Explainer: International Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief

Ministerial conference 2019. Image credit: Ralph Alswang/ State Department/Public Domain

By Lianne Kolirin

The Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office is to stage the fourth International Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) in London on 5 and 6 July. Ministers from around the world will be joined by representatives from faith and belief groups to promote increased global action. What exactly is it about? What will happen and who is involved?

What is Freedom of Religion or Belief?

Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) is a human right guaranteed under international law within the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) since 1966. Article 18 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”

That right, it states, includes “freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching”.

According to the UK government, Article 18 safeguards individuals’ freedom to adopt a religion or belief, practise it without hindrance or discrimination, share that religion or belief and change it, should you want to.

The right does not only cover the freedom to hold personal thoughts and convictions, but also the ability to express them in public or in private, either individually or with others. It also protects the freedom to hold non-religious beliefs.

The government says promoting FoRB is one of the UK’s long-standing human rights priorities and it is a key pillar of the integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy.

What is the conference?

The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, says the summit will bring together international governments, parliamentarians, faith and belief representatives and civil society. It aims to increase “global action on freedom of religion or belief for all” by protecting and promoting the cause and also by preventing violations and abuses of that freedom. Five hundred delegates will be based in the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in Parliament Square for the two days.

Only invited guests can attend but the programme, which will be livestreamed globally, will feature many sessions such as promoting FoRB in a digital world, early warning and atrocity prevention, and engaging the next generation. 

It will be the first in-person international ministerial conference on this issue since 2019. The 2020 event was held virtually in Poland.

As well as discussing challenges, organisers say the conference will identify what is working in other countries; explore where and how new lessons and approaches can be applied; and aim to inspire the next generation to “champion and defend freedom of religion or belief across the world”.

In a video message, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon said the conference would hear from survivors of such persecution about the impact on their lives and that of their communities. He said: “Although the right to freedom of religion or belief is enshrined in Article 18, it’s regrettable, indeed tragic, that too many people around the world continue to live in fear of persecution on the basis of what they choose to believe or not to believe, or indeed how they choose to practice those beliefs.”

What are the origins of the conference?

The issue is of central importance across the Atlantic, which is where all of the previous ministerial conferences have been held.

In what he called one of his “highest priorities”, Donald Trump, then US president, 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. Stop the crimes against people of faith, release prisoners of conscience. Repeal laws restricting freedom of religion and belief. Protect the vulnerable, the defenceless, and the oppressed,” he said.

Although the statement was attacked by some critics as hypocritical in the light of some of Trump’s domestic policies, it came at a time of renewed focus on religious freedom and followed the publication of the US State Department’s 2018 report on international religious freedom.

The campaign is said to have been strongly backed by the country’s strong community of evangelical Christians through organisations such as Open Doors, which is also involved in the UK. Open Doors, a member of the Evangelical Alliance, compiles an annual World Watch List, which ranks the countries where Christians face the most persecution. The top three countries on the 2022 list are Afghanistan, North Korea and Somalia. It is calling on the UK government to make the freedom of religion or belief a priority in international foreign policy and diplomatic engagement, especially in trade negotiations.

However, the government here will be keen to broaden the range of religious discrimination that the ministers will consider and representatives from all parts of the world and different faith groups will be represented.

What is FoRB fringe?

Faith and belief groups will host events, workshops and creative exhibitions in London and around Britain in the lead-up to and during the conference as part of a broad Civil Society programme. The brainchild of Conservative MP Fiona Bruce — who is Boris Johnson’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief — the fringe is organised by independent civil society organisations and does not represent the government. It is hoped there will be more than 100 fringe events.

The packed schedule, taking place in London, elsewhere in Britain and online, includes a broad range of topics such as:

  • Gender-specific religious persecution
  • Syria and Iraq after Islamic State
  • Religious persecution in Eritrea
  • Persecuted Christians in Africa
  • Should governments do God?

For full schedule, click here.

What is the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance?

In 2020, the UK became a co-founding member of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance. Since then, the group’s membership has grown to 36 countries who are “fully committed to advancing freedom of religion or belief around the world”. Its aim is to bring together senior government representatives to discuss actions they can take together to “promote respect for freedom of religion or belief and protect members of religious minority groups worldwide”. The US State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom serves as the secretariat of the alliance, managing the meetings and information sharing between members.

Members commit to advance Article 18 of the Universal Declaration for Human Rights, which states that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”. Britain is chairing the alliance this year, with Ms Bruce at its helm.

Who is Fiona Bruce?

Fiona Bruce, the MP for Congleton, Cheshire, since 2010, was appointed as the prime minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief in December 2020. She is vice-chairwoman of the all-party parliamentary group for freedom of religion or belief, a cross-party group of parliamentarians. Her role as envoy sees her spearhead UK efforts to promote and protect FoRB around the world.

She is a Christian and a council member of the Evangelical Alliance. The FoRB fringe was inspired by the Edinburgh fringe, and Ms Bruce is travelling across the UK encouraging church leaders, community groups and universities to host events and conversations about the importance of FoRB for all.

What role does the Bishop of Truro play?

In December 2018, Philip Mounstephen, the 16th Bishop of Truro, was asked by Jeremy Hunt, who was then the foreign secretary, to lead an  independent inquiry into the global persecution of Christians “to map the extent and nature of the phenomenon; to assess the quality of the response of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and to make recommendations for changes in both policy and practice”.

Seven months later the bishop published his 22 recommendations in a report that was accepted in full by the government.

In 2019, he attended the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, where Democrat Nancy Pelosi and Republican Frank Wolf shared a stage to call for freedom of faith. The rights of religious freedom were made a central tenet of Republican policy in December 2018 with Trump proclaiming: “Faith breathes life and hope into our world. We must diligently guard, preserve and cherish this unalienable right.”

In a 2020 interview with the Religion Media Centre, Bishop Mounstephen said: “It is important this campaign is not seen as a plaything of the right. We are embracing all faiths — and none.”

A year after the report was published, the bishop set up the Freedom of Religion and Belief Forum which is a self-funded group of diverse stakeholder organisations committed to a common cause.

Partners and lobby groups

There are a host of lobby groups and civil society actors involved in the fringe events from right across the faith and communities spectrum, listed in the programme. They include:

Open Doors, a registered charity, has been operating for more than 60 years in what it says are the “world’s most oppressive and restrictive countries for Christians”. The group began in 1955 when a young Dutchman, who became known as Brother Andrew, began smuggling Bibles in to the persecuted church in Communist Europe. 

BellwetherInternational works in pre and post-genocide communities promoting and protecting freedom of religion or belief at the intersection of human rights.

Al-Khoei Foundation supports disadvantaged Shia communities in the Muslim world by training them in the profession and delivering development programmes.The Hazara Inquiry gathers evidence about the risks that Hazaras face in Afghanistan and Pakistan, assessing the scope of human


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