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Bishop of Guildford quizzes Government on freedom of religion and conscience

Date: 22 January 2013
Following a rise in attacks upon people of faith across the world, the Bishop of Guildford spoke out in the House of Lords asking the Government to provide details on its strategy for promoting freedom of religion and conscience internationally.

The Rt Revd Christopher Hill recognised it as both as a fundamental human right and a source of stability for all countries and as well as asking the Foreign Office to consider forming a group on religious freedom he also urged the UN to develop a convention on freedom of religion or belief.

He acknowledged the recent rulings of the European Court of Human Rights which considered cases of employees wearing symbols of faith - such as the British Airways employee who wore a cross - and stated that religious freedom should not be a marginalized right only to be considered when no other rights come into play.

The full text of his speech made on January 22 is as follows:

My Lords, I am most grateful for the opportunity to address this important question to Her Majesty’s Government. But first I must note that I quite understand and appreciate why the Noble Lady Baroness Warsi is unable to be in the House today by reason of an important conference involving the Saudis. And I welcome the fact that the Noble Lord Wallace of Saltire will be responding on behalf of the Government in due time.

May I at the outset stress that my question is what it says on the label: it is about freedom of religion and conscience. It is not an opportunistic partisan appeal for Christians alone, nor even for religious believers alone. The word conscience, my Lords, is intentional. You may remember Cardinal Newman’s remark to the Duke of Norfolk at the time of the debate about Papal Infallibility: ‘I shall drink, - to the Pope, if you please, - still to conscience first.’

But precisely because conscience and truth go together it must be right that there is more concern about freedom of religion than there has been for some time. This debate is topical because of a considerable increase in the encroachments upon religious freedom all over the world.

Many sources could be cited, objectively I draw particular attention to the US State Department’s annual (2011) report from its Office of International Religious Freedom (2011): this records a rising tide of anti-Semitism in many parts of the world and pressures on many religious groups: Bahai’s and Sufi Muslims in Iran; Coptic Christians in Egypt; Ahmadis in Indonesia and Pakistan and Muslims in a range of countries including Europe.

That is not an exhaustive listing. My diocese of Guildford is linked with a number of dioceses in Nigeria, which has seen a tragic increase in sectarian violence, triggered initially by questions of political power after the Presidential election, but now unequivocally, having a definite religious complexion, with the militant group Boko Haram bombing churches and threatening to kill all Christians in the north, as well as attacking Government offices and any Muslims who speak out against them.

There has also been a recent and well documented study on increasing pressure on Christians throughout the world entitled Christianaphobia by Robert Shortt. My point, however, is not to indulge in a tit for tat debate about who is persecuted most but to emphasize that no-one should be discriminated against on grounds of religion or conscience for the sake of the stability of all societies and their common good in a multicultural and multi-faith world.

Towards this goal it is essential that religious communities speak out on behalf of others and not only their own adherents and also that faith communities should not be slow in condemning behaviour within their own communities which is discriminatory to others.

And, my Lords, I sadly recognise that no religious communities have a perfect track record here. This House, with another place and the Church of England do not have a clear historical conscience as regards religious toleration. If you look back – beyond the 19th century for example – the Act of Uniformity which while it returned the Book of Common Prayer to the Church of England in 1662, was also the instrument of the expulsion of many ministers and people who could not accept it. Nor was Catholic emancipation so strongly supported from these very benches at the beginning of the 19th century. Or Methodists much welcomed as partners in the Gospel. I am aware of religious glass houses.

At the same time there have been very sharp and terrible secular attacks on religious freedom, and not only as long ago as the French Revolution, or the French anti-clerical laws at the beginning of the 20th century. Anti-clerical Mexico in the 20ies and 30ies, Nazi Germany and the Confessing Church, the Stalinist Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in relation to the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, Marxist China and Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge to all Christian communities: these regimes with their materialistic political and economic ideologies – of extreme left or right – had no room for either political conscientious objection or faith communities and Churches as alternative loyalties to the authority of a monolithic deified state. And millions of people died under these regimes many, many more than during the Crusades or Inquisition, or the mutual persecution of Catholics and Protestants at the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.

