Religious Freedom & the Marrakesh Declaration: A Behind-the-Scenes Account

by Rick Love

I was happy that the Marrakesh Declaration underscored the importance of the work of Peace Catalyst International: “The more we ponder the various crises threatening humanity, the more firmly we believe that interfaith cooperation is necessary, inevitable and urgent.” Yes, cooperation between Muslims and Christians IS necessary, inevitable and urgent!

And the leaders of the Marrakesh event modelled the priority of cooperation by inviting well over 25 non-Muslim guests as participant-observers. Buddhists, Jews, mainline Christians, human rights activists and a few evangelical guests like Bob Roberts Jr. and myself were all honored guests.

As you would expect in a conference like this, Muslim clerics and politicians dominated the agenda. But I was pleased by the diversity of the conference overall. Shia Muslims attended and women spoke, as did religious minorities - including a leader from the Yazidis. The minorities present gave the conference a reality check. It was no ivory tower discussion.

An American convert to Islam, Usama Canon, said that one of the high points of the conference for him was having non-Muslims present to both observe and engage with the process.

One of the high points for me was the special meeting that non-Muslim guests had with the leader of the Marrakesh Declaration, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah. What a privilege! We were invited to ask questions and enjoy tea with him. The group strongly affirmed the work of the Sheikh but also asked pointed questions about its implementation.

During this closed door session with the Sheikh, Susan Hayward of the United States Institute for Peace (USIP) asked, “What are the next steps? What happens now?”

The Sheikh reminded us that most of the participants were Islamic clerics – preachers, not politicians. Part of the purpose of the conference was to raise awareness. So implementation of the declaration will take time. But the depth of scholarship behind the declaration and the breadth of scholars affirming it make it a formidable force for change.

One of my friends, Imam Magid, said that unless these Muslim clerics address the law of apostasy and the blasphemy laws they are not really dealing with the issues. The law of apostasy according to mainstream Islamic interpretation says that Muslims who convert to another religion should be killed. Thankfully it is not implemented in most Muslim countries. The blasphemy laws say that people who dishonor Islam should be punished. This happens frequently in Pakistan.

I told the Sheikh what my Imam friend said so that I could hear him address the issues of apostasy and blasphemy. He said that these issues were discussed in the closed door session with Muslims but that they concluded that changing these laws would lead to public disorder.

Needless to say, I was not happy with his response. It seems like most of those present weren’t ready to fully comply with religious freedom, that is, the freedom to convert or change one’s faith. So Imam Magid and I will have to continue to work for change in this area (for more on this see the Dawah-Evangelism Peace Project).

Even with the challenges of implementation and the unwillingness to address the right to convert at this point, the Marrakesh Declaration still remains an awesome step in the right direction. As my friend Doug Johnston of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy says, “Let’s not curse the darkness; let’s celebrate the light!” So I am celebrating.

The Marrakesh Declaration has the potential to be a milestone in modern peacemaking efforts. Perhaps it will be if we give it our support!