With United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief Dr. Ahmed Shaheed’s tenure leading the UN’s fight to ensure freedom of religion nearing its conclusion, WJC organized an event entitled Current Issues in Protecting Freedom of Religion or Belief to explore best practices and how governments and the United Nations can become more effective allies in guaranteeing this fundamental right.
Moderating the discussion, Aviva Klompas, WJC Jewish Diplomatic Corps Member, noted that “Intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief has steadily been on the rise over the years and this trend was only exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Freedom of a religion is an issue that transcends borders, continent, and time.”
In his remarks, Dr. Shaheed noted that it is essential for religious communities to unite to create consensus opinions on contentious issues related to freedom of religion, and “counter claims on social media...so that people can access the real [information]. More information is the solution to disinformation.”
He praised the work of his co-panelists, not only for combatting bigotry head on by working to prevent people from becoming bigots. He noted that strategies to do this included education and peer-to-peer exchanges-underlining the need for diversity.”
Jonathan Arkush, the chair of WJC’s Task Force on Religious Freedom, said that one of the issues affecting freedom of religion and belief is religious hatred. He lamented said that “in Europe, as in many parts of the world, there is an enormous ignorance, especially among young people, about religious customs and values,” adding that it seems that many seem to hold by the standard "We tolerate what you do, as long as we agree with you."
South African Jewish Board of Deputies National Director Wendy Kahn noted that unfortunately "social media is being used to mobilize people in hate campaigns." Noting that during the Israel-Hamas conflict last year there was terrible incitement and threats, Kahn asked rhetorically, “How does one know that it’s going to stay there on social media,” adding that “Too often, the threats that are made and the incitement we see on social media finds its way onto the streets, and outside our shuls, and inside shops. And we cannot stay silent."
Following the conclusion of the panel discussion, Dr. Leon Saltiel, the WJC representative in Geneva and coordinator on countering antisemitism, held a tribute for Shaheed’s hard work in alerting the world to the alarming rise of religious intolerance and its different manifestations around the globe, especially with his publication of the first ever UN report addressing antisemitism.
Speaking on behalf of the WJC, Saltiel praised Dr. Shaheed, calling him a “valiant human rights defender,” adding that Dr. Shaheed “distinguished himself …, for his commitment, dedication, energy and perseverance.”
Following Saltiel’s remarks, WJC honored Dr. Shaheed with a video message from several Jewish community leaders, thanking Dr. Shaheed for his tireless and unabated efforts addressing antisemitism and highlighting his accomplishments during his tenure as United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.
Holding a Hamsa he received as a gift from the WJC, Dr. Shaheed thanked the WJC for their partnership during his tenure and recalled how the Jewish community “opened their doors, synagogues, school, centers and other places” and made him feel welcomed. Dr. Shaheed noted that he “cannot refuse” WJC’s invitation to continue to work together in “our common fight against antisemitism and all forms of hatred.”