Prince Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifa greets Bahrain Coptic bishop.
The cause of religious freedom received a significant boost from the Muslim world today. The island Kingdom of Bahrain—connected by bridge to Saudi Arabia—has declared “freedom of choice” to be a “divine gift.”
“We unequivocally reject compelled observance,” states the Bahrain Declaration for Religious Tolerance, released September 13 in Los Angeles with Muslim, Christian, and Jewish leaders in attendance. “Every individual has the freedom to practice their religion, providing they do no harm to others, respect the laws of the land, and accept responsibility, spiritually and materially, for their choices.”
Prince Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifa of Bahrain signed as an official envoy of the Gulf nation’s king. Johnnie Moore, a board member of the National Association of Evangelicals, and Rabbi Marvin Heir of the Simon Wiesenthal Center also participated, joining ambassadors from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Israel.
“The King is acting decisively, courageously, and seriously,” Moore told CT, also noting Bahraini sponsorship of a religious tolerance center in the capital city of Manama as well as sponsorship of a chair in religious coexistence at La Sapienza University in Rome. “The declaration goes farther than any similar document that I’m aware of.”
Individual religious freedom is just one of the five points asserted in the declaration.
Preaching hatred and violence in the name of God is condemned as a desecration of his name. Suicide bombing, sexual slavery, and the abuse of women and children are specifically disowned.
“Any act that is found morally repugnant by the vast majority of mankind and is insulting to our collective moral conscience cannot be part of God’s revealed will,” states the declaration’s third point.
“We will do all within our power to ensure that religious faith is a blessing to all mankind and the foundation for peace in the world,” concludes its fifth point.
The declaration comes after months of dialogue in both the United States and the Middle East. It was symbolically signed by the mother of an ISIS suicide bomber in Saudi Arabia as well as one of his victims.
Image: Simon Wiesenthal Center
The effort builds upon previous declarations issued from the Muslim world, such as the Marrakesh Declaration (Morocco) in January 2016 and the Jakarta Declaration (Indonesia) in May that same year.
But this declaration is unique in that it is signed by a head of state, as opposed to a collection of scholars.
It also addresses the issue of the individual and his or her rights. Previous declarations stressed the need to protect religious minorities in the Muslim world.
The Marrakesh statement stressed Muhammad’s Charter of Medina as a historic template consistent with the United Nations’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Jakarta statement emphasized the unique nature of Indonesian Islam as welcoming religious diversity.
But while Bahrain stops short of specifically mentioning the right of conversion, it goes further than previous statements to address the individual aspects of religious tolerance.
“Compelled religion cannot bring a person into a meaningful relationship with God,” states its second point. “People of all faiths should be accorded the right to congregate to worship, educate, celebrate, and practice the requirements of their respective faiths,” continues its fourth point.
The declaration states that Bahrain has had harmonious religious communities living side by side for hundreds of years. The island is a majority-Shia Muslim nation ruled by a Sunni monarchy, that also houses a 0-year-old Hindu temple.
International churches and the Bible Society of the Gulf serve the 14 percent of the population that is Christian, drawn almost entirely from foreign guest workers. In 2013, Michael W. Smith gave a concert to 3,000 attendees at an indoor stadium.
The 2010 census recognized over 1,000 “non-Muslim” citizens, understood to be several hundred indigenous Christians and a few dozen Jews.
Yet Bahrain ranks No. 48 on Open Doors’s World Watch List for Christian persecution. While noting relative freedom for Christians to practice their faith, proselytizing Muslims there is illegal. Bahrain’s constitution provides for religious freedom, but states that the practice should not violate established customs, public policy, or public morals.
This is similar in language to the Bahrain Declaration, which nonetheless respects the “responsibility … for their choices.”
“No nation is perfect, but my perspective on Bahrain isn’t based upon speculation,” said Moore, who discussed directly the issue of conversion. “I went there, and assessed the situation myself.” One Bahraini he encountered even spoke freely of becoming a Christian in front of government officials.
“The declaration is written from within the Arab world to the outside, and not from outside the Arab world looking in,” Moore told CT. “It addresses freedom of choice without using incendiary language.” It was drafted in close consultation between Jews, Christians, Sunnis, and Shi’ites, he said.
“Ignorance is the enemy of peace,” states King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa in the declaration. “It is, therefore, our duty to learn, to share, and to live together, by the tenets of faith in the spirit of mutual respect and love.
“Faith illuminates our path to peace.”
CT previously examined what Arab Christians think of Muslim promises to protect them.