Red Wednesday and freedom of religion or belief

26 November 2019

Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, President of the Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy and Dialogue, comments on ‘Red Wednesday’, a campaign to highlight the persecution that many face the world over for their faith. This article can also be found on Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali’s OXTRAD website.

Passers-by may be surprised to see some of our most prominent public buildings in Whitehall and elsewhere, such as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, along with cathedrals and churches, turn red on Wednesday. What they will see is in support of a campaign by the charity Aid to the Church in Need to highlight the suffering of those worldwide who are suffering for their faith, especially, but not only, of Christians. If you wish to join in ‘painting the town red’ in this way, please visit the ACN website

It is, indeed, ironic that most countries have signed the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18 of which guarantees freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and yet discrimination, exclusion and persecution on grounds of religion or belief is widespread in the world today. The former Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, became increasingly concerned about reports of the persecution of Christians in different parts of the world and the lack of a coordinated UK government response to it. He asked the Bishop of Truro to review the FCO’s support of persecuted Christian communities and the review makes some robust recommendations, including training in religious literacy for our diplomats, the recognition of faith affiliation as a possible marker of  vulnerability for minorities and groups, such as women and children, and sanctions against the worst offenders of religious freedom. It also argues for policies of inclusion in British supported initiatives in education, community development and relief for refugees.

It is true, of course, that many religious groups, other than Christian, suffer persecution. The destruction of Rohingya villages and lands in Myanmar and the flight of hundreds of thousands into neighbouring Bangladesh is an example of a community suffering because of religious and ethnic markers which distinguish it from the majority community. The attempted genocide of the Yazidis and the sexual enslavement of their women by DAESH or ISIS is well known.

The flight of Christians from their ancient homelands and the abduction of their women is less well known but also worthy of recognition. In my visits to Iraq, I have been much impressed that Christian charities and churches have worked tirelessly for the relief of all communities and that this is acknowledged by the leaders of those communities. In advocacy of greater freedoms for Christians in Iran, we cannot ignore the terrible plight of the Baha’i there. Similarly, in making public the disproportionate victimisation of Christians under Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws, we cannot remain silent about the frequent acts of violence and destruction which are carried out against the Ahmadiyya.

At the same time, international human rights bodies, investigative journalists and advocacy groups have all pointed out that the vast majority of religious persecution in our world today is directed against Christians. As Rehman Chishti MP, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief, has shown, upwards of 75% of all persecution is of Christian communities and much of it today takes places in the Islamic world. Some of this is because of extremist groups like the Al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria and Iraq, Boko Haram in West Africa and the so-called Lashkars in Pakistan. Some, however, takes place because of discriminatory laws and customs, social exclusion and prejudice. Many leaders in the Islamic world are aware of this situation and have made important declarations like the Marrakesh or the more recent one during the Pope’s visit to the UAE. Courageous scholars, moreover, have argued for a reframing of sharia based laws on matters like apostasy and blasphemy. In many countries, however, the extremist narrative remains powerful and prevents even debate about change.

Red Wednesday is a clarion call for us to be aware that we live in a largely religious world where religion has a huge capacity to develop its followers in a direction of self awareness, of compassion and of the need for dialogue with those who are different. Like many other facets of humanity, however, religion can also go wrong and its followers can become turned in on themselves, foster a teaching of hate towards others and refuse any dialogue with them. When this happens, Red Wednesday calls us to champion freedom of belief for all, to assist, with food and shelter, those who have fallen foul of the teaching of hate and to make sure our governments are responding in ways that are not blind to the religious nature of our world and to the communities where their faith has marked them out for discrimination, exclusion or persecution.

At the International level, everything must be done to persuade countries to honour their obligations. In the case of persistent offenders, matters can be taken up at the UN’s Human Rights Council. Access for UN appointed rapporteurs on FORB should be required of member states. Bilateral relations between the UK and other countries need to have an element in them of respect for fundamental freedoms, including that of religion or belief. Carefully targeted sanctions can be considered against individuals or groups that promote teachings of hate and violence towards those who are different from them.

On the question of those fleeing religious persecution, the UK cannot continue its ‘faith blind’ policies. Some communities, especially Christians, are particularly at risk and should be considered for asylum here. It is not good enough to claim, as in the case of Syria or Iraq, that we are selecting people from the UN run camps when Christians are largely not in these camps because of the fear of Islamist extremism there. The need to welcome Christians and others fleeing persecution to this country, has, however, to be balanced against the real danger that Christianity and other faiths will be decimated in lands where they have existed for centuries and, in the case of Christianity, where the faith has its origins. There should also be policies, therefore, that assist these communities to remain in, or to return, to the towns and villages, the fields and the farms which are home to them and to their cultures, languages and beliefs.

Red Wednesday is an important focus for suffering and vulnerable communities that may otherwise be forgotten. Let us give, pray and be advocates for them, even as we learn from their courage and steadfastness in adversity.

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