Freedom of religion threatened in the UK – why it matters

This morning, I’m at a cross-party conference in the European Parliament on freedom of religion in Europe. Hearing this morning first from Hendrik Storm, the CEO of the Barnabas Fund. Other speakers include representatives of the office of the Bishop in Europe (Church of England), evangelical street preachers and the British Pakistani Christian Association.

Christians do indeed face intolerance and intrusion for religious beliefs; I don’t decry the more-documented struggles faced by adherents to other religions – but issues relating to Christians are often ignored, and it’s absolutely right that these issues should be raised.

The problem is that nobody is really talking about (for example) arrests of street preachers, or the hostile level of questioning aimed at Christian politicians in the UK where a similar level of scrutiny isn’t applied to other faiths (or even to atheists).

Tertullian, in the year 189, said “It is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature that every man should worship according to his own convictions”.

The very first article in Magna Carta relates to freedom of religion. The Act of Toleration (1689) further guarantees the freedom of worship and the freedom to choose or to change one’s beliefs.

There’s a strong overlap between freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Neither permits the commission of crimes, or to interfere with other people’s actions.

Freedom of speech does not, for example, entitle you to:

• Incite violence, terrorism, rioting, or murder
• Commit perjury in court
• Shout ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre
• Commit treason by giving national secrets to an enemy
• Demand that someone else must assist you by publishing your ‘free speech’
• Verbally abuse medical professionals, police officers, or others merely doing their jobs in the service of the public

That’s why we have legislation such as the Official Secrets Act: to clarify what freedom of speech means in practice. It is not an absolute, inalienable right – but rather, something which is permitted to the maximum extent possible without interfering with other people’s quiet enjoyment of their own lives.

George Orwell, incorrectly, said in 1984 that ‘freedom is the freedom to say 2+2=4’. He was wrong; it entails the freedom to be wrong – to say that 2+2=5. The argument ‘you’re wrong; therefore you must be silenced’ is far more pernicious because it requires someone – usually the speaker, or even the State – to become the arbiter of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.

Conversely, the European Convention on Human Rights does not stick to the appropriate limits for ensuring that one person’s freedoms do not impact upon others. Article 9(2) states: “2. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

Those limits including vague phrases such as ‘public morals’ provides for a coach and horses to be driven through this supposed protection. The protection is so watered down as to be worthless.

I’m reminded that, for example, in 2004 the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties Committee rejected the appointment of Rocco Buttiglione because of his theological belief. The same ‘European’ machinations which had underpinned the setting up of the EU, now excluded those who hold to a clearly-held religious belief. By that standard, they would have excluded also Tim Farron, former leader of the Liberal Democrats.

If someone’s personal religious beliefs do not prevent them from doing a job, they should not be excluded from that job for the same reason. That is the definition, surely, of religious discrimination.

Nor is it applied equally: I have not heard such questions asked of other religions. Here, though, I differ from the alt-right view: I would rather protect the freedom of belief of Christians than seek to utilise this as a stick with which to beat others. I don’t ask ‘why don’t you also attack other faiths?’; I ask ‘why do you single out Christians?’.

There is a substantive difference between the two: one seeks to meet a wrong by implicitly proposing a second wrong; the other speaks of fundamental freedom.

There appears to be little in the way of protection of conscientious objection. Belgian and Swiss medical professionals have been, effectively, told that they must perform assisted suicide. Midwives in Sweden have been told they cannot hold to their religious beliefs preventing them from carrying out abortions; in March this year Sweden’s social democrats sought to ban all religious schools.

In France, legislation is effectively making criticism of abortion illegal. German and Austrian churches and religious sites have been attacked, like in Rome in 2016. In Spain, the criticism of modern ‘gender ideology’ landed even cardinals in trouble.

Now, as regards some of the above, I don’t necessarily hold to all of the principles described.

That doesn’t matter: people should be entitled to hold to their religious views and to live their lives free from discrimination! I don’t have to agree with your conscience to support your freedom of conscience.

This isn’t a political football with which to beat left-wingers, or those who hold to other faiths. It is about the defence of the freedom of religion of Christians, even those who interpret their faith differently to I.

So here’s the test: is the response one of love, or is it one of hatred?

I worry – a LOT – when people utilise the word ‘Christianity’ in the tribal way that someone might support a football club; the labels ‘Catholic’ or ‘Protestant’ having been used in the past (e.g. in Northern Ireland) to justify actions antithetical to Christianity.

As Jesus said (John 13v34-35), the appropriate response is one of love not hatred: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Likewise, in the letter to the Romans, Christians are commanded to “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.”

Those whose actions are born out of such love, such care for humanity, have my unequivocal support. Those who see it as a proxy war for something else do not.