Freedom of speech is a Human Right, yet one that is constantly infringed.
If you clicked the ‘like page’ Facebook button on this site, you wouldn't really expect to have the local police knock at your door tomorrow morning and put you in prison for insulting religion. This however was the experience of Karim al-Banna, a 21-year-old student from Egypt. He was sentenced to three years in prison after broadcasting on Facebook that he was an atheist.
Similarly, you wouldn't expect to turn up to Church on Sunday to a letter from the local authorities saying that by this time next week, your Church along with most of those in your parish will be demolished. However throughout 2014 and 2015, the Zhejiang provincial government in China launched the ‘Three Rectifications and One Demolition’ campaign where hundreds of churches and church-run buildings in the province were wholly or partially demolished.
These are just two of the countless violations of Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) that occur across the world to those of all faiths
and none. FoRB, also known as Freedom of thought, conscience or religion, is set out in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It applies to all persons equally and must be protected everywhere and for everyone, regardless of who they are, where they live and what they do or don’t believe. Not only is the correct thing to do from an international human rights perspective, but as Christians the idea of speaking up for the rights for those of all faiths and none should be one we’re passionate about. The parable of the Good Samaritan and the story of Jesus with the woman at the well are just two examples from scripture that we can learn from.
As a human right though, the Government is responsible for the promotion and protection and FoRB across the globe, primarily through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but also through the work of the Department for International Development, the Home Office, the Ministry of Defence and Department for Business Innovation and Skills.
As well as the Government having the responsibility of raising FoRB with all our bilateral partners, the Opposition has a responsibility to ensure the Government is held to account on raising individual FoRB violations, voicing concerns on restrictive legislation of partner countries, condemning impunity of those who violate FoRB and pressing them to raise FoRB in the context of wider human rights dialogue on every possible national and international stage. At the General Election, Labour and Liberal Democrats were calling for an Ambassador for Religious Freedom, showing the left were very much engaged with the issue of religious freedom, which as a fundamental human right for all, should absolutely be the case.
This engagement with religious freedom should now continue by regularly and relentlessly holding the Government to account on protecting and promoting freedom of religion or belief in all aspects of foreign policy. In order for British foreign policy to be effective in promoting and securing our interests at home and overseas, it needs to account for a world in which 84% of the population identify with a religious group and where religious leaders and religious principles play a complex and important role. Therefore, a focus on ensuring the realisation of FoRB worldwide is something that should attract unanimous cross party support.
In order to attract this cross party support, when MPs and Peers returned from the summer recess, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) held a launch event in Parliament for the ‘Freedom of Religion or Belief Parliamentary toolkit’. The toolkit provides an overview of different aspects of FoRB and describes the current situation in the 26 countries CSW works in. It also includes concrete information on both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary mechanisms for the Parliamentarians to use in their efforts to promote the right to FoRB.
It was very encouraging to see over 40 MPs and Peers from various political parties attend the reception, receiving their toolkit and hearing about CSW’s over 30 years experience in FoRB research and advocacy on various national and international platforms, including the United Nations, US Congress and European Union as well as in the UK Parliament. This has included working in 26 countries for those who have had their freedom of religion or belief restricted, as well as training them to advocate for their own rights themselves.
Despite this encouragement however, FoRB is increasingly under threat around the world and where it has been restricted, it has been a contributing factor to many of the current international difficulties seen across the world: Daesh in the Middle East and North Africa, refugees fleeing to Europe, Boko Haram in Nigeria, the list goes on. Therefore, it’s crucial that as politically engaged Christians, we take up the biblical responsibility to be a voice for the voiceless and press the Government to be a relentless advocate of FoRB for all. We hope and pray that the 2015 Parliament certainly will and that our FoRB toolkit might help play small part in that.
Further information can be found here
Published on behalf of Kiri Kankhwende, Press Officer CSW