*** DEBUG START ***
*** DEBUG END ***

General Synod digest: Government rhetoric on religious freedom not enough, bishop declares

30 April 2021
ALAMY

One million Rohingya people are living in camps in Bangladesh, having been forced to flee their homes in the face of mass atrocities. Last month, a fire at Balukhali refugee camp, in Cox’s Bazaar (pictured), destroyed thousands of tents, killing more than a dozen people

One million Rohingya people are living in camps in Bangladesh, having been forced to flee their homes in the face of mass atrocities. Last month, a fi...

A MOTION on religious freedom around the world, calling for action by the Government, was carried by the General Synod unanimously on Friday.

Moved by the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, it called on the Government to implement the recommendations of the Bishop of Truro’s independent review of Foreign and Commonwealth Office support for persecuted Christians, and to strengthen its commitment to upholding and protecting the right to freedom of religion or belief for all in its foreign, international development, defence and trade policy.

Government rhetoric must be translated into signs of action, the Bishop told the Synod. While the Government was to be applauded for accepting in full the review’s 22 recommendations, the reduction in international aid to 0.5 per cent of GDP indicated “the hollowness of manifesto commitments” (News, 9 April; 27 November 2020).

Church of EnglandThe Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, moves his motion

It was also evident, he said, that trade trumped human rights, in light of the decision to oppose the human-rights 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,” he said. 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 context of a report from the Pew Forum in November that government restrictions on religion had reached the highest level globally in more than a decade (News, 4 December 2020). More than 83 per cent of the global population lived in countries where the free practice of faith was restricted.

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

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

The Coptic Orthodox Archbishop Angaelos of London (Orthodox Churches) spoke about the systemic persecution of Christians; of communities such as the Rohingyas, Uighurs, and the Baharis; and the ongoing suffering of Christians in Ethiopia. “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.”

Church of EnglandThe Coptic Orthodox Archbishop Angaelos of London (Orthodox Churches)

While Jayne Ozanne (Oxford) wanted to give the motion “resounding endorsement”, describing the persecution of minorities as “horrific”, she sought to amend the motion by adding to it an acknowledgement that religion could in itself be a cause of harm. But, after a lively debate, her amendment was lost by 188 to 90, with 30 recorded abstentions.

The Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, spoke of the plight of Armenian refugees from Nagorno-Karabach who were afraid to return to Azerbijan after the Russian ceasefire. Clear evidence existed, he said, 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. Ethnicity and religion are not always easily separated. Cultural cleansing of a place’s past is one step from ethnic cleansing of its present.”

There could be no pretence about the level of religious persecution of minorities such as the Rohingya and Uighur people, Prudence Dailey (Oxford) said. She drew attention to other parts of the Western world, such as Norway and Finland, where particular events had shown that Christianity was viewed as a minority religion. “In our concern for the more blatant threats to religious freedom, let’s not take the edge off what’s happening nearer to home.”

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

Church of EnglandThe Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, contributes to the debate

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

“Abolition was more of a Quaker than an Anglican cause — let’s not do the same again,” he said. “This calls for better co-operation and corporate energy. This is only a milestone. So much more remains to be done.”

The motion was carried by 313 nem. con., with three recorded abstentions. It read:

That this Synod, believing that freedom of religion or belief is of importance to everyone, everywhere, and that Christians who enjoy this freedom should be active in advocating the same freedom for others:

  1. a) note with concern that 83% of the global population live in countries where violations to freedom of religion or belief occur;
  2. b) affirm that freedom of religion or belief, as set out in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is a necessary condition for human and societal flourishing;
  3. c) call upon the Mission and Public Affairs Council to use the resources produced by its involvement in the Freedom of Religion and Belief Leadership Network to assist parishes and dioceses to advocate for freedom of religion or belief internationally
  4. d) call upon Her Majesty’s Government to:
  1. (i) implement the recommendations of the Bishop of Truro’s Independent Review for the UK Foreign Secretary of Foreign and Commonwealth Office Support for Persecuted Christians (2019) and
  2. (ii) to strengthen its commitment to upholding and protecting the right to freedom of religion or belief for all in its foreign, international development, defence and trade policy.’

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)