By Ben Rogers
Five months ago, I sat in a remote prison in the hills in West Sumatra, Indonesia, and met a young man, Alex Aan, who had been jailed for his beliefs. I travelled over 1,300 kilometres from Jakarta to see him, involving a flight and a four hour drive through the mountains.
Alex, aged 30, had been imprisoned not because of his religious beliefs, but because he has no religious beliefs. He had declared himself an atheist. Yet Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, on the freedom of religion or belief (FORB), applies just as much to Alex as it does to any of the millions of religious believers around the world persecuted for their faith.
A few days before visiting Alex, I had stood with a church congregation just outside Jakarta, surrounded by a mob of extremist Islamists shouting “Christians get out, kill the Christians”.
The previous year, I had met Ahmadi Muslims who had survived a brutal attack on their community. One man described how he was stripped naked and beaten severely and a machete was held at his throat. He was dragged through the village and dumped in a truck like a corpse. Another man fled into a fast-flowing river, pursued by attackers throwing rocks and shouting “kill, kill, kill.” He hid in a bush, dripping wet and extremely cold, for four hours. A third suffered a broken jaw, while a fourth, pursued by men armed with sickles, machetes and spears, was detained by the police for three days, treated as a suspect not a victim.
In Pakistan, I have met young girls aged seven or younger who have been raped simply because they are Christians. I have met people in hiding because they have been accused of blasphemy, and could be killed if found. One of my closest friends and colleagues, Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s Minister for Minorities Affairs, was assassinated. He and I once missed a bomb by five minutes.
In Burma, I have met Muslim Rohingyas whose mosques have been destroyed and who are stateless, stripped of their citizenship as well as their human dignity. And I have met Christians whose children have been forced by the military into Buddhist schools where their heads are shaved, and they are forced to become Buddhist monks. Christians among the Chin ethnic group, who have recently published a report on religious persecution, speak of crosses being destroyed by the army, and Christians forced to build Buddhist pagodas in their place.
Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is perhaps the most important, basic freedom of all – the freedom to choose, and to change, your beliefs, and the freedom, either alone or with others, in private or in public, to practise those beliefs, within the rule of law. It can never be viewed in isolation from other human rights – freedom of association, freedom of expression, freedom of movement, press freedom – but it should be recognised as the freedom that underpins all others. And it is a human right for everyone, religious and non-religious.
Across the world today, Article 18 is increasingly violated, threatened and undermined – from every corner, through a variety of means: violence, legislation and restrictions. Extremists from some religions persecute minorities; authoritarian governments restrict religious practices; non-state actors target some communities through terrorism. From Iran to India, Nigeria to North Korea, Cuba to China, Eritrea to Egypt and beyond, millions of people – Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Baha’is and others, and people who follow no religion at all – are denied their basic freedom given to them in Article 18.
For these reasons, the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission published a report, The Freedom to Believe: Promoting and Protecting Article 18 in June, 2011.
Tomorrow morning, at 8am, in Room 7A in the ICC, we will hold a fringe meeting called “International Religious Freedom: A Human Right for Everyone,” in association with Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which works for freedom of religion and belief for all. The speakers will include New Statesman journalist and prominent atheist David Allen Green, and academic Sarah Snyder from the Cambridge Interfaith Programme. I will tell some more stories from the frontlines, providing a voice for those who cannot be here to speak for themselves. I hope you will come, and bring others, and join our efforts to encourage the Government to make Article 18 a priority in its foreign policy, to champion the right for everyone – religious and non-religious – to have the freedom to believe.