Four North African and Middle Eastern Anglican bishops have written to U.N. Secretary Ban Ki-moon urging the adoption of an international declaration against religious defamation.
Bishops Mouneer Anis of Egypt, Michael Lewis of Cyprus and the Gulf and assistant Bishops Bill Musk of North Africa and Grant LeMarquand of the Horn of Africa wrote to the U.N. leader on 15 Sept 2012 following the attacks on the U.S. embassy in Cairo and consulate in Benghazi on 11 Sept. In the days that followed mobs demonstrated outside American diplomatic posts across the Middle East and attacked U.S., German and British embassies in Tunis and Khartoum, ostensibly in response to a Youtube video that attacked Mohammad.
The bishops wrote that in “view of the current inflamed situation in several countries in response to the production of a film in the USA which evidently intends to offend our Muslim brothers and sisters by insulting the Prophet Mohammed, and in view of the fact that in recent years similar offensive incidents have occurred in some European countries which evoked massive and violent responses worldwide, we hereby suggest that an international declaration be negotiated that outlaws the intentional and deliberate insulting or defamation of persons (such as prophets), symbols, texts and constructs of belief deemed holy by people of faith.”
They said such a declaration would not be a violation of the right of free speech, but would encourage people to be “responsible and self-restraining in expressing or promoting offensive or malicious opinions with regard to the religions of the world.”
The bishops said their aim in offering this suggestion was to build peaceful relations amongst the world’s religions and prevent “violence that may easily lead to wars between nations and conflicts between people from different cultural or philosophical backgrounds or followers of different faiths.”
The bishops’ letter follows in the wake of the 19 Dec 2011 vote by the U.N. General Assembly that condemned stereotyping, negative profiling and stigmatization of people based on their religion, and urging countries to take effective steps “to address and combat such incidents.”
Similar resolutions had been brought to the U.N. each year since 1999 by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) – a 56 member block of Muslim nation-states, but had been opposed by Western states.
However, in 2011 the language of the resolution was changed with language condemning the “defamation” of religion dropped and a clause inserted that reaffirmed “the positive role that the exercise of the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the full respect for the freedom to seek, receive and impart information can play in strengthening democracy and combating religious intolerance.”
The amended resolution received the backing of the U.S. and U.K. and the E.U., though Poland’s ambassador questioned whether this resolution favored one religion over others.
After the vote, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said “the best way to treat offensive speech is by people either ignoring it or combating it with good arguments and good speech that overwhelms it.”
The North African Anglican bishops echoed Mrs. Clinton’s plea for toleration, noting that “as people living here in the Middle East, we see that the way ahead for peaceful coexistence and religious harmony is through mutual respect and love.”