The key to unlocking global sustainable development dream lies with religious freedom

Ibrahim Özdemir

Switzerland (Brussels Morning) Global leaders met in Burgenstock, Switzerland, to address the Ukraine conflict and sustainable development, while in Rome, a summit titled “Religious Freedom and Integral Human Development: A New Global Platform to Change the Conversation” focused on the role of religious freedom in economic development. Organized by several prominent institutions, the event emphasized the often-overlooked spiritual aspects of human progress. Panelists presented evidence showing how religious diversity boosts national development and argued that safeguarding religious freedom is crucial for achieving global sustainable development goals. The conference called for integrating religious freedom into development agendas to enhance social cohesion and resilience.

This week, global leaders gathered in Burgenstock, Switzerland, to develop a plan aimed at ending the conflict in Ukraine and promoting sustainable development. Concurrently, another significant summit in Italy focused on the crucial issue of religious freedom in building a sustainable future. Held at the Magistral Palace of the Order of Malta in Rome, this conference brought together influential thinkers from around the world to highlight the often-overlooked spiritual dimension in understanding human progress and its significant impact on economic development.

Global Leaders Address Ukraine Conflict and Religious Freedom for Sustainable Development

This week, global leaders gathered in the idyllic town of Burgenstock, Switzerland to develop a plan aimed at ending the brutal conflict in Ukraine and promoting peace through sustainable development.

At the same time, another significant summit took place in Italy, where influential thinkers from around the world convened to tackle an equally critical issue: the role of religious freedom in building a sustainable future

This latest conference titled “Religious Freedom and Integral Human Development: A New Global Platform to Change the Conversation,” was held at the prestigious Magistral Palace of the Order of Malta in Rome. Organized by the Atlantic Council, the Embassy of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta to the Holy See, the Pontifical Urban University, the University of Sussex, the University of Notre Dame, and John Cabot University, its focus was on highlighting the often-overlooked spiritual dimension in our understanding of human progress.

The summit was attended by a diverse range of global voices, including the dean at the University of Notre Dame Scott Appleby; Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States, Holy See; Prof. Fabio Petito, University of Sussex; Dan Negrea, Senior Director of the Freedom and Prosperity Center ;  Prof. Katherine Marshall, Georgetown University; Rajeev Bhargavahead of the Institute of Indian Thought.

The main purpose of the summit was to shed light on the underappreciated theme of religious freedom and its significant impact on economic development. While this topic isn’t usually front and center in mainstream discussions, it plays a vital role in shaping economies.

Although religious freedom is recognized as a fundamental human right under Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it often stays just that – an abstract provision. In many parts of the world, it still doesn’t get the protection it deserves.

Indeed, religious freedom often gets overlooked in development agendas, including the UN’s ambitious Agenda for Sustainable Development aimed at achieving key goals by 2030.

These goals primarily focus on physical welfare and statistical achievements, which narrow progress down to a materialistic viewpoint. It also clouds the spiritual underpinnings of human development that, if left unaccounted for, will hold us short of achieving the global sustainable development dream.

The fact that no country, regardless of its wealth, is currently on course to achieving these sustainable development goals suggests that the issue is more than just material; it involves unlocking human potential, where spiritual and religious considerations are crucial.

This conference was organized specifically to address this challenge, aiming to redefine the role of religious freedom from a moral imperative to a strategic necessity for achieving sustainable development.

Religious Freedom: Key to Sustainable Development

Panelists highlighted empirical evidence, showcasing how embracing religious diversity develops the economy as religious groups play a measurable role in the human and social development of countries. Safeguarding religious freedom can empower diverse communities to contribute positively to national development.

Meanwhile If religious communities face barriers that limit their access to essential services, this often perpetuates cycles of poverty and exclusion.  Religious discrimination hinders progress across multiple development objectives, including poverty reduction, education, healthcare, and economic empowerment.

As Joseph Lemoine, the Director of the Freedom and Prosperity Center at the Atlantic Council aptly said, “if a country is to restrict freedom, this will have impact on that country’s prosperity at term, in the long term. It will reduce that prosperity or at least it will dramatically slow down the growth of the increase of prosperity.”

To capture the measure of this contribution, an innovative approach to this issue discussed at the conference is Integral Human Development (IHD), which blends spiritual and material well-being rooted in the dignity of every individual.

This approach aligns closely with the principles of religious freedom and addresses challenges while fostering resilience and social cohesion—crucial elements for sustainable development.

The conference also sought to mobilize global leaders, policymakers, and religious communities toward concrete actions that uphold this fundamental human right.

Interreligious dialogue and collaboration are vital in bridging divides and promoting mutual understanding and the moral responsibility of global leaders who possess that reach to make that action.

But in an age of digital manipulation and public mistrust of global leaders, addressing skepticism and misconceptions about religious freedom advocacy remains a key priority. The summit looked to dispel the notion of upholding a partisan or Western-centric agenda, advocating instead for a universal approach that respects religious and cultural contexts while advancing shared principles of equality.

These fundamental principles of equality, which form the bedrock of many of the world’s religions, deserve significant recognition and should be integrated into the global development agenda.

Integrating religious freedom into the sustainable development agenda is urgent. The Rome conference has set the stage, and it’s now up to policymakers, religious leaders, and civil society to advance this vision.

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Ibrahim Özdemir a world-renowned ecologist who has been a consultant to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) since 2015. He is Professor of Philosophy and Ecology at Üsküdar University and Founding President at Hasan Kalyoncu University, and previously was Director-General at the Department of Foreign Affairs in the Turkish Ministry of Education. He was a lead member of the drafting team for the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change endorsed by the UN United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).