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Freedom to believe

Freedom of religion and belief, which includes non-belief and the right to change one’s belief, is a universal principle formally recognised by the United Nations in 1948. Tragically, this principle is blatantly ignored in many nations.

Angela Merkel, the German leader, reckons Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world and Open Doors says “215 million Christians experience high, very high, or extreme persecution”. At the same time, Muslims are also persecuted. Sometimes, as in India this is by Hindus but in Sri Lanka it is by the Buddhists. In the Middle East it is more likely to be Sunnis persecuting Shiites or the reverse, dependent on which is the more numerous in a particular country. The Yazidis have suffered genocide in Iraq, by the so-called Islamic State.

Whilst religious persecution happens in the UK, so far it is nowhere near as severe as in other countries. Nevertheless, it is the subject of frequent debates in Parliament, mostly focused overseas. Jim Shannon MP, the Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief, is a prime mover in this and last Thursday led a debate to highlight some of the worst cases of persecution around the world.

He addressed five examples of gross persecution. The first concerned the mass violence against Christian farmers in Nigeria by heavily armed Fulani Muslim herders. At least 60,000 had been killed in the last 17 years and more than 50,000 had been displaced from their land. His second example was the criminalisation of blasphemy and religious conversion in Nepal by a new law passed in the Nepalese Parliament. He was appalled by the appointment of Nepal to the UN Human Rights Council.

His third example was the continuing state-sponsored persecution of the Baha’is in Iran. He said that since the election of Dr Hassan Rouhani as President in 2013, ostensibly on a reformist agenda, more than 150 Baha’is have been arrested. His next target was forced conversion and marriage in Pakistan. He cited an estimate that at least 1000 Hindu and Christian girls in Pakistan are annually kidnapped, forced to convert to Islam, and forcibly married or sold into prostitution. His final example was the abuses of freedom of religion by the Eritrean state and the continuing imprisonment of Patriarch Abune Antonios that has now lasted 10 years.

Stephen Kerr MP, a Mormon, said 84% of the world’s population identifies with a religion but 77% live in countries with high or very high restrictions on religious belief and he mentioned North Korea, Afghanistan, Somali, Sudan, Pakistan, Eritrea, Libya, Iraq, Yemen and Iran. Siobhain McDonagh focused on Ahmadi Muslims, of whom there are a number in her constituency. They face persecution in Algeria, Egypt, Burundi and Indonesia. She recalled the murder of Asad Shah, an Ahmadi shopkeeper in Glasgow by a Sunni Moslem who didn’t like Asad’s beliefs.

Bob Stewart MP, who was the British United Nations commander in Bosnia in1992/3, spoke about religious-inspired genocide between Bosnian Croats who are Catholics and Bosnian Muslims. Both sides were ethnically South Slav peoples and religion was the only difference between them. He found and buried in a mass grave over 100 bodies and later took the bodies of one family to a Morgue. The next day he found the same bodies put back where he had found them. They were Muslims and he had taken them to a Christian morgue.

Other MP’s spoke and the Foreign Office Minister Mark Field responded. The debate last two hours, 16 MPs from five parties spoke. The harsh realities of religious hatred and persecution were discussed without any hint of party politics. It was Parliament at its best debating religion at its worst. The challenge is how we respond.

Jesus Christ warned, “If they persecuted me they will persecute you also”. We are fortunate that so far persecution in Britain has been limited but indifference to those who are being persecuted is a real sin. Prayer for them should be a priority and organisations like Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Open Doors tell us for whom and for what we might pray.

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