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Shrinking Space for Civil Society and the Role of Religious Actors

With a keynote from Rev. Dr. Kenneth Mtata and the ensuing panel discussion, this topic was at the heart of the first day of the 2019 PaRD General Assembly of Members.

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Following the morning’s round of annual reports from the PaRD Steering Group and the three Work-streams to all PaRD members, the 2019 PaRD GAM welcomed over 150 participants. The audience filled the plenary hall at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark’s historic conference venue “Eigtveds Pakhus” to the last seat.

Mette Thygesen, Head of Department Humanitarian Action, Migration and Civil Society at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, greeted all participants on behalf of the Danish government. In her opening remarks, she emphasized the Danish government’s stance on religion and development, which firmly reiterated one of the foundations of PaRD’s mission and vision:

Religious actors and faith-based organizations, have an important role to play in achieving the SDGs: Providing assistance in the most remote corners of the world, reaching the most vulnerable, and advocating for their rights. They demonstrate that religion and development can go hand in hand.

Shifting the focus on the keynote and panel’s topic “Shrinking Space for Civil Society and the Role of Religious Actors”, she highlighted its urgency for daily life around the world: The vast majority of people live under circumstances, in which civil society is restricted in one way or the other leading to the inability to speak and act freely without fear. To counter this, religious actors as part of civil society are crucial, since they are in a position to build bridges across differences, to increase freedom and to expand spaces for civil societies.

Thereafter, Birgitte Qvist-Sørensen, General Secretary of DanChurchAid and Moderator of the ACT Alliance, set the stage for the speaker and panelists. Drawing on her experience of working in and coordinating a global network of Christian organizations, she highlighted the role networks can play to push back against restrictions. One key component is to trust strong alliances and getting involved in common causes around the world. In the face of shrinking spaces, religious actors have to realize their potential to influence opinion and eventually policy around the world. This potential, however, hinges on the will to speak up and engage – even in challenging circumstances.

Rev. Dr. Kenneth Mtata, General Secretary of the Zimbabwe Council of Churches (ZCC) opened his keynote address by acknowledging a global trend of nationalism and pulling out of multilateral agreements. He urged participants to do their best to work against this – not least in order to preserve freedoms and liberties fought for around the world in past centuries. Such freedoms may only be guaranteed collectively. In this particular regard, he lauded PaRD as a multi-stakeholder partnership reflecting defiance against the pushback of multilateralism:

It’s a sign of hope, that governments, intergovernmental entities, as well as civil society and religious organizations are sharing their views openly.

Speaking not only based on his own background in Zimbabwe and his experience as General Secretary of the Zimbabwe Council of Churches (ZCC), but also drawing on his expertise from his long record of accomplishment of working in international organizations such as the Lutheran World Federation, he was able to exemplify global trends in the Zimbabwean context. Among the reasons and causes he identifies for shrinking spaces for civil society, Mtata named the aforementioned rise of nationalism and pushback against multilateralism in the name of national interest.

What are religious actors doing to expand spaces? What can they do? Mtata offered a few ideas: Firstly, creating safe spaces, where members of a community are among themselves, allowing them to speak freely without being controlled by outsiders. Also and distinctively, religious and faith-based actors can create sacred spaces such as “National prayer breakfasts.” Even though such spaces have been prone to be absorbed or abused by political interests, they do allow religious actors to unite. Celebrate their community, these sacred spaces build solidarity within often diverse religious communities. In this regard, religious actors are often not aware of their tremendous convening power, which transcends their own community: In a subversive way, religious power may defuse tense situations and allows dealing with conflicts constructively. If done right, as he exemplified through the National people’s convention in Zimbabwe, such convening power may provide a safe space for all, not just the religious people.

All aura of military power is lost in the face of bishops’ words.

Expanding further on this convening power, Mtata pointed towards the tremendous capital of international solidarity and support religion may be able to garner. In the case of Zimbabwe, solidarity visit by a delegation of the World Council of Churches (WCC) gave visibility and value to the ZCC: By presenting itself as internationally connected and demonstrating that they are not on their own, the ZCC was able to ensure its organizational and colleagues’ personal security. Lastly, Mtata emphasized the influence religious actors may have politically and their ability to change laws, since politicians are also accountable to their faith communities. It goes without question that while these aspects bear huge potential for peaceful and free societies, they hinge on how they are used. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of religious organizations, but also every religious person, to use such influence for the greater good.

