Grave markers at Madam Pitiya Cemetary, on April 23, 2019, in Colombo, Sri Lanka. At least 321 people were killed after coordinated attacks on churches and hotels on Easter Sunday. Picture Credit: Nicky Woo/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The global war on religion

The death of religious freedom heralds a dark new chapter in world history

Artillery Row

Nothing has done more to both epitomise and intensify the collapse of human rights than the calamitous US-led withdrawal from Afghanistan. Undoing twenty years of diplomatic, financial, educational and military investment, it demonstrated to the world a lack of will by western governments, and especially the USA, to promote and defend principles which transcend mere national interests. Gone are the days when a “leader of the free world” like John F Kennedy would declare: 

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”  

Today, while self-designated victim groups in the West continue to devalue rights discourse in the oppression Olympics, in the Peoples Republic of China the real Olympics are going ahead against a backdrop of real victims of injustice, persecution and according to parliament — genocide. The international trajectory is away from a consensus upholding a rights-based order (prioritising democracy, civil liberties and the rule of law) to what is increasingly described as a values-based order (prioritising national, religious and ethnic values). While some, frustrated by a progressive corruption of rights at home, may welcome this shift as inevitable and a post-liberal opportunity, the stage is set for an era of diminishing human rights globally. 

Christianity is good thing for any free and diverse society

This week Open Doors released the annual World Watch List report which ranks countries which are persecuting Christians. It’s the 30th year of the report, and while Christianity continues to grow across the world, in some places exponentially, the general situation is pretty bleak. There’s the rise of Hindu nationalist violence in India. There’s the expansion of surveillance and censorship in China. And there’s the impact of the triumph of the Taliban across Asia, and especially in West Africa where emboldened jihadist groups threaten to cause an unprecedented humanitarian disaster. 

To put it into context, in the top 50 countries alone, 312 million Christians face very high or extreme levels of persecution. Across the almost 100 countries researched, more than 360 million suffer high levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith — an increase of 20 million since last year. Globally, that’s one in every seven Christians.  

Why does any of this matter? Two reasons. First, (and you would expect me to say this) it matters because, despite the secular protestations to the contrary, Christianity is good thing for any free and diverse society. Indeed, as the historian Tom Holland has observed in his book Dominion, above all other factors, it is Christianity which makes possible secular protestations.

 Centuries of wrestling with, applying and misapplying biblical principles such as dignity, equality, truth, justice and forgiveness, have given us many of the social goods, rights and freedoms that we enjoy today. Cultural blessings which we Westerners not only take for granted, but which we are busy deconstructing (aka destroying). Though enjoying the fruits of Christianity, we are pulling up the roots. Whether we can sustain the good stuff, without the God stuff is doubtful. Yet, others, mostly in the Global South and mostly poor, are desperate to taste these fruits for themselves. For us to ignore their plight or deny them the opportunity to “progress” is not only unjust, but also imperiously narcissistic.  

The escalating persecution of Christians also matters because it provides a snapshot of the condition and direction of human rights more broadly. Like other rights, Article 18 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which affirms the Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) for all — and which fittingly covers the rights of atheists in religious majority contexts too – is a qualified right in the sense that it needs to have to regard to other competing rights claims. What makes FoRB different is its essential value, the way it enables and supports other rights. 

As the writer Rupert Shortt observed, religious freedom is “the canary in the mine for human rights generally”. If it diminishes then we can be sure that freedoms of conscience, speech, privacy, assembly, movement etc. will soon follow. This is not an abstract philosophical point. Historically, the degree to which religious minorities have been able to peaceably practice and preach their faith can be seen as perhaps the best measurement of how free a society is. Which helps to explain why it is often described as the litmus test or cornerstone of democracy.  

An attack on freedom anywhere is an attack on freedom everywhere

As you can imagine, this base freedom for minorities to believe or not believe, or to worship or to ascribe moral value to family over state morality is clearly problematic for demagogues and ideologies intolerant of dissent or difference. Indeed, the more authoritarian a society is, such as North Korea or Iran, the more of a primary threat to the status quo religious freedom is deemed, and the more Christians are persecuted. This applies to terrorist networks too, which while claiming to want to bring heaven on earth, are very much motivated by a desire to curtail the freedoms of people to encounter, engage with and evaluate other belief systems — and to change what they believe. This is what really terrifies the terrorists.  

It’s encouraging that in recent years there has been a growing consciousness in UK politics about the critical dynamics of religion in world affairs, and how the promotion and protection of freedom of religion can bring much-needed stability in trade and diplomatic relations. The government initiated an independent review on persecution of Christians and Freedom of Religion or Belief, the Prime Minister has appointed a Special Envoy for FoRB, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for FoRB is the largest APPG in Westminster, and in July the UK will be hosting the international ministerial on FoRB.  

These developments are so precious because the context for religious freedom is so precarious — as Anne Applebaum recently noted in The Atlantic “The bad guys are winning”. Since the turn of the century, an increasing number of countries have seen a creeping eclipse of democracy by autocracy, such as Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recip Erdogan in Turkey, Narendra Modi in India, and Xi Xinping in China. As these “strong men” influence smaller (and often dependent) states such as Syria, North Korea, Belarus, Myanmar and Cuba to feel less compelled to adhere to international conventions or to their own constitutional precepts, we can expect even the pretence of respecting human rights to continue to fade. Our international institutions are fading too. At the beginning of 2022, the UN Human Rights Council includes states prominent on the World Watch List such as Libya, Cuba, Sudan, Indonesia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, India and China.  

JFK was right. An attack on freedom anywhere is an attack on freedom everywhere. And an attack on freedom of religion should matter to us all.  

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