Freedom of Religion or Belief – An Introduction

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The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, hugely influenced by the prominent Christians who helped to draft its articles, begins by recognising the inherent dignity, worth and equality of the human person and family. The premise that a human being has rights comes from the belief that each of us is made in the image of God. Thus we are all infinitely precious and worthy of both protection and freedom.

So, God grants human rights, not governments. Rather, governments have a God-given role to do good and bring justice [1]. But, sadly, the authorities do not necessarily always do good, and discrimination and persecution can result.

Freedom of Religion or Belief, often abbreviated to FoRB in political circles, is a foundational human right. It is the freedom for everyone, including those with a secular worldview, to believe what they wish and to live their lives according to that belief. Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights states that people can practice their beliefs publicly and with others, as well as to practice their belief privately and alone. Permitted limitations are limited. That is, they are only allowed if public safety, public order or the health or freedoms of others are in peril. Individual believers are protected, rather than the belief itself.

Closely associated with FoRB is freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association. All people can receive and share information and ideas, meet with others and create bodies like churches. Again, permitted limitations are limited.

The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights state very similar rights for everyone around the world. So, if these rights are in international law, why are there sometimes restrictions on Christians in Europe? More seriously, why do millions of Christians face the most appalling persecution: intimidation, ostracism, closure of churches, confiscation of literature, restrictions on evangelism, violence, imprisonment, even death?

Around the world, the reasons for restrictions, discrimination or persecution vary.

  • The intolerant attitudes of another faith or worldview,
  • The intolerant attitudes within a political ideology,
  • The intolerant attitude of one Christian denomination towards another,
  • A sense of national identity linked towards one faith or worldview,
  • The two sides of a political conflict being given religious labels to help justify their cause,
  • Poor governance or rule of law. In some nations, everyone might suffer restrictions on their human rights so Christians suffer along with everyone else. Or the local authorities ignore national law and choose to enforce much harsher restrictions.
  • Clashes of rights between different groups. While human rights law says that all are equal before the law and all human rights are equal, too often society chooses to favour the rights of some over others.

The pressure may come from the authorities or the community or even a Christian’s family.

Solidarity with those who hurt

When one part of the body hurts, all the body hurts [2]. It is so important that we remember our brothers and sisters who suffer because of their faith.

There are many specialist organisations which support the persecuted Church through prayer, discipling, practical solidarity and campaigning. See here or here for just a few of the great NGOs you could connect with. They can help you know how to pray as well as give you opportunities to engage in simple campaigning or direct encouragement to persecuted Christians.

We can only pray if we are informed. Each year, the World Watch List is published, highlighting the 50 nations where it is most dangerous to be a Christian. Reading about persecution can overwhelm us. But perhaps you could pray for one nation each week. Or ask the Lord to guide you to focus on supporting the Church in one or two countries. Or, when a nation is in the news, this could prompt you to pray for the Church there. Or maybe your church could mark International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church (IDOP), held every November.

Our own freedom of religion or belief?

No European country is in the top 50 most dangerous nations. We are blessed with tremendous freedom and should ensure we make the most of the freedom we have. Nevertheless, Christians in Europe can face difficulties. The kinds of problems vary considerably.

Some Evangelicals endure the ongoing little signs that those around you think you are second class citizens. Others are frustrated at unnecessary bureaucratic hassles which make it so difficult, for example, to get a new church building. Others are now scared to talk about their faith at work for fear that they could lose their jobs. And there are growing numbers of cases where the rights of members of the LGBTI+ community not to be offended are now prioritised over the freedom of conscience of Christians. 

And then there are the many Christian asylum seekers who fear persecution if they are returned home. Too many are deported because the authorities do not take seriously the risks they face. Or they doubt that the asylum seeker is a genuine Christian because he or she is unable to answer difficult theological questions or because the assessors do not accept the evidence given.

The challenge is to respond in ways that honour Christ. It can be tempting to retreat into the safety of our Christian family, to hold back from sharing our faith, perhaps even to compromise our beliefs. Others react with anger, dividing the world, not necessarily 100% accurately, between those who are for or against Christianity. But surely Scripture teaches us to stand firm, to love our enemies and to share the Good News of Jesus Christ anyway?

Across Europe, we are also able to speak up to improve freedom of religion. This might involve quietly talking to your employer or your child’s school to see if there can be some flexibility to resolve an issue of conscience. Or we can attempt to build a more positive relationship with local government through our church’s community action or offers to pray. This can help the authorities see us as reasonable and helpful members of society so that, for example, they will be more open to granting permission for our open air service.

There is also a place for bigger scale advocacy, seeking to influence government in order to change problematic laws or prevent new ones from being created. And we should do all we can to persuade the authorities to show more fairness when making judgements about asylum seekers.

If everything else fails, we can go to court to defend our rights. Judgements do not always go as we might wish. And a weak case which fails can create a precedent that limits freedom for everyone else. But let’s pray for the lawyers who can select and then argue strong cases which can bring both positive resolution for the individuals involved and more clarity about the importance and scope of FoRB.

It is not all about us. Followers of other faiths should be able to feel part of society and have the freedom to fully practice their faith. In some countries, some say that animal or child rights are more important than FoRB, leading to calls for bans on Kosher/Halal slaughter or male circumcision. While of course animals and children have rights, to downplay FoRB like this is incredibly serious for everyone.

These examples remind us that life is complicated. Our countries are made up of different groups whose rights can clash. We have to be able to live together with our deepest differences. This means that we cannot always get everything we want. No one should be able to cause genuine harm to another. But there is also an issue of being good neighbours if our societies are to hold together. While we ask people to respect our rights, let’s also be concerned about the rights of others. We need a civil public square [3] in which we are all concerned about the well-being of the other and can negotiate the inevitable tensions with fairness.

Further resources on FoRB and how to defend it can be found here. But, in the end, we are called to deepen our trust in and love for the Lord. Then, like the apostle Paul in Philippians, we will be able to rejoice and passionately live out our faith in the face of the worst persecution.

[1] Romans 13:1-7
[2] 1 Corinthians 12:26
[3] The civil public square is explored in the Global Charter of Conscience