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Christianity Today Published Articles Religious Freedom

No Pandemic Pause in Persecution, Says Poland Ministerial

Image: Ralph Alswang / US State Department
The podium at last year’s religious freedom ministerial stage in DC. This year’s IRF conference was virtually hosted by Poland.

The cause of international religious freedom has gone more international.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the third Ministerial to Advance Freedom of Religion or Belief was hosted this week outside the United States for the first time—in Poland.

Next year it will take place in Brazil.

Launched in 2018 by the US State Department, the ministerial brings together the world’s top diplomats to ensure religious freedom remains an integral focus of international foreign policy.

The focus is necessary: 80 percent of the world’s population lives in nations that restrict religious freedom, according to the Pew Research Center.

And the pandemic has only increased persecution.

“Malign actors have tried to use COVID-19 to restrict religious freedom,” said Sam Brownback, US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

“The need to expand religious freedoms and protect religious minorities has become a global priority.”

The novel coronavirus took center stage at the two-day conference, hosted virtually by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The 2019 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom drew about 1,000 delegates to Washington. This year’s event was hosted online by Poland due to the pandemic.

Gayle Manchin, chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), said restrictions on religion began as early as March. She cited several examples…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on November 18, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Christianity Today Published Articles Religious Freedom

Like ‘Water on a Stone’: UN Expert on the Hard Work of Religious Freedom

Image: United Nations
Ahmed Shaheed, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief

Religious freedom requires global consensus.

Despite the best efforts of the Trump administration to prioritize the issue in its foreign policy, the Pew Research Center highlights that government restrictions on religion have hit an all-time high worldwide.

In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights included clear language on religious freedom, including the right to change one’s religious affiliation. But it was not until 1981 that the UN issued its Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.

Declarations are of little value without accountability.

In 1986, the UN created the position of Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB). And in 2006, it created a process called the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), in which nations report on their human rights development every 4.5 years and are required to address the recommendations of the global community.

Ahmed Shaheed, the current special rapporteur, was appointed in 2016 after serving six years as the UN human rights watchdog on Iran.

Formerly a foreign minister of the Maldives, Shaheed was declared an apostate from Islam in his home nation following his efforts to restore democracy and advance human rights.

Prior to this month’s third Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, CT interviewed Shaheed in April as COVID-19 upended the world about recent American efforts to advance international religious freedom (IRF), the balance involved with gender equality, and the best methods to secure the right to religious conversion in the Muslim world:

How has COVID-19 impacted global freedom of religion and belief?

The pandemic is unprecedented in how it is impacting everyone.

As special rapporteur, I have issued three statements so far. The first concerned the cremation of bodies of those who died from the virus—can it be made compulsory, and can relatives attend? Religious practices can be limited to some extent during a time of public health emergency, but I wanted to remind the authorities of their obligations under international law and to be respectful of religious and cultural beliefs within the law.

The second statement was on hate speech targeting minority Christians, Jews, and Muslims. They have been scapegoated and attacked with conspiracy theories claiming they are the ones who spread or even originated this virus. And besides scapegoating, in some cases they were denied access to health care facilities.

The third statement raised alarm specifically on anti-Semitism, which was spiking across the globe.

My statements also highlighted the role that faith-based communities can play at this critical time, in terms of virtual pastoral care and the preservation of community cohesion. And I have applauded how most religious leaders have responded to the humanitarian and socio-economic challenges we have witnessed.

Many American evangelicals have been supportive of the Trump administration’s advocacy for international religious freedom. From your perspective, has it created an atmosphere where there is greater worldwide respect and attention, or has it politicized the issue and been detrimental to the global cause?

I look at US policy in a comprehensive fashion, and not just the president’s remarks. The State Department’s IRF report—covering every nation in the world—and the work of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) have played an invaluable role over the years. I’m happy that the Trump administration…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on November 16, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Published Articles Religion Unplugged Religious Freedom

Religious Liberty: For the Health of the Whole World

From my recent article published at The Media Project:

Religious Liberty
(from: Set My People Free)

But for Durie, the issue is far greater than the right of one person to believe what they want – even as human rights always concern the individual, each and every one of which is sacred.

It is a lonely battle, he laments, though much depends upon it.

“This can be a disheartening, discouraging, and frustrating burden to carry,” he said. “But it is vitally important, not only for the believers themselves, but also for the health and honor of the whole world.”

 

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Lapido Media Published Articles Religious Freedom

The Surge in Concern for International Religious Freedom

Lord Alton: speaking up. Photo: Lord Alton
Lord Alton: speaking up. Photo: Lord Alton

THE social contract . . . limits on power . . . liberty of conscience . . . doctrine of toleration . . . human rights . . . Each is under attack around the world and Lord David Alton wants the government to do something about it.

