Dr Martin Parsons, an independent consultant on the global persecution of Christians, comments on the closure of churches during the coronavirus pandemic and its effect on freedom of religion.
On 23 March, the UK government announced a lockdown, including the first legal closure of churches by the government since Magna Carta. For a nation which has historically been seen around the world as the birthplace of freedom of religion, this was a dramatic step to take. However, government closure of churches set a dangerous precedent not just for freedom of religion in the UK, but also around the world.
Take Algeria for example: last October in response to a parliamentary question on the closure of churches there, Foreign Office minister Lord Ahmad stated,
“We are concerned by reports of church closures in Algeria, including the recent closure in Boghni. We continue to engage with the Algerian authorities on this issue, including raising the importance of freedom of religion or belief as set out in Algeria’s Constitution…”
He added that,
“We will continue to monitor the situation, as the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief around the world remains a high priority for the UK.”
Yet what sort of a signal does it send out to governments around the world who are already closing churches, when five months later the UK government itself enforced a legal closure of churches?
The growing global persecution of Christians
In the last few years, we have seen a growing increase in the global persecution of Christians. Many people are all too aware of the violent side of this – with the attacks on Christians by groups like Islamic State and al Qaeda in the Middle East and Boko Haram in West Africa. However, there has also been a less visible trend of increasing legal restrictions placed on Christians by governments around the world.
In the most severe cases, such as Iran, this involves the arrest of Christians for vaguely worded offences such as acting against national security, in effect, it’s the crime of sedition – holding the wrong beliefs in a country ruled by Islamic law.
In other countries Islamic blasphemy laws have been spreading, which make it a criminal offence to criticise Islamic beliefs. After the case of Asia Bibi, most people now know about Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, but these have now spread to countries like Indonesia, which until recently prided itself on its religious tolerance. In fact, one of the most disturbing of these incidents was the arrest of ‘Ahok’ Purnama, the Christian governor of Indonesia’s capital city Jakarta in 2017 during his re-election campaign. Ahok had simply stated that claims made by his hard-line Islamic opponents that the Qur’an forbade Muslims from voting for non-Muslims were ‘misleading’. Yet for this, he was sentenced to two years in prison for offending Islam. In such contexts even criticising the blasphemy law is itself seen as an act of blasphemy.
In China we are currently witnessing major attempts to force all religions to conform to the prevailing state ideology of Atheistic Socialism, with Church leaders pressured to interpret the Bible accordingly and to incorporate it in their sermons. The Chinese government used the excuse of the pandemic to not only close physical churches, but also to prohibit online sermons. Now in some parts of China as lockdown is eased even official government approved Three Self churches are not allowed to reopen unless the government approves their sermons in advance as sufficiently praising the Chinese Communist Party government.
In Algeria, generally regarded as being one of the more moderate Islamic countries, since November 2017 the government has been pursuing a programme of church closures. It has done so by setting up a safety commission consisting of officials from the Ministry of Religious Affairs, local councils and the police to “check compliance with safety regulations” and used this pretext to close 18 protestant churches. On the same day that the UK government announced church closures, the Algerian government announced its own lockdown, including closing places of worship. A similar approach of using health and safety law to deny church registrations has also long been evident in Egypt.
However, while Egypt has allowed its churches to reopen, in Algeria the pandemic appears to have been used as an excuse to close churches, as while some mosques were allowed to reopen in August, churches that were closed remain closed.
Our globalised world
Whilst these trends have been going on for at least 20 years, what has changed recently is the globalisation of the world by the internet. That means that whatever happens in the UK gets reported in tomorrow’s online newspapers in Algeria, Indonesia, Pakistan and so on.
That is why it is so vital that we safeguard freedom of religion in this country, because whatever way we allow it to be chipped away at in this country will open a door to similar or worse erosion in other countries.
For example, when in 2018 Amanda Spielman criticised the Church of England for having opposing plans for state registration and Ofsted inspection of Sunday schools, it was not simply a question of the chief inspector of Ofsted seeking to resurrect an issue the government had dropped; there was also a real risk that such debate would lead to Islamic countries such as Pakistan, following suit and requiring Sunday schools to register with the government – instead of being able to operate freely as they currently do.
