Decide. In both cases, there is emphasis on a religious mobilization of conservative Christian sectors through a reactionary moral agenda for the withdrawal of sexual and reproductive rights. In both cases, the use of “gender ideology” in the media and in rhetoric is employed in order to, in the case of Colombia, hinder a peace process and, in the case of Brazil, to sanction municipal laws that prevent the use of the word “gender” in classrooms and educational material, which shows us that, in the intersection of religion, politics and gender, “sexual control is a priority”.33. Juan Marco Vaggione, “A Política da Dissidência: O Papel de Católicas pelo Direito de Decidir na América Latina,” in Entre Dogmas e Direitos: Religião e Sexualidade, org. Regina Soares Jurkewicz (Jundiaí: Maxprint, 2017).

IV. Religion and the fight for rights

If, on the one hand, the achievement of the secular State in Latin America was directly related to the cultural and political hegemony of the Catholic Church, on the other hand, it was in that same Church that some signs of resistance provide echoes of hope in adverse settings. An example of that is the Amazon Synod called by Pope Francis for October this year, in Rome. This is a politically and symbolically relevant event, considering the Vatican’s capacity for global articulation and the insertion of the Amazonian reality in the church’s agenda.

Marcelo Barros (Brazil) and Luz Marina Cejil (Colombia) provide two perspectives on the challenges of the Synod. Barros, a scholar of Liberation Theology who has monitored base ecclesial communities for years in Brazil, emphasizes the importance of a process of attentive listening for the Amazon, as a challenge for the Church’s mission from a non-colonial perspective. On the other hand, Cejil provides a more institutional perspective on the work of the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network (REPAM) in the synodal process of “Amazonifying the church” in Colombia’s concrete political reality.

Further on, we have the honor of including an interview granted by Adolfo Perez Esquivel (Argentina), a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and tireless defender of human rights and non-violence. Esquivel was not only inspired by the Liberation Theology, but also worked for justice and peace in the continent with bishops and theologians of the region. Leonardo Felix personally conducted the interview for Sur at Esquivel’s office at the Servicio Paz y Justicia building in Buenos Aires.

Considering the ambiguities and dichotomies inherent to religious activity in the public space, Sheila Tanaka (Brazil) highlights in her article the work of Christian Aid, a global ecumenical organization with a presence in Brazil for 40 years, in the fight against the structural causes of inequality and in the fight for social justice.

Shailly Barnes (United States) shares the experience of an innovative religious campaign recently held in the United States, the Poor People’s Campaign, that reached almost the entirety of the country’s states. The campaign was a national call to denounce the incoherence between an allegedly Christian nation and the poverty faced by the majority of the population. A “moral budget” was drawn up, showing that the country does in fact have sufficient resources to satisfy people’s basic needs. Said resources would only require redistribution. The call for the recognition of the immorality of poverty in the United States – even though this context is not limited solely to the context of North America.

To cap off this section, we have the powerful voice and transgressor body, in her own words, of pastor Alexya Salvador (Brazil), whose faith and life trajectory converge into resistance and transformation. Pastor Alexya, heading the Metropolitan Community Church (ICM), in the Center of São Paulo, states her place of speech and celebrates the many possibilities of experiencing Christianity, presenting herself as a mother, educator and defender of human rights.

V. Migration, religion and human rights

The subject of migration and refuge is of central importance in global human rights debates. The UN Agency for Refugees brings us alarming data: over 70 million people worldwide have been forced to leave their homes due to war, persecution and conflict. Along with them, other thousands are crossing boarders in search of new opportunities. After all, this population has been the target of attacks by conservative governments in the Global North and South.

For decades, organizations linked to different religions have worked to grant refuge and defend the rights of this population. For that reason, this issue of Sur includes profiles on five religious people with a life trajectory that involves the migratory experience, whether due to their personal reality, due to the work developed in the defense of migrant human rights or both. These people are Hasti Khoshnammanesh (Iran), father Paolo Parise (Italy), pastor Romi Bencke (Brazil), sheikh Mohamad Al Bukai (Syria), and rabbi Michel Schlesinger (Brazil).

These five stories help us reflect on how the defense of migrant rights stems from different religious sources. Furthermore, they allow us to know how these representatives – each from a different religion – have worked on the logic of inter-religious dialogue and how they face intolerances and resist within their own institutions.

VI. Spirituality, art and religion

This section of the journal explores much more than the visual aspect. Vincent Moon and Priscilla Telmon (France), in their multimedia project “Híbridos”, gift this issue with a photographic portrayal of plurality and beauty of the “collective spirituality happening” in Brazil. In this issue of Sur, you will find a selection of nine pictures taken from the footage of the documentary “Híbridos – Os Espíritos do Brasil”, as well as from videos of the online archive of the Petites Planètes production company, including records of researches conducted in countries such as Peru, Uruguay, India and Morocco.

The images offer unique, poetic, and at times universal snapshots found in different rituals and spirituality expressions – whether by focusing on dances, rituals per se or the surrounding nature, revealing fraternal ties between healers, shamans, mystics, devotees, and initiates.

Speaking of plurality and Syncretism, the unusual pairing of São Paulo ghetto funk beats and Umbanda drums is found in the rhythmic poetry of MC Tha (Brazil). The singer spoke to Sur about the influence of religion in the art she shares with the world and about the power of music in building bridges and awareness, especially in the voice of a black woman who practices a religion of African origin and represents a musical genre that echoes the voice of the people.

At the end of this process, we acknowledged that religion and human rights are much more related that we thought when we started preparing this issue of Sur. The 25 stories presented herein are not intended as either the start or the end of a debate; rather, our interest was to keep a door open for urgent reflections that take into account the potential of religion in its plurality of voices, sounds, languages and instruments in the fight for human rights. There’s no better summation than MC Tha’s verse to describe this issue and an ongoing journey: “Abram os caminhos” (Open the pathways).

Finally, Conectas would like to emphasize that this issue of the Sur journal was only possible due to the support of the Ford Foundation. Furthermore, we would like to thank the Open Society Foundation, the Oak Foundation, the Sigrid Rausing Trust, as well as individual donors that institutionally support the work of the organization.

We thank the Institute of Religious Studies (ISER) for their partnership, as well as the collaboration and special dedication of Renato Barreto and Arquias Cruz for the preparation of this issue of Sur.

We would also like to thank the following people for their help in the making of this issue: Adriana Guimarães, Ana Cernov, Andre Musskopf, Barney Whiteoak, Camila Asano, Carla Banci Cole, Carlos José Beltrán Acero, Celina Lagrutta, Claudia Sander, Courtney Crumpler, Daniel Stefani, Fernando Campos Leza, Fernando Sciré, Gustavo Huppes, Henrique Apolinario, Jane do Carmo, Karen Lang, Laura Trajber Waisbich, Letícia Coelho, Luis Henrique Misiara, Mariana Costa, Manoel Botelho Cordeiro Neto, Pedro Maia Soares, Sandra Duarte de Souza, Saulo Padilha, Sebastián Porrua Schiess e Valéria Pandjiarjian.

As always, the members of the Conectas communication team deserve huge credit for their dedication in making this issue a reality.

Translated by Luis Misiara.