Human rights are contentious: do they exist? Where are they from? And how do we know which specific rights should count as human rights? Is there an Orthodox case to be made for human rights? Indeed, the continuing COVID-19 pandemic raises the specific question of a right to health and healthcare, as does the current American political debate on capping prices on insulin, a life-saving medication which has been exponentially increasing in price in the last decade.
Any discussion of human rights must begin with what we mean by ‘human,’ and for Christians, the God in whose image we are created. This Creator-given human dignity is the divine stamp of blessing and value upon which rights—existential entitlements—are grounded. As Orthodox theologian Paul Ladouceur has written, “a holistic theology of the divine image, personhood and human rights is entirely consistent with the patristic vision of humanity,” and is a “solid rampart” against all manner of violence against Creation. Even outside of the modern Orthodox world, protestants and Catholics have read the tradition similarly. Prominent Reformed theologian Nicolas Wolterstorff, for example, reads Basil the Great, Ambrose, and John Chrysostom and writes that:
I see no other way to interpret what John [Chrysostom] is doing with his powerful rhetoric, than that he is reminding his audience, rich and poor alike, of the natural rights of the poor…. The recognition of natural rights is unmistakably there: The poor are wronged because they do not have what is theirs by natural right…
(Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2008), 62, cited in Susan R. Holman, “Orthodox Humanitarianisms: Patristic Foundations,” The Review of Faith & International Affairs 14.1 [January 2, 2016])
Russia’s constitutional amendments of 2020 augur an ever-enlarging foreign policy role for the Russian Orthodox Church—Moscow Patriarchate (ROC). Constitutional entrenchment of the Kremlin’s selective understanding of state sovereignty and non-interference; a state-sanctioned vision of historical truth; the muscular protection of compatriot rights abroad; and the propagation of traditional values each tap into areas where the church has steadfastly advocated Russian civilization as a global counterweight to the West’s “ultra-liberalism.” Faced with this emerging reality, policymakers should reassess the nature and substance of their interactions with church officials and take measures to scrutinize ROC activities more closely in their respective jurisdictions.
Earlier this year, I published a short piece with Anthropology News on Coptic Christian persecution in Egypt, American power, and racism in the United States. I then received a barrage of social media criticism claiming that I overemphasized racism against Copts in the US, and in so doing eschewed focus on persecution of Copts in Egypt. Samuel Tadros of the Hudson Institute wrote: “While some have experienced prejudice in America, [Copts] reject the attempt to create a moral equivalence between the persecution they faced in Egypt and whatever experiences they have in America…the Coptic experience in the United States has been extraordinarily successful, with Copts reaching heights they wouldn’t have dreamt of in Egypt.” Rather than noting the racialization of Copts alongside Muslims in America, by his account, I should draw attention to the relative success of American Copts and compare it to Muslim oppression of Copts in Egypt. In this modest response, I briefly elaborate on why American Coptic life must be taken on its own terms, and how the politicization of Coptic oppression in Egypt by American religio-political actors leads to real methodological issues.
As a minority Christian community in a majority Christian nation, American Copts are enmeshed in current debates on whiteness and American Christianity—whereby evangelical responses to racism have been theologically mired in individualism and consumed in culture wars, rather than the ways that broader social forces, institutions, and culture can constrain and shape social responses to societal ills. Earlier this summer, former attorney general Jeff Sessions, described to the New York Times how he considered his support of Trump from the standpoint of his faith as an evangelical Christian, and evoked the Copts as persecuted kin who turned to a strongman (Egyptian President al-Sisi) for protection: “And that’s basically what the Christians in the United States did [when they elected Trump]. They felt they were under attack, and the strong guy [like Sisi] promised to defend them. And he has.” Likewise, an older American Coptic man recently noted to me: “Trump is a Christian, and he’s trying to keep America a Christian nation. Under Obama, it was Happy Holidays! Now, we can say Merry Christmas again. We came to the US to escape discrimination in Egypt. We don’t want to be stripped of our rights as Christians here.” Although the diaspora offers opportunities to form new solidarities, the happy convergence of otherwise divergent persecution narratives has placed American Copts into vectors of political belonging with the Christian Right seeking to preserve a white, conservative Christian America. Sometimes at the expense of those very Copts.
Ever since the Russian Orthodox Church in July 2008 adopted its Basic Teaching on Human Dignity, Freedom and Rights, the relationship between Orthodox Christianity and human rights has been a popular theme in European academic publishing. Of this multitude, one stands out because of its respectful stance to varying views. Orthodox Christianity and Human Rights in Europe: A Dialogue between Theological Paradigms and Socio-Legal Pragmatics, edited by Elisabeth-Alexandra Diamantopoulou and Louis-Léon Christians (Peter Lang 2018) consists of contributions written not only by socio-political and legal scholars but also by orthodox theologians and clerics.
Evangelical and Catholic scholars open the way for a debate by introducing their views on the subject. Stefan Tobler from Lucia Blaga University, Romania, explains that for the Protestants human dignity is an unconditional concept that belongs to every human person, irrespective for her or his moral behavior. Thus, Protestants are finding it difficult to understand the Russian teaching about human dignity—not only as an absolute but also—as a moral concept. Walter Lesch from the Catholic University of Leuven, in turn, describes how human rights were gradually integrated to Catholic social thought and suggests that rights language should be seen as the Esperanto of Ethics, as a language that can be used and developed by believers and non-believers alike.
Referring to the fact that majority-Orthodox countries quite often have been judged for religious freedom violations by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), two scholars pose in Part 2 a question whether Orthodoxy as such is intolerant towards religious minorities, or whether we rather could trace historical and political causes for the multitude of litigations. Elisabeth-Alexandra Diamantopoulou analyses in a thorough way religious freedom cases that have been brought before the ECtHR against Greece. Effie Fokas presents the findings of her empirical qualitative research conducted in Bulgaria, Greece, Romania and Russia, and suggests that the problems of religious freedom in these countries derive primarily from the peculiar relationship between religion and national identity. The challenge that the ECtHR hereby faces is how to apply its margin of appreciation doctrine towards these states. Continue reading →