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References to Religion in Early UN Documents

References to religion and spirituality are found in documents that led to the formation of the United Nations, in the UN Charter, in the constitutions of some UN bodies, and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

ATLANTIC CHARTER, 1941 - The Atlantic Charter grew out of August 12, 1941, discussions between US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Meeting in great secrecy aboard the US heavy cruiser USS Augusta and the British battle cruiser HMS Prince of Wales, the two leaders and their staffs discussed the general strategy of the war against the Axis Powers. The major public outcome of those discussions was the Atlantic Charter. The Atlantic Charter formed the basis of many later international agreements, including the United Nations Charter. Paragraph 8 contains the following statement:

... all of the nations of the world, for realistic as well as spiritual reasons must come to the abandonment of the use of force.

[Full text of the Atlantic Charter]

DECLARATION BY UNITED NATIONS, 1942 - signed January 1 by the United States of America, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, China, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Costa Rica, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Greece, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, India, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Poland, South Africa, and Yugoslavia:

Being convinced that complete victory over their enemies is essential to defend life, liberty, independence and religious freedom, and to preserve human rights and justice in their own lands as well as in other lands.... [the phrase "religious freedom" was not in the December 19, 1941 draft Joint Declaration by the governments of the United States of America, China, Great Britain, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and Other Signatory Governments.]

[A record of the development of the Declaration and the text that was ultimately signed.]

MOSCOW CONFERENCE, 1943 - Joint Four-Nation Declaration signed by the United States of America, United Kingdom, Soviet Union and China:

Declaration regarding Italy: Freedom of speech, of religious worship, of political belief, of press and of public meeting, shall be restored in full measure to the Italian people, who shall be entitled to form anti-Fascist political groups.

[Full text of the Four-Nation Declaration]

UN CHARTER, 1945 - four articles refer to religion:

1. The Purposes of the United Nations are ... To achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.

13. The General Assembly shall initiate studies and make recommendations for the purpose of ... b. promoting international co-operation in the economic, social, cultural, educational, and health fields, and assisting in the realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.

55. With a view to the creation of conditions of stability and well-being which are necessary for peaceful and friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, the United Nations shall promote ... c. universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.

76. The basic objectives of the trusteeship system, in accordance with the Purposes of the United Nations laid down in Article 1 of the present Charter, shall be ... c. to encourage respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion, and to encourage recognition of the interdependence of the peoples of the world.

[Full text of the UN Charter]

UNESCO CONSTITUTION, 1945 - one article refers to religion:

1.1 The purpose of the Organization is to contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among the nations through education, science and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, for the rule of law and for the human rights and fundamental freedoms which are affirmed for the peoples of the world, without distinction of race, sex, language or religion, by the Charter of the United Nations.

The Preamble to the constitution contains the term "sacred duty," which implies a divine origin: That the wide diffusion of culture, and the education of humanity for justice and liberty and peace are indispensable to the dignity of man and constitute a sacred duty which all the nations must fulfil in a spirit of mutual assistance and concern.

[Full text of the UNESCO Constitution]

WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION, 1946 - preamble to the constitution:

The enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition. 

[Full text of the Constitution of the World Health Organization]

UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS, 1948 - three articles refer to religion:

2. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

16. Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.

18. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

[Full text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights


Introductory Note: The Convention is to be applied without discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin, and contains various safeguards against the expulsion of refugees.

1.A. [Definition:] As a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951 and owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

3. The Contracting States shall apply the provisions of this Convention to refugees without discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin. 

4. The Contracting States shall accord to refugees within their territories treatment at least as favourable as that accorded to their nationals with respect to freedom to practice their religion and freedom as regards the religious education of their children.  

33. No Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.  

[Full text of the Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees]

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