Statement at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, Washington DC

  • Rt Hon Winston Peters
Deputy Prime Minister Foreign Affairs

18 July 2019, Washington D.C.

Secretary Pompeo,

It is our responsibility to be here today to record New Zealand’s strong commitment to the common endeavour of fostering respect for the right to freedom of religion and belief.

Washington is an appropriate location for this conference because the United States has a special place in the history of advancing religious freedom, through Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786 and by codifying religious freedom, and freedom of expression, in the First Amendment of the US Constitution in 1791. 

New Zealand also has a long history of supporting the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief both at home and abroad.

On 15 March this year, the freedom to practice one’s religion safely, free from violence, free from hate, took on an unimaginable new relevance for our nation. It was the day a simple act of prayer – of practicing one’s faith and religion – led to the loss of 51 peaceful Muslim worshippers. The devastating impact of this loss was sadly magnified by the livestreaming and widespread sharing online of these terrorist attacks against our Muslim community.

In a country that practices religious tolerance, an attack on one of us observing our beliefs is an attack on all of us.

Let me assure you that New Zealand is and will remain a safe and open tolerant society, one with fundamental freedoms protected at its core. We utterly reject such religious-based violence.

The deep national grief New Zealanders feel in the wake of the March 15 attack reminded us of how dearly we treasure these freedoms. It was also a warning of how we must constantly work to secure them. We are acutely aware of the impact that the rise of hateful narratives based on race, religion or diversity can have on religious freedom. For people to be free, and to feel free, to practice their religion safely, we must go beyond legislative frameworks to reject and address all forms of intolerance in our societies.

One important area of our focus is how we can build a more socially inclusive New Zealand. A key element of this will be fostering greater interfaith dialogue and understanding across all levels of society. The responses we witnessed after 15 March this year across New Zealand demonstrated the unifying power of interfaith and intercultural understanding – of the common themes of compassion and respect for human life and dignity across religions and belief systems.

This focus on tolerance and diversity reflects the close relationship between the right to freedom of religion and belief and of the right to freedoms of opinion and expression. These rights have a mutually reinforcing effect. Enabling and encouraging the free expression of religion and belief, as well as the exchange of ideas, contributes to combatting intolerance and builds well-informed and politically mature societies.

In summation, Secretary Pompeo, New Zealand reiterates its concern at increasing levels of violence and discrimination based on, or in the name of, religion or belief that are occurring across the globe. In particular the persecution of religious minorities through violence and discrimination that not only undermines their religious freedoms, but their enjoyment of many other basic rights, such as the right to speak freely, without fear of persecution.

In our discussions on freedom of religion and belief we must remember the diversity this right encompasses.

It encompasses the right not to believe. It is not limited to religion but includes agnostic and atheistic beliefs, as well as matters of conscience.

Ongoing attacks and discrimination are a sobering reminder that the international community must remain united in promoting freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief of all persons everywhere.

For its part, New Zealand stands ready to work with you all.