Religious Liberty - A Report From The Fringe
So what links the issue of gay marriage and a constitutional right to marry girls as young as six? The answer: an Open Doors and CSM joint lunchtime fringe meeting at the Labour Party Conference. Read on...
Human rights and religious liberty: partners or opponents? was the title. The first speaker was a church leader from Cairo, who had welcomed the revolution that ousted Mubarak and whose church, adjacent to Tahrir Square, had made itself a field hospital as the army and police defended a regime in its death throes.
The church had developed good links with the Muslim people who were demonstrating in the Square – offering them water so they could wash their hands and prepare for Friday prayers. But now, he reported, there were signs that the new constitution would put the clock back 60 years and remove vital human rights for children, women and religious minorities in the name of Islamic law, if the Islamists had their way.
So the constitutional debate was being dominated by discussions about the minimum age for marriage for girls, with some arguing that six was acceptable; about a proposal that women should not be allowed to move about in public without a male relative to chaperone them. The church leader emphasised that he was concerned about human rights for all Egyptians, because that would ensure religious liberty for the Christian minority.
Stephen Rand, Advocacy Director of Open Doors, highlighted that in the UK Christians and politicians often failed to comprehend the extent of persecution: discrimination, disadvantage, the threat and reality of violence affected millions of people in at least 50 countries of the world – most of which are signatories to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
That Declaration was clear: religious liberty is more than the right to worship – too often western governments and politicians were in danger of focusing on issues around the provision and protection of churches, playing into the hands of authoritarian regimes that like nothing more than knowing exactly where minorities are gathering. Religious liberty was about creating a framework for individuals to be able to choose their faith, change their faith and practise their faith without challenge by the state and protected from discrimination and violence by the state.
Stephen also challenged the Labour Party – was the issue going to be left to the Tories because Labour was still nervous about ‘doing God’? Not only was religious liberty a vital component of true democracy, key in many countries to development and the combating of poverty – but it was also often the most obvious area for the abuse of human rights in many countries seen as vital to the trading relations of the UK, and therefore crucial to any meaningful discussion about an ethical foreign policy.
Kerry McCarthy MP, Shadow Minister for Human Rights, noted that the issue of persecution and religious liberty was being raised more often in Parliament – and she also recognised that it was a hot potato, not least in terms of the debate about gay rights in the UK, and in areas of Africa: in this area there was a real tension between religious liberty and human rights. A similar tension had been revealed by the Orthodox Church linking with Putin’s government in Russia in response to the protest of Pussy Riot.
She also emphasised that religious liberty issues came right home to her own constituency, with those seeking asylum because of the fear and reality of persecution on the basis of their religion should they return to their own country.
So the question time explored further both the principles of how religious liberty and human rights could work together, rather than reinforce the abuse of human rights, and focusing on the impact on individuals rather than fuelling negative stereotypes: persecution was not an essential ingredient nor the preserve of any or all religions. It also raises vital issues of political principle and practice.
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