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Some in secular circles would suggest that history has come full circle. To them, the human rights movement is the product of the Enlightenment and, as such, part of a determined attempt at reducing the power of religion over state and society. Today, however, it is resurgent religious movements that are challenging the place of human rights.

In some countries, in France in particular, the history of the human rights movement is intimately linked to laicité (secularism), to the roll back of the Catholic Church and the separation between church and state. The Dreyfus affair at the end of the 19th century was the symbol of this clash and the founding moment for the French League of Human Rights (Ligue des Droits de l’Homme, LDH). The controversy around the role of the official Church in supporting Petainism8 during the Second World War deepened this mutual suspicion. In Spain, the ideological marriage between the Catholic Church and the Franco dictatorship generally led, until the early sixties, to a chasm between the democratic opposition and Catholicism.

History, however, also tells another story. In other countries religion was the prime mover behind campaigns for human rights. The role of U.S. and English Protestant churches in the anti-slavery campaigns, in the Congo reform movement,9 and in solidarity with Armenian victims in the late days of the Ottoman Empire belong to the best chapters of the history of the human rights movement.10 The “social teachings” of the Catholic Church in the late 19th century also created a context that allowed committed Christians to press actively for social justice and contributed to the development of strong labor unions and mutual help associations that fought for social and economic rights.

In South Asia, Hinduism was the inspiration of Mahatma Gandhi’s long march for the liberation of India. Since the occupation of Tibet by China in 1949-51, a religious figure—the Dalai Lama—has been guiding the Tibetans’ struggle for freedom, pushing for a democratic, self-governing Tibet “in association with” China.

In the 1950s and 1960s the human rights movement grew in part thanks to the involvement of leading religious groups and individuals. Although the Church took a cautionary approach, Catholic intellectuals (first among them Catholic writer par excellence François Mauriac), journalists, and activists played a prophetic role in the fight against the use of torture and “disappearances” by the French army in the Algerian war of independence, invoking their faith to combat what they considered brutal attacks against human dignity.

The civil rights movement in the United States was powerfully inspired by religious figures, among whom Martin Luther King, Jr., stands as an icon, and was in many cases supported by mainstream Christian and Jewish denominations.

After the 1964 military coup in Brazil a significant part of the Catholic Church, centered around Bishop Dom Helder Camara, inspired by the teachings of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and of mainstream Protestant denominations, became a vibrant defender of human rights. Political coups in Bolivia, Chile, and Uruguay in the 1970s and civil wars in Central America in the 1980s often placed the official Church, or at least some of its most powerful voices, on the side of the human rights movement. The Servicio Paz y Justicia founded in 1974 in Argentina by 1980 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel, the Vicaria de Solidaridad in Chile, and the Tutela Legal in El Salvador were focal points of the human rights struggle.

San Salvador Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero’s last sermon in March 1980, with his passionate plea to the army and National Guard to “disobey an immoral law”—“Brothers, you come from your own people. You are killing your own brother peasants when any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God which says, ‘Thou shalt not kill’”—stands out as one of the most powerful documents of the Latin American human rights struggle.

In the 1980s in the Philippines, the Catholic Church was one of the major actors in the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship. In Eastern Europe, particularly in Poland with its strong Catholic Church and in East Germany with the Lutheran Church’s support of independent pacifists and dissidents, religious organizations joined in the fight against state authoritarianism and repression. In the 1970s, in the wake of the ratification of the Helsinki Accords,11 Jewish organizations and individuals in particular played a decisive role in Eastern Europe and the USSR in the defense of dissidents and fundamental freedoms of expression, belief, and movement.12 

In the 1980s and 1990s, in South Africa, Jews, Christians, and Muslims fought apartheid, in alliance with secular or even Marxist-inspired organizations such as the South African Communist Party and the African National Congress.

During all these decades of struggle and “speaking truth to power,” the international human rights movement was also strongly inspired by religious figures, like Joe Eldridge, of the Methodist church, director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA): “My father always said that we were children of God,” he confided. “My motivation fundamentally emerges from a religious perspective. Having been given life, I believe that we are called to do things that edify life.”13

[8] Maréchal Pétain, a former First World War hero, ruled France during the German occupation. His government, based on an ultra conservative Catholic ideology, collaborated with the enemy and in the deportation of Jews. Although many Catholics took part in the Résistance and the Catholic hierarchy protested the deportations, especially after the July 16 round-up of 12,884 Jews at the Velodrome d’Hiver, the image of the Church was tainted in many liberal circles. 

[9] Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998).

[10] Suzanne Moranian, “The Armenian Genocide and American Missionary Relief Efforts,” in Jay Winter. ed., America and the Armenian Genocide of 1915 (Cambridge (U.K.): Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 185-213.

[11] The Helsinki Accords were the result of the final act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe held in Helsinki (Finland) in 1975 between the NATO Countries and the Soviet bloc. The civil rights section of the agreement, the so-called third basket, committed the participating states to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms.

[12] See Jeri Laber, The Courage of Strangers: Coming of Age with the Human Rights Movement (New York: Public Affairs, 2002).

[13] Margaret E. Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, Activists beyond Borders (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1998), p. 91.

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