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Eddie Cross: Freedom of Religion

By Eddie Cross

Some years ago I was invited by the Chancellor of Germany to attend a conference of Members of Parliament from across the World to discuss the issue of freedom of religion. Our Zimbabwe delegation was two from the Opposition and both of us Christians.

BULAWAYO South MDC legislator, Eddie Cross
Former BULAWAYO South MDC-T legislator, Eddie Cross

When we arrived in Berlin we found ourselves in a large conference room with a cross section of representatives of the religions of the World from every country – each representing Parliament or the equivalent and the majority religious consensus.

Mrs Merkel opened the Conference with a speech where she made the point that freedom to follow your own religious beliefs was one of the primary freedoms incorporated into the United Nations Charter. She went on to say it was also incorporated in the UN Charter on Human Rights that had been adopted by the global community and by our individual representative Governments.

Yet, she argued, this was the least observed human right at the present time and represented the gravest basis for human rights abuse in the world today. She went on to say she was hoping that this grouping of leaders might pick up this issue and make the case in our respective countries for compliance in every way with this principle of tolerance and understanding.

My own ancestry is originally Irish – but nearly 800 years ago, even so we have maintained interest in Irish affairs and my son married a girl of Irish extraction from Belfast. The Irish have been at war with each other and with Britain for hundreds of years. The domestic conflict being basically a Protestant/Catholic conflict founded on years of discrimination and separation.

It has been fascinating to watch the process of peace making in Ireland after the Islands joined the European Union in 1973. This unleashed an economic revolution in Ireland as the policies of the Union kicked in and made it possible for Ireland to become a modern, upper income country after centuries of neglect and discrimination.

This progress was eventually translated into the agreement that brought about a fragile peace between the warring factions. This is so important that when Britain elected to leave the EU, a special effort was mounted to maintain the open trade relationship between the north and the south. Despite efforts by the Conservative Government in London, this deal prevailed and in my view this will eventually lead to Irish unity and independence from the United Kingdom.

The key to understanding this fragile peace is not religious tolerance and understanding but plain economics. Once the people living across the street had the same standard of living as yourself, somehow the religious difference faded into insignificance.

Jesus once said that ‘people will know you are my disciples, if you love one another’. We humans seem to be always able to find justification for discrimination and to avoid this fundamental principle, even if we are both Christians and speak the same language and are of the same tribe and race.

Examples of religious intolerance that results in human rights abuse on a large scale are many. Just look at India. When India became an independent Federal Republic in 1950 the process of decolonisation managed by Britain resulted in a violent confrontation between the Hindu majority and the Muslim Community.

It is now estimated that 10 million people died in that conflict and the result was partition. Even today conflicts based on religion affect vast areas of the Indian Sub-Continent and even threaten nuclear war between the two regional powers. The election of a Hindu nationalist as the leader of India has not helped as he has swept aside the more secular traditions established by Gandhi and subsequent political leadership.

In Myanmar, the seemingly enlightened leadership of Aung Sun Soo Chee with her overwhelming popular support has not been able to halt what is today one of the most extreme versions of religious intolerance and conflict.

The latest move to house tens of thousands of refugees on a small Island off the coast in what looks to me like a vast concentration camp, simply highlights the tragedy. The ‘re-education’ camps in China, directed against the Muslim minorities in that Country are just another version of the same thing.

My Grandfather was a leading Member of the Government of South Africa before the Nationalist Party took power in 1949. The subsequent introduction of the policy of apartheid or ‘separation’ was followed by an attempt to segregate South Africa into many sub nations each with their own leadership and sovereignty.

We all know where that ended up, but was this really so different from what the Americans and the Australians did to their indigenous peoples? The separation was not so much on religion but on tribe and race, but at its very heart was the Conservative beliefs of the Dutch Reformed Church who provided the moral and ideological basis of a cruel system that resulted in massive abuse of human and political rights.

I attended the Pan African Christian Leadership Assembly in Kenya – long before it was possible to travel in Africa as a white Rhodesian and South African. We attended by special dispensation of the Kenyan Government.

It was at that Conference, attended by 5000 delegates from all of Africa, that the head of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa wept in front of us as he apologised for the consequences of their failure to lead South Africa in a different path. It was the beginning of the end of Apartheid and is one of the very few political shifts ever initiated by the actions of Christian leadership.

Then there is systematic persecution of Christian minorities across the globe but worst in the Middle East. Here to add to the miseries inflicted by extremism and religious ideologies, the efforts made to halt Christian influence and expansion goes to extraordinary levels.

What made this so sad are the leaders, many educated in the west and speaking English as their second language, who continue to allow such practise in modern societies. It is not necessary and is self-defeating.

I am reading Ester in the Old Testament at present – it is only one of many examples of the successful integration of the Jewish minorities in Asia to the benefit of all, including the leadership of these States. How different that part of the world would be if this dynamic potential of collaboration and partnership could be adopted by all States in that part of the world.

The wonderful potential of Arab culture and tradition would merge with the dynamism of Christianity and Hebrew culture and tradition. Our conflicts would fade into insignificance. When it was all over we would wonder what the fuss was about. It was like that in South Africa under Mandela and we called it a modern miracle, no it was just following the principles of tolerance and acceptance. No magic in that, just common sense.

Angela Merkel was right to bring us together to focus on this issue. I am astonished every day by the failure of the World to heed her advice. Religious intolerance was the very foundation of Nazi German intolerance of others and the ideology behind the Genocide.

She knew all about that with her roots in East Germany under Communist domination and control. She also saw with her own eyes the power of ordinary people when they got together to struggle for what was right. It is more powerful than the armies of the world.

Let’s all resolve this week, to make a new year’s resolution to be more understanding and tolerant of others who hold views different from our own, even if we think they are wrong!!

Eddie Cross is a former opposition MDC MP for Bulawayo South and a respected economist. You can follow his blog African Herd