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Plea to remain “open-minded and open-hearted” with respect to religion

Jan Figel and Jessica Giles

Special Envoy for Promotion of freedom of religion outside the EU and former deputy prime minister of the Slovak Republic, Dr Ján Figeľ, stressed the importance of remaining ‘open-minded and open-hearted’ around religion, when he visited the OU last week (December 2018)

Dr Figeľ was invited to visit the OU’s Milton Keynes Campus, where he is now a Visiting Fellow. The event, which consisted of a live University-wide address, followed by a roundtable discussion in the library, was supported by the OU’s International Development and Inclusive Innovation priority research area

Dr Figel’ has been collaborating on religious freedom projects with Jessica Giles and a team of academics researching the fundamental right to freedom of thought conscience and religion, having most recently authored a foreword for the recently published volume ‘Law, Religion and Tradition’, Giles, J; Pin A and Ravitch F.S, (2018) Springer, Switzerland. He is collaborating on further projects.

Dr Figel’ has undertaken a breath-taking 30 country visits since his appointment in 2016, including Morocco, Burkina Fasso, Sudan, Iran, Iraq, Malaysia, Egypt and Pakistan.

Jessica Giles, Barrister, Law Lecturer and Director of the OU’s Project for Interdisciplinary Law and Religion Studies said:

"We were greatly privileged to welcome Jan to the OU on Friday. Dr Figel’ is a great inspiration to academics, having been a lecturer in international relations at Trnava University, Slovakia 1995-2000 and appointed EU Commissioner with the Education, training, culture and multilingualism portfolio in 2004, he has carried his passion for education into his current role. He proposes education and in particular religious literacy as key to addressing the increase in global restrictions on religious freedom.

Dr Figel’ is someone who works tirelessly and fearlessly to provide a voice for the voiceless and disenfranchised. His ability to collaborate effectively, not only with high level policy makers, but with those from all walks of life who share his passion for justice, means he creates a sense of belonging to a greater common purpose wherever he goes. He is a deep inspiration to all those who have the privilege of meeting him. On a personal level he has inspired and motivated the work I do. It was fascinating to hear Dr Figel’s thoughts on his role and work promoting religious freedom in fragile states. We are so grateful for his visit."

Freedom of religion – a fundamental right

As part of the OU’s annual University-wide Christmas event, Dr Figeľ addressed OU staff in Milton Keynes and across the nations. During his roundtable, he outlined his role and the significance of religious freedom in global development and peace. In May 2016, Jean-Claude Juncker appointed Dr Figeľ as the lead on an unparalleled stream for the EU, to promote what the EU calls ‘the fundamental right to which everyone should be entitled’, freedom of religion or belief. Dr Figeľ outlined:

  1. That one must not underestimate the role of identity and belonging. If we do, we give space to those who teach identity politics which causes divisions. Uniqueness means dignity and equality of all and it is only through this understanding that society will find ways to live in peace and prosperity
  2. The critical role governance can play with social hostility on the rise. He highlighted how important it is that religion is not "imposed over the hearts and minds of people" and used the term "religious climate change" to demonstrate the significance of the role of religious freedom within society
  3. That religious social responsibility like corporate social responsibility, needs to be encouraged within business
  4. That the "best progress in society is made when faith and reason meet to pursue the common good – that means peace, justice and dignity for all"

Call to engage with religion in a positive manner

Dr Figeľ went on to highlight the importance of raising awareness of freedom or religion or belief and commented how these issues are now appearing on government agendas, referring to the recent appointment of Lord Ahmad as the UKs Special Envoy for Religious Freedom. He reminded his audience that religion is "a reality, if we neglect it or don’t engage with it in a positive manner, we will be in trouble". He urged us to take time to see the "people behind the statistics" published by NGOs, Universities and think tanks and recognise the need for open dialogue and discussion. He drew on examples from Pakistan, where a mandatory sentence for blasphemy carries a penalty of life-long imprisonment or death. With 22 countries still having the death penalty for apostasy and more than 70 with laws on blasphemy, his role is to support interfaith cooperation and to initiate positive reforms. "Many religious leaders", he reminded us, "have far greater influence than politicians".

Digital literacy is not enough

He concluded by stressing his enthusiasm for his new role as Visiting Fellow at The Open University and reiterated the critical role of open education in social integration, tolerance and prosperity.

“The best education”, he stated, “is a combination of open-mindedness and openness. If we learn how to find knowledge, that is great, but we must also employ logic and competence”. He drew on the social justice mission of the OU to remind his audience to operate with an open-heart, which includes operating with empathy, sympathy, solidarity and human love. He finished by stating that: “Digital literacy is not enough, we need religious literacy. Then we will start to behave differently, then we will treat each other with dignity.”

Following his visit to the OU, Ján attended Cumberland Lodge where he was invited as a guest speaker.

Find out about the OU’s Project for Interdisciplinary Law and Religion Studies based in the Faculty of Business and Law.

Find out more about OU research in International Development and Inclusive Innovation

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