Michael Bates is a Minister of State at the Department for International Development.

In her Christmas message, the Prime Minister encouraged us to ‘take pride in our Christian heritage and the confidence it gives us to ensure that in Britain you can practice your faith free from question or fear’ and ‘to remember those around the world who have been denied those freedoms.’

It was a timely reminder to us that violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief are amongst the most common human rights violations in the world today. The persecution of religious minorities and atheists is acute and increasing in many parts of the world.

More than 145 countries have laws ensuring the right to freedom of religion or belief; however, more than two thirds of these protect only some religious groups. Forty-six countries have laws that entirely prohibit certain religious groups. Governments and authorities in 96 countries exercise violence or discrimination against religious groups based on their religion or belief, whether in the form of arbitrary detention, physical violence and torture, or destruction of religious property. Perpetrators are increasingly non-state actors using mob violence and intimidation to enforce religious or social norms.

In 13 countries today, there are even laws that carry the death penalty for apostasy (the renunciation of or conversion from a particular religion) or blasphemy (which includes atheism or humanism).

These violations undermine the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18 which declares: “Everyone has the right of freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

These words were enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 as the world came to terms with the scale of the Holocaust where, as a result purely of a religious belief, six million men, women and children were systematically murdered by the Nazi regime. This basic human right was not an incidental add-on, but something fundamental to seeking to prevent a repetition of the darkest chapter in human history.

Today we are witnessing an attempt to systematically eradicate certain religious groups such as Christians, Yazidis and Shi’a Muslims from parts of the Middle East. It has been estimated that the Christian population in Iraq has fallen from 1.4 million pre-2003 to now fewer than 250,000 (USCIRF Annual Report 2017). . In neighbouring Syria, the Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo has estimated that the Christian population in that country has fallen from 1.7 million to under 500,000 in just five years.

A little over a year ago there were around a million Rohingya Muslims living in Rakhine State in Myanmar. Over the past few months, over 600,000 have been forced to flee their homes and cross the border into neighbouring Bangladesh as a result of persecution by the Burmese military and Buddhist extremists.

The importance of moving Freedom of Religion or Belief up the international agenda is important for a number of reasons including:
religious belief is not reducing but increasing. Currently, nearly 85 per cent of the population of the world adheres to a religious belief. Moreover, the right ‘not to believe’ of the remainder is increasingly resulting in persecution in many countries.

In the vast majority of cases, religious belief is not as a result of conversion but is handed down from generation to generation. It is their soul’s mother tongue. As such, for most, it is an intrinsic and precious part of cultural and ethnic identity, and not something which can be easily discarded.

The number and proportion of conflicts around the world with a religious dimension is increasing. In 2013, 21 out of 35 (60 per cent). In 2001, the figure was 15 out of 34 (44 per cent). If faith is a growing factor in conflict then it must also be a growing factor in peacebuilding.

Today, we face the greatest refugee and migration crisis since the end of World War II. Religious persecution is a major part of the cause of that crisis forcing people to abandon their homes, communities and livelihoods.

Despite the increase of religion elsewhere in the world and its role as a partial cause but also a potential solution to many of our current global challenges, religious literacy in the West seems, if anything, to be heading in the opposite direction, accompanied by a general awkwardness when discussing belief, or non-belief, in the public square.

The rights of Freedom of Religion or Belief, articulated so clearly 70 years ago in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, are under attack as never before and those attacks are growing in both their frequency and ferocity. There is virtually no major religion or community of non-belief that has not experienced the persecution of its adherents in some part of the world.

It is therefore in the enlightened self-interest for those of all faiths and those of none to work together to promote greater understanding, respect and shared endeavour on the basis that we are all ‘human’ first and though we have been given many faiths we only have been given one world to practice them in.