Is Freedom of Religion or Belief now politically mainstream?
Is Freedom of Religion or Belief now politically mainstream?

Is Freedom of Religion or Belief now politically mainstream?


Mgr Michael Nazir Ali on a conference on a crucial theme

Early in July, there was an historic event in Westminster and I don’t mean the resignation of the Prime Minister! It was, in fact, the first international ministerial on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) to be held in the UK and only the fourth ever to be held anywhere.

The gathering brought together politicians, civil servants, agencies concerned for religious freedom and leaders in civil society. There was also an important ‘fringe’ element to the conference, with many important gatherings, showcasing egregious violations of fundamental freedoms in different parts of the world and highlighting the need for support of and advocacy for numerous groups of people from many religious and ethnic backgrounds.
Whilst generally there was support for freedom of thought, expression and belief, there were a few warning bells as well with some wanting to restrict such freedom in the cause of social cohesion, national interests and ‘public morality’. There has also been a campaign, largely led by Islamic nations, to prohibit what they call ‘defamation of religion’. Against this, I have tried to affirm the presumption for freedom of religion and belief, as Article 18 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights says, not only in private but in public and ‘in teaching, practice, worship, and observance’. The international Covenant on Civil and Political Rights permits restrictions on such freedom only if it is used to incite violence or discrimination against an individual or group. In the context of interfaith dialogue, I have tried to encourage believers from different faiths to answer their critics rather than trying to shut them down.


Signs of hope?

In gatherings such as the ministerial, there is a tendency for people to recite their woes and these are real enough, whether relating to imprisonment, torture, restrictions on worship, prohibitions to adopt and to express particular beliefs etc. Positive elements and developments tend not to receive so much air time! Although the situation in Egypt, for example, can still cause concern for Christian and other minorities there, it is also true that the government and the religious establishment have tried to improve the situation by incorporating ‘Bill of Rights’ type provisions in the Constitution. Greater flexibility in permission to build, repair and extend churches and ancillary buildings, as well as greater inclusivity in public appointments have all given minorities greater confidence in their future. It is true that much more needs to be done, especially for those communities that do not fall under the rubric of the Ahl Al-Kitab, or religions of the book, but it cannot be denied that a start has been made. In Syria also the failure of extremists to destroy ancient Christian, Yazidi and other communities and to desecrate their places of worship must be a cause for thanksgiving, even if much remains to be done in assisting communities to remain or to return to their ancient homelands, as some Christians and Yazidis are now able to do in Iraq. In Pakistan, the repeal of the blasphemy laws, which are difficult to justify in terms of Islamic tradition itself, may be problematic for politicians to address but there can be amelioration of their effects through judicious administrative and legal measures.
One abiding concern that I have had with successive ministerials is that they focus on what politicians can deliver and that tends to be legislation or policy, whether national, regional or international. This means that deeper questions, which often stand behind policy or law, about how religious or cultural traditions can restrict or enhance freedom of thought, expression and belief is not fully explored.
In my view, future ministerials should find ways of bringing the fruits of interfaith dialogue to bear on the agenda: for instance, how is Shari’a to be understood as both restricting freedom and being developed in such a way as to support it? In quite a different way, how the Catholic Church has drawn from the deep wells of its own tradition to affirm freedom of religion today or how the established churches of Europe have become advocates for freedom of religion and for other communities having a place around the table of policy making should also be discussed.
This can also be true of using historical and cultural traditions to promote greater tolerance today: the capacity of Hinduism to offer hospitality to Jews, the St Thomas Christians, Zoroastrians and others is relevant to the kind of religion- based pathological nationalism being promoted in India today. Buddhism’s commitment to pacifism can also be a feature in arguing for the right of minorities to live in peace in those Buddhist majority countries which are riven with ethno-religious conflict.


