The police investigation into Stephen Fry's remarks about God in the Republic of Ireland is one of the most profoundly stupid, deeply counter-productive and manifestly unhelpful, not to mention morally wrong, acts any police force in any Western democracy has taken in recent years - particularly when the outgoing Governor of Jakarta, capital of the world's largest Muslim-majority country, and a Christian, is on trial in one of the most high-profile blasphemy cases, and could go to jail. The verdict in the trial of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as 'Ahok', is expected tomorrow.
I have been a Christian for twenty-three years. For nineteen years I worshipped in what could best be described as evangelical Anglican churches. Four years ago I became a Catholic, received into the Catholic Church in Burma by the country's courageous Cardinal Charles Bo - a story told in my book, 'From Burma to Rome'.
I am also a human rights activist - and the two are not coincidental. I became a Catholic in part because of the example of Catholics around the world defending human dignity and human rights, from Pope St John Paul II through East Timor's Bishop Belo, Hong Kong's Cardinal Zen, Burma's Cardinal Bo and my friend Shahbaz Bhatti, assassinated in Pakistan for trying to reform Pakistan's notorious blasphemy laws. Among my other Christian heroes are William Wilberforce, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I work to promote, protect and defend freedom of religion or belief, freedom of conscience and freedom of expression - for all.
For these very reasons, I stand one hundred per cent in solidarity with Stephen Fry. Of course I don't endorse, approve, let alone agree with his remarks. Indeed I profoundly disagree with them. But I absolutely defend his right to think and say them, just as I defend the right of a Christian to express their beliefs, or a person of any other faith to do the same.
As I have written before, I am one hundred per cent against blasphemy laws. A God who needs man-made laws to protect His reputation is not God - or at least not a deity I would wish to believe in. Furthermore, blasphemy laws in many countries lead to people being jailed or killed. Such laws are frequently misused to pursue vendettas unrelated to religion - in the case of Ahok, there is little doubt of the political motivation behind the decision to charge him with blasphemy, contributing to his defeat in the recent gubernatorial elections. My colleagues at the human rights organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide and I have advocated for years for the repeal of such laws in countries like Pakistan, Indonesia and even Burma where the Penal Code is used to prosecute people deemed to have 'insulted' Buddhism. For the Republic of Ireland, or any other Western democracy, to keep such legislation on its statute books, let alone use them to prosecute, is immensely unhelpful.
A few years ago I visited a young man, Alexander Aan, jailed in Indonesia for being an atheist. I then campaigned for his release, and visited him a second time. He was surprised that I, as a Christian, should travel to the remote prison in West Sumatra to offer to help him, but after our conversation he understood my purpose. He and I hold deeply differing views, but Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should protect the freedom of Alexander, Stephen Fry, people of any faith around the world facing persecution, and me to believe what we want to believe and to share, without coercion or incitement to hatred or violence, our beliefs.
Furthermore it is a complete waste of police time. Do the Irish police not have better things to do than investigate Stephen Fry for calling God a 'maniac'? Once again, I don't defend Fry's comments - I find them somewhat offensive, though I am not going to get agitated about it - but I defend his right to hold them and express them: particularly because the God I believe in is bigger and far more gracious and forgiving than any of us.
There are clear and reasonable boundaries which freedom of speech should not cross. One should not incite hatred or violence. One should not cry 'fire' in a crowded cinema. And there are, rightly, laws to prevent such speech. But from what I have seen Stephen Fry was not inciting anyone to do anything against people of religious belief - he was merely expressing his view of God. And precisely because some of my own friends have been killed or jailed under unjust blasphemy laws, I take very seriously Voltaire's principle - I disagree with what he said, but I will defend to the death his right to say it.