International religious liberty: The ERLC’s work in Geneva

July 24, 2019

At the turn of the 20th century, artists from around the world submitted proposals in a contest to enhance the grounds of the University of Geneva. The park improvements were chartered to mark the 400th birthday of the city’s own John Calvin and the 350th anniversary of the university he founded. The winning design was inaugurated in 1909 as the Monument international de la Réformation with 10 concrete statutes of theological titans sculpted into the old city walls of Geneva to represent the fortification of this city’s role in the Protestant Reformation. Over a century later, advocates from the Southern Baptist Convention traveled to Switzerland in the same spirit of one of the leaders honored in that monument, the Baptist forebear Roger Williams, to fortify religious liberty abroad through the United Nations Office at Geneva. 

The United Nations Geneva offices are located in the Palais des Nations on the coast of Lake Geneva. Among the agencies headquartered there is The UN Human Rights Council. In 1986, the UNHRC established a Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB). The UN offices in John Calvin’s city are significant to the work of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission because of the ample opportunities there to advocate for religious freedom.

SBC and conscience freedom

Messengers to the annual meetings of the Southern Baptist Convention make known year after year their commitment to conscience freedom through resolutions calling on the state to protect the fundamental right of religious liberty. To date, the Convention has passed well over 100 resolutions addressing the issue both at home and abroad because of the SBC’s significant interest in Great Commission cooperation overseas. 

Our local churches send men and women to serve nearly every country and people group doing relief, development, and mission work. Southern Baptists serve their neighbors in foreign countries struck by natural disasters through disaster relief networks like the Baptist Global Response and promoting justice in local communities alongside organizations like International Justice Mission. The ERLC’s international work is focused on advocating for the most vulnerable, such as religious minorities in countries hostile to religious freedom and countering the mundane threat of everyday violence against the poor.

All of these international efforts led the ERLC team to the UN office in Geneva because of the SBC’s commitment to religious liberty and the Commission’s responsibility to carry out that resolve abroad.

The ERLC holds special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council as a nongovernmental organization. This status, which the ERLC has held for nearly 15 years, gives the organization access to meet with Member States and diplomats on the UN grounds, as well as participate in official UN sessions, events, and various deliberations. As an organization with official status, the ERLC is recognized as representative of the civil society sector in meetings with ambassadors and diplomats.

With this special consultative status, the ERLC engages the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The UPR in Geneva is a process driven by the Member States to review one another’s human rights records. When a country is scheduled for review, the ERLC submits reports on the threats to the country and opportunities for greater religious freedom. The ERLC appeals directly to the diplomatic community on the ground in Geneva to raise FoRB issues in their recommendations.

A focus on Malaysia

In 2018, the ERLC participated in the UPR process for Malaysia. The ERLC submitted two reports at the UN, one in partnership with the Religious Freedom Institute (RFI) on the country’s Hudud Law, and the other with the St. Charles Institute (SCI) on forced religious conversions. The ERLC also worked in close partnership with Malaysian attorney, Eugene Yapp, who is an advocate for religious freedom in Kuala Lumpur and the Religious Freedom and Liberty Partnership (RFL), a nongovernmental organization promoting freedom for their fellow Malay in submitting a third report. 

The ERLC chose to focus on Malaysia because this country enjoys a rich history of pluralism and a constitution that protects religious freedom. Though more than 60 percent of this Southeast Asian country practices Sunni Islam, there is a small and vibrant Malaysian Christian minority of about 10 percent. Churches, seminaries, and other ministry efforts were historically allowed to exist and thrive for the last 200 years.

Malaysia registers the religion of all its citizens and prints that religious identifier on government-issued ID cards. Practicing Christians are at times even registered as Muslims because of forced conversions, marriage arrangements, or even simple clerical errors. Once a person is registered as a Muslim they are permanently treated as Muslims by the state. A Christian in such a situation who chose to marry another Christian would be unable to have their marriage legally recognized. Their children would then be registered accordingly as Muslim and required to attend Islamic schools. Such an administrative error would even lead this person to receive a Muslim burial at death. Due to the expanding influence of Sharia law in Malaysia, conversion from Islam to any other religion is totally prohibited. All of this is true even for those who are actual followers of Christ yet governmentally registered as Muslims.

The ERLC produced a film titled Malaysia: A Fight for Freedom and Identity to share these stories of people harmed by Malaysian state authority through these antiquated laws with the international advocacy community. The film released in Washington, D.C., during an event ERLC co-hosted with RFI during the week of the U.S. Department of State’s inaugural Ministerial for International Religious Freedom. This was but one instance of the many ways that the ERLC shares the stories of persecuted Christians and religious minorities throughout the world.

In Geneva, Malaysia’s UPR session took place during the Human Rights Council’s November 2018 meeting. After meeting with many of the member states and sharing the above film with them, the ERLC was heartened to see 10 member states offer recommendations related to FoRB issues.

Representatives from the United States recommended that Malaysia, “enhance protections for the right of freedom of religion or belief for all people in Malaysia, including the right to freely choose and practice their faith.” Other notable recommendations came from Croatia, “guarantee freedom of religion or belief to all, stemming racial and religious intolerance, including against the Christian community,” and from Kenya, “Undertake administrative, policy and legislative measures to guarantee freedom of religion and belief for all in Malaysia consistent with their constitution.” Albania, Haiti, Iraq, Spain, Venezuela, Brazil, and Sri Lanka also made recommendations related to FoRB issues.

In March 2019, Travis Wussow and Phillip Bethancourt, ERLC’s executive vice president, were in Geneva to hear Malaysia’s official response to these recommendations. Unfortunately, the Malaysian delegation was unmoved. According to our partner Yapp, the number of States which encouraged action on FoRB issues demonstrates, “increased awareness that Malaysia is no longer as moderate as is made out to be and is at likely risk towards the path of extremism.” The threats to religious freedom of our Malay neighbors are substantial, and the eyes of the world’s diplomatic community took notice. The ERLC is committed and will continue to work to protect our Christian brothers and sisters from further pressure and for the religious freedom of all Malaysians.

Turning to the north

For the remainder of this year, the ERLC will turn the prioritization of its international religious liberty work north, from Kuala Lumpur to Pyongyang. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is up for their state’s universal periodic review in 2019. The situation for religious liberty in North Korea is among the worst in the world. We seek to highlight Chairman Kim Jong Un’s persecution of his countrymen as the international community pays particular attention to the despot’s cruel regime. The ERLC is developing a film with brave North Korean defectors to provide opportunities for them to share their stories. By bringing these heroes of courageous faith into the spotlight of international attention, we hope to inspire change in this dark corner of persecution.

In the years to come, the team will share stories of courageous brothers and sisters in Christ whose freedom of religion and belief is trampled by state authority. We will make the case, wherever such authority is abused, for the kind of government we believe God institutes, a government that is not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.

People are made in God’s image, created with a conscience not under Caesar’s authority but the Lord’s. We promote religious liberty with decision makers in Geneva because we seek the common good of all people, those of all faiths or of no faith at all. And we can make this case for every person in every country and in every culture because human dignity does not spring up from national origin or citizenship but endowed as foundational from our Creator. With this belief sure and our commission clear, the ERLC will continue to leverage the United Nations office in Geneva to proclaim liberty for captives of conscience throughout the nations.

This article originally appeared in Light Magazine.

Jeff Pickering

Jeff Pickering is the director of the Initiative on Faith & Public Life, a project of the American Enterprise Institute. AEI is a leading public policy think tank in Washington, DC and the initiative exists to equip Christian college students for faithful engagement in public life. Jeff moved to Washington … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24