Freedom of worship

It is not enough simply to achieve freedom of worship, though that is by no means to be despised. Respect for conscience at the workplace, especially in areas of ethical significance, such as obstetrics and gynaecology, palliative care, fertility treatment, education and finance, must not only be asserted but enshrined in law. This should be true of everyone, of course, but it applies particularly to those whose consciences have been formed by a religious tradition. The US has a tradition of ‘reasonable accommodation’ of religious belief and practice at the workplace, as long as it does not jeopardise the business or service being provided. This derives from the First Amendment to the Constitution and to the Civil Rights legislation from the 1960s and ‘70s. Countries in Europe need to learn from the American experience, even as they reaffirm for themselves their own tradition of respecting conscience at the workplace place and in public service.


Religious illiteracy

One question that is raised again and again is about the ‘religious literacy’ of those in public life or in the civil or diplomatic service. This is not about sending people back to Sunday school, as one educationalist put it. That is rightly resisted by those concerned. Instead, what politicians, mandarins and diplomats need to be shown is how an awareness of religious belief and practice can enhance their own understanding of some of the most pressing issues in our world today. Thus the emergence of ‘interest free’ economies can only be understood in terms of how Muslims view the strictures of Shari’a regarding usury. Catholic teaching on respect for the person from the earliest to the latest stages of life can explain why those in Catholic majority countries find it difficult to accept abortion as simply a way of planned parenthood! This can also apply to the role of religion in constitutional arrangements or in understanding social mores about dress, diet and a host of other matters important for understanding communities and necessary for social cohesion. Different religious traditions have teaching on when armed conflict may be justified, how it should be conducted and its aftermath. Whether in situations of ‘conventional war’ or more non-conventional interventions, such as peace keeping operations, knowledge of these teachings can be crucial in relationships with local populations.
It is most important for FoRB concerns to be integrated with a government’s wider foreign and domestic policy objectives. Where overseas aid is concerned, for example, how is this related to a recipient’s performance on FoRB and other human rights issues?
Some nations and organisations have explicit policies in this respect, others claim to work more tacitly. Whichever it is, there should be some accountability as to how aid and trade relate to FoRB and Human freedoms in general.


A “Faith blind” approach?

Some countries, including the UK, have claimed to have a ‘faith blind’ approach to relief, educational and development aid. This can now be shown not to work. When communities are at risk because of their faith, as were Christians and Yazidis in Iraq during the DAESH insurgency, it is absurd to ignore this dimension when delivering relief or longer term assistance. Similarly, if Syrian Christians won’t go to UNHCR camps because they may be run by Islamists, of one kind or another, surely our diplomats and aid officials should be going to find them where they are, often in church and school compounds. Christians suffer systemic discrimination in education in a country like Pakistan. It is simply wilful for the UK’s huge educational programme to ignore this reality and to refuse support for faith-based schools because of an alleged ‘faith blind’ approach which works, in fact, to privilege the majority community.
One of the features of the ministerials, so far, has been a concentration on non-Western and non-domestic contexts but if FoRB concerns and commitments are to be seamless, the increasing restrictions on freedom of thought, speech and belief in the West, including the UK, must be taken into account. Christians, and other people of faith, encounter this in their professions, where conscience is increasingly not respected, for example, on life issues or on the nature of marriage and the best way to bring up children. They may not be allowed to manifest their faith in public or be compelled to endorse lifestyles and preferences which are contrary to the teachings of their faith.’Cancel culture’ may try to smother public expression of faith and moral attitudes, sometimes with assistance from the very law enforcement agencies that are tasked to protect our freedoms! This can be as true on campus as it is on the street.


In the West

It is the case, of course, that the intensity of persecution in the West is not like that in other parts of the world, where people are in danger of liberty, life and limb, but if you lose your job, are removed from the register of your profession or from a public body on which you serve or from an academic course that you are pursuing, that can seem like persecution! In my experience, persecution often begins with exclusion and discrimination. It is, undoubtedly, the case that is happening now in the West. It will no longer be credible for western countries to promote FoRB abroad, if they are seen not to respect it at home.
The next ministerial is next year in Brazil. This will produce its own opportunities and challenges but the occasions do provide a very useful platform for bringing to public and governmental attention the importance of freedom or belief for societies and the world generally. Media apathy should not be a judge of the significance of these ministerials. Mgr Michael Nazir Ali is a priest of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham and a Prelate of Honour of the Pope.

Faith Magazine

September - October 2022 2022