While a Sept. 25 interfaith gathering honored Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad inside New York's Grand Hyatt Hotel, another interfaith gathering protested his presence outside. Carrying signs that said "Stop the Hate" and chanting "The Hyatt harbors terrorists," Hindus, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, homosexuals, and others gathered to protest "an international dialogue" promoting "mutual understanding."
The dialogue took place just over a week after the United Nations General Assembly opened, and the day after people protested Ahmadinejad's speech to the General Assembly. It was a controversial start to an assembly where members tossed blame for global crises and scrutinized their own progress on ambitious development goals. The next three months will bring other debates of interest to Christians.
One debate involves Islam and so-called hate speech. A resolution, "Combating Defamation of Religion," is prompting concern from the Bush administration and groups advocating religious freedom. First proposed in 1999 by the Organization of Islamic Conference countries and reintroduced in the General Assembly each year since 2005, the resolution reacts to what Islamic countries see as growing Islamophobia. It urges member states to prohibit materials that incite religious hatred and to protect their citizens against acts of hatred resulting from defamation.
Just like the Ahmadinejad dinner, the resolution is uniting a diverse coalition of opponents who say it violates international law protecting freedom of religion and freedom of speech. European governments, along with the United States, have condemned the resolution. At the Sept. 19 release of the State Department's report on International Religious Freedom, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cautioned against the resolution, saying it could "limit freedom of speech, and . . . undermine the standards of international religious freedom."
The International Humanist and Ethical Union has united with the European Centre for Law and Justice (ECLJ), a firm protecting international religious liberty, in opposition to it. Both ECLJ and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty submitted briefs arguing against the resolution to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The ECLJ stated that Islamic countries use anti-defamation laws to suppress religious minorities. The Becket Fund argued that the resolution protects an ideology instead of an individual, erodes freedom of expression, and "restricts more freedoms than it protects."
The UN will also be assessing progress on its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a list of eight composed in 2000 to accomplish by 2015: eradicate extreme hunger, achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality, reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, combat disease, ensure environmental stability, and develop a global partnership by development. Now that the UN is halfway to its target date, the General Assembly is evaluating its progress.
Susan Yoshihara, vice president of research for the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), a pro-life advocacy group, said reports indicate that the UN is not making progress, especially on the issue of maternal health. Some 500,000 women die annually in childbirth or from pregnancy complications, and the UN's MDG Report 2008 says if the UN doesn't take action, it will fail to reach its goal of reducing maternal mortality and universal access to reproductive health. C-FAM is watching the maternity health debate to see if it includes any efforts to fund reproductive rights or pressure countries to legalize abortion. In UN dealings, maternal health is often equated with "reproductive health" and "reproductive health" is often equated with abortion rights.
The close of the General Assembly in December should also see a resolution calling for the universal decriminalization of homosexuality. Since France holds the European Union (EU) presidency through the end of the year, it speaks on behalf of the EU at the UN, and plans to propose the decriminalization. C-FAM said France is bypassing the Third Committee-a General Assembly committee that usually oversees issues like this, and a committee likely to frown on the resolution-and going straight to the General Assembly instead.
International dialogue may be short on "mutual understanding" at the General Assembly this year, starting with disagreement over Ahmadinejad and the defamation of religion, and ending with yet another dubious resolution.