Creating the Tools Governments Need to Promote Freedom of Religion and Belief for All

An overview of the Online Freedom of Religion and Belief site, and an interview with Katherine Cash on the training policymakers need on issues of freedom of religion or belief.

One of the key barriers to the advancement of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) is widespread ignorance—or misperception—of what this human right actually entails. The FoRB Learning Platform is designed to fill this knowledge gap. In this interview, Religion & Diplomacy editor Judd Birdsall asks Swedish Mission Council advocacy officer Katherine Cash about the history and content of the Learning Platform, the debates and misconceptions surrounding FoRB, and whether she is optimistic about FoRB’s future.


Religion & Diplomacy: Tell us about the FoRB Learning Platform.

Katherine Cash. photo credit: Swedish Mission Council.

Katherine Cash: The Freedom of Religion or Belief Learning Platform provides resources to help individuals, communities, and decision-makers learn, reflect upon, and promote freedom of religion or belief for all. It is an initiative of the Nordic Ecumenical Network on Freedom of Religion or Belief (NORFORB) in partnership with a wide range of secular and faith-based organisations around the world. Our short films, written materials, group exercises, and online courses are useful in many contexts and for many audiences—from parliamentarians and diplomats to the media, faith communities, NGOs, and educational bodies. The materials are free for anyone to use for non-commercial purposes in the promotion of FoRB for all. It’s great to see how other organisations are picking up the ball and taking initiatives, for example to translate and use the films in their own context—from minority faith communities, to universities, to government ministries. The project is currently funded by the Norwegian foreign ministry.

R&D: How did the FoRB Learning Platform come about?

Katherine Cash: After several years or running IRL trainings together with partners around the world, it was apparent that online learning resources were needed as a complement to this, and that these resources didn’t exist. It was almost impossible to find publicly available, human rights-based FoRB training resources aimed at communities affected by significant violations. Resources available tended to focus on educating faith-specific audiences in the West to get them to pray, donate, and campaign. As a result, we began developing a package of eight short films on what Freedom of Religion or Belief involves and when it may be limited. We did this in dialogue with a wide range of actors and enthusiasm for the resources spread. The project quickly became a NORFORB initiative with a website of its own and approximately 60 organisations behind it. The learning platform was launched in Geneva in March 2018, at a side-event together with the UN Special Rapporteur.

R&D: What sort of people are accessing and using the tools created by the Platform?

Katherine Cash: The audience is far broader than we expected! To take a few examples, our films on FoRB (available in many languages) are used for internal training by some EU member state foreign ministries, by the Alevi community in Turkey, by human rights defenders in Pakistan and China, by a pan-African religious dialogue organization, and in a masters course at a university in Indonesia.

In addition to the resources on the website, we offer a 10-week facilitated FoRB training of the trainers’ course. In 2019, we trained about 60 people. Participants have a range of faith backgrounds—Christian, Muslim, Hindi, Buddhist, Alevi, and non-religious, and most come from civil society organisations and faith communities in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia.

R&D: You also do a lot of in-person training on FoRB for diplomats and other government officials. What are some of the most common misperceptions or knowledge gaps related to FoRB?

Katherine Cash: There’s an increasing demand for training for diplomats and development professionals, which is good to see. Over the years, we’ve encountered a number of misperceptions in our dialogue with officials.

“FoRB protects religions”

Many people subconsciously regard FORB as protecting religion in itself, whereas FoRB (just like all human rights) protects people regardless of what they believe or how they identify. Most people grasp that FORB protects people at the theoretical level, but many get confused when applying the theory to practical situations. For example, a diplomat once said to me that a state-enforced Orthodox Christian personal status law denying the right to divorce was an example of allowing too much freedom of religion or belief. In fact, that’s an example of giving judicial power to a religious institution (which is not required by FoRB), while risking the freedom of religion or belief of any Orthodox believers who (despite the Church’s teaching) want to divorce. It’s important not to confuse freedom of religion or belief with powers and privileges given to some faith communities. The state has a duty to ensure everyone can access all of their rights regardless of what their religious leaders have to say about those rights. When that doesn’t happen both FoRB and other rights are at risk.

“FoRB clashes with women’s rights” or “FoRB clashes with freedom of expression”

Many diplomats and human rights activists believe there is a fundamental clash between freedom of religion or belief and other rights such as women’s rights, LGBT rights, or freedom of expression. In actual fact, FoRB is fundamental to a feminist agenda. Of course, FORB does give religious leaders the right to teach patriarchal norms (if that’s what they believe in). But freedom of thought, conscience religion and belief also gives each woman the right to think and decide for herself—to accept or reject the norms placed upon her by society. Without FoRB there can be no internal change within faith communities. Any two rights can clash, but the interdependence of human rights applies as much to FoRB as any other right.

“There are no problems for FoRB here—religion is everywhere!”

Diplomats from very secular contexts can get a shock to the system when they move to highly religious contexts. Often an assumption is made that if religion is very visible and there are no obvious episodes of inter-religious violence, all is well—especially when the government ‘preaches’ tolerance. This veneer often hides a more complex and problematic reality. Diplomats need to know what questions to ask in order to see beyond appearances and propaganda. (We have a resource to help with this!)

Don’t forget shrinking religious space!

