Saqib Bhatti is MP for Meriden.
Freedom is something that has been spoken a lot about in recent weeks and months. Many of us may have even enjoyed a highly anticipated ‘Freedom Day’.
Of course, the end of lockdown was a significant moment for so many in this country. However, around the world we can find countless instances of men, women and children robbed of the most basic freedoms with no roadmap or exit strategy in sight.
In fact, one of the most challenging aspects of the Covid measures we saw in the UK was the closure of places of worship, particularly for people of faith during their holiest times such as Easter, Ramadan, Passover, Eid and Diwali. The loss of congregation was devastating for many communities and as a man of faith myself, it brought into sharp focus what life is like for those who are never allowed to practise their faith in public or in private.
It is an unfortunate fact that in the 21st Century, having the basic right to practise your religious beliefs freely is still not a given right in certain parts of the world. The rights of people of faith to practise their own religion are being seriously curtailed by the closure of places of worship, the persecution of religious minorities and the systematic killings of minority populations.
I am pleased that in the UK, it is our Prime Minister who has demonstrated that promoting respect between religious communities is a key priority for the Government overseas. We have seen the important role played by the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion of Belief.
But as a recent Human Rights Report by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office highlights, there is still much more to be done to ensure that people of faith around the world are truly free to express themselves.
This week, I joined a panel discussion on this very issue, hosted by the Coalition for Global Prosperity. The panel, made up of a fascinating mix of faith leaders and campaigners explored how Global Britain can help promote religious freedoms around the world and be a true force for good.
It may be obvious but is worth stating: having religious freedom within a society – including the right not to practise any religion if you so desire – is an example of a mature and developed society. Often the lack of religious freedom can be emblematic of the ruling classes’ attitudes to other freedoms.
Religious minority groups such as the Baha’i people in Iran have faced a ‘cradle to grave’ situation of persecution because the Iranian constitution provides a framework for the terror they experience. The persecution of the Yazidi people has been ongoing for centuries and shows no sign of letting up – most recently the atrocities have been at the hands of ISIS. The suffering experienced by the Muslims in Bosnia also comes to mind, where despite a NATO intervention the world was not able to stop a genocide.
And of course, Christian communities across the world still aren’t able to practise freely, while the plight of the Uyghurs at the hands of the Chinese government has been widely documented.
Protecting religious freedoms should be a top priority for the international community and only a co-ordinated approach will ensure that religious communities across the globe are free to practise whatever faith they wish in peace. Britain must be at the forefront of this effort. It is encouraging to see that ten of the 22 recommendations from the Bishop of Truro’s report have been enacted, we are making excellent progress with a further eight and the UK is on the way to meeting all 22 by 2022.
In a world where reversion to populism and protectionism is often seen as a safe corner, it is Britain that can lead the way, working with its international partners to promote the journey of human rights and universal acceptance of religious freedoms.
Before entering politics, I served as President of the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce. I have seen for myself the constructive role that business can play in supporting religious communities, and I am a big proponent of business being a force for good. In this case, it must be. Ultimately, companies have a responsibility to make sure their supply chains are clean and if there is a risk of slave labour being used or persecuted minorities being involved in their supply chains, then they must make corrective actions.
Alongside practical, urgent steps to alleviate persecuted communities, we must also make the case for a long-term cultural shift in the way religious freedoms are perceived overseas.
Closer to home, there has been much dismay at the decision by the European Court of Justice to state that individuals can be stopped from wearing symbols of their faith if the rule is applied equally. In other words, you can discriminate against religious communities, providing you are indiscriminate in the way you do it.
Telling individuals that symbols of their religion are not necessarily part of their identity shows at the very least a gross misunderstanding of many people’s relationship with their faith and will be harmful to society in the long-term. Religion can be a true asset to society, and we must change attitudes so that religious freedoms to be perceived as a vehicle for more integrated, developed, and cohesive societies.
The United Kingdom, alongside our allies must remain a beacon of hope for those countless individuals facing persecution around the world for the sole ‘crime’ of expressing their faith. For Global Britain to truly live up to its potential, we must not only be a trading nation, or have strong defence – as important as these are. We must also be steadfast in our beliefs and in our promotion of human rights as a key cornerstone of our foreign policy.