MPs debate the effect of Covid on freedom of religion

27 November 2020

Tim Dieppe comments on this week’s Westminster Hall debate on the effect of the current pandemic on freedom of religion.

Yesterday (Thursday 26 November) there was a Westminster Hall debate in Parliament to discuss the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on freedom of religion or belief.

Crisis exploited to violate human rights around the world

Much of the debate focused on how governments around the world have exploited the Covid crisis to violate human rights, and in particular the right to freedom of religion or belief. Fiona Bruce MP spoke first and highlighted how minority religious groups have often been blamed for the spread of the disease. She also spoke of how China has used the pandemic to increase surveillance of Buddhists and Christians. She said: “Some church members who tried to meet for online worship were detained and had police stationed at their homes to prevent them from joining online services.”

There have also been cases where lockdown policies have been used as an additional means to curtail freedoms, and prisons where prisoners of conscience are “held in unsanitary, ill-equipped and life-threatening conditions, where insufficient access to water, food or medical facilities makes their plight desperate.” In other cases, there has been discrimination against religious minorities in aid distribution or employment.

Christians are the most persecuted group in the world

Andrew Selous MP reminded MPs that Christians are the most persecuted group in the world.  He highlighted more than 5,500 churches being destroyed or closed down in China, as well as attacks against Christians in India and Nigeria.

Danny Kruger MP spoke powerfully about these issues, reminiscing about his personal experience of visiting the Anglican church in Baghdad in 2003. He also encouraged MPs not to ignore the tremendous breach of freedom of religion at home with the closure of churches through the lockdown. Much of his speech is worth quoting at length:

“I will quote from Ephesians: “Our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the rulers of this dark age, and against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Our battle is not against people or organisations, but against spiritual forces, and that is the reality that people of faith hold, recognise and believe in. We have to help them to understand where the real enemy is. I suggest that the devil gets into the resistance to secular globalised organisations as well as into those organisations themselves, sowing distrust and spreading deceit. That can be seen in some of the malign forces that are operating in the way that disinformation is spread through social media. It is a spiritual battle and we need to respect people who think that way and not just tell them they are stupid.”

Unconstitutional to close churches in the UK

Danny Kruger then made a blistering attack on the government’s decision to close churches during lockdown:

“My second point—raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton—is about religious freedom at home. We closed churches through the lockdown, and I regret that. We effectively abolished the freedom of assembly throughout the country, and in all institutions. Okay, fair enough. We only overturned freedoms that were won 400 years ago, in that instance—but in closing churches we overturned the foundation of our constitution itself, which was laid 800 years ago. The first line of Magna Carta, as you will know, Mr Rosindell, is that the church in England shall be free. I suggest that it was unconstitutional for the Government to pass a law ordering the closure of churches for collective worship.”

ECHR should not trump Magna Carta

Danny Kruger MP continued:

“I note in passing that in answer to a written question from my right hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh earlier this month, the Government said that shutting churches was justified under article 2 of the European convention on human rights—that the right to life, interpreted as the right to health, justified the closure of churches. I am sorry that the ECHR has been held to trump Magna Carta.

“I interpret what has happened differently. I think that churches shut voluntarily and were under no compulsion to do so. I respect the decision that they made to shut voluntarily, for the sake of closing down the pandemic. I am very pleased that the Prime Minister has said that churches can open for services after 2 December. Sadly, there will be no mixing outside people’s bubbles, which means no sign of the peace—a bit of a relief for some of us who do not like that bit of the service. But it is a shame that we cannot mix in churches. However, the principle that churches can remain open is vital—and I obviously extend that to all faith groups, and all communities of faith in this country.”

Physical collective worship part of our constitutional foundations

David Linden MP reminded MPs that Jesus said, “when two or more are gathered, he shall be present.” He argued that we can still worship God by Zoom or on the telephone. Danny Kruger replied:

“I recognise that. The Holy Scripture was written for the age of Zoom. There is a sense that the church is the body of Christ, which is the people. However, it is established doctrine that the body consists of people gathering together. I appreciate that ‘two or three’ gathered together is sufficient, according to the Bible, but I feel that the principle of collective worship being physical and the body of Christ being allowed to gather, in physical form, is part of our constitutional foundations.”

Principles of Magna Carta should be upheld

It is refreshing to see MPs quote from scripture and even debating the interpretation of what Jesus said. Danny Kruger is to be commended for a superb speech in defence of religious freedom at home. In context, it is worth remembering that many Christians around the world are suffering in much greater ways than we are here in the UK.

That said, freedoms that are not fought for are freedoms forfeited, and it is as well to be reminded that this is a spiritual battle. It is astonishing that the government is discriminating against spiritual activities by allowing secular activities in churches, but not spiritual. We very much hope to see this decision challenged in court, where the principles of Magna Carta should be upheld.

Find out more about Church lockdown
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