The Independent Crossbench Peer has tabled a debate in the House of Lords this Thursday (16 July) to focus on the issue that underpins them all: religious freedom.

Alton has framed the debate to focus on the ‘clear links’ between freedom of conscience and both the prosperity of a nation and the litany of other rights its citizens enjoy.

It will also discuss ‘greater political and diplomatic priority’ in support of Article 18 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, guaranteeing freedom of thought and religion.

One debate participant is Lord Jonathan Sacks, former UK Chief Rabbi. Addressing a UK-Israel policy conference in late June he noted that ‘wars are won by weapons, but peace is won by ideas.’

And each of the above principles which shape the modern world, he said, ‘began life as religious ideas.’

Within the UK the debate over secularism may question the value of this assertion. But it is undeniable that international religious freedom has received greater attention across the political and social spectrum.

Rhetoric

Richard Honess is a board member of Atheists Alliance International and the international liaison officer for Atheism UK. Dr David Landrum is the director of advocacy for the Evangelical Alliance.

Unlikely bed-fellows, both have spoken forcefully in support of religious minorities around the world.

‘The right to religious freedom is essential,’ Honess told Lapido. ‘All we ask is in return that atheists also have that same right, the right not to believe.’

Honess finds the UK guilty of privileging Christianity and believes the foundation of freedoms to be personal liberty under the law—not faith. He looks at Africa and the Islamic world and finds witch hunts against homosexuals and the lashing of dissidents in the name of religion.

‘The Atheist Alliance International will continue to lobby the EU and the UN,’ he said, ‘but this has to stop and I fear that we are long way from that.’

Landrum, on the other hand, released a report to Parliament detailing how UK Christians’ freedoms are ‘restricted’. But he sees religious liberty as receiving a far higher profile than it used to, driven by horrors witnessed in the Middle East.

‘We need to educate society about the value of religious freedom for all freedoms,’ he told Lapido, ‘and keep our politicians focused on persecuted minorities abroad.’

A growing and influential segment of these politicians sees this as their key mission. The All Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief was formed in 2012, and is co-chaired by Baroness Elizabeth Berridge.

In addition to a host of Christian organisations, it is supported also by the British Humanist Association and Sikh, Bahai, and Ahmadiya Muslim groups.

‘The level of awareness and involvement among MPs on issues of international freedom of religion was higher in the last parliament than at any point in the past twenty years, and there is every evidence that this is just as true now,’ said Stephen Rand, advocacy consultant for Open Doors and web editor for the APPG.

The election manifestos of the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, DUP, and Green parties all included language supporting religious freedom abroad.

‘But it is too early in the life of this government to judge whether the rhetoric will become reality,’ Rand added.

Safeguarding rights: Baroness Berridge and Bishop Angaelos. Photo: Brian Pellot/RNS

One sign of the rhetoric is the recent honour given to Coptic Orthodox Bishop Angaelos, appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire by the Queen for his services to international religious freedom.

‘Greater acknowledgment of this issue,’ Angaelos told Lapido, ‘is fitting within the UK’s understanding of what it means to safeguard human rights.’

It was ‘imperative’, he added, for both individuals and nations to protect them.

Reality

There are signs the UK government is getting the message.

According to the Pew Research Center, 76 per cent of the world’s population live in countries with high or very high restrictions on religion.

The 2011 Foreign and Commonwealth Office Report on Human Rights and Democracy found that religious freedom was ‘crucial to ensuring conflict prevention and post-conflict peacebuilding.’ It has since been updated to include ‘countries of particular concern’, numbering 27 in the most recent edition.

Put negatively, the June 2015 volume of the Harvard International Law Journal noted ‘nations that criminalise blasphemy tend to foster an environment where terrorism is more prevalent, legitimised, and insidious.’

The FCO report insists it is ‘important’ to secure religious freedom as part of the government’s ‘wider security agenda’.

The report was quoted in ‘Article 18: An Orphaned Right’, prepared by the APPG in 2013. It will form the basis of the coming House of Lords debate.

It also contains ten recommendations to the government on how to ‘mainstream’ a religious freedom approach into foreign policy.

One year later Baroness Warsi chaired the first meeting for the Foreign OfficeAdvisory Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief, fulfilling recommendation three.

An additional three have been positively acted upon, with evidence suggesting all have been considered.

But is advice enough? Do reports translate into policy?

Lord Alton continues to push the debate. His own view is clear: ‘Countries have to make the cause of those who suffer for their religion or belief the great cause of our times,’ he wrote in GIS.

‘Christians, Jews and Muslims privileged to live in free societies have to challenge cold indifference and speak up and defend humanity.’

This article was first published at Lapido Media.