LEICESTER, United Kingdom – The United Kingdom should promote freedom of religion “as a fundamental human right,” according to a joint letter from the Archbishop of Westminster and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster is the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales and Archbishop Justin Welby heads the Church of England.
Their April 16 letter accompanied their joint submission to the Independent Review of support for persecuted Christians launched by UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt earlier this year. The commission is being led by Anglican Bishop Philip Mounstephen of Truro.
“Christians form an important part of the social fabric in almost every country of the world. Yet in many places, our Christian sisters and brothers face persecution of an intensity and extent unprecedented in many centuries,” the archbishops write.
“Throughout recent years we have often traveled to the Middle East, the birthplace of our religion and one of those focal points of this persecution. There we have met with those who are suffering because of their faith. They have told us of having to flee their homes, being stripped of all they own and seeing family members killed.”
Nichols and Welby also pointed out that threats to freedom of religion or belief “are not restricted to Christians alone,” and is “a widespread experience of the followers of other faiths,” as well as atheists and agnostics.
In their submission, the Catholic and Anglican Churches called on the British government to promote freedom of religion as a “fundamental human right, rather than limiting its attention to specific religious communities.”
They also called on the government to take a “joined-up approach” involving not just foreign policy, but also security, trade, resettlement and asylum policy, “rather than treating it as an isolated diplomatic activity.”
Although not mentioning the case, the Home Office – the UK government department which handles security and immigration policy – drew complaints from Christian leaders for rejecting the asylum application of an Iranian Christian who converted from Islam, a crime in Iran which carries the death penalty. The Home Office official cited various biblical texts which he claimed disproved the asylum seekers claim that he thought Christianity was more peaceful than Islam.
The submission to the Foreign Office-commissioned inquiry said sanctuary “should be offered on the basis of need not background,” and called for “reviewing the training provided to staff on human rights,” adding that “further attention needs to be given to improving the religious literacy of [government] ministers, ambassadors and diplomats.”
The submission said religious freedom “enables individuals to follow what their conscience dictates,” and they are entitled to it by “virtue of their humanity.”
“They are entitled to live their lives with authenticity and integrity in line with their best judgments of conscience. This authenticity and integrity is compromised when there is coercion or compulsion in these matters. We recognise that while this freedom is absolute, the capacity to follow the dictates of conscience can be subject to a range of carefully circumscribed limitations,” the submission states.
They also noted that freedom of religion includes the “freedom to change one’s religion or belief.”
“Abuses of this specific right are often an early indication that all is not well politically and that established democratic checks and balances have been corrupted. Restrictions on religious freedom are often accompanied by other human rights infringement such as the right to freedom of expression, association and assembly,” it continues.
The two churches also called for the UK’s Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief to be a dedicated post, and not combined with other roles.
The position was created last year, and the position is currently held by Lord Tariq Ahmad, who also serves as Minister of State for the Commonwealth and the UN and the Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict.
Their submission said “combining these roles is too much for any one individual.”
“We welcome the Prime Minister’s decision to create the post of a Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief, and we hope that this position will be maintained under future governments. But, while recognising the need for efficiency across Government we do not believe that the responsibilities associated with this post can be adequately fulfilled when the incumbent is also the PM’s Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict and the Minister of State for the Commonwealth and the UN,” the document explains.
A similar position in the United States was created in 1998. The United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom is a dedicated position that heads the Office of International Religious Freedom in the U.S. Department of State. The current ambassador is former Kansas governor, Sam Brownback.
In their cover letter, Nichols and Welby say the UK “has a great capacity to increase its support and protection for those who suffer violations of this most fundamental human right.”
“As we know from the cry of our own communities around the world, this action is needed now.”