The Prime Minister‘s Christmas message highlighted the ongoing challenge of persecution and the threat to Freedom of Religion or Belief.
She said “Let us remember those around the world today who have been denied those freedoms – from Christians in some parts of the Middle East to the sickening persecution of the Rohingya Muslims. And let us reaffirm our determination to stand up for the freedom of people of all religions to speak about and practice their beliefs in peace and safety.”
Meanwhile Lord Bates, Minister of State at the Department for International Development, contributed the following article for the ConservativeHome website headed
During this Christmas season, it’s time to stand up for religious freedom – and that of those who don’t believe at all
In her Christmas message, the Prime Minister encouraged us to ‘take pride in our Christian heritage and the confidence it gives us to ensure that in Britain you can practice your faith free from question or fear’ and ‘to remember those around the world who have been denied those freedoms.’
It was a timely reminder to us that violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief are amongst the most common human rights violations in the world today. The persecution of religious minorities and atheists is acute and increasing in many parts of the world.
More than 145 countries have laws ensuring the right to freedom of religion or belief; however, more than two thirds of these protect only some religious groups. Forty-six countries have laws that entirely prohibit certain religious groups. Governments and authorities in 96 countries exercise violence or discrimination against religious groups based on their religion or belief, whether in the form of arbitrary detention, physical violence and torture, or destruction of religious property. Perpetrators are increasingly non-state actors using mob violence and intimidation to enforce religious or social norms.
In 13 countries today, there are even laws that carry the death penalty for apostasy (the renunciation of or conversion from a particular religion) or blasphemy (which includes atheism or humanism).
These violations undermine the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18 which declares: “Everyone has the right of 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.”
These words were enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 as the world came to terms with the scale of the Holocaust where, as a result purely of a religious belief, six million men, women and children were systematically murdered by the Nazi regime. This basic human right was not an incidental add-on, but something fundamental to seeking to prevent a repetition of the darkest chapter in human history.
Today we are witnessing an attempt to systematically eradicate certain religious groups such as Christians, Yazidis and Shi’a Muslims from parts of the Middle East. As a result of Daesh/ISIS it has been estimated that the Christian population in Iraq has fallen from 1.4 million to fewer than 250,000 (USCIRF Annual Report 2017). In neighbouring Syria, the Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo has estimated that the Christian population in that country has fallen from 1.7 million to under 500,000 in just five years.
A little over a year ago there were around a million Rohingya Muslims living in Rakhine State in Myanmar. Over the past few months, over 600,000 have been forced to flee their homes and cross the border into neighbouring Bangladesh as a result of persecution by the Burmese military and Buddhist extremists.
The importance of moving Freedom of Religion or Belief up the international agenda is important for a number of reasons including:
religious belief is not reducing but increasing. Currently, nearly 85 per cent of the population of the world adheres to a religious belief. Moreover, the right ‘not to believe’ of the remainder is increasingly resulting in persecution in many countries.
In the vast majority of cases, religious belief is not as a result of conversion but is handed down from generation to generation. It is their soul’s mother tongue. As such, for most, it is an intrinsic and precious part of cultural and ethnic identity, and not something which can be easily discarded.
The number and proportion of conflicts around the world with a religious dimension is increasing. In 2013, 21 out of 35 (60 per cent). In 2001, the figure was 15 out of 34 (44 per cent). If faith is a growing factor in conflict then it must also be a growing factor in peacebuilding.
Today, we face the greatest refugee and migration crisis since the end of World War II. Religious persecution is a major part of the cause of that crisis forcing people to abandon their homes, communities and livelihoods.
Despite the increase of religion elsewhere in the world and its role as a partial cause but also a potential solution to many of our current global challenges, religious literacy in the West seems, if anything, to be heading in the opposite direction, accompanied by a general awkwardness when discussing belief, or non-belief, in the public square.
The rights of Freedom of Religion or Belief, articulated so clearly 70 years ago in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, are under attack as never before and those attacks are growing in both their frequency and ferocity. There is virtually no major religion or community of non-belief that has not experienced the persecution of its adherents in some part of the world.
It is therefore in the enlightened self-interest for those of all faiths and those of none to work together to promote greater understanding, respect and shared endeavour on the basis that we are all ‘human’ first and though we have been given many faiths we only have been given one world to practice them in.
Free Malaysia Today published an interview with Baroness Berridge under the heading UK peer calls for space for religious debates. Their report read:
A member of Britain’s House of Lords has highlighted the importance of free space for debates on religion.
Baroness Elizabeth Berridge, who is the director of the Commonwealth Initiative on the Freedom of Religion or Belief, said this free space, where people of different faiths could express themselves, explore ideas and educate one another, was integral for the development of mankind.
“We in the UK want to avoid a situation such as that from the reports we hear about North Korea, where everything is controlled, where you’re not allowed to read anything, to listen to anything, or to discuss anything,” she told FMT in an interview at the Islamic Renaissance Front’s office here.
“When one hears about the physical conditions for the North Koreans, one can only imagine what their lives are like. That’s just not a healthy situation to be in and that’s why we want as broad a spectrum as we can have to allow people this free space.”
She said the government’s role in Britain was to ensure that it did not encroach on that free space.
“So these discussions happen a lot on university campuses. It can happen in faith institutions. It happens between the media, it happens in social clubs, in sports clubs and all those environments.
“What we don’t want is to have government agencies restricting that.”
But she said the British government would draw the line when it came to breaching the law and respect for human life and dignity.
“In the UK, we have the freedom of speech to be able to disagree with each other about the aspects of our faith within healthy dialogues. It’s when you start insulting and inciting hatred and violence against people, that’s where in the UK we draw the line.
“So parliamentarians have had very lengthy and late-night debates to ensure that the law doesn’t allow the police to come into that space, unless they really need to, such as when someone is threatening violence against someone. That’s a criminal offence and you can’t use the argument of free speech to excuse that.
“However, the government is trying to ensure we have that space in society to express ourselves in debates and discussions – and hopefully well-informed discussions – around politics and around religion and the environment.
“And obviously, now – adding on the internet and social media – there’s so much debate and so much discussion.
“We have had issues in terms of trying to control that debate when it comes to bullying people. There have even been threats against members of parliament, and it has been especially difficult for women members of parliament, who have been victims of that bullying and trolling.
“You also have to be respectful of people you debate with. Otherwise, it just becomes an argument and that’s not constructive.”