Our forgotten heritage of freedom of religion
One of the most extraordinary things about the UK today is the sense of collective amnesia relating to our history. It was largely in Britain and among the English-speaking peoples who emerged from her that freedom of religion developed and spread around the world. In other words, freedom of religion is one of our greatest contributions to the world and until very recently, was clearly understood to be one of our historic national values.
Earlier this year a number of senior Christian leaders led by Christian Concern instituted a legal challenge to the recent closure of churches, the first such closure by any government since at least Magna Carta. However, it was quite obvious that even the government lawyers replying to Christian Concern’s pre-action letter had little understanding of either its historical scope or significance. They merely referred to the relationship between church and state as ‘complex’ whilst dismissing its relevance.
Although it is something of a generalisation, we can divide the main development of freedom of religion into three eras.
From the Reformation until 1689
The impact of the English Bible translation broke the Catholic Church’s monopoly and allowed a variety of different Biblical interpretations to co-exist within a broad church. Although those worshipping outside it, known as Separatists, faced imprisonment or even execution.
What also emerged in this period was the legal creation of separate spheres for church and state. Broadly, the church was required to obey the law, while the state was prohibited from interference in either worship or the interpretation of scripture. In England this was done by the 1558 church-state settlement and in Scotland, to an even more rigorous extent, by the 1592 General Assembly Act. Both have subsequently been affirmed by each new monarch in their coronation oaths, which is what makes the apparent ignorance of such matters by civil servants so extraordinary.
From 1689 to 1871
The Passing of the Toleration Act in 1689 extended freedom of worship to dissenters – or as they are commonly, though not always accurately known today, non-Conformists, and later to Catholics. It effectively allowed preaching without the control of the established Church.
However, various ‘Test Acts’ remained which meant those holding “non-Conformist” religious beliefs were excluded from various professions, such as being school teachers, holding various public offices and even studying at English universities.
Full freedom of religion or belief was achieved by the repeal of these various ‘Test Acts’ between 1719 and 1871, followed by a further Act in 1888 allowing even Atheists to become MPs.
It is hard to underestimate the importance of these developments. The USA became independent part way through the second era – and in the first amendment to its constitution (1791) stating that no test of belief would ever be required to hold any public office.
Yet today, even civil servants directly concerned with legislation which restricts freedom of religion seem to have little understanding of its importance.
The erosion of Freedom of religion in the west
Freedom to preach
Throughout almost the entire twentieth century there were no arrests of street preachers, the first such arrest in recent times being in 1997. However, since then we have increasingly seen multiple arrests of street preachers every year. Why should governments in other countries listen to British diplomats arguing for freedom of religion and freedom of speech – when those governments can simply switch on the internet and point to multiple arrests of street preachers in this country?
Freedom from blasphemy laws
A year ago an academic report prepared for the Commission for Countering Extremism stated that:
“One of the biggest successes of mainstream Islamists in Britain, is in fact, the campaign to normalise Islamophobia in public discourse as a concept that blurs the distinction between genuine anti-Muslim bigotry and the legitimate criticism of Islamism, outdated shari’a precepts and the illiberal practices justified by them.”
Nor is it just Islamists who seek to blur the distinction between protecting people and protecting their ideological beliefs from criticism which might ‘offend’ them. There is as much danger of introducing a secular blasphemy law as a religious one and that fundamentally undermines any attempts by British diplomats to argue against blasphemy laws being used to target Christian minorities in countries such as Pakistan or Indonesia.
Freedom of worship
For many years we have had a problem with some western politicians quietly replacing the term ‘freedom of religion’ with the much narrower term ‘freedom of worship’. Freedom of worship was of course the aspect of freedom of religion which was not being eroded in the west. However, the legalised closure of churches by governments in multiple western countries in response to the pandemic has massively undermined that. Now just imagine the British diplomat urging his Algerian counterpart to stop closing churches – only to be told “but you closed all the churches in your country!” Nor will it really wash for the British government to reply that this was only done for health and safety reasons – because that is precisely the excuse that countries such as Algeria were using to close churches before the pandemic arrived.
Safeguarding the legacy of freedom of religion
Not just our politicians, but our civil servants and police need to learn how important the development of freedom of religion was in this country to its spread around the world. Because unless we safeguard that legacy in Britain – not only will we be unable to stop its erosion around the world, we may actually be contributing to it. Freedom of religion was a great British success story – and it is a heritage that civil servants and politicians need to promote, not unwittingly or otherwise undermine.