“...recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world...” - The Universal Declaration of Human Rights


On December 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which lays out the inherent rights of all persons. Though not legally binding, the document serves as a bedrock of many national constitutions enshrining human rights and justice today. Creating a universal declaration was an important step in reinforcing and giving consensus on the rights of individuals but the values upon which the declaration was inspired can be traced back centuries.

To date, more than 150 countries have adopted this framework of human rights. But in the Middle East, many Muslim nations are governed, either loosely or strictly, by Islamic, or Sharia, law. A number of the rights outlined in the UDHR, and in most Western cultures today, conflict with some basic tenants of Islamic law. For these reasons, Saudi Arabia was among the countries that rejected the UDHR, arguing that it failed to take into consideration the cultural and religious context of non-Western societies.

In an attempt to reconcile human rights and Islam, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation adopted the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam on August 5, 1990. Critics of the document argue that it undermines many of the parameters in the UDHR, allowing all the member states to abide by a set of human rights based on Sharia law. Instead of empowering the individual, the document relegates human rights to the discretion of governments.


Safeguarding universal human rights becomes challenging when nation states around the world differ on both their understanding of human rights as well as their priorities. Oftentimes, religion defines culture, particularly in the Middle East where 91% of the population is Muslim.

Whether broadly influenced or stringently governed by Sharia, certain practices in the Middle East are seen elsewhere as direct violations of international human rights. The subordinated status of religious minorities, prohibition of conversion from Islam, repression on freedom of speech, and discrimination and violence against women are common in many areas of the Middle East. These practices pose grave contradictions to the mainstream consensus on human rights. Women, as well as religious and ethnic minorities, remain particularly vulnerable and are frequently the victims of human rights violations across the Middle East. Many migrant workers in the Middle East also suffer, facing exploitation and abusive working conditions.

Some countries in the Middle East still arrest individuals in relation to their perceived sexual orientation. In Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, the death penalty is imposed for consensual same-sex acts. A 2018 study by Amnesty International found that aside from China, the most executions took place in Iran and Saudi Arabia. Ninety-one-percent of executions in the Middle East took place in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.

Although much progress is needed on human rights in the Middle East, challenging the status quo can be life-threatening because human rights defenders are frequently targeted and detained.

Our Take

Human rights matter, and Christians in particular should be at the forefront of the battle to help those whose rights are being violated. Many of the values upon which the consensus for international human rights was established come from the ancient Israelites. Defending those rights – the repository of the Hebraic tradition that helped shape our culture – and championing those values is a duty of every Christian.  

In an especially volatile region like the Middle East, defending human rights is increasingly more important. Human rights are not free from the impurity of power or the variant cultural prioritiespractices, or influences. But the content of human rights must be judged by ethical norms and not relatively by culture or custom alone. There are internationally accepted standards of morality that can anchor human rights diplomacy, and this is precisely why the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an achievement worth celebrating and affirming.  

The dilemma for a Christian comes in deciding how to prioritize the rights of neighbors near and far. It is well known that Christ called us to love our neighbor as ourselves, and that the word “neighbor” may describe anyone on earth. Less known, however, is that the New Testament’s call to universal love is qualified: like everything else in biblical thought, it flows from the particular to the universal and not the other way around. Christian love may extend globally, but it is applied proximately. Christ Himself preached a special love for fathers and mothers, for brothers and sisters in the church, and for those—like the victim in the story of the Good Samaritan—who lie in our path. “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar,” the Apostle John writes. “For the person who does not love his brother he has seen cannot love the God he has not seen.” And so, as we Christians reflect on international rights, it’s important to remind ourselves that one cannot love a distant neighbor without first caring for the neighbor next door.