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Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Religious Freedom means the freedom not to believe

Do Unitarians have anything distinctive to offer the world of foreign affairs or international relations? I was forced to reflect upon this when I received an invitation to the Foreign Secretary’s Christmas Reception at the grand Lancaster House. Of course, I could simply have refused the invitation and said “nothing to do with us”. I am glad I went.

I learned that religious freedom is rising higher up the agenda for the United Kingdom Government but importantly securely based on a human rights approach. In the latest “Free and Freedom” (Vol 64, part 2, Autumn/Winter 2011, No 173) Malcolm Evans emphasises that international human rights law provides the framework within which issues concerning the enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief are being addressed internationally. He identifies a problem that faith communities are often only interested in the rights of their own. He urges people of all faiths to champion the rights of others.This surely has the support of Unitarians. 

At the Reception I had the opportunity to talk to two members of the Advisory Group onHuman Rights whose role is to provide external advice to the Foreign Secretary on human rights in foreign policy, and on options for addressing human rights problems. We spoke about the importance of religious freedom and how it is influencing foreign policy. I emphasised that freedom of religion means the freedom to believe and also not to believe.

As a small faith group this is something distinctive we have to offer. We suffered from persecution in the past and the achievement of our civil liberties was the objective of one of the predecessor bodies of the General Assembly. We can speak up for all with little risk of being seen as partisan.

Paul Marshall has written:

“Religious freedom and religious persecution affect all religious groups. Some – Baha’is in Iran, Ahmadis in Pakistan, Buddhists in China, Falun Gong in China, Christians in Saudi Arabia – are now among the most intensely persecuted, but there is no group in the world that does not suffer to some degree because of its beliefs. Athiests and agnostics can also suffer from religious persecution…Religious freedom is also not confined to any one area for continent”.
(“Religious Freedom in the World” (2008))

We should rise to this challenge and proclaim the ongoing significance of the nineteenth century Unitarian slogan “civil and religious liberty the world over”.

What can we do? Unitarians and Free Christians in Britain have long supported the International Association of Religious Freedom. The purpose of the IARF is to work for freedom of religion and belief “because it is a precious human right that potentially enables the best within our religious lives, or our search for truth or enlightenment, to flourish.”. There are certainly opportunities to work with others through IARF both in the United Kingdom and internationally.

We can also be alert to challenges to freedom of religion and belief and seek to influence our Government, perhaps in co-operation with other churches and non-governmental bodies. Attendance at the Reception was for me a first step. Let's see where it leads.