Religious freedom should become a political priority for the United Kingdom and other governments, not only for the benefits of adherents under pressure but also in the battle against radicalization.
These were among the messages of a major report launched by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (AAPG) on International Freedom of Religion or Belief (FORB) at Westminster, an inner borough of London, in late October.
The report was strongly influenced by Baptists and Baptist principles of religious freedom, and the European Baptist Federation was represented by its general secretary, Tony Peck at the launch.
Peck was joined by more than 120 Members of Parliament (MPs), peers, academics, artists, civil society organizations and faith and non-faith groups alike.
The report, Article 18: From Rhetoric to Reality, stated that almost 80 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with “high” levels of restrictions or hostilities toward certain beliefs.
It profiled Article 18 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which says that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion,” and outlined proactive and practical actions and policies to move freedom of religion or belief from rhetoric to reality.
Drawing on the experience and knowledge gained over the past few years, the report urged the U.K. and other governments, together with civil society, to move to action on behalf of those denied religious freedom in order to make a real difference to their situation.
It showed how a stance for religious freedom for all can diminish religious hatred and radicalization and also dealt with the increasing problems caused by restrictions on religious freedom being made under the guise of anti-terror legislation.
Baptists were influential in preparing the report.
One of the key authors was Professor Sir Malcolm Evans, who is distinguished in the field of international law and has written key texts on religious freedom and international law.
Evans was awarded a knighthood in 2016 for services to torture prevention and religious freedom. He is the husband of Baptist minister Alison Evans.
The chair of the APPG, Jim Shannon, Democratic Unionist Member of Parliament for Strangford in Northern Ireland, is a lifelong member of a Baptist church.
And sounding across the span of 400 years, the voice of the early English Baptist, Thomas Helwys, is heard in the report itself.
“It took the courage of people like Thomas Helwys, a Baptist minister who publicly advocated religious liberty at a time when to hold such views could be dangerous, to help change English practice,” the report stated. “He died in prison as a consequence of the religious persecution of Protestant dissenters under King James 1. Helwys was the first person to outline in the English language what we now know as Article 18 [of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights].”
At the launch of the report, Helwys’ foundational contribution was highlighted in the speeches by Lord Ahmed, minister of state for the commonwealth and the United Nations, and a practicing Muslim.
Baroness Elizabeth Berridge, the co-chair of the APPG and an evangelical Christian, read Helwys’ famous words from his book published in 1612 concerning religious freedom for all.
Under the U.K. parliamentary system, such APPGs are not officially established by the government but are “informal groups of members of both Houses [House of Commons and House of Lords] with a common interest in particular issues.”
The APPG for International Freedom of Religion or Belief (FORB) was established in 2013. It has already proved very effective in raising FORB issues in Parliament as well as networking with similar groups around the world.
The work of the APPG is supported by “stakeholders” – organizations from several religious traditions that are committed to FORB.
The European Baptist Federation, together with BMS World Mission and the Baptist Union of Great Britain, forms one such stakeholder.
This enables these organizations to benefit from the research and advocacy done by the APPG for FORB and to contribute and highlight experience from Baptists experiencing threats to their religious freedom.
Tony Peck described it as “a highly significant report whose findings very much chime in with the experience of Baptists belonging to the European Baptist Federation in areas like the Middle East and Central Asia.”
“It highlights the almost unbelievable statistic that almost 80 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with ‘high’ or ‘very high’ levels of restrictions and/or hostilities toward certain beliefs,” he said.
“The sheer scale of the challenges to religious freedom means that there has to be the closest possible cooperation and working together between individual governments, the international community, faith groups and other key players in civil society,” Peck said.
“Baptists with a commitment to religious freedom for all have their own part to play in this, as indeed they contributed in some ways to the report,” he said. “I was first drawn to the work of the APPG on FORB because its values seemed to reflect the same passionate concern of Thomas Helwys and other Baptists since his time.
“The European Baptist Federation is already very active in this area and is planning to increase its staff capacity to deal with issues of religious freedom in the near future. We are also very happy that the incoming general secretary of the Baptist World Alliance, Elijah Brown, is someone with a passionate commitment and expertise in this aspect of our Baptist identity,” Peck said.
Paul Hobson is editor of The Baptist Times of Great Britain, the online newspaper of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. You can follow him on Twitter @PaulHobson10, The Baptist Times @BaptistTimes and the Baptist Union @BaptistUnionGB.