SAT-7-sponsored panels on the fringes of the Labour and Conservative Party conferences have highlighted both the centrality of the right to freedom of religion or belief and the continued need for collective action to defend it.
Fiona Bruce, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB), spoke in an online panel during the Conservative Conference (4 October). The session “Freedom of Belief: Is religious freedom possible?” was organised with the Conservative Christian Fellowship.
Starting with the statistic that 83 per cent of the world’s population live in countries where freedom of belief is restricted, she highlighted seven extreme cases from around the world of severe religious persecution and outlined her work as the Special Envoy. This includes championing freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), working internationally with similar representatives from 33 countries, and overseeing delivery of the Bishop of Truro’s Review into the UK Foreign Office response to persecuted Christians.
Understanding the pain
Archbishop Angaelos, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK, spoke in both panels and gave a similar message. As a member of a Church which has experienced persecution for two millennia and understands the pain of others, he told Conservatives, “We must have a collective approach to advocacy, all of us standing together to earn a new narrative”. He stressed, “It’s not just about people surviving; it’s about their human dignity, their God-given likeness that we all have in common and must defend.”
To the panel organised by Christians on the Left at Labour’s Brighton Conference (29 September), the Archbishop urged collaboration “between governments, policy- makers, NGOs religious institutions and leaders, and anyone else who wants to work alongside us, because it is that collaboration that will alleviate the suffering of many”.
Mervyn Thomas, Founder President of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, told the Conservative panel that religious freedom, including the freedom to change your religion, is “central to everything”. He said this latter freedom is often “the elephant in the room”.
Lord Michael Farmer, on the same panel, reminded hearers that Jesus promised His followers persecution. “Suffering is intrinsic to the radical faith we profess,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean we should be impassive in the face of it.”
Even in the UK, he felt that: “We’re operating in an increasingly illiberal public square”, adding, “We must continue to support [religious freedom] wherever it is under threat.”
“Reinvigorate” global institutions
At the Christians on the Left event, Stephen Doughty, Shadow Minister for Africa, stressed that “the freedom to practice the belief we have is very, very critical”. He spoke of seeking to help in “harrowing cases” of Hazaras, Christian converts, Sikhs and Hindus who are being targeted on religious grounds in Afghanistan.
Mr Doughty called for government to “reinvigorate” engagement with global human rights institutions and pledged that “a future Labour government will put human rights and freedom of belief and non-belief at the very heart of our foreign policy”.
Like Archbishop Angaelos, Putney Labour MP, Fleur Anderson, answered the question whether FoRB was possible by stressing combined action. “Religious freedom can only be assured when we work together in Parliament,” she said, “whether we’re right or left of the political spectrum. We all share a resolute desire for a world in which everyone can express their faith tradition freely without any threat of reprisal or violence. Such a world is possible but only if we all work together.”
SAT-7 Partnerships Executive, Dave Mann, explained that the two panel discussions are part of a deepening engagement with British parliamentarians that SAT-7 has been undertaking in recent years.
“SAT-7 is an instrument of the Church in the Middle East and North Africa,” he said. “As a voice for an historic community that experiences persecution and marginalisation in various forms, we are strongly committed to promoting societies where people are free to follow the faith and beliefs of their choice. It is a privilege for us to represent them to UK policy-makers and intrinsic to our ministry to promote religious tolerance and freedom of belief for people wherever they live.”