Welcome to the United Nations. It’s wonderful to see you back with us. I also welcome the distinguished members of your Administration.
I want to begin by saluting you, Mr. President, for putting a focus on religious freedom – a pressing global issue and one that is also very close to my heart.
In 2001, under my initiative as Prime Minister of Portugal, my country enshrined religious freedom into the nation’s law with the objective at the time to equalize the benefits that the Catholic Church traditionally had in Portugal and to extend them to all religions in the country.
The measure declared that no one can be privileged or persecuted on account of their religion – and that “the State shall not discriminate against any…religious community in relation to others.”
Looking around the world, we tragically know that this is not a reality for millions of people.
It is totally unacceptable in the 21st century for people to face discrimination and intimidation for their beliefs.
The persecution of religious minorities is utterly intolerable.
The full scope of their human rights is guaranteed, and States have an obligation to implement policies that ensure their identities are respected and that they feel fully part of the society as a whole.
Earlier this year, His Holiness Pope Francis, along with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, His Eminence Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, signed a moving testament for mutual respect.
It stated that the diversity of religions is willed by the Creator. “This divine wisdom,” they wrote, “is the source from which the right to freedom of belief and the freedom to be different derive.”
It breaks my heart to see increasing numbers of individuals publicly humiliated, harassed and attacked simply because of their religion or beliefs.
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 in many hotspots around the world, entire communities have been targeted because of their faith – including in places where those communities have existed for centuries, if not millennia.
We must do all we can to avoid religious cleansing of societies. I will always remember when I was High Commissioner for Refugees and in a discussion about the Chaldean and the Assyrian communities of Iraq, the Christian communities in Iraq, my good friend Barham Salih is there. There was, of course, an enormous concern for those communities and I remember once, a friend of mine saying “well, you need to resettle all of them to the western world.” And I said, “of course, for people in need of protection, resettlement is the measure. But I cannot accept that these communities that have been there for millennia disappear from their region.” And I told my friend, “look, when in my country, in Portugal, we were still worshipping trees and rivers, in Iraq and in the Middle East in general, there were Christian communities discussing theology and discussing whether the Holy Ghost was coming from the Father or from the Father of the son. And so, it is clear that these communities, like the Yazidis, like many others in this region, as everywhere in the world, are a deeply rooted part of the society, and it is essential to preserve religious diversity in all parts of the world.
We must reject those who falsely and maliciously invoke religion to build misconceptions, to fuel division, to spread fear and hatred – and we must be vigilant about attempts to instrumentalize religion and identity to restrict the full enjoyment of rights by others, and to perpetuate or justify inequalities.
There is richness and strength in diversity; it is never a threat.
Profiting from that diversity requires a strong investment in social cohesion policies.
We have much wisdom to guide us on our way.
All major religions espouse mutual respect and peaceful coexistence in a spirit of shared humanity.
And our shared foundational text, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, affirms everyone’s “right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”
Simply put: the best way to promote international religious freedom is by uniting our voices for good, countering messages of hate with messages of peace, embracing diversity and protecting human rights everywhere.
The United Nations is stepping up action through two new initiatives that I have launched in recent weeks.
First, through a strategy on hate speech to coordinate efforts across the UN system, addressing the root causes and making our response more effective against hate speech.
Second, an action plan for the UN to be fully engaged in efforts to support safeguard religious sites and ensure the safety of houses of worship.
Holy sites should be places of worship, not places of war.
Taken together, these efforts seek to address some of the most pressing challenges facing our world today.
We have a collective responsibility to stamp out anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim hatred, the persecution of Christians and other religious groups, and all forms of racism, xenophobia, discrimination and incitement to violence.
Hatred is a threat to everyone – and so this must be a job for everyone.
Mr. President, thank you again for your initiative and leadership and for your invitation. I also want to thank you for your understanding during this hectic period. I would like to be able to stay for the whole meeting, but it was for me an enormous pleasure to be here with you today and to join my voice to all those that want to make sure that religious freedom prevails in our world everywhere.