Religious freedom is a fundamental human right

Freedom of religion or belief is a universal human right. But despite this, people are persecuted, displaced and murdered because of their religion. Religious sites are destroyed and buildings set ablaze. We see this in the Middle East, where in recent years the situation of religious minorities has deteriorated.

During the Daesh advance, Christian groups in Iraq and Syria suffered unspeakable abuse, including sexual and gender-based violence, and many were killed. Other minorities were also targeted, such as the Yazidis, whose women were forced into sex slavery under Daesh. In Egypt, the Coptic Christian minority has again become the target of repeated terrorist attacks. Similar developments are taking place in Nigeria, Indonesia and Pakistan. In other places, religious freedom is severely restricted, as are other human rights. We also see ethnic and religious minorities fall victim closer to home. Synagogues and mosques are attacked and destroyed in towns and cities in Sweden, Christian refugees in Swedish refugee centres bear witness to serious threats and harassment, and terrorism in Europe is a threat to the pluralism and democracy that we have fought so hard to build.

Sweden condemns these abuses, acts of violence and killings. Everyone should be able to hold a religion without fear of threat. The Government is taking broad-based measures to prevent these threats to pluralism. I recently received the Presiding Committee of the Christian Council of Sweden to talk about global trends in freedom of religion or belief.

Promoting and protecting human rights is a cornerstone of Swedish foreign policy. Sweden is working actively – bilaterally with individual countries and in multilateral contexts – to strengthen respect for freedom of religion or belief. Engaging other governments in efforts to strengthen protection for human rights is a permanent item on our agenda. Sweden's Ambassador for human rights, democracy and the rule of law has freedom of religion or belief among her areas of responsibility. Promoting this freedom is thus an ongoing part of her work. Sweden's Ambassador to the Holy See conducts a dialogue with the Vatican on the issue, and the Swedish Institute in Alexandria, which is part of the Swedish Foreign Service, works to promote interfaith dialogue. Our Ambassador to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation continuously raises freedom of religion, including the vulnerable situation of Christians in the Muslim world. It is important to review and report on developments, increase awareness, and hold perpetrators of abuse and of human rights violations to account.

Reinforcing civil society is an important step in strengthening human rights and the protection of religious minorities. This work also includes our extensive efforts to strengthen democracy and the rule of law around the world. As minorities are often victims of terrorism and violent extremism, greater international cooperation is needed to prevent violent extremism and strengthen counter-terrorism efforts. Sweden's participation in the Global Coalition against Daesh includes contributing military trainers to the Coalition's training mission. Sweden's international counter-terrorism priorities are aimed at long-term prevention of violent extremism in compliance with international human rights law. Security-oriented and punitive approaches alone risk being counterproductive. Excessive use of force by police and disproportionate security measures perceived as targeting particular groups fuel some of the grievances exploited by violent extremist propaganda. Strengthening democracy to counter violent extremism is a priority for the Government.

Development cooperation is an essential part of Sweden's efforts to strengthen human rights and prevent the violent extremism that often targets religious minorities. Sweden has bilateral development cooperation with Iraq, a regional strategy for the Syria crisis, and wider regional engagement in the Middle East and North Africa. Our support is based on a rights perspective, with a special focus on vulnerable groups, including ethnic and religious minorities. Contributions and projects range from strengthening democratic governance, peacebuilding and mechanisms for protecting human rights, to support to civil society, education and other basic social services.

We can naturally do more. Understanding the challenges of coexistence, the links between religion and politics in the world, and freedom of religion or belief is central; for this reason, we invest more in education. For example, the Swedish Mission Council has run a freedom of religion course at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. We organise and participate actively and regularly in conferences and seminars that address these issues, both at home and around the world. I have also taken steps for a conference during the next electoral period where concepts such as genocide will be discussed; the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide will be invited to take part. We are clarifying the title of our Ambassador to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and for intercultural and interfaith dialogue, who will receive a special assignment for the fight against anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, and the protection of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East and North Africa.

I am currently also setting up an internal working group at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs to enhance coordination of our various actors who provide support to religious minorities in different ways.

Religion plays a major role in many conflict situations around the world. Finding ways to co-exist, even when religious beliefs differ, is therefore crucial for sustainable peace. Violence, harassment or persecution based on a person's religion must never be accepted or normalised. We will continue to fight for this during the next electoral period.

Margot Wallström
Minister for Foreign Affairs