But the question is, how do we make more effective the excellent work done by a number of individuals and NGOs already researching and publicising breaches of religious freedom so that all – not just one faith or conscientious group – might enjoy this acknowledged right?

The EU is currently developing guidelines on Freedom of Religion or Belief but like many things in relation to the EU greater transparency would be welcome. The Noble Lord the Minister may perhaps be able to tell your Lordships’ House of any developments since the Noble Baroness Ashton’s recent statement on promoting human rights.

The Organisation on Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) is currently, I understand, reconstituting its Council of Advisers on Freedom of Religion or Belief. As reconstituted it will need to address the problem holistically rather than episodic particular campaigns which would relapse into the apparent partisanships I have already spoken of.

The European Court of Human Rights will surely also have an important part to play. Members of your Lordships’ House will have been pondering on its recent judgements from Strasbourg. Three are being appealed further but thus far in these important judgements, I discern two things: Religious belief is not simply a ‘residual’ or even a marginalized human right only to be considered when no other rights come into play.

It can, on the contrary, have precedence over another right, such as the corporate image of a company – the Coptic Christian, Ms Nadia Eweida and her modest cross and British Airways. But in the other three cases the balance was held to be different – health and safety for example in the case of the hospital ward or surgical theatre. My point here is that a balance of rights and recognition of context is indicative of religious freedom as a real and not just a nominal human right. Nor is religious freedom ultimately in opposition to other rights such as freedom of expression, non-discrimination, women’s rights, gay rights.

At the global level, I wonder if the Noble Lord the Minister would agree with me on the need to continue to support the United Nations Special Rapporteur in moving beyond issues of defamation or incitement – important as these issues are. For 45 years the aspiration of drafting a Convention on the Freedom of Religion or Belief has been on ice. Surely now its time has come?

Before concluding I want to welcome and encourage much further what I know is already going on in terms of the FCO Human Rights and Democracy Programme Strategy. Clearly HMG does (now) take religious freedom seriously. Developments at Wilton Park leading to the establishment of a Human Rights Advisory Panel as also the discussion group at the Wolfe Institute, Cambridge, are all to be welcomed as with very practical advances such as the FCO’s tool-kit on religious freedom.

I am aware also that the Noble Baroness Warsi is in the process of looking again at religious freedom in UK foreign policy. In a written answer to a question I raised, Baroness Warsi has helpfully spoken of using the excellent experience of the United Kingdom in inter-faith dialogue and co-operation. I strongly want to encourage such partnership. The Rt Hon the Foreign Secretary has an important advisory group on Human Rights. Should there not also be some group under Baroness Warsi on Religious Freedom to work with the Foreign Secretary’s Group? I hope this short debate will stimulate such questions and encourage their exploration and development.

In conclusion, My Lords, I ought to very briefly address the question that some will ask – not many perhaps in your Lordship’s House – but outside. How can a bishop address freedom, when the Church has not always been its champion?

This is not the time and place for a theological exploration of how freedom is genuinely a basic ingredient of the three monotheistic faiths and others. I will however offer two brief testimonies. The Noble Lord, Lord Sachs, until recently Chief Rabbi, has described religion as ‘part of the ecology of freedom’. And he backed up this contention by a powerful argument about what happens when religion as a key contributor to civil society is absent. Second, the Noble Lord Williams of Oystermouth, until recently my Archbishop, has more than once drawn attention to Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. The Grand Inquisitor speaks to Jesus who has returned to Seville during the Inquisition after the burning of heretics. He has imprisoned Jesus and castigates Jesus for the freedom he brings to the earth – so unsuited to the masses. Jesus says nothing but in the end kisses the Inquisitor’s aged lips and goes away. Dostoevsky’s parable gets the relation between true faith and freedom right.

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