Archbishop to challenge Commonwealth leaders on progress of religious freedom

29 March 2018

Westminster Abbey

Flags and national dress at the Commonwealth Service in Westminster Abbey earlier this month

Flags and national dress at the Commonwealth Service in Westminster Abbey earlier this month

THE Archbishop of Canterbury is to host politicians and religious leaders from the Commonwealth at Lambeth Palace next month, for discussions on how to strengthen religious freedom in their countries.

The meetings, organised with the Commonwealth Initiative for Freedom of Religion and Belief (CIFORB), established by the University of Birmingham, will look at ways in which parliamentarians and religious leaders can hold their governments and constituencies to account in relation to concerns related to reli­gious freedom.

The Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Revd James Langstaff, referred to the discussions in a House of Lords debate on 22 March, in which he also noted that “some of the worst-offending countries, when it comes to religious freedom, are found within the Commonwealth,” He said, however, that Commonwealth nations such as Tanzania offered good examples of Muslim-Christian relations.

Professor Francis Davis, Professor of Religion, Communities, and Public Policy at Birmingham, and an advisory board member of CIFORB, said: “Archbishop Welby’s decision to host the meetings showed he is committed to making religious freedom a central issue in the Commonwealth and to stress the significance of the Anglican Communion to the Commonwealth, in which the British Government has shown a renewed interest post-Brexit.”

The Prince of Wales, who is taking on more responsibilities from the Queen, the current Head of the Commonwealth, has repeatedly voiced concern for religious freedom in the Middle East. The issue is understood also to be of increasing concern to the Government.

Participants in the Lords debate argued that discussions at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in London and Windsor “Towards a Common Future”, 16-18 April, should not be a talking-shop.

The crossbencher Lord Alton, a Roman Catholic, told the debate of a calculation by the US-based Pew Research Centre that about 70 per cent of the Commonwealth population “live with high or very high government restrictions on the right to freedom of religion and belief”.

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He highlighted violence against minorities in Pakistan and India, and attacks on girls by the jihadist group Boko Haram in Nigeria.

Lord Alton argued that, without enough promotion of religious freedom, CHOGM would be unable to achieve the goals that it had set out for this year’s meetings, of achieving a future that is more sustainable, fairer, more prosperous, and more secure. He cited a 2014 study that found religious freedom to be a driver of economic growth.

Lord Cashman, a founder of the charity Stonewall, said that he hoped that leaders would discuss LGBT rights at the meetings.

“In 36 of the 53 states of the Common­wealth, homosexuality is criminalised and same-sex relationships are banned,” he said. “Organised religions and religious leaders condone such repressions actively or by their silence.”

He continued: “We absolutely need the voice of religion and religious leaders, and we need them in support of equality and non-discrimination, regardless of difference.”

The British-Indian peer Baroness Flather said that “religion is not always beneficial to women,” and referred to Islam, gender-based segregation in Hindu worship, and the RC Church’s opposition to artificial birth control.

In a video message, Archbishop Welby described the Commonwealth as a place of “reconciliation” that through its diversity could break down cultural barriers in an “increasingly polarised” world. 

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