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New IPU report explores the place of religion and belief in parliament

For the first time, the IPU has published a report which examines how parliaments around the world engage with issues of religion and belief. The IPU Parliamentary report on religion and belief explores how religion and belief are institutionalized in parliaments; for example, through legislation, representation, parliamentary committees and mechanisms for consultation with faith-based organizations or the general public.

The report draws on multiple sources, including an IPU survey with responses from 53 national parliaments and dozens of interviews with parliamentarians, parliamentary staff and experts. Overall, the IPU findings reveal a rich diversity of parliamentary cultures with regard to religion and belief.

The report notes that over 100 countries refer to God in their constitutions or other fundamental laws. Religion and belief are often present in different branches of government or are interwoven into a State’s self-understanding. And, according to a 2012 study, some 84% of people around the world are religious, a proportion which is growing. As a result, there is scope for parliaments and parliamentarians to engage meaningfully with religion and belief, which can influence the identity, values and decision-making of the people they represent.

Religion, belief and the legislative system

The report identifies various ways in which religion and belief influence legislation. Some countries have one set of laws which apply to all members of society, regardless of religion or belief. Others allow for different religions or beliefs to exercise their own laws in certain areas. Exceptions are often made in areas of personal or family law, including marriage, divorce, adoption, inheritance and succession.

Parliamentary committees

The report shows that many parliaments have committees dealing with issues relating to religion and belief. The committees can be responsible for oversight, legislation and/or consultation on issues relating to the expression of religion and belief, human rights, the rights of religious minorities, compliance with international laws and scrutiny of government behaviour.

Some parliaments have entire committees dedicated to religion and belief. Others distribute issues impacting religion and belief to committees with overlapping mandates. Work relating to religion and belief can be found in committees dealing with issues such as youth, sports and culture, human rights, justice and governance.

Political representation of religion and belief

The report finds that parliaments deal with the political representation of religions and beliefs in different ways. Some parliaments reserve seats for religious or ethno-religious groups, in either one or both chambers. The number of reserved seats is often based on early census data. Other parliaments have no particular regulations but assume that their directly elected members will organically reflect society and its myriad of religions and beliefs.

Consultation mechanisms

A number of parliaments have mechanisms that facilitate consultation with representatives of religions and beliefs. Key ways of consulting with external voices are through inviting experts to committee meetings, inviting representatives of religions or beliefs to parliament, holding public hearings, and inviting written submissions.

Parliamentary activities

The report notes that some parliaments have cross-party groups around faith-based issues. These are dialogue mechanisms created by parliamentarians which bring together members across party lines to engage in issues of common interest or concern. Cross-party cooperation can also extend to prayer groups, fellowships or prayer breakfasts.

The place of religion in parliamentary proceedings

The report finds that a number of parliaments begin their sessions with a prayer. For many of these, the prayer has been adapted over the years, read in different languages or accompanied by a period of silent reflection for those who do not wish to participate. In some instances, there are specific religious clergy assigned to parliament to cater for the spiritual needs of members and to exercise religious functions.

During major religious celebrations, some parliaments choose to adapt their working methods to allow members to participate in observances such as breaking a fast or celebrating a religious holiday that does not have public holiday status in the country.

The report is the first in a two-part series. Part 2, to be published later in 2023, will consider the experiences of parliamentarians engaging with religion and belief in their work with constituents and within parliament.

The report will be launched at the forthcoming Parliamentary Conference on Interfaith Dialogue in Marrakesh, Morocco from 13-15 June 2023, organized by the IPU and the Parliament of Morocco.  BGIPU is being represented at this conference by its Chair, Rt Hon Karen Bradley MP, Vice-Chair, Alex Sobel MP and Lord Alton of Liverpool.

IPU Secretariat, Geneva