The House of Lords “doing God” again – freedom of religion and conscience

On 22 January the House of Lords held a short debate at the instigation of Christopher Hill, the Bishop of Guildford, on freedom of religion and conscience.

The Bishop of Guildford drew particular attention to the annual report for 2011 of the US State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom which recorded rising  antisemitism in many parts of the world and pressures on many religious groups: the Baha’i and Sufi Muslims in Iran, Coptic Christians in Egypt, Ahmadis in Indonesia and Pakistan and Muslims in a range of countries, including in Europe. In Nigeria there had been an increase in sectarian violence with a definite religious complexion. There had also been well-documented study on Christianophobia. No-one should be discriminated against on grounds of religion or conscience; and religious communities had to speak out on behalf of others, not only for their own adherents. Equally, faith communities should condemn discriminatory behaviour in their own communities.

Not even the Church of England had a clear historical conscience on religious toleration, as witness the Great Ejection of those who could not accept the Caroline Restoration and the lack of Anglican support for Catholic Emancipation. However, it was equally possible to cite secular attacks on religious freedom – some of which were very recent. His core question was how to make more effective the work being done by individuals and NGOs to publicise breaches of religious freedom.

The EU was developing guidelines on freedom of religion or belief but greater transparency would be welcome. The Organisation on Security and Co-operation in Europe was reconstituting its council of advisers on freedom of religion or belief but, when it had done so, it needed to adopt a holistic rather than a reactive, episodic approach. As to the ECtHR, Eweida had shown that religious freedom was a real human right rather than a nominal one. Nor was religious freedom ultimately in opposition to other rights such as freedom of expression or non-discrimination.

He welcomed the activities of the FCO’s human rights and democracy programme and noted the expertise and experience of the United Kingdom in interfaith dialogue and co-operation. The Church of England was involved in that work and he strongly encouraged such partnership. He suggested that the Foreign Secretary should have an advisory group on religious freedom to work alongside his advisory group on human rights .

Lord Parekh noted that there was lways a danger of equating “conscience” with “religion”, as if a non-religious conscience did not have the same rights as a religious conscience. Atheists and secularists could feel just as strongly, hold certain beliefs just as strongly and be committed to a certain way of life just as strongly as religious people – and they needed to be protected. He was also slightly uneasy about calling freedom of religion a fundamental human right:

“If something is important enough to be a human right, by calling it fundamental one is either guilty of tautology and thus not adding anything or one creates confusion by saying that there can be human rights which are not fundamental. To call something a human right is by definition to say that it is absolutely fundamental and non-negotiable”.

There were two ways of affecting freedom of religion internationally:  positively by persuasion – through moral and political pressure and by setting an ideal example – and negatively be encouraging religious and secular fundamentalism.

It was easy to undermine the conditions in which freedom of religion could flourish in other societies by following economic and foreign policies that created conditions in which religion became an object of suspicion and a source of conflict. Things began to go wrong when the normal rhythm of human relationships was disturbed; and outside intervention could disturb those rhythms by creating conflict, wittingly or unwittingly, and making people feel threatened, frightened and besieged so that they turned on each other as objects of hatred. That was what the West had done by invading Iraq and creating conflict between Shias and Sunnis, by supporting Saudi Arabia and the Wahhabis uncritically and by supporting aggressive secularism in Algeria when the army took over several years ago .

If the United Kingdom was really concerned about freedom of religion it had to make sure that its foreign and economic policies did not create the conditions, wittingly or unwittingly, in which religious groups were at each other’s throats and  freedom of religion became the first casualty of conflict.

Baroness Cox argued that Christianity was the faith now suffering the most widespread and systematic violations of religious freedom, with an estimated 250 million Christians suffering various forms of persecution. She cited residual Marxism-Leninism in China and Cuba, totalitarian repression of any religion in North Korea, episodic attacks on other faiths in India and attacks by militant Islamists. In Egypt, President Mubarak’s downfall had increased pressures on the Coptic Christian community and there had been an exodus of Copts. Similarly, there had been sustained attacks on Christians in Nigeria and Sudan.

