Sri Lanka Consultation Brings Together Diverse Leaders to Promote Religious Freedom Throughout South and Southeast Asia

As part of its work promoting religious freedom for all people, the Religious Freedom Institute is bringing together in key cities around the world diverse leaders who otherwise might not collaborate or even meet.

 Ashin Zero and Sam Naeem with RFI Action Team Director Timothy Shah. (Photo: RFI)

Ashin Zero and Sam Naeem with RFI Action Team Director Timothy Shah. (Photo: RFI)

This month an RFI team traveled to Colombo, Sri Lanka, to convene a three-day consultation to develop relationships and strategies for promoting religious freedom in South and Southeast Asia, a highly diverse region of more than 2.5 billion people. During the consultation, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, and agnostic leaders—along with officials from Sri Lanka and the United States—developed partnerships and made commitments to build a sustainable inter-religious network to advance freedom of religion and conscience for all people.

Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Myanmar, who has been a courageous advocate of religious freedom for the Muslim Rohingya and members of all other religions greeted participants via video. Cardinal Bo said that “it is through such dialogue and personal interaction that people of different religious, cultures, countries, and backgrounds can understand each other and come together to celebrate the unity in diversity which our world so urgently needs.” 

The cardinal also emphasized that freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief, as articulated by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “is perhaps the most precious and most basic freedom of all. Without the freedom to choose, practice, share and change your beliefs, there is no freedom…”

The seventy participants attending the consultation included religious freedom advocates, religious leaders, civil society leaders, and government officials. The consultation builds on an inter-religious conference on religious freedom that took place exactly one year earlier in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Timothy Shah, the Director of the Religious Freedom Institute’s South and Southeast Asia Action Team, delivered that conference’s keynote address.

Participants in this month’s Colombo consultation included:

  • Alissa Wahid, Founder and National Coordinator of The Gusdurian Network and daughter of former Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid
  • Eran Wickramartne, State Minister of Finance of Sri Lanka
  • Knox Thames, Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South / Central Asia at the U.S. Department of State
  • Yudishtir Govind Das, Communications Steering Committee Member with The International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in India
  • Ashin Zero, a Buddhist monk from Burma who has staunchly opposed the persecution of Muslims in his country
  • Sam Naeem, a Muslim Rohingya activist from Burma

It seems fitting that the Colombo consultation took place in the 70th anniversary year of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which articulated freedom of religion and conscience as a fundamental and universal human right. True to Article 18 of the Declaration, the consultation in Colombo strongly reaffirmed the universality of religious freedom and the ways in which it is indispensable to the flourishing of the many diverse societies of South and Southeast Asia.  This message was underscored by the participants’ diverse religious backgrounds.

The Religious Freedom Institute’s South and Southeast Asian Action was represented both by Timothy Shah and Associate Director Rebecca Shah. The Action Team comprises scholars and experts devoted to the advancement of religious freedom across South and Southeast Asia. The Action Team currently focuses on India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Nepal, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka.

Pew Research Center studies have found several South and Southeast Asia nations to be among the most religiously unfree societies in the world.  Despite this, the region includes numerous countries with fairly robust democratic institutions and dynamic civil societies. The consultation in Sri Lanka capitalized on the region’s relative openness—and Sri Lanka’s own democratic vitality and openness to pluralism—by engaging a wide range of civil society organizations, political leaders, and religious freedom defenders in robust debate and dialogue.

The work of the Religious Freedom Institute in South and Southeast Asia is especially important because both religious minorities and religious majorities in the region face mounting persecution from government and social actors.  Developing trust-based relationships and partnerships across religious divides must be at the core of any strategy to counter this trend and ensure that all people are free to live and practice their religion in peace and safety.