Bishop of Coventry on Article 18 and freedom of religion and belief

On 22nd October 2015 Lord Alton of Liverpool hosted a debate in the Lords “To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking, if any, to promote Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights.” The Bishop of Coventry spoke in the debate, on religion and national identity / loyalty.

Coventry Moses RoomThe Lord Bishop of Coventry:  My Lords, I, too, am very grateful for this debate. I will focus my comments on the interface between religion and national identity, and the theological and political dangers of too close an alignment between them. Too often, the abuse of religious freedom arises from a false collusion between religion and national loyalty. We saw it once in our own land and, yes, in my own church. We see it now in the “gozinesh” criterion for state employment in Iran, in the treatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar, and in the actions of the so-called Orthodox Army in the Donbass region of Ukraine.

Religions, which at their best seek to serve all humanity, find themselves yoked to a form of patriotism that is insecure and sees minorities as the enemy within. Religious leaders go from trying to influence their society responsibly to denying that others have a place within it. In the worst of cases, the great faiths become like ploughshares beaten into swords, with their messages of life betrayed and turned into instruments of death and persecution. Such a toxic mixture of the abuse of theology and the rejection of human rights will only be defeated by the combined efforts of secular and religious leaders. For this end, the Inter-Religious Platform for Article 18, IRP18, was launched in June. It brings together religious leaders from various faiths and serves as a catalyst for these religious leaders to campaign together for global religious freedom. It is deficient both theologically and practically for religious leaders to speak for the persecuted from their own religions alone. All faiths must defend all faiths. If one faith does not have the freedom to worship, no believer can feel secure.

The aim is not for all religions to see each other as equally true. This would be unachievable. Nevertheless, as the Dalai Lama recently noted, there is now a special responsibility for religious leaders to affirm the place of the other as the other. This principle can unite people from all faiths and beliefs while maintaining theological integrity. Our goal is to unite not only individuals but religious communities and networks that extend across the world. The efforts of IRP18 and other such organisations mirror in a very small way the good work of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief in connecting political leaders. Both political and religious groups need to act together if we are to convince the persecutors that their actions serve neither their faith nor their nation.

I conclude by asking the Minister what the Government’s assessment is of the role that interreligious initiatives can play in strengthening the commitment to Article 18. What steps might the Government take to support and foster more such initiatives? Does she agree with me that, in a way unparalleled in other human rights issues, public policy on freedom of religion or belief is intrinsically linked to theological understanding?

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Anelay of St Johns) (Con): [extract] …we have been working with faith leaders from all communities to build a safer and more secure world. I agree entirely with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry about the importance of inter-religious work. The critical role of faith leaders was brought home to me during my visit two weeks ago to eastern DRC. I was honoured to be able to visit a UK-funded programme outside Goma, run by the NGO Tearfund, that works with local faith leaders to build community support groups for sexual violence survivors. Importantly, the project draws on the influence of the faith leaders within their communities to challenge some of the attitudes to victims of sexual violence and address the stigma many survivors face after their attack. I pay heartfelt tribute to those local Anglican, Catholic and Muslim leaders who spoke with one voice about the importance of working together in such difficult circumstances.