“I believe in the absolute oneness of God and therefore of humanity. What difference that it makes that we have many bodies? We have but one soul. The rays of the sun are many through refraction. But they have the same source.”
– Mahatma Gandhi
This sentence of Mahatma Gandhi reflects the importance of religiosity for humanity and the need to safeguard religious sites. These sites are representative of the history, social fabric and traditions of people in every country and community all over the planet and must be preserved as places of peace and harmony where worshippers feel safe to practice their rituals.
The increasing number of attacks against religious sites in the past years is a stark reminder that no country and no faith is spared from those heinous crimes. Attacks and all acts of violence against religious sites and worshippers must be condemned without exception. There is a clear sense of urgency that the time has come for all relevant actors, including governments, religious leaders, civil society and local communities, media and the private sector to come together and identify actions that can help prevent attacks against religious sites and contribute to guaranteeing the safety of the faithful to worship in peace. These are the main reasons that are behind the mandate given to me by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, to draw a “Plan of Action to Safeguard Religious Sites”.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which affirms the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, noting that this right includes the right of individuals and communities to manifest their religions and beliefs in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
Religious sources provide compelling messages related to our shared humanity and the respect for one another. For instance, the Charter of Medina recognizes diversity and freedom of religion and contains the foundation of an inclusive and pluralistic society in which all individuals enjoy the same rights and responsibilities. Harmony, cooperation and mutual understanding are found when people commit to shared ethical values.
Recent initiatives such as the Declaration on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together signed by His Holiness Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in February 2019, are also testimony of the importance that religious leaders attach to the recognition and respect for one another for the good of humanity. The Declaration stresses mutual respect, tolerance, compassion and peace, as well as the concept of full citizenship, which is based on the equality of rights and duties, under which all enjoy justice and respect.
We have the intention to develop a mapping of religious sites around the world. It will be an online interactive tool which will serve as a reminder of the universality of religious sites around the world and contribute to fostering respect and understanding of their profound significance for individuals and communities in every continent.
Nevertheless, we should reinforce the prevention mechanisms. Effective preventative strategies must identify and address the underlying root causes and societal grievances that lead individuals and groups to commit terrorist attacks against people of other faiths in their places of worship.
Outreach to extremist groups should also be factored in. Experiences conducted by religious leaders in the Middle East in this regard show that radicals are willing to engage if they are offered a space to be part of the conversation.
Religious leaders play a crucial role in building trust, fostering dialogue, stressing unity, solidarity, and mutual understanding, and in offering positive narratives in response to hatred and division.
In addition to religious actors, civil society, youth, women, and local communities can play a crucial role in identifying vulnerabilities and potential threats to religious sites. Moreover, partnerships between these actors and religious leaders operating religious sites can foster community resilience.
It is crucial that strategies to prevent violent extremism are gender-sensitive and that the role of women is particularly recognized and supported. Female religious leaders also have an important role to play to promote diversity, dialogue, respect, and mutual understanding.
The active and continued involvement of local communities in the prevention of violent extremism will ensure that strategies are context-sensitive, foster social cohesion, and fully take into account the specific needs of beneficiaries.
The promotion of education programs on the significance and protection of religious sites can have a positive effect to help recognize the dignity and the right of human beings to practice their faith in safety and peace, foster dialogue and respect and question the legitimacy of extremist ideologies. The intention of Lebanon to establish an academy that will promote the culture of peace and interfaith exchanges can be an important development in this regard.
Educators can be empowered to understand signs of potential violent extremism, and education programs can also foster interreligious dialogue, peaceful coexistence, tolerance, mutual understanding and resilience. Education programs at community level involving youth can help build mutual understanding and respect for religious sites.
Terrorist attacks against religious sites stress the importance of addressing the impact of the dissemination of hate speech by terrorist and violent extremist individuals and groups on the internet in particular.
For its part, the Christchurch Call to Action to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online, signed in Paris on 15 May 2019, contains strong commitments on the part of governments and online service providers individually and collectively to take targeted actions in that regard. The Call to Action also recognizes the role of civil society in supporting the commitments contained in the Call.
Religious sites are especially vulnerable to attacks due to their accessibility and the fact that there are usually limited security measures in place. Attacks against religious sites targeting worshipers have political impact and contribute to spreading the message of violent extremist groups and individuals.
Striking the most appropriate and context-sensitive balance between stricter security protocols and the preservation of the open nature of religious sites is likely to pose challenges for religious leaders and worshippers. However, it is important to recognize that strengthened security measures may be needed to ensure better protection against potential attacks. Decisions in this regard must be taken by relevant stakeholders on a context-sensitive case-by-case basis.
Protection of religious sites is addressed by member states through a variety of normative frameworks and policy instruments including national security strategies.
A thorough analysis of potential threats, risk assessments to adapt policies to the evolving nature of threats, information sharing at all levels of government, as well as information and analysis sharing with religious leaders, are key to put in place robust normative frameworks and national strategies.
We hope that the acceptance of the “Plan of Action to Safeguard Religious Sites” will trigger a positive awareness about the right to safeguard religious places and the safety of worships. Humanity should react to allow everyone to exert their right to pray in a peaceful and secure environment.