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Faith-based Organisations Are Key Advocates for Human Rights

In his speech at PaRD’s Annual Forum on Religion and Sustainable Development 2023, Frank Schwabe (Germany’s Federal Government Commissioner for Freedom of Religion or Belief) highlighted the significant contribution of religious actors as a fundamental force in civil society.

Dear ladies and gentlemen,
Dear guests from abroad,  

Welcome to Berlin and to Germany. I warmly thank the International Partnership on Religion and Sustainable Development (PaRD) for inviting me to this important global event. I am very pleased to be here today as the Federal Government Commissioner for Freedom of Religion or Belief and to speak about what religions, what faith communities and what religious actors can do, and are doing, to advance sustainable development, to strengthen human rights, improve education and protect the environment and the climate.  

First of all, I would like to pause from day-to-day political business. 

Just like yourselves as representatives of religiously motivated organizations, as ambassadors of your faith and interfaith communities, as experts in your fields, I am still very much under the impression of the terrible events in Israel and the Gaza Strip. All of us here are united by the idea that religion has the responsibility to contribute to peace and reconciliation. And that faith gives individuals and communities hope and comfort. That societies with religious communities become stronger and more resistant to hatred, exclusion, and misanthropy.  

Germany's Federal Government Commissioner for Freedom of Religion or Belief Frank Schwabe during his speech at PaRD's Annual Forum on Religion and Sustainable Development 2023 in Berlin, Germany. Credits: GIZ/PaRD, Maurice Weiss

But we all are being tested these days. Aren’t the differences greater than what we have in common? Is religion perhaps too often misused to legitimize acts of violence, conflicts or even wars?   

The answer to these challenges and uncertainties, which undoubtedly exist, must not be: we withdraw. The opposite must be the case: we use the moment to promote dialogue and peace even more strongly. To promote that religious actors enter into an exchange with each other, that they use their potential and their high credibility even more to advance peace and reconciliation. Many of you are exactly doing this. I have had excellent experiences with religious actors, and I am convinced I will have even more in the future. 

We all know: Religion matters! Four out of five people worldwide feel related to a religion, to a faith. 

Religious communities and faith-based organisations are key advocates for human rights and important players in the fight against injustice and poverty. I have been observing religious actors for many years, serving as one of the strongest pillars in civil society. They engage for peace, equality, dignity, and human rights. In quite a few regions of the world, state structures are too weak to reliably take over the safeguarding of public services. Religious actors are often first responders in such situations. They also do not shy away from taking a firm stand also against governments who do not fulfil their duties. The word of religious leaders weighs heavily, and they often have a high credibility among the population. Such tireless dedication to people and their rights is something I have rarely seen elsewhere. 

I give you one example. Alvaro Ramazzini from Guatemala made a great impression on me at the very beginning of my time as a member of the German parliament. I met him on my first trip to Latin America. At that time, he was Bishop in San Marcos in the western part of the country. There, the population was struggling with the environmental destruction caused by gold mining. Although many people found work in the mines, the effects on the environment, health and especially on the Indigenous population were noticeable everywhere. 

The Maya people reported the poisoning of their water sources, livestock dying after drinking well water, and the destruction of their ancestral land. In forced relocations, the rights of those affected have been regularly disregarded, and adequate compensation has and is rare. This all is happening even though according to the provisions of international conventions, large-scale mining projects may only be carried out if the local indigenous communities give their free, prior and informed consent. As a result of this marginalization of the rights of a local population group, violent conflicts have occurred in which both private security companies and state forces are involved. 

Alvaro Ramazzini was the strong voice of the local population in the fight for better environmental standards and a good mining law. He tried to hold the government accountable, made the destruction of nature and the environment public. He demanded the closure of the mine to protect the population. Over the next few years, he was under a lot of pressure. He was repeatedly threatened. Ramazzini was not deterred.  

Even today, in a politically turbulent phase in his home country, Ramazzini does not remain silent. Instead, he continues to oppose corruption and the cartels that prevent Guatemala from developing. In the meantime, he has been appointed cardinal, and just a few weeks ago he was in Germany and called on the German Government for more support of Guatemala and its people.  

I can’t appreciate enough the work he does and know how much protection and support he needs. He is a symbol for many other religious actors who work relentlessly for the good cause. 

Especially highly engaged religious actors often need protection and support! 

It is not uncommon to see attempts of intimidation, mental and physical attacks, or unlawful arrests, especially if religious actors raise their voice against governments and human rights abuses. In many parts of the world, religious actors, and organisations as a key pillar of civil society, are under surveillance and pressure. Like many others, they have experienced shrinking spaces in their work and in civil society in general. It is my assignment as Commissioner to protect the rights of religious actors and communities, ensure that they can speak out and harness their potentials, locally, regionally, and globally.  

I therefore highly appreciate that in partnerships like PaRD, everyone can speak up and finds the space and trust to share concerns and bring forward solutions. Not only you and I know but also the German government knows: international cooperation has a strong long-term partner in religious communities and actors. 

My Ministry – the Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) has been working with the two major Christian aid organizations Bread for the World and MISEREOR for over 60 years now. In 2016, BMZ developed the strategy “Religions as Partners in Development Cooperation” to broaden its cooperation base and implement inclusive approaches. This gave rise to the Religion for Sustainable Development project. It goes beyond the cooperation with the two major Christian churches and works with organizations and interfaith initiatives from various religious communities, including Bahai, Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, to contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda. 

In an increasingly multipolar world with polycrises, multilateral cooperation and inclusive multi-actor partnerships which engage governments, multilaterals, academia, and civil society, including religious actors, in policy-making and shaping a good future without leaving anyone behind is more critical than ever.  

I am glad that PaRD was established in 2016 with the support of various global partners. PaRD is a unique global partnership with over 165 members. You are part of it, contributing significantly to the value of this partnership and network. Together with others, you ensure that development continues to advance around the world in a respectful manner.  

You work continuously and cooperate in working groups on climate and environmental protection, gender justice, peace and social cohesion, health, and Freedom of Religion and Belief (FoRB). You are also an important contact for politicians like me when it comes to expertise in specific countries and contexts. 

I can tell you frankly: PaRD is well established by now and well known globally. It is now time to take the next step and spread the commitment over even more several shoulders. I am sure that we will manage to win even more members and partners for this network in the new future. 

Thank you for your attention. 

I wish you fruitful deliberations!