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Taking Humanism to Where it Matters
Submitted by admin on 15 August, 1998 - 08:44
Taking Humanism to where it matters
Mr. Babu R.R. Gogineni
THE OSLO CONFERENCE on FREEDOM OF RELIGION OR BELIEF (11-15 Aug 98): The Oslo Conference was a high-level event, with participation from Government, non-governmental as well as religious delegations. Former President of the Republic of Ireland, and present UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson delivered the Key note address and UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief hailed the Conference and its declaration as a historical event in the fight for religious liberty.
IHEU played a key role in the Conference organisation, and Babu Gogineni apart from being part of Conference Organisation, spoke at two plenary Sessions, was Rapporteur of one of the three Concurrent Sessions, and contributed to the drafting of the Oslo Declaration on Freedom of Religion or Belief.
Babu Gogineni gives his personal impressions:
A public event connected to the Conference was in the beautiful Oslo City Town Hall, when Ms. Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, gave her part-Catholic / part-post-modernist / part-inspiring speech on Human Rights. The Bishop of Oslo Dr. Gunnar Stalsett spoke, as did the Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik, both of them invoking God and the Bible. The Master of Ceremonies was a Humanist - she was the compere at the IHEU's Oslo Congress - and ex-Minister of culture. The most pleasant memory of that evening understandably was not the speeches, but the music band The Brass Brothers, and their trumpets.
Interestingly, trumpets came to mind when the official Norwegian participants spoke: the Prime Minister at the head of the Christian Coalition, the Minister for Human Rights and Development Ms.Hilde Frafjord Johnson (religion was not at fault for atrocities of the religious; religion provides the model for moving forward) as well as the Deputy Minister Janne Haaland Matlary (secularisation is at fault for present evils) who held forth on Norway's human rights record and commitment.
Norway's non-Christian minorities disagreed; the Norwegian Humanists (HEF) were furious. They even had organised a picket outside the Conference venue, on the day of inauguration, and prepared pamphlets and striking-yellow T shirts (if the Bishop of Oslo could wear his uniform, why not the humanists?) protesting Norwegian Education policy of compulsory Christian education in public schools. Paradoxically, only Norway had the commendable commitment to create a special Human Rights portfolio in the ministry. This is the atmosphere in which humanists functioned: IHEU President Levi Fragell, Lars Gunnar Lingas (initially on the Conference Steering Committee), Academic Lars Gule, HEF's Education Department head Bente Sandvik, Editor of Fritanke Barbro Sveen & myself.
There have been 2 global meetings relating to the Conference theme in the past: '93 at Chicago when the Catholic Theologian Hans Kung succeeded in getting his (largely religious, but positive) Declaration accepted. Humanists were not invited. The next Conference was a smaller one in '95 in London, organised by Michael Roan, also a key person in the present one. Lars Gunnar Lingas, Rob Tielman (also at this Conference) and Matt Cherry were present, though humanists did not have a very active role.
The present Conference was the largest ever, with 180 participants; most of them experts in the field or leaders of religious communities. This in addition to Ambassadors from some countries, official delegations from China and Iran, Church representatives, high level Norwegian govt. involvement
I was originally invited to make a 10-minute presentation on IHEU in a concurrent session. Soon, I found myself - in addition - featured in the Plenary on the first day, made a rapporteur of one of the three concurrent sessions, (therefore to speak on the plenary of the last day). More happened on arrival: I was invited to participate in the meetings of the Conference organising committee, recruited to interpret for the Mufti of Marseille at a Plenary (during which task, I 'innocently' asked him in the mike at one point "Vous etes serieux?", much to the special hilarity of the French Ambassador. The professional interpretor had refused to interpret as the impressively eloquent Mufti recited from memory rather than submit the text of his speech). Then, I was also conscripted at mid-night by the Bishop of Oslo (bless him!) to work on the final draft of the Oslo Declaration on Freedom of Religion and Belief.
My one attempt to slip off the Conference was foiled by Levi Fragell who woke me up to say that a journalist from the youth section of the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation wanted to speak to me. It was worth waking up, because the interview also found its way into the regular news broadcasts, and repeated several times.
In the Plenary, one performed humanist duty by being sceptical about the Ministers' ideas, and 'blasphemous' about religions. Lars Gule and Lars Gunnar Lingas spoke from the floor at the Concurrent Sessions and Bente Sandvik circulated a paper 'Not Top of Class' exposing the unfairness in Norwegian Education System where non-Christians are being forced to have a Christian education. Lars Gunnar Lingas spoke at another plenary Session on the Norwegian school question and set out the problem.
As a strategy, humanists focussed on separation of Church and State, blasphemy laws and of course, the Norwegian School situation. That stand point will be reflected in the Conference reports when published. Humanists had a high-profile humanist identity through out the Conference, and when at Levi Fragell's prompting, Lars Gule asked for the word 'humanist community' to be included in the Declaration, it was readily agreed.
Apart from making new contacts there was ample opportunity for humanists to proselytise (a contentious subject at the Conference, as regards Islam and Christianity) through inducement of the yellow T shirt also, all the 100 complimentary copies of IHN were picked up as well. Since the Conference, possibilities of greater international involvement and support to HEF's campaign on schools have emerged.
There were social opportunities too, which Levi Fragell and Anne Karina created, as did Barbro Sveen, when some special berries were served as dessert, in celebration of the one ritual Norwegian humanists too religiously observe picking berries on Sundays! The Norwegian Minister for Human Rights and Development too hosted a dinner, when a Norwegian folk song invoking the sun was sung.
Guess what, the next day it rained! So, in all ways, the Conference was a humanist success.