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20 December 2017

Promoting religious freedom in 2018

Promoting religious freedom in 2018

As we move towards Christmas, the nativity story is at the forefront of our minds. In the words of one prayer, we consider ‘the joy of the angels, the eagerness of the shepherds, the perseverance of the wise men, the obedience of Joseph and Mary, and the peace of the Christ-child.’ But the wars, humanitarian crises and global persecution of this past year bring to mind other aspects of the story too: the violent fear of Herod, the flight of the holy family and the sorrow of the parents of Bethlehem. Our Christmas story is big enough for both.

In many countries, those latter aspects of the Christmas story are all too familiar today. Forum 18 reports that Kazakhstan will introduce a series of new laws over Christmas that greatly restrict religious freedom. For example, one such proposal will restrict religious education to places of worship or other authorised education settings. This would ban – among other things – Bible study groups in homes.

Kazakhstan is not unique in the region with such authoritarian measures. Nearby Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan all feature alongside it on the Open Doors World Watch List – the 50 countries in which it is most difficult to be a Christian. According to Open Doors, the engine of state-backed persecution in these nations is ‘dictatorial paranoia’, where the state clamps down on any group which it perceives as a threat. Such restrictions on fundamental human rights – especially freedom of religion or belief – hit a variety of groups in these countries: Jehovah’s Witnesses, Ahmadi and Shia Muslims, and Protestant Christians. Nor are the non-religious exempt, as the countries above also feature in the International Humanists and Ethical Union’s Freedom of Thought report.

The persecution of these groups underlines that, here and elsewhere, all faiths must defend all faiths, as well as non-religious beliefs. Authoritarian persecution may begin against a group of people with whom we strongly disagree. And yet once a state decides it can restrict the rights of one group, there is little to stop it restricting the rights of others too. However much we may differ from other groups, their rights and freedoms are our rights and freedoms.

How do we respond to these stories of persecution? 2018 marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and on Thursday there is a debate in parliament about what the UK can do to promote human rights around the world. Part of the answer to this question will be our global advocacy, through our network of embassies and through other organisations in different countries where there is persecution. It will be important to hold our government accountable for its work in this area. You can keep informed about this through the work of the Religious Liberty Commission.

However, responding well also means setting a good example of honouring human rights in our own country. Christians have wonderful and wide-ranging religious freedom in the UK, but it would be naïve to assume that our country is immune to the fear and suspicion that grows to drive persecution overseas. Other countries also cite our laws as good precedent, so in several policy areas it’s vital to examine how these are perceived and justified.

One example is in the language of counter-extremism. This is often used by the countries mentioned above as a justification to target peaceful groups. In the new year we will find out who has been appointed as chair of the Commission for Countering Extremism in the UK. To avoid giving credibility to the disproportionate measures that go under the ‘counter extremism’ heading overseas, the lead commissioner will need to make respect for human rights and freedoms a high and explicit priority. This has been said before in discussions around counter-extremism, but it is easily forgotten.

This Christmas, let’s set aside some time to pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ who are facing persecution. And in the anniversary year of 2018, let’s encourage our government to defend human rights and freedoms at home and abroad.