Briefing by Ms. Nihal Saad,
Director of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC),
at the United Nations Security Council
Wednesday, 26 July 2023, United Nations Headquarters, New York
Thank you Mr. President,
Distinguished members of the Council,
I wish to thank the Council Members for the opportunity to brief on this important issue representing the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations.
I will focus my briefing on the freedom of religion and belief dimension and the protection of religious sites within the context of the war in Ukraine.
In the instance of wars and intercommunal conflicts, saving lives and protecting human welfare is, understandably, often if not always a priority while protecting places of worship and safeguarding religious sites and preserving cultural heritage sites take a second distant place.
History reminds us that war, religion and politics are intertwined in many ways. Therefore, it is important to factor in, and understand the complexity of the role that religion is playing in some of these conflicts.
The on-going, relentless war in Ukraine is a case in point.
In addressing the situation holistically, we should right-size the religious dimension in that particular crisis that we have at hand as the result of the Russian Federation’s armed attack on Ukraine.
The division between Ukraine’s Orthodox bodies is not new. It has existed for decades but it has exacerbated within Ukraine and reverberated worldwide as Orthodox churches have struggled with how and whether to take sides.
Last Sunday, we woke up to heartbreaking images of a severely damaged historic Cathedral , the largest Orthodox Church in Odesa. A Russian missile hit the Transfiguration Cathedral and other historical buildings that lie in the historic heritage center of Odesa. At the same time, it was heartening to see that hours later parishioners and volunteers donning hard hats, shovels and brooms began removing rubble and tried to salvage any artifacts.
The Cathedral in Odesa was not the only religious site damaged throughout the war. According to a preliminary assessment undertaken by UNESCO, 116 religious sites have been damaged since 24 February 2022.
The United Nations condemned the attack.
The Secretary General strongly condemned the Russian missile attack on Odesa and noted that the attack in an area protected under the World Heritage Convention is in violation of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the event of armed conflict.
The Director-General of UNESCO strongly condemned the attack and considered it an escalation in violence against cultural heritage of Ukraine.
The High Representative for the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations condemned the attack on the Cathedral and deplored the fact that the ongoing war in Ukraine has led to the destruction and/or pillaging of places of worship and religious heritage sites which has further fueled hatred, stoked mistrust and exacerbated the hostilities.
This brings me to the United Nations Plan of Action to Safeguard Religious Sites: In Unity and Solidarity for Safe Worship developed by the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations and launched by the Secretary-General in 2019.
The Plan of Action is rooted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and grounded in a core understanding: religious sites are powerful symbols of our collective consciousness.
The Plan advocates the sanctity of religious sites and safety of worshippers and stresses the right of all believers to access the holy sites and to practice their religious rituals and traditions freely, peacefully, and safely without fear or intimidation.
The Russian Federation was among a core group of member states and other relevant stakeholders who informed the Plan of Action in its consultative phase.
The United Nations Alliance of Civilizations promotes the universality of religious sites emanating from our conviction that places of worship and sacred religious sites are representative of the history, identity and traditions of people in every country and community and must be fully respected and protected. An attack on places of worship strikes the very core of communities’ sense of identity and belonging.
Therefore, religious sites should be places of worship, not places of war.
Distinguished members of the Council,
Under the Charter of the United Nations, Member States pledged their commitment to promote and encourage universal respect for and observance of all human rights and fundamental freedoms without distinction including religion or belief. Several multilateral instruments recognize that discrimination against persons on the basis of religion or belief constitutes an affront to human dignity and undermines the fundamental freedoms proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and enunciated in detail in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It is therefore the obligation of Member States to prohibit discrimination and violence on the basis of religion or belief and to implement measures to guarantee the equal and effective protection of the law.
In this context, the politicization of religion in the war in Ukraine fuels intercommunal tensions, stokes fear and triggers violence.
The restrictions to freedom of religion and the safety of members of religious communities across Ukraine in both territory controlled by the Government as well as that occupied by the Russian Federation is a matter of grave concern.
According to the updated report by OHCHR based on the work of the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU), incidents of violence against members and supporters of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) increased in the reporting period between February 1st – April 30th 2023.
Authorities notably searched places of worship and other UOC facilities, issued notices of suspicions against clergymen, and placed several of them under house arrest, including one of the UOC’s main hierarchs based on little or no evidence. In addition the Ministry of Culture terminated early rental agreement with UOC of the state-owned Kyiv Pechersk Lavra. Following UN advocacy, authorities refrained from taking actions that risked violence and did not forcibly evict the UOC from the Lavra on the stated deadline for leaving the premises of 29 March.
Moreover, during the month of April 2023 several city and regional councils banned the activities of UOC. Many local councils also sought to terminate municipal property rental agreements with the UOC. As such, we are concerned that the cumulative impact of Government actions targeting the UOC could be discriminatory.
Another worrying sign is the surge in hate speech and several incidents of violence against UOC members in April 2023. According to the report Public officials, bloggers and opinion leaders used discriminatory and inflammatory rhetoric and openly incited violence against clergymen and supporters of the UOC. The Government and law enforcement authorities did not effectively address the incidents of hate speech during the reporting period.
In territories occupied by the Russian Federation, there is grave concern over reports by HRMMU during the reporting period August 1 2022 – 1 January 2023. documenting enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention, torture or other ill treatment and unlawful deportations perpetrated by Russian armed forces against clergy and members of Ukrainian Greek Catholic and Christian Evangelical communities. Moreover, the Russian occupation authorities raided, ransacked and closed three places of worship belonging to the Baptist community in Melitopol, reportedly on the grounds of the community’s purported links with foreign intelligence services.
Last but not least, I wish to re-iterate that when people are attacked because of their religion or beliefs, we are all diminished.
Concluding, it is imperative that both parties respect and uphold fundamental human rights including freedom of religion or belief and the right to manifest and practice one’s religion freely and safely . We also emphasize that freedom of opinion and expression, peaceful assembly, association, can be exercised without discrimination.
I thank you.