She asked the Government to follow the example of the United States and Canada with initiatives such as appointing a religious liberty commission or a special adviser on religious liberty, publishing an annual FCO report on international religious freedom, linking aid to respect for religious freedom and imposing targeted sanctions on key individuals or Governments responsible for serious, widespread and systematic violations of religious freedoms.

Lord Patten said that the pursuit of freedom of religion and of conscience, whether by Governments or by Churches, should be underpinned by two fundamental principles: proper regard for freedom of religion and of conscience at home and an even-handed  approach to those issues abroad, both by the Government and the Churches.

As to the first,  he referred to the case of Ms Nadia Eweida and suggested that if someone in a place of work had said to a Sikh man “Take that turban off” or to a Muslim woman, “Take that scarf off” there would have been outrage. He also referred to the dispute about the charitable status of the Exclusive Brethren, suggesting that the system protected those people who were different in their religious beliefs.

As to the second, he cited three countries where some had suggested that the UK had not been even-handed. Turkey’s record on religious freedom was poor; but successive UK Governments had been muted in criticism of Turkish treatment of religious minorities such as the Alevi Muslims and the Greek Orthodox in Istanbul. In Egypt the so-called Arab Spring had proved an Arab winter for the Copts. Similarly, those of lesser standing among Muslims in Bahrain did not get the right level of attention compared to the minority who actually ran Bahrain.

The Bishop of Ripon and Leeds  concentrated on two areas:  the increasing abuse of blasphemy laws – for example in Pakistan and Sri Lanka – and the need for the Government to make it clearer that the UK rejected all forms of religious bullying by providing proper protection for asylum-seekers fleeing from religious persecution. There were refugees from Iran, Pakistan and elsewhere who were terrified of being returned to their countries of origin because of religious abuse; and he felt that freedom of religion, of conscience and of non-religion was not taken sufficiently seriously in the UK. Those who had changed their religion were regarded with particular suspicion by immigration tribunals.

Lord Sheikh said that in the UK freedom of religion was not just accepted but respected and acknowledged as a key pillar of a free and healthy society. The balance was right: and while the Church of England was our official state religion [but only in England: FC] others faiths could flourish without fear of persecution. He was pleased that the Government had  maintained a strong commitment to the promotion of freedom of religion, as outlined in Human Rights and Democracy: The 2011 Foreign & Commonwealth Office Report, and that the FCO had joined the Canadian High Commission in London last month to hold a conference on that subject. He agreed with the general consensus that the UK had to play a greater part in promoting harmony between people both at home and across the world. Governments and political leaders had to work alongside religious leaders, civil society groups and, in some cases, the media to help promote good relationships between people of different religions.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston spoke from the point of view of a humanist and drew attention to the inclusive definition in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” and to the subsequent UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. Their significance was in the interpretation of “belief” to include non-religious beliefs. Those with no religious belief were as diverse as believers – and second in number only to the Christians, according to the 2011 census results.

He suggested that secular organisations such as the British Humanist Association were potential allies for those faith groups active in defending freedom of religion and conscience and opposing oppression: the 25 per cent who declared that they had no religion were in almost every other regard identical to the 75 per cent who ticked the Census box declaring their religion. People in Britain, whether humanists or believers, shared common values – many of those values anathema to the sectarians who refused dialogue. The balance of the sacred and secular contributed to the stability of society.

Baroness Berridge suggested that the title of the Pew Forum’s research report on the Rising Tide of Restrictions on Religion said it all. The current global trajectory was not promising.

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights was not about compulsion or coercion but about freedom – which was why it was so interrelated with the freedom of expression. If one was not exposed to any other views, how could one be said to have exercised freedom of choice?  The fact that individuals in the UK could choose to be secular exemplified that freedom is in operation: the freedom to choose no God at all.

