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Thursday, 13 September 2012

Religious Freedom Central to Development

I was interested in some comments by Ms Lynne Featherstone following her appointment as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department of International Development. She has stated that her promotion of human rights and equal treatment will continue in her new role. Respect for the rights of women, minorities and LGBT people should surely be important matters and needs to frame part of a commitment to universal human rights which clearly contributes to development.

As a faith body Unitarians have always highlighted the significance of religious freedom as part of the overall human rights agenda. From the 19th century we promoted “Civil and Religious Liberty the World Over” in the knowledge that the denial of religious freedom and promotion of religious persecution will certainly undermine human development and progress.

The promotion of religious freedom has been central to the Unitarian journey. We will commemorate in 2013 the repeal of the Trinity Act which relieved those holding Unitarian views in Britain of legal penalties. Unitarians were founders of what is now the International Association of Religious Freedom, the world’s oldest multi-faith global organization with General Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. The IARF has established a Peace Commission to explore practical steps in peace-building, particularly in areas where religion contributes to division. Having faced persecution ourselves Unitarians do not stand by whilst this fundamental human right is devalued.

In defending religious freedom this includes rejecting the persecution of people of no religion as well as those of faith. Paul Marshall, the leading researcher on religious freedom, has written that there is no group in the world that does not suffer to some degree because of its beliefs. This can be at the level of government repression but also inter-communal violence, with attacks on minorities.

I hope that issues surrounding religious freedom can influence decision-making about international development priorities. The Department of International Development has been working with national faith groups to promote development in pursuit of the Millennium Development Goals. I would urge that issues surrounding religious freedom are emphasized in discussions about development and political, social and economic well-being. For example, events in the Middle East and North Africa are raising serious risks of religious strife and growing religious intolerance yet at the same time we also see opportunities for societies to be transformed with power in the hands of the people.

I took the opportunity to raise this issue with Ms Featherstone when I spoke to her earlier this week following up a letter to her as a result of her appointment.

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