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Parliamentarians and religious freedom - From Norway with pain

Abid Raja has had strong views on religion, coercion and violence since he was a child, and was obliged—like other kids of Pakistani origin growing up in Norway—to attend classes of Koranic instruction at the local mosque.

They did not learn very much about what the Koran actually said, because the verses they were chanting were in Arabic and their mother tongue was Urdu. But they did find out that if you misbehaved, by chatting to another child or sucking on a sweet, the teacher was liable to hit you or even grab you by the hair.

Now aged 39, and a member of the Norwegian parliament, Mr Raja has had a lifelong aversion to the physical punishment of children. Corporal punishment was now a a thing of the past in at least 90% of Norway's mosques, he says with relief. In the south Asian culture in which he was raised, the politician adds, punishment wasn't so much to do with religion as such; it was a way of inculcating obedience. Mr Raja still considers himself a Muslim and he feels strongly about the right to practise the religion of one's choice.

In Oslo at the weekend he joined another up-and-coming, centre-right legislator—Elizabeth Berridge, a Conservative lawyer who in 2011 became the youngest woman in the British House of Lords—in cofounding an international pressure group for religious liberty, which hopes to attract the support of parliamentarians from all over the world. The International Parliamentary Coalition to Advance Religious Freedom hopes to reverse the general deterioration in freedom of conscience which many global studies, including those by the American State Department, have reported.

The initiative is also supported by the United States Commission on International Religous Freedom (USCIRF), a congressionally mandated body, whose chairman Katrina Lantos Swett said it was an "historic event" to see politicians from around 20 countries (pictured above), with a wide range of personal beliefs, come together to shore up a basic human entitlement when it was "increasingly under attack." Behind this rhetoric lies the political reality that it is often much easier for legislators to speak frankly about dreadful human rights abuses than it is for the executive branch of government, which weighs in many factors, from the geopolitical to the commercial, before speaking out. That explains, perhaps, why USCIRF generally holds countries to a higher standard than the State Department does.      

The newly founded coalition's first act was to fire off three letters. One was to Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister of Pakistan, deploring a spate of killings for alleged blasphemy; another was to U Thein Sein, the president of Burma, pointing out the "severe discrimination" suffered by Rohingya Muslims and other vulnerable groups; a third was to Pope Francis, urging him to speak out even more strongly in favour of religious freedom and consider convening an international conference on the subject.

As Mary Ellen Glendon, another member of the USCIRF, pointed out, the Oslo gathering included some who had come from "environments of safety" and others who attended "at great personal risk". She did not elaborate on the latter category, but the Oslo guest list included politicians from Pakistan and Burma. As for Mr Raja, he says he won't be satisfied untill the 20 countries in the coalition grow to at least 100. Harsh as they were, his teachers failed to repress his enthusiasm.

The Economist

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