Rabbi Jonathan Sacks urged religious people not to allow the debate about religion and violence to be dominated by people who don’t understand religion March 15. Photo by Michael Swan

More protection needed for religious freedom, says Rabbi Sacks

By 
  • March 17, 2016

The Jewish argument for freedom of religion is embedded in the Old Testament, the former chief rabbi of Britain told an enthralled audience at Toronto’s Glenn Gould Studio March 15.

“The free God deserves the free worship of free human beings,” said Jonathan Sacks. “The Hebrew Bible is the literature of freedom.”

Sacks, Britain's chief rabbi from 1991 to 2013, arrived in Toronto two weeks after being named the 2016 winner of the prestigious Templeton Prize for his "contributions to affirming life's spiritual dimension." The prize comes with an award of about $2 million. Past winners include Mother Teresa, who will be canonized in September, and Canadian theologian Jean Vanier, who won last year.

Sacks was speaking at the annual Hill Family Lecture organized by Hamilton, Ont.’s Cardus think tank. The lecture was delivered in the form of an interview conducted by Fr. Raymond de Souza, who edits Cardus’s Convivium magazine and writes regular columns for The Catholic Register and The National Post.

In a wide-ranging discussion about interfaith dialogue, the problem of religiously inspired violence, Jewish and Christian identities and Scripture, the British member of the House of Lords also put in a word in favour of Canada keeping its ambassador for religious freedom.

Andrew Bennett was appointed Canada’s first Ambassador for Religious Freedom by the previous Conservative government in 2013. His term ends in less than a month, but there is no word yet from the governing Liberals on whether the religious freedom office at Global Affairs Canada will continue beyond Bennett’s term. Meanwhile, Bennett has joined Cardus on a voluntary basis as senior fellow and chair of the Cabinet of Canadians for Cardus’ Faith in Canada 150 program.

“Replace Ambassador Bennett,” said Sacks in answer to a question from de Souza.

“Religious freedom is under attack around the world,” he said. “We need a stronger defence of religious freedom globally and locally.”

Promoting his most recent book, Not In God’s Name, Sacks urged religious people not to allow debate about religion and violence to be dominated by people who don’t understand religion. The surest way for religious people to find themselves on the outside of the discussion is to claim there’s no connection between extreme religion and extremist terrorism, he said.

“Religion is fire,” he said. “And fire warms but it also burns. And we are the keepers of the flame.”

It is up to religiously literate, religiously committed people to tackle the violence inspired by crackpot theology.

“If religion is, as it undeniably is, part of the problem, then it is our responsibility to deal with it,” said Sacks.

When it comes to violence in the name of political Islam, Christians and Jews can’t be afraid to talk about the problem, but their first conversation should be with those Muslims who are always the first and most frequent victims of organizations such as Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and Boko Haram, he said.

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