Administrative restrictions on the practice of religion and on faith communities have a huge impact on people’s ability to practice their religion or belief. Shrinking civic space is a hot topic but, unfortunately, restrictions on belief communities are not normally included in government or civil society monitoring and analyses of civic space. Religious communities are usually regulated separately to the rest of civil society and this legislation needs monitoring too. Watch out for legislative proposals affecting belief communities—they are increasingly common, even in EU and EU neighbourhood countries.

It’s not about religion!” or “It’s only about religion!”

Some diplomats zoom in on the religious dimensions of a problem or conflict, while others wave the religious dimension away, pointing to other underlying factors. The causes of violations are almost always complex. On the one hand, we need to recognize the voices and perspectives of those affected, who are often targeted because of their minority status. On the other hand, we need broad strategies for change that tackle all of the underlying causes including religious intolerance. We need a holistic approach to both analysis and to identifying strategies for change—an approach that right sizes the role of religion and FoRB.

These misunderstandings have consequences. When we misunderstand FoRB we may unwittingly contribute to undermining international norms, we may leave violations of FORB unrecognized and victims unheard, and we may under-prioritize action to promote FORB.

R&D: The very idea and definitions of FoRB are greatly contested. Some critics even say the concept of FoRB has no inherent, stable, or cross-cultural meaning. How do you respond?

Katherine Cash: FoRB is highly contested and often misrepresented, from multiple directions and by multiple agendas (not least religious agendas). This is one of the reasons why learning about FoRB is so important—there are plenty of traps to fall into! If we don’t understand the right, we can easily contribute to undermining human rights norms by accepting or failing to challenge the oft repeated misrepresentations.

I don’t agree that FoRB has no inherent, stable or cross-cultural meaning. There are clear definitions in the conventions and General Comment 22. These are the norms we present in our films, which have been approved by the UN Special Rapporteur Ahmed Shaheed. The manner in which the norms are implemented will inevitably look different in different countries, but these basic elements should be in place:

  • The absolute right of each person to think, believe and identify and the right to change your mind and think, believe or identify differently.
  • The right to manifest religion or belief, alone or together with others, in private or in practice. This includes the right to form communities and for communities to organise their collective life.
  • Limitations on the right to manifest must be grounded in law and necessary to achieve a legitimate aim (the protection of the rights and freedoms of others, public health, safety, order or morals). Limitations must be proportionate and non-discriminatory.
  • The right to protection from discrimination and coercion in matters of religion or belief.
  • Rights for parents to bring their children up in accordance with their beliefs with respect for the child’s growing capacity to think for themselves.

When these elements are not in place, human suffering and abuses of power result. In my experience, as principles, the norms speak to people from all kinds of cultures and backgrounds. The norms reflect how people want to be treated themselves. It becomes more challenging when the norms are contextualised and applied to ‘the other’ in my context or to the ‘disloyal’ or ‘different’ within my group. There are often fears, challenges, prejudices, and majoritarian norms to work through—as well as theological objections. People in positions of power and majoritarian privilege are often those least willing to accept the norms—but that is the case for other human rights norms too.

One critique I agree with, is that the norms regarding FoRB are not always applied in a ‘stable’ manner by domestic or international human rights courts. That’s a problem that most commonly affects minorities and indigenous faith groups. But my conclusion is that we need to stand up for the basic FoRB principles, truly applying them to all, rather than abandon them.



R&D: How do the Christian and Nordic dimensions NORFORB shape the Learning Platform? Would the resources look a bit different if developed by NGOs from a different faith tradition or a different region of the world?

Katherine Cash: Our aim is to produce resources that are balanced, accurate, and useful to people of all faiths and none with a particular focus on serving our partner organisations in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. To that end, we develop our materials in dialogue with our partners, with organisations from other faith traditions and human rights experts. We also highlight great resources produced by others. When it comes to our training of the trainers’ course, like our IRL trainings—the profile of the participants steers the focus quite heavily.

But of course, each actor has its own body of experience to draw upon in terms of context, contacts and not least learning methodologies, so of course things would be a bit different if another actor developed them.

We are sometimes criticised for not focusing on or supporting actors in Western contexts enough. On that point we are limited by our donor funding criteria and resources. But hopefully other actors can fill that gap.

R&D: What more needs to be done to raise awareness of FoRB within governments?

Katherine Cash: Within governments there is a great need to raise awareness both within the foreign policy and domestic arenas. There is a huge need for practical training. If we focus on foreign policy, there is a need to integrate the issues into established training programmes for new diplomats, as well as providing tailored training for diplomats serving in countries particularly affected by violations or at risk of increasing violations. An obstacle that needs to be tackled is the lack of experienced FORB trainers. In the light of that, a strategic initiative would be to provide FORB-specific training to existing human rights educators and trainers to remove that obstacle.

There is also a need to separate the promotion of FoRB in foreign policy from particularist and populist domestic policy agendas. We see some worrying tendencies there.

R&D: Are you more optimistic or pessimistic about the prospects for FoRB around the world?

Katherine Cash: In the short term, I am fairly pessimistic. In many parts of the world, we see a toxic combination of increased authoritarianism, shrinking civic space, and increasing intolerance and radicalism. In the longer term, I’m more hopeful. People are beginning to mobilise more effectively at grass-roots level. I think the high level of demand for our online courses reflects this. Political developments on the global stage are harder to predict.

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