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Freedom of conscience and religion must be protected

No government, no other religion, no armed group and no terrorist should ever take this freedom away from anyone

Published: July 12, 2022 04:03 AM GMT

Last week, London hosted the fourth International Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief, bringing government ministers and officials from around the world together with faith leaders and civil society activists to discuss the grave challenge of religious persecution and intolerance in so many of our societies.

This ministerial-level summit was initiated in 2018 by the United States and has been the catalyst for the formation of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance (IRFBA) which now includes 40 countries. The former US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback is the man to thank for this, because during his time in office he did more than anyone to energize, mobilize and internationalize engagement with this thematic issue.

Similarly, the UK Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for freedom of religion or belief, Fiona Bruce MP, who chairs IRFBA and who led the London Ministerial, deserves deep appreciation and respect for her tireless and energetic advocacy. Britain’s first envoy for freedom of religion or belief, and its Minister for Human Rights, Lord Ahmad, is also one of the most devoted champions of the cause.

The Ministerial was opened by Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, who said clearly: “The freedom to believe, to pray and commit acts of worship, or indeed not to believe is a fundamental human freedom and has been one since the dawn of time. Societies that allow their people to choose what they believe are better, stronger and ultimately more successful.”

This “fundamental right,” she noted, “is covered in the very first clause of the Magna Carta and Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is one of the Four Freedoms Franklin D. Roosevelt said were ‘essential everywhere in the world’.”

Yet throughout history, and around the world today, we see, as Truss said, “oppressors crackdown on freedom of religion or belief in order to exert control.”

From Nigeria to Sudan, from Cuba to Mexico, from Iran to Saudi Arabia and of course across the continent of Asia, from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh to Myanmar, Indonesia and Malaysia, to Vietnam, Laos, North Korea and China, people of all religions and of no religious belief face persecution.

Whether it is the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and Rohingyas facing genocide at the hands of the dictatorships in China and Myanmar, or atheists and humanists jailed in countries such as Indonesia, or Christians facing persecution at the hands of militant Buddhist and Hindu nationalists, radical Islamists, or hard-line Communists, violations of freedom of religion or belief affect us all. That’s why it was so heartening to hear Truss’ appeal to work together “to defend freedom of religion or belief and show the potential for positive change. Together, we can forge ahead to a fairer, safer world for people of faith across the globe.” And even more heartening to hear her end with this reminder: “As St. Paul told the Corinthians: ‘Be on guard, stand firm, be courageous, be strong’.”

The symbolism of the Ministerial was very important. Political leaders, religious leaders, journalists and civil society activists coming together to shine a light on this issue and work in a coalition to find ways to promote and protect freedom of religion or belief was inspiring. To see the Archbishop of Canterbury standing alongside the President of Humanists International, the Chief Rabbi, and with Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist leaders was beautiful. But symbolism alone, though very welcome, is not enough. There needs to be a plan of action.

One of the first things that should be done is for the European Union to appoint a new Special Envoy for freedom of religion or belief. The former Deputy Prime Minister of Slovakia Jan Figel was one of the principal drivers behind the creation of the post and served with distinction in the role as the EU’s first envoy from 2016-2019. He was succeeded briefly by Greek politician Christos Stylianides, but he left the role after just five months, to take up a ministerial position in the Greek government, and he has not been replaced. For almost a year, the EU’s envoy role has been vacant. That must change, urgently.

The United Nations has just appointed a new Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, to succeed Dr. Ahmed Shaheed. Nazila Ghanea’s appointment is extremely welcome, as she is an experienced expert and tireless champion of this cause. A professor of international human rights law at Oxford University, Dr. Ghanea is well placed to build on the work of her predecessors.

Brazil has announced it will host the Ministerial next year, which is very welcome as this is a cause that is not the preserve of the West, but one which should be of utmost concern to the Global South. Thought should be given as to whether Asia could host the one after? Either one of Asia’s well-established democracies — Japan or South Korea, which would be ‘safe’; or it most vibrant, frontline democracy Taiwan, which would be provocative and send a signal; or one of its fragile democracies, such as Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, with a constitutional tradition of pluralism, where religious freedom is threatened.

Asian nations — at a governmental, religious and civil society level — should engage with the new UN special rapporteur, the new US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom Rashad Hussain, the UK’s envoy and other mechanisms that exist to promote and protect religious freedom. In recent years civil society coalitions in the region have been formed, such as the South-East Asia Freedom of Religion or Belief (SEAFoRB) network and the South Asia Forum for Freedom of Religion or Belief (SAFFORB), bringing together activists, faith leaders and policy-makers from throughout the region. These should be supported and strengthened.

The central message of all these initiatives is that there can be few things more important than a human being’s freedom of conscience. At heart, this work is about the soul — and the freedom of every human being to decide according to their own conscience what they do with it. That is a freedom no government, no other religion, no armed group and no terrorist should ever take away from anyone. We must step up efforts to defend freedom of religion or belief for everyone, everywhere, all the time.

Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is a Senior Analyst for East Asia at the international human rights organization CSW, the co-founder and Chief Executive of Hong Kong Watch, co-founder and Deputy Chair of the UK Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, a member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and a board member of the Stop Uyghur Genocide Campaign. He is the author of six books, including three books about Myanmar, especially his latest, “Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads”. His faith journey is told in his book “From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church” (Gracewing, 2015). The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.


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