Speech by Stef Blok, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, at the seventh meeting of the ‘Istanbul Process’ in The Hague, 18 November 2019.
Your Excellencies, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,
March 15, 2019.
I remember this day as if it were yesterday.
We saw on the news that a man had opened fire on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Mercilessly killing fifty-one innocent people.
Like three year-old Mucaad Ibrahim, who ran towards the shooter in confusion…
One reason I remember that day so vividly is because of what happened after this terrorist attack.
Thousands of New Zealanders -of different backgrounds, faiths and ethnicities - came together to attend a mass vigil, to mourn the 51 Muslims killed.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, showed true leadership, by taking swift action to reassure the Muslim community, by tightening the nation’s gun laws, and by initiating the Christchurch Call to Action, to take down terrorist and violent extremist material online.
And I remember the words of Mr. Farid Ahmed, whose wife died in the attack, and whom we are honoured to have with us here today.
Mr Ahmed said at the remembrance service for the victims, that people asked him:
‘Why did you forgive someone, who has killed your beloved wife?’
His response was:
“I don’t want a heart that is boiling like a volcano”.
“A volcano has anger, fury, rage; It does not have peace”, he said.
“I want a heart that will be full of love and care, and full of mercy.”
“I do not support his wrongdoing”, Mr Ahmed added. But “I cannot deny the fact that he is my human brother.”
Mr Ahmed, thank you so much for travelling so far to be with us today.
I believe your presence here is very important, because you showed us that there is hope. That love can triumph over hate.
And today, we face a number of challenging questions:
How can we preserve and spread that message?
How can we ensure that people around the world, are not subject to violence, discrimination or intimidation, because of their faith? Or indeed, because of their lack of faith?
What can we learn from each other?
Because not a day goes by without religion making headlines somewhere in the world.
Since the terrorist attack in Christchurch, there have been numerous attacks elsewhere.
Including in Colombo, Kabul, and most recently in Halle, in Germany.
As the UN Secretary-General said earlier this year:
“Jews have been murdered in synagogues, their gravestones defaced with swastikas; Muslims gunned down in mosques, their religious sites vandalized; Christians killed at prayer, their churches torched.”
And I’m afraid I have to add to the list: Atheists, who face persecution or even the death penalty. Sometimes for acts that some consider ‘disrespectful’ to people of faith.
This is the world we live in today.
A world in which – according to the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life – more than a quarter of the worlds’ countries experienced a high incidence of hostilities, motivated by religious hatred in 2018.
Hatred, between and within religions and faiths;
Hatred toward those who have changed their religion; Or toward people who choose not to have a religion at all.
We are witnessing an apparent global trend of increasing religious violence, which affects virtually every group of people.
Even in my own country, the Netherlands long known for its tolerance and inclusiveness - some people face hatred due to their ethnic background and religion.
This clearly shows that intolerance is not confined to any particular part of the world.
I firmly believe that it is our collective duty to ensure that people around the world are not subject to violence, discrimination or intimidation because of their faith or beliefs.
That is why I said ‘yes’, when the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Dr Ahmed Shaheed, asked the Netherlands to organise this 7th Meeting of the Istanbul Process.
I said ‘yes’, because of the commitments we’ve made.
The commitment laid down in United Nations Human Rights Council resolution 16/18.
And the commitment the world made to religious freedom, when we adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The Declaration, that makes clear that each of us is born free to practise any religion or belief, to change one’s religion or belief, or to have none at all.
In other words:
We agreed that no state, no group, no individual human being, has the power to deny these rights. Or take them away.
They are human rights.
They are universal.
They are inalienable and inter-related. And they are inter-dependent and indivisible.
They are not rights bestowed by any government, or person. They are not something you can just pick and choose.
And that is exactly why we need to come together, and why we must act.
So we can promote tolerance and inclusion. And end violence and discrimination, against persons based on religion, or belief.
In the words of this conference’s motto: No tolerance, for intolerance!
And so, we are also here to learn from one another.
Policymakers must learn as much as possible about religion and beliefs in order to navigate us through the Twenty First Century.
We should keep in mind that religion is important to billions of people around the world, and that it greatly shapes people’s views of justice, and right behavior.
We also have a duty to learn about the digital revolution, which has radically changed the way ideas are shared, including religious ones.
For example, a pastor and an imam in Nigeria, can preach to – and positively inspire - a global audience via YouTube;
Religious scholars can exchange opinions on sacred texts; And people can find out about any religion or belief.
By contrast, Daesh has been ruthlessly effective in using social media to spread its monstrous ideas. And mass hatred towards Rohingya Muslims has been largely fuelled via the internet.
