Religious freedom not only preserves democracy. It’s also the cornerstone of economic development

Image credit: Order of Malta

Comment by Dr Hassan Abdein

The G7 conference of nations met in Apulia, Italy, from 13 to 15 June to discuss solutions to the multitude of crises and challenges facing the global economy. Their meeting came shortly after a conference involving 60 academics from 19 countries. “Religious Freedom and Integral Human Development: A New Global Platform” called for a new campaign for religious freedom.

While the two meetings may sound quite different — with the G7 focusing on the state of the global economy and the urgent need for sustainable development — the truth is that religious freedom is often overlooked as a critical factor in achieving these goals.

After all, when people are free to practise religion without fear of persecution, they are more likely to contribute to the economy, bringing diverse perspectives and skills that enhance creativity and productivity. Religious freedom, I believe, also has a link to social stability, creating a more appealing environment for potential investors.

When integrated into development strategies, the conference was told, religious freedom becomes not just a human right but a means of unlocking potential, fostering innovation, and creating more dynamic economies that benefit from the full potential of their diverse populations and build resilience to future hardships.

With just five years remaining to achieve the 2030 UN sustainable development goals (SDGs), no country is on track to deliver. The SDGs have become a meaningless set of initials, masking the urgent reality of existential challenges such as poverty, war, discrimination, environmental degradation, and resource scarcity.

Part of this reason is the widespread lack of religious freedom. Almost 4.9 billion people live in countries with serious violations of religious freedom. And 70 per cent of global citizens face restrictions or violence when exercising their right to freedom of conscience.

Given that — in the words of  the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States, Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher — “freedom of religion can be considered a prism through which all freedoms can be viewed”, it could be argued that its violation undermines not just one human right, but an entire category of basic liberties.

Despite its significance, religious freedom is barely mentioned in the sustainable development goals and has long been absent from international policy discussions. This neglect raises an urgent question: how can we genuinely commit to “leaving no one behind”, the central promise of the agenda, if we continue to marginalise, persecute and discriminate against individuals based on their beliefs?

The conference in Rome delivered a pivotal shift in perspective. Religious freedom, rather than being seen as protection from persecution and discrimination, was explored as an enabler of individual and community contributions to wider society.

This is why development initiatives could, in theory, harness the unique perspectives and resources of marginalised religious minorities. This shift from a defensive to a proactive stance on religious freedom could transform our approach to global development by recognising and integrating positive contributions into the fabric of our societies.

Success can be achieved through a holistic approach, combining the traditional imperative of economic growth with efforts to foster environments where all individuals can live with dignity and contribute to the common good. This is termed “integral human development” and emphasises the importance of promoting both material and spiritual wellbeing, aligning with Pope Paul VI’s view that development must contribute to the common good.

We must begin with grassroots approaches that create impact from the bottom up. Discrimination and persecution based on religion or belief often manifests itself in social hostility, sectarian violence, and conflict. Thus, strategies that encourage collaboration across these divides will be essential.

Furthermore, issues of freedom of religion and belief are intricately linked with other development challenges. Many of the most vulnerable communities affected by poverty, health problems, and lack of education are in such positions because of attitudes towards their beliefs. Recognising this intersectionality allows for the integration of religious freedom into sustainable development policies, aiding vulnerable communities in achieving the goals while gaining respect and recognition.

The concept of integral human development also highlights the spiritual and non-productive elements of development as sources of creativity. Policymakers and development practitioners can learn to innovate their interventions, drawing on spiritual and religious perspectives to achieve common goals like environmental and economic resilience.

This is why it is crucial that we promote interfaith dialogue and religious freedoms within our traditions. Unexpected alliances, such as traditional conservative evangelicals supporting the religious freedom of Muslim communities, are a signal of positive progress.

This approach can also be extended to engage faith groups in Asia, focusing on the creation of common good through spiritual collaboration.

To truly harness the power of religious freedom for economic development, we need better indicators that go beyond traditional economic metrics. Moreover, religious freedom must be fostered by both international dialogue and local implementation. We must nurture the seeds of freedom within different contexts, rather than impose external models.

If the G7 leaders could take one message from Rome, it is that religious freedom is not just a moral imperative; it is a fundamental driver of economic development, societal wellbeing, and the preservation of democracy.

We must ultimately integrate religious freedom into international development agendas, including the sustainable development goals. By doing so, we can ensure a more inclusive, prosperous, and dignified future for all.

Dr Hassan Abdein has worked on conflict resolution, human rights advocacy and issues of freedom of religion and belief for the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation and the United Nations. He is a trustee of the Religion Media Centre.


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