Lady Berridge is a Conservative peer, and a former director of the Conservative Christian Fellowship
One of the most profound changes I have seen in Britain since I became chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Freedom of Religion or Belief is the surge in news stories that deal with religiously motivated oppression or violence, both here and across the world. When I took on the role in 2012, people would look at me in a slightly puzzled way when I explained that I would be devoting a considerable chunk of my time in the House of Lords to the issue of religion- and belief-based persecution. Now when I talk about my work there are simply nods of saddened understanding.
In this week’s press – to take a random sample – we have learned that antisemitic hate crime is at an all-time recorded high in Britain, while coverage of the horrific murder of Moaz al-Kasaesbeh, the Jordanian pilot, continues. It is small wonder that the story of Stephen Fry’s assertion that God is “capricious, mean-minded and stupid” is also still rolling on.
The battle lines in this war have been drawn, and they are not between Jews and Muslims, or Sunnis and Shiite Muslims, or between Stephen and the Atheists…and everybody else. The division is between those who would seek to control others and impose their beliefs on them, and those who are committed to what, for want of a better phrase, we are calling “British Values”.
Pity the poor Department of Education, which has had the unenviable task of trying to articulate what this slippery phrase might actually mean in practice, and my congratulations to whoever bit the bullet and came up with the following, which is outlined in the model funding agreement for free schools:
“2.47 The Academy Trust must ensure the Academy actively promotes the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.
2.47A The Academy Trust must ensure the Academy promotes principles that support equality of opportunity for all.”
Strictly speaking clause, 2.47A isn’t part of the “British Values” definition, but it should be – because it is where we will find real protection for freedom of religion or belief. However, taking hold of this will require us to widen our understanding of what “equality of opportunity” means.
We are comfortable with this phrase in the context of economic opportunity, or educational opportunity, especially when this leads to social mobility. As Conservatives, we rightly eschew the goal of material sameness, but pursue the goal of a level playing field so that those with determination and aspiration can succeed in their chosen profession in the free market. We want everybody to stand at the foot of what Winston Churchill described as the “ladder” of opportunity, while making sure that there is a corresponding safety net beheath all who live within our shores.
It is time to pursue with equal enthusiasm the idea of the free market of religion and belief – the recognition that religion and belief is an important part of being human, and that we have a responsibility to promote the equality of opportunity for all humans to make belief choices and pursue them. This means promoting a capacious freedom to express views, proselytize (both for religions and atheistic views), and most importantly, a robust protection of the freedom to convert, both at home and abroad.
In an encouraging speech to the organisation Christians on the Left last year, Douglas Alexander acknowledged the reluctance of politicians to speak about religious persecution out of a “misplaced sense of political correctness”, He ended by quoting part of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, saying: “”Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom…to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
Alexander has done a robust job as Shadow Foreign Secretary in this area, promising a much-needed special envoy if Labour comes to power, but in quoting Article 18 he missed out the crucial middle section of the article which iterates the “freedom to change his religion or belief”. He made the same omission in a recent article for the Daily Telegraph, leaving me to wonder if this was due to time and space constraints or because of a wish to downplay this crucial aspect of freedom of religion or belief.
In promoting the freedom to convert, we need to acknowledge that often this is a difficult issue for the very faith and belief communities that are at risk of religious persecution. But as politicians, we must lead the way in reassuring them that their own best interests lie in the free exchange of ideas. In a speech in Parliament yesterday, the Archbishop of Canterbury admitted that the Anglican Church has not always got this right, but went on to place freedom of choice about religion at the centre of the debate on persecution:
“If we believe in freedom to choose, if we believe in freedom of religion, what’s good for one is good for all. We must speak out for others persecuted for their beliefs, whether it be religious or atheistic: taking responsibility for someone else’s freedom is as important as protecting my own. It is as much the right of Stephen Fry to say what he said and not to be abused by Christians who are affronted, as it is the right of Christians to proclaim Jesus Christ as their Saviour: that is his freedom to choose, that is given to us in creation.”
It is my belief that promotion of the freedom to convert is the acid test of whether a person’s commitment to freedom of religion or belief is real. It is a value that is shared by many abroad, but has been partly won in Britain through the death of those who refused to give it up, and so is woven into our history. Today it has the power to bind us together – Humanist, Christian, Jew, Muslim – in a respectful and vehemently disagreeing alliance against those across the world who would seek to play God with the conscience of others.