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Faith Actors and Civic Space: Opportunities, Challenges, Ways Forward

What is the role of faith actors amidst a shrinking civic space? How can they build on their position to strengthen civic space in a world of growing polarisation that threatens to drive us further apart?

These were the questions that DanChurchAid (DCA) tried to address in its side event ‘Faith Actors within a Closing Civic Space: Navigating Challenges, Building Resilience’ at the Human Rights Council 56 (HRC56).

New Report: We Have Values That Are Needed: Faith Actors and Civic Space Study 2024

In her presentation of “We Have Values That Are Needed: Faith Actors and Civic Space Study 2024,” a newly-published report authored by Dr Elisabet Le Roux of Stellenbosch University, South Africa, she highlighted three major points that emerged strongly from the research:

  • Civic space is shrinking – and for some more than others, reinforcing inequalities.
  • Faith actors play important roles in building and protecting civic space; roles that are under-engaged in the push against restrictions.
  • However, there are also faith actors who undermine civic space – passively by staying silent or actively by siding with repressive regimes.
Panel at the DCA side event at HRC56 | Credits: WCC

Diverse Roles of Faith Actors

The side event surfaced the complexities around this issue, primarily the diverse role of faith actors. While some faith actors have championed causes conducive to civic space, including electoral rights and environmental issues, others have been complicit in the further marginalisation of minorities, such as people with diverse Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, and Expression (SOGIE).

Recognising these dilemmas and challenges, Peter Prove, the Director of the World Council of Churches (WCC) Commission on International Affairs and member of PaRD’s Steering Board, was on the panel of speakers and, in response to increasing polarisation, he asked: “Why focus on what divides us instead of what is shared, which is so much more?”

Inés Pousadela, Senior Research Specialist of CIVICUS, reflected on engagement between civil society and faith actors: “It is not a question of whether to engage with faith actors, but a question of how.” For CIVICUS, it is key to focus engagement around a common understanding of civic space restrictions as targeted against specific, already excluded groups, and of human rights as truly universal.

Strengthening Civic Space

So how can the potential of faith actors be developed towards strengthening civic space? This calls for action from faith actors, secular civil society, and duty-bearers:

  • Faith actors can be impactful by recognising themselves as part of civil society, having a solid understanding and analysis of their social and political contexts, being guided by core religious principles that promote human rights, using their unique convening and mobilising role as faith actors, and making faith spaces inclusive spaces for engagement.
  • Secular civil society actors and duty-bearers can support faith actors in protecting civic space through recognising the diversity of faith actors, having realistic expectations of faith actors, building their own faith literacy, and being intentional about cooperation.
  • Duty-bearers should ensure support for all of civil society, including through funding and protection schemes inclusive of all actors.

These entail ongoing dialogue and the willingness to address complexities together.

Download New Report

The joint report by DCA, ACT Alliance and WCC can be found online alongside other resources on religion and sustainable development in PaRD’s Knowledge Centre or following this link: We Have Values That Are Needed: Faith Actors and Civic Space Study 2024.

Event Co-Sponsors

The side event was co-sponsored by ACT Alliance, ACT Church of Sweden, CIVICUS, Global Interfaith Network for People of All Sexes, Sexual Orientations, Gender Identities and Expressions (GIN-SSOGIE), WCC, and PaRD.