Artillery Row

Religious freedom is back on the agenda

The International Freedom of Religion or Belief Bill, currently before parliament, is an important step for securing Britain’s role in promoting religious liberty

When it comes to good news stories, Parliament hasn’t had a lot to offer of late. Scandal after scandal, along with divisive legislation on everything from the Rwanda policy to smoking bans have cast a dismal and depressing cloud over the House. However, representing a rare opportunity for political enthusiasm, the International Freedom of Religion or Belief Bill – let’s call it the Bruce Bill for short – is making progress through Parliament, and will be debated in committee this morning. Presented to Parliament by Fiona Bruce MP, the proposed legislation rightly enjoys the luxury of Government and cross-party support. If it continues unhindered through the committee stages and the House of Lords, it will become a statutory requirement for the Government to establish an Office for International Freedom of Religion or Belief, and to appoint a Special Envoy. Fiona Bruce currently serves as the Special Envoy but, at present, it is a role that is dependent on the whim of any given Prime Minister. 

The Bruce Bill, if passed, represents a significant victory for those of us who’ve been fighting this cause throughout many years

The UK has been quietly emerging and advancing as a global leader on the issue of international religious freedom in recent years, in part through Fiona Bruce’s diligent and ardent efforts. In 2022, the Office of the Special Envoy secured and delivered a ministerial conference in London to advance religious freedom, which was attended by representatives of over 80 countries as well as 1000 survivors, religious leaders, and activists. In 2023, amongst other achievements as the chair of an alliance of over 40 nations (IRFBA) which is constituted to advance religious freedom around the world, the UK Special Envoy succeeded in securing the release of Hanna Abdimalik, a Christian in Somaliland, Shamil Khakimov, a Jehovah’s Witness in Tajikistan, and Bishop Rolando Álvarez, sentenced to 26 years imprisonment in Nicaragua. Fiona Bruce and her team have travelled all over the world to challenge abuses and promote change. Securing the role of a champion in government would further reinforce our status in the international community and ensure a voice for marginalised and oppressed individuals and communities the world over.

The Bruce Bill, if passed, represents a significant victory for those of us who’ve been fighting this cause throughout many years because, of all human rights concerns, religious freedom has been one of the most battered and bruised, misunderstood, marginalised and mishandled. 

It is a cause assailed from all sides. In the West, if it is consciously acknowledged at all, it is perceived as a fringe issue, a specifically international humanitarian concern of conservative religious communities for conservative religious communities. Some on the political Left regard religious freedom as a convenient cover for Christian engagement in the Culture War, or a partisan cause which is uniquely American, Christian and conservative. Many see it as a cause that is subordinate to or should be reconstructed for Progressivist issues that may be perceived to compete with it in the modern hierarchy of rights. On the political Right there are those that consider international religious freedom a foreign policy luxury that should no longer be prioritised during a time of increasing domestic turbulence. Others scorn religious freedom as a shelter for foreign peoples and religions worthy of opprobrium and exclusion. On the rare occasions that it finds its way onto the diplomatic agenda, it is perceived as an awkward distraction from strategic efforts to engage pragmatically with rights-abusing countries. In those nations around the world which were not founded upon liberal Western sensibilities, religious freedom is often dismissed as a weapon of US foreign policy, an example of Western cultural imperialism or a tool of Christian evangelism. 

The uncomfortable fact is that there is some limited truth to some of the misgivings about applications of religious freedom. If one wishes to go in search of examples of its objectionable misappropriation, these are readily available. 

However, at its core, at its best, and in its most typical manifestation, religious freedom is entirely about the contest for freedom and human dignity. It is a universal cause that defends the most basic and essential instincts of all people to pursue ultimate truths, and to live in accordance with their conscience without fear of coercion, marginalisation, or violence on account of their religious or non-religious identities. It demands recognition of the value of all peoples by authorities and societies that might otherwise seek their exclusion or even their extermination. As such, religious freedom is not a fringe issue but a foundation stone of free and flourishing civilizations. It is a contributing factor to the stability, security, and prosperity of any given nation and as such politically it should represent not only an urgent humanitarian concern but a strategic priority for governments across the political divide. 

At present the global landscape is desperately bleak, in spite of efforts to shine a light on abuses

A brief glance at a handful of current examples of the brutal realities offer perspective on the global religious freedom challenge. More than 2,500 Yazidi women and girls, taken and sold as sex slaves by Da’esh in its campaign of terror in Iraq and Syria remain missing, and prosecutions against their rapists and murderers remain breathtakingly few. The Chinese Communist Party continues its genocidal endeavours against Uyghur Muslims. Iran has perpetuated its aggressive pursuit of underground house churches. Algeria has ordered the closure of all but one of it’s 47 EPA Protestant churches and is prosecuting its most senior Protestant clergy. Even in erstwhile democracies such as Nigeria and India, the authorities stand by and even collude in mass atrocities committed against religious communities. Hundreds of millions of people around the world live with the threat of persecution on account of their beliefs. These are the reasons and this is the moment we should overcome our blushes, rediscover our moral backbone on the international stage, and stand up with confidence and determination for a right which should be universally applied.

It is vital to recognise that religious freedom is not solely an international foreign policy concern but a matter on which, at home, we are complacent at our great peril. Domestically, as internationally, religious freedom does not assert specific religious interests or values, but it does stand defiantly against the aggressive agenda of the Cultural Marxists who have achieved their march through our institutions, demanding that all approve and affirm their novel moral code or face public censure and marginalisation. It is Culture War-adjacent, it stands against coercion of any stripe, defending the space for people of faith to live freely and, where necessary, to dissent in accordance with our ebbing traditions of freedom of thought, conscience, and speech. In our own context it also defends minority religious communities from unjust scapegoating, challenging those who would dress their antisemitism or Islamophobia in the increasingly fashionable garb of straight-talking populism. Religious freedom is a cordon sanitaire against the worst instincts of all kinds of Western domestic identity politics.

The work of the FoRB Envoy focuses on the threats, challenges, and opportunities abroad and it serves as a small but important step towards addressing the gargantuan crisis of religious freedom throughout the world. In time, it must be accompanied by the development of a catalogue of measures that can be applied against violating individuals and nations. At present the global landscape is desperately bleak, in spite of efforts to shine a light on abuses, because it has become perfectly apparent to authoritarian dictators and violent extremists that there are virtually no consequences. The Bruce Bill is very welcome, but there is much more that must be done.

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