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Action, not words, needed to protect freedom of religion or belief

24 April 2021

To campaign only for Christians would be self-harm, says Bishop Baines


Sir Iain Duncan Smith, a former Conservative Party leader, joined protesters in Parliament Square on Thursday to demonstrate against China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims. A House of Commons motion on the same day declared that the treatment of the Uighurs constituted genocide

Sir Iain Duncan Smith, a former Conservative Party leader, joined protesters in Parliament Square on Thursday to demonstrate against China’s treatment...

GOVERNMENT rhetoric about freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) must be translated into action, the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, told the Synod on Friday.

The Government was to be applauded for accepting in full the 22 recommendations of the Bishop of Truro’s independent review of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office support for persecuted Christians, commissioned by the Foreign Secretary. But the reduction in foreign aid to 0.5 per cent of GDP “indicates the hollowness of manifesto commitments”, the Bishop said.

It was evident, also, that trade trumped human rights, in light of the decision to oppose the human-rights protection clause in post-Brexit trade deals with the EU. “We have to face fresh challenges like these going forward, and we need to be engaging at all levels,” Bishop Baines said, describing freedom of religion or belief as a right to be cherished and safeguarded: ”No country can fulfil its potential without it. It is a touchstone for other precious human rights.”

The debate came in the wake of a report from the Pew Forum in November last year which suggested that state restrictions on religion had reached the highest level globally in more than a decade. More than 83 per cent of the global population lived in countries where the free practice of faith was restricted, it said.

The report before the General Synod documented the Church’s response and how it might respond in the future. All individuals were entitled to follow what their consciences dictated. Bishop Baines argued that, while the Church’s attention was instinctively drawn to Christians, the infringement of rights was not confined to any one community. “To only stand up for the rights of Christians is an act of self-harm,” he said.

Sustained and organised violence against religious minorities could culminate in genocide, and this was happening with increasing frequency. “In today’s interconnected age, we can no longer claim ignorance of these events,” he said. The motion before the Synod was “an opportunity to confirm our commitment to defending freedom of religion or belief wherever it occurs”.

Archbishop Angaelos, the Coptic Orthodox Archbishop of London, one of the ecumenical representatives on the Synod, spoke with passion of the systemic persecution of Christians, not least in Ethiopia; but also of communities such as the Rohingyas, Uighurs, and the Baharis. “We, as the Church, must continue to be custodians of the truth of the sanctity of life,” he said. “We must work together to understand and recognise the phenomenon of Christian persecution.”

The Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, spoke of the plight of Armenian refugees from Nagorno-Karabach, afraid to return to Azerbijan after the Russian ceasefire. Clear evidence existed that their religious and cultural heritage was being eroded. “The destruction of religious sites amounts to an attack on those who have been practising their faith over centuries,” he said.

“Ethnicity and religion are not always easily separated. Cultural cleansing of a place’s past is one step from ethnic cleansing of its present.”

The Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, described climate change and the denial of freedom of religion or belief as “the two major obstacles to human flourishing”. The major drivers were authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, aggressive nationalism, and religious fundamentalism — “all rising today in toxic combination, and inevitably intersecting with racism”.

Freedom of religion or belief was “for all, without fear or favour — including the right not to believe”. The recommendation of his review had “significant traction”. There was a challenge to the Church here not to be “laggards” but “leaders in the cause” of tackling the issue.

Looking back to the 18th century, the Bishop remarked: “Abolition was more of a Quaker than an Anglican cause – let’s not do the same again. . . This calls for better co-operation and corporate energy. This is only a milestone. So much more remains to be done.”

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