Speech by Federal Minister Guido Westerwelle in the German Bundestag on freedom of religion

08.07.2010 - Speech

-- Translation of advance text --

Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, colleagues,

An active human rights policy is the trademark of Germany’s foreign policy. Promoting freedom of religion is part and parcel of this active human rights policy. I have asked for the floor because I want emphatically to underline that the commitment of the motion’s sponsors and, I believe, everyone in this Chamber to freedom of religion and pluralism as well as their rejection of persecution and oppression on religious grounds is something that is not only of great importance to Parliament but is also quite explicitly a core concern of the Federal Government.

We cannot stay silent when millions of Christians worldwide cannot live their faith freely. It is good that this is a matter of concern to us all, irrespective of party affiliation. In many countries the Bible may neither be bought nor read; church services are obstructed; Christians are thrown into jail or sent to labour camps. They may even risk attacks on life and limb. Many countries use prohibitions, the police and punishments to prevent people from practising their faith freely. Often enough they even give their citizens free rein to attack those of other faiths. Either way, freedom of religion is suppressed: through repressive measures and persecution by the state, but also by allowing people to be hounded by the mob and forces hostile to religious tolerance.

It is important to realize – and here we can rely only on estimates by non-governmental organizations – that at least 100 million Christians around the world are currently suffering persecution. But what is at stake here is not just a commitment to the Christian religion, Christian faiths. What is at stake here is something very fundamental. It is our conviction that everyone must be able to practise the faith they themselves perceive as the true faith. Freedom of religion is always also the freedom to practise one’s faith freely or to change one’s faith. It also involves the right to have no religious belief at all. This is the pluralistic understanding of religious freedom, an understanding we all share not just because it is enshrined in our Basic Law but also because it informs day-to-day political life here in Germany.

Freedom of religion is therefore a right to be enjoyed by members of Christian minorities as well as by adherents of other faiths. When we call for religious freedom for Christians around the world, we must, in the interests of our own credibility, of course first ensure that the state in Germany protects the freedom of everyone in this country to practise their faith whatever their religion. I strongly endorse what Volker Kauder, the CDU/CSU parliamentary group chairperson, has said here in this connection: for us it goes without saying – not just because our constitution obliges us to do so, but because we believe passionately – that just as we insist on religious freedom in other countries, so we should do everything to ensure that freedom of religion is fully respected here in Germany and employ the whole range of instruments of state authority and those of our civil society to that end. This is more than a question of buildings. In reality it is also a question of the climate in our society. Creating the right climate – this, too, is something to which we are all committed.

If Christians just worry about the freedom of Christians, Hindus about the freedom of Hindus, and Muslims about that of Muslims, that is not what we mean by religious coexistence. Different religions can coexist successfully only through mutual respect and dialogue. But let us not deceive ourselves. Here, too, it took centuries – and I am not talking of the Middle Ages – for Europe to develop a set of values that revolve around the individual, values that include the right to practise one’s faith freely.

We as Germans should also remember that even in the last century the freedom to practise one’s faith in Germany was anything but a matter of course. Millions were murdered on German soil for reasons to do also with their faith. That is why when we call for other countries to respect freedom of religion, we are not preaching to them. When we stand up for religious pluralism everywhere, we are simply taking to heart the lessons of our own history.

Human dignity, freedom, personal responsibility: that is our foundation, one of the great achievements of the European Enlightenment. We stand for a state that respects these values and seek to advance this concept of the state all over the world.

It is crucial, however, that we oppose any attempt to make respect for human rights contingent on cultural factors. One hears so often that we have to be understanding about this or that, it is the product of cultural background, so to speak, or special cultural attributes. That is a kind of watering down of values that we cannot accept. Suppressing religion has nothing to do with culture, it is a negation of culture.

That is the conviction that also informs our policies, it is the conviction which we are all also committed to uphold.

It is often asserted that there is a contradiction between freedom of religion and freedom of expression. We consider it very important to point out time and time again that freedom of expression and freedom of religion are, as it were, both fruits from the same tree, that magnificent great tree of freedom. For that is the whole point. Even if, as a person who thinks, lives and has been brought up religiously, one has the feeling that one’s own faith is being disparaged in some way, perhaps by cartoons or other expressions of opinion, that in no way justifies using violence against anyone. Freedom of religion and freedom of expression are by no means incompatible. The truth is that they are a wonderful pair, ladies and gentlemen!

I would like to close by making a clear commitment on the part of the Federal Government. Anyone who incites inter-religious hatred does so above all for political, not religious reasons. Religion must never serve as a pretext for hatred, as a justification for violence and war. That is why, on behalf of the whole Chamber, I believe, the Federal Government will speak up for this in the international arena, too, by making clear that our commitment to religious freedom is a cornerstone of our human rights policy. The main theme of my speech at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva soon after I took office was freedom of religion, explicitly also the freedom of Christians to practise their faith and profess their beliefs, because I have the impression we must not allow this to be ignored.

With Professor Bielefeldt’s appointment a few weeks ago, a German national is now the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief. For the task ahead we wish him a sure touch and all success. The goals he is working for are very important to the Federal Government and, I am sure, also to everyone in this Chamber.

If the public sees that we agree on these matters of fundamental values, that is, I believe, a good sign. As a parliamentarian I would like to say finally, with your permission, that this is something that can also be documented in the form of motions we all support.

Thank you very much.

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