Last week the Prime Minister confirmed that freedom of religion and freedom of speech lie at the heart of Britain's "strong tradition" of religious tolerance. Tomorrow, as we mark International Human Rights Day, it is vital to remember that religious rights are human rights.
Freedom of thought, conscience and religion - more often abbreviated to "freedom of religion or belief" - is a human right for everyone, guaranteed in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And yet too often it is a neglected right: at best ignored or misunderstood, at worst severely violated.
As we mark International Human Rights Day, we recognise that all human rights set out in the Universal Declaration are inter-dependent and equally important. Freedoms of religion, expression, association and movement, for example, hang together. There is no hierarchy of rights. However, if people are denied the freedom to choose, practice, share and change their beliefs, what use are the other freedoms? The outgoing UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Dr Heiner Bielefeldt, describes freedom of religion or belief as a "gateway" to other freedoms.
Around the world, freedom of religion or belief has never been under as much attack as it is today. "Massive violations of freedom of religion or belief are currently taking place," according to Dr Bielefeldt. The genocide facing Christians, Yazidis and Muslims at the hands of ISIS in Syria and Iraq is unspeakable. The ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Rohingyas from Burma is horrific. Baha'is in Iran, Ahmadiyya Muslims in Pakistan and Indonesia, Uighur Muslims, Falun Gong practitioners and Tibetan Buddhists in China, and Christians across the Middle East, Africa and Asia and in parts of Latin America such as Cuba, face continuing persecution. And, as the latest report by the International Humanist and Ethical Union illustrates, in parts of the world it is as dangerous to not have a religious belief as it is to have one. Atheists such as Alexander Aan in Indonesia are jailed because they do not believe in God. Article 18 of the UDHR, properly applied, should protect the rights of everyone, of all beliefs and none.
In his final report to the United Nations, Dr Bielefeldt argues that this right is "multifaceted", protecting not simply freedom of worship but "the free development of religious or belief-related identities, bearing witness to one's existential conviction by freely communicating" beliefs with others. It is about "all aspects of religious and belief-related life", not only what one believes in one's heart and mind, but about the community which arises from that and the conduct that it entails. He confirms what the Equalities Commissioner has said, and what the new report from the Lawyers Christian Fellowship and the Evangelical Alliance report "Speak Up" concludes - that freedom of religion or belief is important, being "in turn foundational for many of our other freedoms, human rights and civil liberties."
Governments, Dr Bielefeldt argues, have the obligation to respect, protect and fulfil the implementation of human rights standards. In too many parts of the world, it is the State that is the primary violator of freedom of religion or belief - whether through unjust restrictions and regulations and violent persecution, as in communist countries such as China, Cuba, Vietnam, Laos and North Korea, or through discriminatory laws that contribute to a climate of intolerance and extremism, such as blasphemy laws in Pakistan and Indonesia and their equivalent in Burma, or through allowing a culture of impunity to exist where perpetrators of religiously-motivated violence are never brought to justice, or through an education curriculum that promotes hatred or intolerance. According to the Special Rapporteur, "arguably the most widespread pattern of State-induced violations of freedom of religion or belief relates to harassment by an uncooperative bureaucracy that may treat people belonging to certain religious communities with contempt, hostility or suspicion". Even in Britain and other western democracies, we are not exempt from this challenge.
The outgoing UN Special Rapporteur believes there is a "lack of awareness" around the world about the importance of freedom of religion or belief, and that the full scope of this basic human right is "often underestimated". On this International Human Rights Day it is time to change that.
In 212, Tertullian said: "It is a fundamental human right that every man should worship according to his own convictions" and in 1819 Thomas Jefferson argues that: "The constitutional freedom of religion is the most inalienable and sacred of all human rights". In 2016, at home and abroad, it is time to actively promote, protect and uphold this basic right of freedom of religion or belief once more. That is why it was so encouraging to hear the Prime Minister confirm in the House of Commons recently the importance of maintaining "'the jealously guarded principle' of the ability to speak freely...respectfully and responsibly about one's religion" in this country today.
Fiona Bruce is Member of Parliament for Congleton and Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.
Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist working with Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and is Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.Suggest a correction