So we must bear in mind the duality of the internet.
It can do harm. But it can also be a force for good.
What’s more, we must learn from grass-roots organisations, which equip local leaders, teachers, and young men, women and children - to address discrimination and radicalization in their communities.
That is exactly why we invited these organisations to this meeting, including representatives of local initiatives in the Netherlands. We hope to learn from their best practices.
Here with us today, are Saïd Bensellam and Lody Van de Kamp. Two extraordinary people, who embody a message of brotherhood.
Lody is a rabbi, born in the eastern Netherlands. Saïd is a kickboxer of Moroccan descent, who grew up on the streets of Amsterdam.
Their story goes back to 2010, when Lody - the rabbi – decided to walk the streets of Amsterdam wearing a kippah, and carrying a hidden camera to film whatever happened.
He encountered a young boy who raised his right arm in Nazi salute.
For the rabbi it was a sign that anti-Semitism was still alive and well in the Netherlands.
Saïd, a youth worker with an unorthodox approach - and a well-known figure among the young people in that neighbourhood - was determined not to let this incident simply pass.
He decided to call Lody afterwards, and said:
‘Rabbi, you don’t know me, but I work with the boy who did this. How can we solve this together?’
Lodi was surprised. He had not given the incident much thought since it happened.
But he agreed to meet with Saïd the next day.
Not long after, Saïd and Lody spoke to the boy together, to help him understand why his actions were so hurtful.
And it worked. The boy changed his behavior for the better.
Since that moment, Saïd and Lody have shared a common vision: a society in which everyone can be who they are, without discrimination or violence.
Their foundation, that they subsequently established, works in schools, with youth workers, and with our police forces.
As Saïd and Lody have said, they “cannot reach everyone, but young people they do engage with… change’’.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Through their personal approach, Saïd and Lody have helped make people aware of the effects of their actions.
This is one of the things we can learn from grass-roots initiatives.
Sharing experiences and best practices can also help us support freedom of expression.
In her biography on the life of the French writer and philosopher, Voltaire, Evelyn Beatrice Hall famously wrote:
“I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.
This phrase reminds us that we should all support free speech, and not limit speech.
Even if we do not like or agree with it. For example, speech that might be deemed offensive.
However, don’t let me be misunderstood: there is a boundary.
For example, threatening people or inciting hate, is never acceptable.
What’s more, everyone - including faith groups and their leaders – has a responsibility to accept the rules of representative democracy.
Religious communities as a group, are just one voice among many in our pluralist culture.
No person or group can expect special treatment.
And people cannot expect to be heard in a ‘noisy public square’, unless they are willing to speak out, and engage.
This is another lesson we can learn. And should learn.
At the same time, it’s important to realise - and spread the message - that faith-based organisations can have a very positive impact on human well-being.
After all, they are often the driving force behind programmes and institutions, aimed at helping those in need: homeless shelters, orphanages, food banks, hospitals, - or schools.
And we should realise that in failed or weak states, it’s often religious organizations that provide - and maintain - a country’s entire social infrastructure in health and education - and even drive economic development.
Furthermore, faith or belief has the capacity to inspire people to acts of unselfish generosity. In a way that few political movements can claim to do.
Take Frans van der Lugt, for instance, a Dutch Jesuit priest, who was murdered in Syria in 2014.
For many years, ‘Father Frans’ led an annual eight-day hike across Syria.
These hikes would draw as many as 200 or 300 young Syrians:
Christian and Muslim; Druze and Alawite.
Because he knew these hikes had the power to bring people together.
Or, as Father Frans once said to a BBC News reporter:
“People share the common experience of fatigue, of sleeping and eating together, and this builds a link between them”.
“After the hike it is not important that you are Christian or Muslim. It is important that you are present.”
This, is what he said before the appalling siege of Homs. But even after that, his devotion to the Syrian people never faltered.
Father Frans kept on speaking, not of Christians or Muslims, but of “fellow human beings, struggling to survive”.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is another lesson we can learn:
The ability of a single person to inspire many.
And that is why I’d like to encourage all of you today, to talk to as many people here as you can.
Share your thoughts and ideas. And pass your knowledge and insights on to other people from different parts of the world.
So we can indeed build bridges, promote tolerance of religion and belief, and boost resilience.
Because as Prime Minister Ardern said, at the Christchurch Memorial service:
“We cannot confront these issues alone”.
“None of us can”.
“But the answer to them lies in a simple concept that is not bound by domestic borders, that isn’t based on ethnicity, power base, or even forms of governance”.
“The answer lies, in our humanity”.