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The IHEU position on defamation of religion was strongly supported on 23 September 2008 in a statement to the Human Rights Council prepared by Rabbi Francois Garai of the World Union of Progressive Judaism. Egypt tried to have the statement ruled out of order on the grounds that “Nobody can discuss the basic tenets of any religion in this Council”. In other words, a Jewish Rabbi (unlike the Holy See) was not qualified to discuss the basic tenets of Judaism!


UNITED NATIONS HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL – Ninth Session (8–26 September 2008)
World Union of Progressive Judaism
Racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia…Combating defamation of religions (item 9)
Speaker, David Littman

This is an English translation of the statement, which was given in French: the original text in French is below.

Thank you, Sir. I am reading this statement for Rabbi François Garaï at his request.

Do not confuse criticism and defamation of religion: an appeal for freedom of thought.

Everyone knows that, in their respective legal codes, religions have laws which are not in keeping with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We can refer to laws authorising war, hanging, stoning or burning at the stake. For centuries already, Christian and Jewish jurisprudence have led to these laws being considered obsolete. In Western Europe it is unthinkable that a Christian priest of a rabbi could advocate holy war or reintroducing stoning although these are mentioned in the Bible. Were this the case, universal disapproval would immediately condemn such statements both within civil society as well as in religious circles. But this unequivocal condemnation seems to be difficult to reach within certain religious circles of other faiths.

Within Judaism and Christianity, religious law flows from the Bible, in Islam it flows from the Koran and the Hadith. Traditional circles consider these texts as holy writ and absolute truth.

Point of order by Egypt (Mr Amr Roshdi Hassan):

“Mr President, I have to ask that this statement be ruled out of order. We are not here to decide where Islam is derived from. Nobody can discuss the basic tenets of any religion in this Council. Nobody in this Council is in a position to decide if Moses (PBUH) spread the Red Sea or not. Nobody can discuss if Jesus is divine or human. Jesus also PBUH. The delegation sitting here on behalf of Egypt is representing all Egyptians, Muslims, Christians and Jews. And on behalf of the three of them I say that the contents of religion or the origins of religion cannot be discussed in this Council. We can discuss religious freedom. We can ensure religious freedom but we cannot discuss what is in religion or what is not in religion or where religion came from or where religion is going. I am sorry. We cannot discuss this and I will have to insist. Thank you”

The President declined to rule the statement out of order, and David Littman continued:

This is a statement by Rabbi Garai.

Traditional circles consider these texts as holy writ and absolute truth. Outside these circles these cannot be considered as an absolute norm or standard. Outside their respective domains no philosophical doctrine or religious doctrine can be seen as the absolute truth or claim impunity.

Denying the existence of God, or calling into question a belief may be a criticism but it is not blasphemy. Blasphemy is possible only if it is conducted by a believer in a legal environment based on religion. This is not the case here. If this Council were to place one right above all judgements or criticism, it would be seen as having qualities that other religions or other rights do not have. It would be given precedence over all other rights, in this particular instance over the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which is the actual foundation for the Council.

The United Nations and the Council cannot become the gravediggers of freedom of thought nor the foes of freedom itself. Yesterday, books were burned, and history shows that this can lead to burning at the stake and the crematorium. Today we cannot impose silence on free and healthy criticism. That would be the death of critical inquiry and the denial of the divine light which we share with all human beings, whoever they may be.

Thank you sir.


Ne pas confondre critique et diffamation de religion: Un appel pour la liberté de penser

Chacun sait que, dans leurs codes respectifs, les religions ont des lois qui ne sont pas en harmonie avec la Déclaration universelle des droits humains. On peut citer celles autorisant la pendaison, la lapidation ou le bûcher. Depuis plusieurs siècles, la pratique jurisprudentielle chrétienne et juive les a rendues caduques. En Europe occidentale, il est impensable qu’un prêtre chrétien ou un rabbin prône la guerre sainte ou la réintroduction de la lapidation, pourtant prévues dans la Bible. Si tel devait être le cas, une réprobation générale condamnerait immédiatement ces propos, aussi bien au sein de la société civile que dans les milieux religieux. Mais cette condamnation sans équivoque semble difficile à énoncer au sein de certains milieux religieux d’autres confessions.

Dans le Judaïsme et dans le Christianisme la loi religieuse est déduite de la Bible, dans l’Islam elle découle du Coran et des Hadith. Les milieux traditionalistes considèrent ces textes comme parole divine et vérité absolue. Hors de ces cercles, ces traditions religieuses ne peuvent pas être considérées comme une norme absolue.

De même, hors de leurs espaces respectifs, nulle doctrine philosophique ou religieuse ne peut s’ériger en absolu ou revendiquer l’impunité. Nier l’existence de Dieu ou mettre en question une loi religieuse est une critique mais ne relève pas de la catégorie du blasphème. Ce dernier ne peut être imputable qu’au croyant et dans un environnement légal qui tient le code religieux comme fondement du droit. Tel n’est pas le cas au sein de cette assemblée.

Si le Conseil des droits humains venait à placer un droit au-dessus de tout jugement de valeur ou de toute critique, ce serait lui reconnaître une qualité que les autres n’ont pas. Ce serait affirmer que ce droit a préséance sur tous les autres droits et, dans le cas présent, sur la Déclaration universelle des droits humains, fondement même de ce Conseil.

L’ONU et le Conseil des droits humains ne peuvent pas devenir les fossoyeurs de la liberté de pensée ni ceux de la liberté tout court. Hier on brûlait les livres, et l’histoire a montré que cela pouvait mener vers le bûcher ou les fours crématoires. Aujourd’hui on ne peut pas imposer un silence à la libre et saine critique, ce serait alors la mort de l’esprit. Ce serait nier cette lumière divine que nous partageons avec tous les humains, quels qu’ils soient.

Merci, Monsieur le Président.

*Adaptation d’un article publié dans le Tribune de Genève, le 27 juin 2008

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