POLITICAL and religious representatives from around the world gathered in London this week to affirm the importance of freedom of religion and belief.
The Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) attracted about 700 delegates from around the world to London for two days of presentations, discussions, and exhibitions.
The Archbishop of Canterbury was among the religious leaders who took part in the plenary session in the QEII conference centre on Tuesday morning. He spoke of the links between FoRB and other human rights, saying: “When freedoms of expression and worship are restricted, other freedoms are lost.”
Archbishop Welby acknowledged that religious communities “can themselves be agents of repression and violence, often through political manipulation”. But, he said, “for the most part, communities of religion and belief are grass-roots groups, which love their neighbours and nation, and pray and work for its prosperity and peace.”
The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, in a pre-recorded video message, told the delegates: “I want to see what more we can do together, because it’s only through joint action and common purpose that we will defend the rights of everyone.”
He continued: “Millions of people live in fear simply for following their religion or because of their beliefs.”
The Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, spoke of FoRB violations in Xinjiang and Afghanistan, and linked the conflict in Ukraine to the cause of freedom of religion: “Vladimir Putin and his enablers claim that Russia is waging a holy war, but, in truth, they believe nothing is sacred.”
Mrs Truss assured the Ukrainian delegation, which included the Patriarch of the independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Epiphany, that “the UK will not rest until you prevail and until your people are free to live and to thrive.”
“Authoritarians and oppressors feel threatened by FoRB, fearing it’ll encourage to think freely, and question their authority,” she said, before quoting 1 Corinthians: “Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong.”
FCDOThe Archbishop of Canterbury addresses delegates to the FoRB conference, on Tuesday morning
Among the religious leaders who spoke at the plenary session were the Chief Rabbi, Mervis Ephraim; the President of the Hindu Forum of Britain, Trupti Patel; and the chairman of the Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jutha, Bhai Mohinder Singh.
Rabbi Mirvis drew a distinction between “freedom from” and “freedom to”, and urged political leaders to ensure that both were respected for all religions: freedom from persecution and marginalisation, but also freedom to educate children in the tenets of their religion, and to “shape, enhance, and inspire” the societies in which they lived.
The secretary general of the Muslim World League, Sheikh al-Issa, and the caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, Mirza Masroor Ahmad, addressing the conference by video link, emphasised that freedom of religion was a central teaching in Islam.
The president of Humanists International, Andrew Copson, was also on the panel of the plenary session, but noted that in some countries it would be unthinkable for him to share a stage with religious leaders.
He urged delegates to remember that FoRB could not be a right “only for people whose beliefs we find agreeable.
“All of us are in a minority somewhere. And all of us have brothers and sisters, somewhere, who are subject to persecution,” he said.
After a break, when delegates mingled against the backdrop view of Westminster Abbey, the conference broke into three concurrent series of panel discussions, each focused on one of three themes: prevention, protection, or promotion.
In one panel discussion, the former US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback, said that FoRB “needs to go grass-roots”. His comments echoed those of Rabbi Ephraim and Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah, who appeared together at an event in the House of Lords last week (News Online, 4 July).
ON WEDNESDAY morning, the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, hosted a prayer breakfast with the Coptic Archbishop Angaelos of London.
The Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for FoRB, Fiona Bruce, and the former holder of this portfplio, the Foreign Office minister Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, also attended the breakfast.
Lord Ahmad said that “the power and essence of a strong belief is what brings us together.”
The motto of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, of which he is a member, was “love for all, hate for none”, he said. While faiths might have different pathways, the end was the same.
After breakfast, Bishop Mounstephen took part in a panel on “inspiring parliamentarians”, chaired by the former Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.
During the conference, Boris Johnson’s premiership was shaken by several high-profile resignations from the Cabinet. Mr Hunt addressed this context in his opening remarks, noting that the results of the Conservative Party leadership election, which he had lost, had been announced in QEII centre. “But that’s not on anyone’s mind,” he joked.
The panel included both the chairs of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on FoRB: Baroness Cox for the House of Lords, and Jim Shannon MP for the House of Commons.
“We’re not just a talking shop: we do actually make a difference,” Baroness Cox insisted.
Nqabayomzi Kwankwa and Daniel Toft Jakobsen, parliamentarians in South Africa and Denmark respectively, also joined the panel, alongside Timothy Cho, a survivor of persecution in North Korea, who now works with Ms Bruce. “Suffering does not destroy faith, but revives it,” Mr Cho said.
Bishop Mounstephen spoke of the “immense privilege” of leading a review of the persecution of Christians around the world (News, 8 July 2019).
“The best way to protect any one minority is to protect all minorities — to accord the same dignity to all minorities,” he said.
On Monday, an independent assessment of the Foreign Office’s progress found that Bishop Mounstephen’s recommendations were, by and large, being delivered.
The Bishop welcomed the progress made, but urged “faith groups and civil society to keep the pressure on government”.
Speaking to the Church Times after the session had concluded, he said that “there is a real sense of a global momentum around the issue of FoRB,” and that he was “proud” that the UK had “pulled the stops out” in hosting the conference.
Asked whether this momentum in the UK would survive a potential change of government, the Bishop said that it was important that FoRB should be “owned in a bipartisan manner so that people across the political spectrum see this as a big ticket global item”.
He said that recent efforts meant that FoRB was “becoming more hard-wired into the way that we do politics, not only in this country, but globally as well”, but that he was “not complacent about the need to keep it front and centre, and keep the energy up”.