All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) have had a bit of a mauling in the press recently, but the reality is that many are doing plenty of important work within Westminster. One of these groups is the recently formed APPG on International Religious Freedom. On Wednesday the group released its first report. Entitled Article 18: An Orphaned Right, it presents an overview of freedom of religion and belief in international law, what forms its abuse around the world takes today, how the British government has engaged with the issue and what it can do further to advance this fundamental right.
The main thrust of the report is to highlight the extent to which Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not currently being protected internationally as it ought. Article 18 states that:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance”
The introduction expands on this:
‘The group received evidence of persecution and discrimination from across the religion and belief spectrum, but notes that a particularly heavy price is being paid by Christians. As vice-chair of the group, Baroness Cox, outlined in a recent House of Lords debate: “The faith tradition now suffering the most widespread and systematic violations of religious freedom is Christianity. It is estimated that there are at least 250m Christians suffering persecution today, from harassment, intimidation and imprisonment to torture and execution.” However, as the evidence demonstrates, persecution is determinedly not confined to any particular tradition, but common to all the major faiths, as well as many newer and less well-known beliefs, and those people who eschew religion entirely.’
Running to 72 pages, the report is both impressive and extensive and concludes by presenting a series of sensible and appropriate recommendations to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). These include a call on the Department for International Development to identify freedom of religion or belief as a new priority in its work, ensuring that aid will have a positive rather than negative impact in this area. It also asks the Foreign Secretary to establish a sub-group of the Human Rights Advisory Group to focus on freedom of religion and belief. Enhancing and prioritising training on freedom of religion or belief for FCO personnel is another recommendation.
What particularly struck me when reading through the report was the foreword by Lord Singh of Wimbledon which sets the scene and raises important points that many of us living in Britain are either ignorant of or easily forget:
‘For the vast majority of people around the world today, religion is a central part of life. It motivates our actions and reactions to the world about us. It is central to the very rhythm of human existence across the globe. Religion affects the whole of life, from profound philosophical beliefs about our responsibilities in society, to simple everyday choices about attitudes to the food we eat. So it is surprising to consider how fashionable it has become to declare that religion is on the wane, almost like a phase that humankind is growing out of. Much has been written about the rise of secularisation and the retreat of faith, and there has been a significant expectation in academic circles that religion would become less and less important over time.
‘However, a glance at the world as it is in 2013 reveals that precisely the opposite has happened. As the sociologist Peter Berger, of Boston University, explains: “I think what I and most other sociologists of religion wrote in the 1960s about secularisation was a mistake. Our underlying argument was that secularisation and modernity go hand in hand. With more modernisation comes more secularisation. It wasn’t a crazy theory. There was some evidence for it. But I think it’s basically wrong. Most of the world today is certainly not secular. Religion continues to be important to people in many countries. The one exception to this is Western Europe. One of the most interesting questions in the sociology of religion today is not ‘How do you explain fundamentalism in Iran?’ but, ‘Why is Western Europe different?’ ”
‘So we in Western Europe need to learn to approach questions of religion and belief with humility, recognising that, globally speaking, secularism is a minority view, and that Western ways of operating will not necessarily be applicable in other parts of the world.
‘We can be enormously proud that Britain is one of the most tolerant societies on earth, and because of this I believe we have a great deal to contribute to the international debate on freedom of religion and belief. But in so doing, we must never fall into the danger of “cultural colonialism”, whereby we assume that our culture is superior to other world cultures. We must never allow ourselves to believe that religion is somehow backward; it can be a positive force for good. Equally the bigotry and intolerance that sometimes attaches itself to religion will not just go away if we ignore it. We have a responsibility to expose and combat intolerant attitudes that attach themselves to and distort underlying ethical teachings.
‘Unfortunately, Britain’s deserved reputation of tolerance and respect for other ways of life in its own way makes the job of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office all the more difficult, because its staff need to be able to see the world as others see it. For those of us used to living in a society where the practice of religion is a minority activity, it can be hard to appreciate how often the true roots of conflict, persecution or discrimination overseas lie in the manipulation of complex religious sentiment. Our foreign policy will be severely hampered if we do not develop the understanding of distinctions and nuances between and within different faiths.’
This has been a strong start by the APPG on International Religious Freedom. It does a successful job of establishing the foundations for its future activities in this important area. Their work deserves recognition and respect. The full report is available here.