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The battle for religious freedom

02 November 2018

Government and Churches are acting — but more can be done, says Mervyn Thomas


A Falun Gong practitioner sits with a photograph of a possible victim of torture, in Frankfurt, earlier this year

A Falun Gong practitioner sits with a photograph of a possible victim of torture, in Frankfurt, earlier this year

AROUND the world, the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) is under threat — as highlighted last Saturday when International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day was marked.

In Eritrea, we see an ongoing campaign of arrests and the long-term detentions of Christians, Muslims, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, while religious leaders in Colombia are under threat from armed groups.

In the past year, alleged crimes against humanity against the Rohingya in Burma have been in the headlines (News, 15 September 2017), as have ongoing human-rights abuses against the citizens of North Korea, a country where you can be punished simply for being a Christian. One North Korean escapee told us: “When it comes to religion, North Korean people just shudder because punishment is very severe.”

FACED with these global challenges, we might ask whether the Government and the Churches are doing enough.

Encouragingly, the UK Government has built on its commitment to promoting FoRB as a key priority for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office by appointing Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on FoRB. He has championed this cause within Government. His appointment also came with an explicit promise from the Prime Minister to “promote the UK’s firm stance on religious tolerance abroad”.

Challenges remain, however. Some of the UK’s most important trading partners have poor or deteriorating records on religious freedom.

One notable example is China, which is tightening its grip on religious activities throughout the country with stricter legislation governing religious affairs, which extends even to posting religious views online and preventing children from attending Sunday school or other religious settings. Furthermore, there has been an escalation in the disruption and closure of Christian and Tibetan Buddhist religious services, and alarming reports continue to emerge concerning the torture of Falun Gong practitioners, and the detention of more than one million Uyghur Muslims in “re-education camps” (News, 17 August).

Much has been made of the new “golden era” in UK-China relations, but less has been said publicly about the country’s worrying human-rights record. We know from our work at Christian Solidarity Worldwide that when governments such as the UK’s raise these concerns publicly, it can be effective, and can lead to changes on the ground. Furthermore, research suggests that religion is not a destabilising influence, far from it: a country where religious freedom is respected is often more stable and positive for business.

IF THE government has a part to play, so has the Church — and it is playing it. Time and again, we have seen Christians and church leaders around the country unite in prayer for prisoners to be released as part of the International Day of Prayer for Persecuted Christians. In March, the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke of religious freedom with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia during his visit to the country (News, 16 March), and the following month he hosted a forum on FoRB in the Commonwealth, at which he raised religious-freedom concerns (News, 29 March).

But there is still more to do. As a Church united in Christ, we have a unique opportunity to come alongside people suffering injustice on account of their religion or belief.

Through prayer and campaigning, Christians in the UK can stand with churches such as Nigeria’s Evangelical Church Winning All, which has organised prayer, fasting, and advocacy initiatives in response to the abduction and continued captivity of Leah Sharibu. Leah, aged 15, is the only one of 110 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram from their school in Dapchi, in February, who is still being held by the terrorist group, because she refused to renounce her Christian faith (News, 29 March).

Abductions by terrorist groups such as Boko Haram, and the more regular but less high-profile kidnappings of girls from religious-minority backgrounds which are committed by men in sharia states in Nigeria or rural Pakistan, are issues that we can can keep raising with our governments by writing to our MPs to share our concerns.

Government ministers and church leaders do, indeed, have a part to play — and are uniquely positioned to do so. One powerful act that is within everyone’s grasp at any moment is prayer, however; for we know that, as the Epistle of St James says: “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”

Mervyn Thomas is the chief executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide.


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