A crucial stipulation regarding the right to religious freedom in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is being “violated universally” and is “under threat in almost every corner of the world,” Lord Alton of Liverpool has said.
Addressing a debate he initiated in the House of Lords July 24th, the British peer surveyed the widespread lack of international compliance to Article 18 of the Universal Declaration, and argued why governments, and the UK especially, need to allocate more resources to defend and uphold this “foundational human right.”
Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance”.
Lord Alton noted that “almost 75% of the world’s population live in countries with high levels of government restrictions on freedom of religion or belief.” He then highlighted some of the abuses of Article 18 worldwide, beginning with the violent persecution of religious minorities by the Islamic State (Isis) in Iraq and Syria and the most recent events in Mosul.
He said “an orgy of violence and brutality” is taking place in the Middle East, and that a time when Christianity will have no home in its ancient homelands is “fast approaching”.
In other parts of the globe, Lord Alton highlighted:
• “Menacing times for freedom of belief” in Egypt where last year 50 churches were bombed and razed.
• In Iran, religious minorities continue to be targeted; in the 12 months since “so-called moderate Hassan Rouhani” was elected, the country has “executed 800 people and imprisoned and tortured many others.”
• In Sudan, the case of Meriam Ibrahim, sentenced to death for apostasy, was not an isolated one. “Archaic and cruel laws lead to stonings and lashings, with Al-Jazeera reporting that in one recent year, 43,000 women were publicly flogged.”
• In Nigeria, “another crisis is looming for religion” and violence against religious minorities is taking place “on a daily basis”. This week, he noted, “marks 100 days since Boko Haram abducted more than 200 schoolgirls in Chibok”.
• The Islamist group al-Shabaab is increasingly terrorising the people of Kenya.
• In Pakistan, bombings and attacks on Christians continue, the last major atrocity taking place in September 2013 when an Anglican church was bombed in Peshawar killing 127.
• In Burma, groups of ethnic Muslims and Christians are facing “terrible persecution”.
• Religious intolerance is rising in Indonesia.
• In India, BJP nationalists attacked an evangelical church in Uttar Pradesh last week.
• Anti-Muslim violence has erupted in Sri Lanka.
• In Malaysia, a court has ruled only Muslims can use the word “Allah” even though Christians have traditionally used the same term
• A full Sharia penal code is being introduced in Brunei.
• Protestant and Catholic churches are being demolished in China, and the Catholic bishop of Shanghai, Thaddeus Ma, has been held in detention since 2012.
• Religious freedom continues to be repressed in Tibet and noted monk Tenzin Lhundup has not been heard of since his arrest in May.
• In Laos and Vietnam, “the situation is perilous.”
• Genocide is taking place in North Korea.
“Article 18 is under threat in almost every corner of the world,” Lord Alton said. ”As we approach the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, we should recall that, long before Article 18, it asserted the importance of religious freedom.”
He added that societies which deny such freedoms are “invariably unhappy societies” and research shows “a direct link between economic prosperity and religious freedom.”
“In 1965, Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s proclamation on religious freedom, said correctly that a society which promotes religious freedom will be enlivened and enriched and one that does not will decay,” Lord Alton said.
He concluded by stressing that Article 18 “is a foundational human right—many would say the foundational right—because, while there should be no hierarchy of rights and all rights are interdependent, without the freedom to choose, practise, share without coercion and change your beliefs, what freedom is there?
“As my noble friend Lord Sacks says, on this question, the fate of the 21st century may turn.”
Despite the increasing deterioration of compliance to the right to religious freedom, Lord Alton noted that compared with the U.S. and Canada which have offices dedicated to defending and promoting it, the UK has just “one official” focused on freedom of religion “and only for a third of her time”.
He said that while £34 billion has been spent on defence in the UK since the Cold War, resources given to “promoting religious coexistence, public discourse and dialogue, foundational to building peaceful societies in a world increasingly afraid of difference” have been “paltry.”
The full text of the debate can found in Hansard here.