Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist, a former Parliamentary Candidate, and is Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.
It is almost as if a dam has broken, or an alarm clock has rung in the consciences of public figures simultaneously. First there was Lord Sacks as he retired as Chief Rabbi, then Baroness Warsi’s superb speech at Georgetown, which should be read or viewed by everyone, then a House of Commons debate, followed by the Prince of Wales…and now Douglas Alexander – speaking up, clearly and boldly, for persecuted Christians around the world, and particularly in the Middle East.
In addition to public figures highlighting the desperate plight of many Christians around the world, three major books have been published within the past year and a half: Rupert Shortt’s Christianophobia, Paul Marshall, Nina Shea and Lela Gilbert’s Persecuted and John Allen’s The Global War on Christians, all of which provide a wealth of evidence of the widespread and severe persecution across so much of the globe and analysis of the underlying causes. All three provide damning evidence of the free world’s relative silence on the matter.
That the persecution of Christians is finally receiving attention is very welcome. Douglas Alexander is absolutely right, that we should not be afraid to speak up about persecuted Christians. It is true that there has been a peculiar political correctness that somehow says we should speak up for any other persecuted minority except Christians – even though the persecution of Christians is one of the greatest human rights issues of our time, and Christians suffer the majority of violations of religious freedom. The victims of persecution, according to a French intellectual, Régis Debray, are “too Christian to excite the left, too foreign to interest the right”. But it surely should not be a left-right issue, but an issue of basic human rights of concern to us all. So voices from across the political – and religious – spectrum, from Sayeeda Warsi to Douglas Alexander, are much needed.
All that said, I have some concerns. I have long believed that we need to be championing religious freedom for all – and that includes the freedom not to believe. In fact, the common term “religious freedom” is misleading and somewhat unhelpful, because it is understood by some as a human right just for religious people, and therefore of no concern to secularists. In reality, the correct term, in full, as set out in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is “freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief”, which could be abbreviated for convenience to “freedom of religion or belief”, and it is for all. Atheists are increasingly facing persecution in some countries, as documented in reports by the International Humanist and Ethical Union. I have twice visited an atheist in Indonesia, Alexander Aan, in prison, after he was sentenced to two-and-a-half years for declaring his atheism on social media. I am a Christian, but I would defend Alexander Aan’s freedom of conscience for as long as I live.
So what I would really like to see is a world in which we speak up not only for our own communities in other parts of the world, but for freedom of conscience for all. I’d like to see Christians speaking up not only for persecuted Christians, but for persecuted Ahmadiyya and Shi’a Muslims in Pakistan and Indonesia, for Rohingya and other Muslims in Burma, for Uighur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists in China, for Baha’is in Iran and Egypt, and for atheists everywhere. By implication, I would also want to see more Muslims stand up for persecuted Christians, as the former Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid did and as a number of British Muslim politicians, such as Baroness Warsi and Rehman Chishti, have done.
I do not believe in a hierarchy of rights, because the basic rights set out in the Universal Declaration are inter-dependent. Freedom of religion or belief requires freedom of assembly, association and expression, and freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention and torture. However, if there is a core foundational right which underpins all others, it is surely Article 18. For without the freedom to choose what to think and believe, the freedom to practice our beliefs, peacefully and within the law, the freedom to share our beliefs with others, non-coercively, and the freedom to change our beliefs, what use are freedoms of assembly and expression?
Two reports worth reflecting on in regard to this subject are the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission’s report, The Freedom to Believe, and the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Freedom of Religion and Belief’s report, Article 18: An Orphaned Right.
By speaking out, Baroness Warsi, the former Chief Rabbi, the Prince of Wales, Douglas Alexander and MPs in the recent debate in the House of Commons have shown courage and principle which has finally given a voice to Christians who tomorrow will put their lives on the line, literally, in many parts of the world, to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. They have done us all a huge service. Now the task is for all of us to speak for people of all faiths and none, who face discrimination, marginalisation and persecution, and to make Article 18 a human right for all.