Closing his keynote, Mtata gave 5 Cs as guiding principles for religious actors to play a positive role in the face of Shrinking Space for Civil Society:

  1. Constituency – everyone involved in this struggle must not act as a lone wolf, but legitimize efforts by involving others
  2. Collaboration – it matters to be perceived as a big movement spanning across different spheres and strata of society
  3. Competencies – work on the basis of facts and evidence, not emotions
  4. Consistency – stand impartial and refuse to be co-opted by supporting all progressive initiatives, and opposing all rights-defying initiatives
  5. Continuity – go beyond project cycles of 2-3 years and ensure sustainable professional and leadership succession

Ensuing the keynote, Rev Mtata joined moderator Birgitte Qvist-Sørensen and his three fellow panelists representing PaRD’s three constituencies – governmental entities, intergovernmental entities, and religious, faith-based and civil society organizations. The dense input from the keynote as well as various comments and questions from the audience voiced in an interactive format served as a fruitful basis for their far-reaching responses.

Michael Suhr, Ambassador and Special Representative for Freedom of Religion or Belief at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, emphasized his specific focus in the Human Right to Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) to be of crucial importance and not only of relevance to a group of people: Wherever infringed, people are affected at the core of their personality. It is important to highlight that FoRB is neither a religious topic nor a topic for religious believers only. In many societies, non-believers are under attack and face repression. Already half of the world’s population is not able to fully enjoy this right. To that end, believers and non-believers should join causes and defend this right together, to not make it into an issue for only those currently suffering from its infringement, but to frame it as a presupposition of any free society. Suhr called upon all participants to engage in this issue: He showed that FoRB and spaces for civil society are interconnected and influence each other. Wherever one side grows, the other flourishes as well allowing in turn to increase and fortify freedoms. Closing, he invited religious actors to join his government and fellow colleagues from other countries to strengthen FoRB globally, e.g. by joining the debate at global events such as the United Nations’ Human Rights Council.

His Excellency Faisal Bin Abdulrahman Bin Muaammar, Secretary General of KAICIID, pointed out that 80% of the world’s population affiliates with a religion. In face of this overwhelming number and its societal significance, international organizations and governments only started to consider religion in political spheres after 9/11. Although much of public discourse focuses on the abuse of religion to motivate such cruel attacks, discourse has shifted towards considering religion also a part of the solution. To build a sustainable future, he summarized his position in the short formula “accusing is not enough”. Therefore, dialogue must be included in curricula to become a core goal of education around the world. Given their significance to so many around the world, he encouraged everyone to include religious leaders in such efforts, and not treat them as enemies or different. Through this, joint goals instead of divisions come to the forefront. KAICIID focuses on dialogue within and between religions and secular actors. Even though religion is always threatened to be used and manipulated for populist agendas, it is of increased importance to explore and travel on new avenues of cooperation. However, this may also mean to encourage both religious and secular actors to educate each other, since all too often we know very little about the other. He urged participants to remain committed to this work and maintain each other’s dignity, instead of dismissing one another in face of unmet expectations.

Do not receive the money, do not let the corrupt take the front pews.

In a time marked by civil society under growing pressure and a pushback against collective and multilateral solutions as described by Rev. Mtata, Gladys Nairuba from DanChurchAid Uganda asserted that the faith-based space is not distinct from other parts of civil society in this regard. However, she marked the ability to speak truth to power as the hallmark and central asset of religious leaders and communities in a complex and interconnected world. Naturally, speaking truth to power may cause a backlash by the power in question. For religious actors it is most important to hold fast onto their principles. This means not to give in, even if this means to forgo easy gains in terms of political or financial power. Speaking from her experiences in Uganda, she was able to show that steadfastness may not come easy, as attempts to bribe religious actors to remain silent may be followed by threats and grave consequences for personal security. In this regard, international networks are again of tremendous importance. For example, strength and defense both in terms of moral support and in such concrete ways as finding human rights’ defenders can be organized through them. While she reiterated the need to keep dialogue lines open, she also encouraged others to have a lone voice even in adverse conditions, instead of having no voice at all.

Following this rich input and dense discussion, participants headed off for lunch, where the topic continued to be the center of attention. In the afternoon, the first of two Open Fora allowed individual PaRD members to share their respective work and ideas with each other. Several of the Forum’s inputs picked up the morning’s topic and were occupied with turning it into concrete ideas for future cooperation.

Please find a study titled “Faith actors’ contribution to Civic Space in Zimbabwe – SDG 16” published by DanchurchAid in 2018 to the right of this article. The Study was carried out by the keynote speaker Rev. Dr. Kenneth Mtata on behalf of DanChurchAid.

About the 2019 PaRD General Assembly of Members

The current 105 PaRD members and observers were invited to participate in a diverse conference organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, the Danish Network on Religion and Development including Danmission and DanChurchAid, the PaRD Steering Group and the PaRD Secretariat.

Please read a preliminary report here.

The organizers would like to thank all participants, supporters, and colleagues who made this year’s GAM such a tremendous success. Please revisit this page in the following weeks to learn more about the conference and its outcomes.