Risk of “state intervention in Christian doctrine” if recommendations of UN expert on LGBT issues are followed, warns WEA

Wissam al-Saliby of the World Evangelical Alliance met Victor Madrigal-Borloz and calls for dialogue after a controversial report on religious freedom and LGBT rights.

Joel Forster

GENEVA · 23 JUNE 2023 · 11:15 CET

The Independent Expert of the United Nations on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity issues, during a Human Rigths Council session in Geneva. / Photo: <a target="_blank" href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/unisgeneva/">Jean Marc Ferré, UN Photo</a>.,
The Independent Expert of the United Nations on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity issues, during a Human Rigths Council session in Geneva. / Photo: Jean Marc Ferré, UN Photo.

A large majority of countries dialoguing with the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) Independent Expert of the United Nations, Victor Madrigal-Borloz, praised the report he presented at the 53rd session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva.

The document on how religious freedom could collide with the rights of LGBTQI people  received good feedback from countries attending the “interactive dialogue” happening on 21 June.

LGBT people “are often marginalised, stigmatised and excluded from religious communities simply because of who they are”, Madrigal-Borloz told the Council. This report was his last as his 6-year mandate comes to an end.

But while his views were applauded in the Council, there also were many absences. No countries from Asia (except Vietnam), Africa (except South Africa) nor Arab countries attended the session, which can be seen as a form of boycott.

Furthermore, the report (read here) raised question marks among FoRB advocates, including the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA).


Defining sin is not persecuting people

Among the NGOs who attended the presentation of this issue at the Human Rights 53rd session, was the Organization for the Right to Education and Freedom of Education (OIDEL). Its Director, Ignasi Grau, said: “Calling an act sinful should not mean persecuting a person. Otherwise, all believers would be persecuted or rejected”.

“Although the report does not say this explicitly, it seems to suggest that public authorities should prevent religions leaders to call what they consider a sin a sin. For clarification purposes, is the report preventing religious leaders to talk about sins?”, he asked.

Grau also warned that the report of the SOGI Independent Expert could potentially “force” faith-based schools “to teach content contrary to their core beliefs or to hire people that publicly contradict in their speech or behavior the schools’ core beliefs”.


Evangelical representative calls for more dialogue

Wissam al-Saliby, Director of the World Evangelical Alliance office in Geneva (Switzerland), also commented on the report, in answers to Evangelical Focus.

Question. Does the report of the SOGI IE in the 53rd session of the Human Rights Council challenge the autonomy of churches and religious organisations?

A. The World Evangelical Alliance supports the right to life, dignity and freedom from violence for all people including those identifying as LGBT. We also support the right to enjoyment of Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) for all.

Because religion is practiced collectively, the autonomy of religious organisations is part of FoRB. The autonomy of churches and religious organisations is two-fold: institutional and doctrinal. Autonomy includes defining our own doctrine and values, and the right to require adherence to the religious group’s doctrines as part of institutional life, including employment.

The report claims that religious communities’ institutions employing non-LGBT people or relationships to LGBT people could lead to violence and harm. But these claims are not supported by facts and a proper explanation. 


Q. What worries you in Madrigal-Borloz’s approach to what religions teach?

A. The report makes several references to “sin” and to exclusionary teachings. The report blurs the lines between religious doctrines and the relationship with God on the one hand and presumed or real violations of human rights on the other hand.

Under international law, the State has the right to restrict religious freedom if the manifestation of religion amounts to a threat to public safety, order, health and life. However, the Independent Expert does not make the case that traditional Christian teachings about sin and sexuality would fall under the scope of restriction clauses in international law.

The report confuses non-discrimination obligations of the State in the provision of public services and in the treatment of minorities, and private actors which are not bound to the same under international law.

The report and its recommendations invite State intervention in Christian doctrine. Such an intervention would amount to an attack on the doctrinal autonomy of Christian communities and would violate the core protection of the forum internum or the non-negotiable internally held beliefs stemming from the God’s revealed Word.


Q. The report talks of “dark corners where LGBT people are regarded as sinners and second-class citizens who should be scorned and abused” (paragraph 69). Iis this description problematic?

A. God loves everyone - including LGBT people. And the failure of many people, including Christians, to echo this love to LGBT people is something we need to grapple with as Christian community.

International human rights law prohibits hate speech in accordance with the Rabat Plan of Action, and we support the Rabat Plan of Action. Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights allows for limited, proportional, and necessary restrictions on some forms of the manifestation of religion.

Beyond this, States cannot interfere in the internal affairs of religious communities’ doctrine and teachings. And without a thorough justification for restriction of some religious teachings, the Independent Expert is expressing theological or doctrinal preferences which go beyond his mandate.


Q. As a WEA representative in Geneva, are you willing to dialogue with the Independent Expert and other key actors to reduce the perceived friction between religious freedom and the respect of the human rights of LGBT people?

A. I met with IE SOGI Mr. Victor Madrigal-Borloz after the publication of his report and shared our concerns with him. I am grateful that he is open to meet and he suggested we have a dialogue about his report with stakeholders that would include evangelical human rights experts and evangelical community representatives.

I believe that there’s a space for dialogue and for discussing a shared understanding of how freedom of religion and the protection of vulnerable groups can be equally attained. We just need to hold such a dialogue.

I have seen in Europe very positive examples of such dialogue around specific legislative projects. WEA is open to dialogue with all stakeholders. We are all created in the image of God. Dialogue allows for Evangelicals to be better understood, and for us to better understand others, and to work in good faith towards the common good.

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