Two pastors facing the death penalty in Sudan, a family fleeing ISIS in Iraq, atheist bloggers in Bangladesh and kidnapped school girls in Nigeria – what do these people have in common? In each case, their right to freedom of religion or belief – the most important human right – is under attack.
Perhaps you think that’s an outrageous claim – how can I possibly say that religious freedom is the most important human right? More than the right to a fair trial, the right to freedom from torture, the right to freedom from slavery?
Let me answer that in the words of Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who wrote an op-ed for the Times on this very issue: “Humans are made in the image of God, so our religious beliefs are a core part of what it is to be human. To take away a person’s freedom of belief or non-belief is to violate the core of their humanity”.
To have freedom of religion – the right to believe or not to believe, and the right to change belief – is essential to being human. Our thoughts, our conscience and our convictions are integral to who we are.
Yet, as a recent debate in the House of Lords served to prove, this right is being denied across the world. And at a truly alarming rate. Lord Alton of Liverpool, who led the debate, saw it as another opportunity to raise the profile of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, fittingly dubbed an ‘orphaned right’. “From North Korea to Syria”, he said, “Article 18 is honoured daily in its breach, evident in new concentration camps, abductions, rape, imprisonment, persecution, public flogging, mass murder, beheadings and the mass displacement of millions of people”.
Working for Open Doors, a charity that seeks to support and strengthen the persecuted church, I’m daily confronted with the reality of what happens when religious freedom is brutally attacked. Violence is an obvious indicator of the extreme persecution of Christians in many countries – we call it the ‘smash’ of persecution. But we also recognise the ‘squeeze’ of persecution, where societal pressures push Christians out of ordinary life and restrict their ability to live out their faith.
According to the Pew Research Center, in 2013 a staggering 77% of the world’s population lived in countries with high, or very high, restrictions on religion. There is no doubt the number has increased over the last two years. So what is the solution and where does the UK come in?
“Freedom of religion or belief is not just an optional extra, or nice to have; it is the key human right”.
Archbishop Justin Welby hammered it home when he said, “if we want to defend religious freedom around the world… do not sell guns to people who oppress religious freedom; do not launder their money; restrict trade with them; confine the way in which we deal with them; and, above, all, speak frankly and openly, naming them for what they are”.
He rightly emphasised the UK’s responsibility to use its international standing to call out other governments on human rights abuses. On top of that, the Archbishop crucially cautioned the UK to act responsibly itself, avoiding practices that stoke the conflict and insecurity which inevitably lead to human rights abuse. In this regard, Britain’s role in the Middle East, for example, is one of ongoing controversy and in need of constant scrutiny.
The same goes for Britain’s allies. A new report, by Global Witness, reveals how key European states have played a significant role in perpetuating the vicious civil war in the Central African Republic. This is a war where both Christian and Muslim communities have been at the mercy of violent rebel and vigilante groups – their religious freedom savagely stripped away.
It’s hugely concerning to learn that these groups received vast funding from European firms, keen to exploit the instability created by the conflict for the sake of profit. This is so easy to stop. The international community must be vigilant to curtail this blatant disregard for human rights and hold all actors – state or non-state, direct or indirect – to account.
As Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister, Baroness Anelay, superbly summed up when responding to yesterday’s debate: “Freedom of religion or belief is not just an optional extra, or nice to have; it is the key human right”. This right isn’t just something that all humans should have – it’s a right that makes us human. It’s time for leaders around the world to give it the attention it deserves.