[Photo of National Spiritual Assembly] "Swazi Baha'is at a
conference for the headquarters of the Baha'i Faith in the middle east.
Yesterday they celebrated an important day on world peace."
by Dr Joshua MZIZI
THE National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'i
Faith in Swaziland yesterday celebrated a very important day in the
contemporary history of the nations of the world.
The theme of the celebration was religious tolerance
in our global village. This is a very deep and involved theme.
First, the world cannot rid itself of religion and
religions. Religions are here to stay. They cannot be wished away. They
are no longer matters of past-time hobby like any sport or social club.
Rather, they now as ever before determine our lives
and social relationships. These relationships are always very fragile,
thus leading to religious wars within nation states or even across
Secondly, the inbuilt mechanism in each religion to
always take itself as containing the absolute truth is problematic, if
not potentially explosive. Truth is a very elusive concept.
Just when you think you have it, bouts of doubt hit
you like a sledge hammer.
In short, every thinking human being always
searching for the truth. Only those who are dead can be excused from this
But then some who are living content themselves
with whatever pieces of truth they may be holding onto and then make the
mistake of universalizing these pieces.
In other words, it is either the world is defined
through the these pieces or there is no definition that may be attempted
elsewhere and otherwise. This leads to unnecessary tensions and
The Law and Religion division of Emory University
in Atlanta Georgia has just finished one of the most important worldwide
surveys on matters of religious conflicts and human rights abuses as a
result of religious intolerance.
The study was manned by over 200 scholars of one
stripe or another from across the world. It took Emory a total of three
years to complete it.
The theme was "Soul Wars: The Problem of Proselytism
in the New World Order." There will be massive publications that will
result from that project. The results of the study do not paint a good
picture at all.
Religious intolerance is the single most enemy
number one affecting many communities nations the world over. I am sure
that readers have been following the recent bashing of Muslims in our
The bashing is promoted by certain Christian
Pastors who suffer from an obsession with the pieces of scattered truth
at their disposal They label Moslems as pagans and without the light
The claim here is that all religious truth is found
in Christianity and nowhere else. Of course, that is rubbish to people
who have reasoned that all truth is relative.
Professor John Witte Jr. who directed the Emory
project recently commented as follows in his executive summary: "This
exercise has required us to open difficult theoretical issues and to
explore them in various cultural and religious contexts.
"In Christian theological terms, the dialectic is
between the Great Commission and the Golden Rule: how does a person or
community abide simultaneously with the callings to 'Go forth into the
world and make disciples of all nations,' and to 'Do unto others as you
would have them do unto you'."
The matter Prof. Witte is raising is taken for
granted by religious propagaters. The position is that if my religion
as perceived by myself tells me that it is privy to truth, then all
others are false religions.
It is therefore my God-ordained duty to forcefully
oppose them, even up to the point of barberically murdering their
Sharia Law for example, sentences to death anyone
who dares insult the prophet Muhammed and Allah. Whoever can kill the
author of Satanic Verses would have done a righteous and noble act.
But seriously, does the dialectic between the
Great Commission and the Golden Rule not also hinge on the notion of
Individuals and communities have the right to
practice, propagate, and celebrate their religion.
This right is recognised Article 18 of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought,
conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his
religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with
others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief
in teaching, practice, worship and observance."
In other words, as John Witte asks, how does a
community balance its own right to expand the faith, and another's
person's or community's right to be left alone. It is interesting
to note that Swaziland's independence Constitution gave a detailed
account of what freedom of conscience entails.
Chapter II, Section 11 states that freedom of
conscience includes freedom of thought and religion, freedom to
change his religion or belief, and freedom either alone or in
community with others, and both in public and in private to manifest
and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching practice
In the Christian religion conversion is not
compulsory. And backsliding is not prohibited. One can move in and
out of the faith as he or she wishes.
In Judaism conversion is difficult in and out.
It is difficult and rigorous to convert into Judaism, let alone to
recant the faith.
Islam has an easy conversion into the faith,
but it allows for no conversion out of it. A recent example of the
latter is what is taking place right now in Iran.
Members of the Baha'i faith are constantly
tortured and persecuted. Even the Baha'i Open University in Iran
is being threatened with closure.
The classical case is that of two Baha'is who
were sentenced to hang this week for converting a Muslim woman to
the Baha'i faith. The Islamic Court of Iran exercises Sharia Law
which allows for such judicial action against what it considers as
What the state of Iran and many others in the
Islamic world is doing is infringing on the rights of individuals
and communities to believe in whatever they want to believe in.
Another interesting story is what took place in
Ghana prior to the independence celebrations of 1994. There was
controversy over whether the traditional rite of whether libation
could be poured at the celebrations.
The churches protested to the proposal to pour
libation. They boycotted the occasion. Clearly this has been the
stand of many missionary churches which saw African belief systems
By adapting this stance, the churches of Ghana
blinded themselves to the reality that Ghana is a religiously plural
nation. Traditional religionists should be respected on the same
footing as any other adherents particular faiths.
An older issue in Ghana, which is going to be a
thorn in flesh for us here in Swaziland as well, concerns the role of
education and the right of the churches to run schools and hospitals.
Kwame Nkrumah had taken the position that the
education of the people was part and parcel of the struggle against
colonialism and neo-colonialism.
The churches were uncomfortable with this position.
They held that Dr Nkrumah was introducing Leninist socialism using the
platform of the church.
When the Nkrumah government attempted to take over
the mission schools, there was much conternation in Ghana. The charge
was that the government was in a ploy to dispossess the churches their
right to spread the faith through social services and humanitarian
Swaziland is yet to agree on a Bill of Rights.
Controversies on religious rights for all citizens are bound to escalate,
and judging from the outcome of the Emory global project, tensions will
rise and soul enemies will abound.
The question is: Is all this necessary? Is life not
too short to carry unnecessary grudges? Why should the Themba Nhlekos
of this world break the golden rule at the expence of religious harmony
in Swaziland? Why should they be allowed to do so?
The fact of the matter is that freedom of religions
carries within itself the responsibility to respect other religions. But
perhaps we must start here: accept others as you would that they accept
Affirm their convictions despite the fact that
yours are different.
To me, or even to great thinkers like Freud and
Jung, religious tolerance is the highest level of spiritual development
any religious individual can reach. It is not an ideal. It is a state
which can be reached. It is spirituality at its highest level. Those
that have not reached it are central in the religious conflicts of our
©Copyright 1998, Times of Swaziland