International Freedom of Religion or Belief day (27 Oct 2019) highlights 83% of the world’s population live in countries where religious freedom is threatened.
International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day (October 27th 2019) promotes coexistence and respect between people of different cultures and religions, to foster stable and prosperous societies. It is a cause that has been taken up at the highest levels.
In what he called one of his “highest priorities” President Donald Trump unveiled to the United Nations General Assembly in September 2019 plans to dedicate $25m to the protection of religious freedom and religious sites across the globe. “Today, with one clear voice, the United States of America calls upon the nations of the world to end religious persecution,” the US President said. “Stop the crimes against people of faith…. Protect the vulnerable, the defenceless and the oppressed.”
Although the statement was attacked by some critics as personally hypocritical in the light of some of his recent domestic policies, it came at a time of renewed focus on religious freedom worldwide and followed the publication of the US State Department’s 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom. Unveiling the report, Ambassador at Large, Sam Brownback, cited Iran and China as among the prime offenders. Members of Iranian religious minorities including Baha’is, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Sunni and Sufi Muslims, he said, face discrimination, harassment, and unjust imprisonment because of their beliefs while in China the authorities have subjected prisoners of conscience, including Falun Gong, Uighurs, Tibetan Buddhists, and underground Christians to a systematic programme of repression.
In Britain the newly appointed Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, Rehman Chishti, pledged to work with religious representatives and civil society to combat religious persecution wherever it occurs and, in particular, to implement the recommendations of a report into persecuted Christians abroad. This put at 144 the number of countries where Christians are suffering as a direct consequence of their faith.
On a visit to London in July 2019 the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, joined the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, at a high level symposium which heard that some 83% of the world’s population live in countries where religious freedom is either threatened or denied. Furthermore an overwhelming proportion (80%) of these cases of persecution or oppression are said to be currently directed at Christians. Later in the year Mr Pompeo travelled to Rome to raise the issue of Christian persecution in the Middle East with His Holiness, Pope Francis.
Baroness Caroline Cox, CEO and Founder of the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust
“I was delighted (with the Brownback and Chishti appointments) because persecution and violations of freedom of religion and belief are increasing around the world. And we do need someone with the particular mandate, responsibility and the background support to enable this violation of freedom of religion and belief to be recorded, documented and also addressed in an appropriate way.
It gives a kind of diplomatic cachet and the authority to look into situations which are very difficult. There’s never been more persecution of Christians in the world as in the present time. But there’s a growth in persecution of other faiths – the Baha’I, the Ahmediya Muslims, the Uighur in China – so there is a growing need for these violations of the fundamental freedom of religion and belief to be made widely available and to arouse an appropriate response from governments and other organisations. And for that I think you do need a specified position and the authority of being recognised as an ambassador.
I’m raising very often in the House of Lords the failure of our British government to deal appropriately with the horrendous attacks on Christians in Nigeria. Similarly other faiths are suffering. But at least if you have someone with the authority to gain access to other faith traditions in other countries, to obtain the information, and to make it available in a well-researched and credible way, I think it will make it possible to get more evidence and possibly to put more pressure on governments to call them to account.”
Ajmal Masroor, Imam and independent commentator on Islamic affairs:
“Religious freedom is essential, I believe, in every sphere of our lives. If an individual can promote that particular cause I see no problem with it. Nobody has the right to take our freedom away. That’s the mantra we should all be promoting.
However if a religious doctrine is seen as absolute – in the sense that everybody else is wrong and anyone who disagrees with a particular scriptural interpretation deserves to be punished or banished – such freedom shouldn’t be accepted or entertained. Those freedoms are the ones that cause the trouble in our society. So I think freedom has to come with a pricetag and the pricetag is responsibility.
Respect of the other is the key. You have to accept that someone may have a very different view from yours and they have every right to it. To me if somebody’s freedom impacts the collective interest of a group of people or individuals then that freedom needs to be questioned and challenged. The problem with the Chinese approach is that they are militant Communists and they care for nothing except their communist ideas. That’s the militancy we see causing the trouble in different parts of the world at the moment.
I think it’s a good idea to have someone to watch over and protect other people’s lives and rights as long as those who are ambassadors or champions don’t become judges. I think these ambassadors should be universal. I think they should be trained to be universal.
(As to whether religious persecution will eventually disappear) I’m afraid I’ve got bad news for you. Human beings have a sad tendency to persecute each other for (many) reasons and religion is one of them.
What we have to do is create space where people can feel safe. So a reporting mechanism is good, a supervisory or overseeing mechanism is good, and a legal framework is very good. And then publicly celebrating our freedom would probably be the best manifestation of this particular way of working.”
Keith Porteous-Wood, President, National Secular Society:
“We welcome Rehman Chishti’s appointment as a Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief. A central tenet of secularism is for no one to be either advantaged or disadvantaged in public life because of their religion or non-belief.
The Special Envoy needs to be ever mindful that Freedom of Religion should apply to all religions. Many Christian parliamentarians, however, focus almost entirely on the persecution of Christians, and it was therefore no surprise that the title of the “independent review” commissioned by Foreign Secretary was the “FCO’s Support for Persecuted Christians”. To his credit the author, the Bishop of Truro, rightly acknowledged – despite the title – the persecution of other faiths and atheists, and that some persecution is by Christian militia.
Religious freedom includes equally sub-divisions and denominations of religions. Similarly, the freedom of religion of those – especially women and the young – who live in religiously conservative communities also merits scrutiny. Let no one forget either that “or belief” means freedom of those who are not religious. This world ranking is a sobering reminder of the immense scale of persecution of those who are not believers or happen to be of the “wrong” faith or sect. Grave violations were found in thirty countries, the legal codes in many of which draw on Islamic law. Freedom of expression is a concern in more than half of the countries.
No reasonable person could oppose religious freedom. But it depends how that freedom is defined; it should not trample on the rights of others. One of the most notable trends in my twenty years of campaigning with the National Secular Society has been a relentless increase in legal challenges, and complaints to human rights bodies, by religiously conservative bodies or those acting on their behalf. Typically they seek, in my opinion, to impose conservative religious dogma on women’s reproductive rights or LGBTI+ people in the population as a whole. So, while wholeheartedly supporting the UK’s promotion of freedom of religion or belief, we emphasise the importance of opposing attempts that will be made to hijack it as a licence to discriminate or violate the rights of others.”