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Some clouds, however, were already looming over this human rights euphoria. There was always, of course, some underlying tension. As human rights scholar Louis Henkin has phrased it: “The world of religion and the world of human rights have not always coexisted comfortably. Religion, and some particular religions, have not been comfortable with human rights as an autonomous ideology that is not necessarily rooted in religion. The human rights ideology, on the other hand, has resisted the claims of some religions to disregard the claims of other religions. Some religions have invoked religious dogma to justify distinctions based on religion, gender, or sexual orientations, distinctions that may be contrary to the human rights idea.”16

Throughout the “human rights decades,” moreover, churches were not always unanimous in their human rights commitment and there were always factions that fought back or hindered the rise of the human rights movement, sided with military or authoritarian regimes, or were otherwise complicit in human rights abuse. Most of these factions were politically and ideologically conservative and they were dogmatically doctrinaire. They stuck to an interpretation of religious teachings especially in matters of individual morality and social mores at odds with the trajectory of the human rights movement. They were seen as adversaries by all members—secular and religious—of the human rights movement.

Terrorism in the name of Islam, the Dutch Reformed Church’s support for the apartheid regime in South Africa, the Argentinean Catholic hierarchy’s passivity or tacit support for brutal military regimes in the 1970s, the killing of Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish religious militant, and the support provided by some right wing evangelical churches to leaders of Latin American most brutal regimes—like former Guatemalan president Efrain Rios Montt, an ordained minister of the Gospel Outreach/Verbo evangelical church—are among the most prominent examples of the use, or misuse, of religion to justify flagrant human rights abuses.


[16] Louis Henkin, “Human Rights: Ideology and Aspiration, Reality and Prospect,” in Samantha Power and Graham Allison, eds., Realizing Human Rights: Moving from Inspiration to Impact, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), p. 29. Ironically, some religious groups have resisted freedom of conscience—religious or otherwise—in some contexts. Prominent examples include refusal to respect the rights to reject religious orthodoxy, to change one’s religion, to become atheist, or to proselytise. Such rights are protected by a number of human rights provisions, including article 18 of the UDHR. “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practise, worship and observance.”

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