As chair of the All-Party Group on International Religious Freedom she was pleased that representatives of several religious groups were working together on the issue. Submissions were currently being sought for the Group’s first report will be entitled, “Article 18: An Orphaned Human Right”. The title of the Report reflected the fact that that human right had not become the basis of an international convention like those on the rights of the child or women.  She felt that, in the wake of the Arab Spring, freedom of religion would be a human rights issue for decades to come.

Lord Collins of Highbury said that there was a clear relationship between oppression of religious belief and armed conflict. The Government’s Building Stability Overseas Strategy recognised that “religious freedom is often crucial to ensuring conflict prevention and post-conflict peace-building” and that “violence against a religious group can be a forewarning of wider conflict” Vast numbers of people of all religions and none faced daily threats of violence simply for exercising the basic human right to practise their faith.

Discussion of issues of religion and human rights was often about conflicts of rights  – or, at least, apparent conflicts. As a humanist he would certainly not elevate freedom of religion and belief over other human rights; nor could they go unchallenged where the safety or rights of others were threatened. Equally, however, religious belief was not merely a marginal right to be considered only when no other rights came into play. Above all, a balance of rights and a recognition of context were indicative of religious freedom as a real, not just a nominal, human right.

As with other fundamental freedoms, religious freedom benefited everyone by creating conditions for peace, democratisation and development. The Government should considered following the example of such countries as Canada and the US in prioritising the issue of protecting religious freedoms.

Replying for the Government, Baroness Warsi said that the FCO and the Government regarded freedom of religion or belief as a key human rights priority. Freedom of religion and belief was a fundamental right and a valuable litmus test of other basic freedoms. Where freedom of religion or belief was under attack,  other freedoms were often under attack also.

At the meeting earlier that day the Secretary-General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the Foreign Minister of Canada and Ministers from Pakistan and Morocco had been present, along with ambassadors and senior officials from a wide spread of other countries. She hoped that those discussions would make a real contribution to solidifying the international consensus to do more to combat religious intolerance and promote freedom of religion and belief, using Resolution 1618 as a framework. Freedom of religion or belief was a universal right; and all minority religions had to be protected.

Lord Macdonald had asked what had worked. From her own involvement in Pakistan her answer was this: tough conversations, a consistency of approach, leading by example, being able to talk about the UK’s own experience with regard to religious minorities and making the issue universal in a globalised world.

The right to freedom of religion or belief in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was not about abstract discussion or a debate but about the right to be individuals and to be free – and it was very broad, for example the right to manifest through worship, dress and the wearing of religious symbols. She suggested that the ECtHR had come to the right decision when it ruled in favour of Nadia Eweida. Equally, the right to freedom of religion or belief included the right to share one’s faith and to teach others about it and, importantly, the right not to hold a religious faith.

The Government was absolutely committed to religious freedom because  quite simply, lives were at stake. The Bishop of Guildford had asked about a religion or belief advisory group. The group that had existed under the previous Government became unwieldy and, instead, the Coalition had ensured that two members of the Foreign Secretary’s human rights advisory group – Professor Malcolm Evans and The Revd Joel Edwards – contributed a faith perspective and an awareness of international human rights law to its deliberations. The Government was currently looking at bringing in experts in relation to other religions.

The Government’s action plan included: working in multilateral organisations, bilateral negotiations, and project work in a range of countries, working with NGOs on issues such as promoting better understanding between faiths, bridging sectarian divides, promoting dialogue between faith groups and government, and offering technical advice on laws that need amendment. However, Governments alone could not change the landscape: they need the co-operation of civil society to promote messages of understanding and tolerance for the followers of other religions or those without a faith.

The next Government annual rights report, which would include violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief, would be published in April. The Government continued to keep open the option of appointing an envoy for international religious freedom but, for the moment, believed that the best course was to continue to make each of the FCO Ministers responsible for defending freedom of religion or belief in the area of the world that he or she covered. The FCO put a huge amount of effort into promoting religious freedom.

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