For the past 10 years, I have been humbled to work on issues of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in the House of Commons and around the globe. Often called the ‘first freedom,’ FoRB is the human right from which all other rights flourish. Tragically, in 2019, approximately 80 percent of the world’s population live with some form of restriction placed on their freedom to believe. Leaders and governments of all faiths and backgrounds have a responsibility to address this unfortunate reality.
The good news is that FoRB has only recently emerged on the world stage as a major public policy issue. An increased rate of atrocities committed in the name of religion, and large-scale and high-profile efforts to curtail the FoRB of minorities – along with the work of parliamentarians and NGOs to bring these mattes to light – has placed the threat to FoRB on the radar.
My office has prepared a brief summary of only some of the important steps taken to promote and protect FoRB in recent history. While there has been encouraging progress over the last 10 years, it is important that we not lose our momentum. We must hold our elected officials accountable for their obligation to protect the rights of the most vulnerable, and give a voice to the voiceless.
David Anderson, MP
- The United Nations General Assembly adopts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 18 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.”
- The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief is established by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.
- Norway‘s Ministry of Foreign Affairs held a meeting on international religious freedom. As a result:
- Members at the conference adopted The Oslo Declaration for Freedom of Religion or Belief;
- This led to the formation of the Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief.
- US President Bill Clinton signed the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). The IRFA:
- Established the protection and promotion of religious freedom as a US foreign policy priority – one of the first countries to do so;
- Created an Ambassador-at-Large and an Office of Religious Freedom within the State Department; and
- Created the independent United States Commission on International Religious Freedom to serve as a watchdog and think tank as well as to make policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State and Congress.
- Since 1999, the Dutch government has appointed a special Ambassador for Human Rights which, among other responsibilities, promotes and defends freedom of religion and belief abroad. The Foreign Ministry also notes that it is carrying out a pilot project on religious freedom in its embassies in 10 countries where religious freedom is at risk.
- The Minister of Foreign Affairs has funded bilateral programs on FoRB in ten countries through their embassies: Armenia, China, Egypt, Eritrea, India, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan and Sudan.
- The German Bundestag/National Parliament of the Federal Republic of Germany Resolution:
- Establishes religious freedom as a human rights priority in the German Bundestag;
- Expresses its resolve towards a number of issue areas including its opposition to laws that use “defamation of religion”;
- Advocates for a legal situation where “unimpeded change of religion is ensured,” and “…the right to publicly confess and to publicly attempt to gather new adherents to one’s faith is afforded.”;
- Parliamentarians initiated “Stephanus Kreis” (Stephen’s Circle) to focus on religious freedom internationally with an emphasis on Christian persecution;
- Comprised of over 70 members, mainly from the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) and the Christian Social Union of Bavaria (CSU).
- The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) issued a toolkit on FoRB, highlighting how the FCO and foreign officials can help promote respect for this human right as well as assess violations.
- The Canada-UK Joint Declaration was agreed to by prime ministers Stephen Harper and David Cameron:
- Highlights the two countries’ commitments to work together to promote and protect fundamental human rights internationally.
- British parliamentarians launched the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief (APPG on FoRB).
- Canada opened the Office of Religious Freedom and the Ambassador of Religious Freedom within the Department of Foreign Affairs. Key tasks include:
- Protect, and advocate on behalf of, religious minorities under threat;
- Oppose religious hatred and intolerance;
- Promote Canadian values of pluralism and tolerance abroad;
- Established the Religious Freedom Fund.
- The Canadian Parliament adopted a cross-party motion on religious freedom, M-382, which called on the Government of Canada to recognize international religious freedom as part of its foreign policy and to take actions to promote and protect religious freedom in other countries.
- Austria initiated the drafting of the EU Guidelines on Freedom of Religion or Belief.
- Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued guidelines entitled, “Protection and Promotion of the Rights and Freedoms of Persons belonging to Religious Minorities.”
- Canada hosted a working-level meeting at its embassy in London resulting in an informal agreement to create a contact group on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), to discuss increasing cooperation, and to share information about funding priorities.
- A meeting of parliamentarians created the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief (IPPFoRB) and its Oslo Charter on Freedom of Religion or Belief:
- The Charter reaffirms commitment to freedom of religion or belief as outlined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights;
- The group originally included parliamentarians from 30 countries including Brazil, Canada, Germany, Nepal, Norway, South Africa, Dominican Republic, Burma, Pakistan, Malaysia, Turkey, United Kingdom, Uruguay, Argentina, Costa Rica, Sri Lanka and Italy.
- Austria established an inter-religious dialogue platform with representatives of 16 legally-acknowledged religious communities in Austria.
- The European Parliament’s Working Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Religious Tolerance became an official European Parliament Intergroup.
- Facing the rise of religious persecution worldwide, IPPFoRB – in partnership with Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, the Church of England, the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, and the US Commission on International Religious Freedom – hosted an unprecedented gathering of nearly 100 parliamentarians from 45 countries in New York City. The First International Parliamentarians Conference – Multinational Efforts to Promote Freedom of Religion or Belief – placed a particular focus on concrete actions to incite change. Highlights of the conference included:
- The signing of the New York Resolution on Freedom of Religion or Belief, committing signatories to renewed action to promote religious freedom;
- The signing of three advocacy letters by conference participants (Myanmar, Iran, Vietnam) in response to the growing threat of religious persecution in particular countries of concern;
- The drafting of Civil Society Recommendations. These set in motion an ambitious plan of consultation and collaboration with civil society on issues of FoRB;
- Panel discussions among parliamentarians and diplomats on the specific threat posed by ISIS repression and authoritarian governments;
- Hearing directly from religious leaders involved in the pursuit of FoRB, including a cleric from Iran, a bishop from Nigeria, and a Buddhist leader from Japan;
- Parliamentarians heard from Naghmeh Abedini, the wife of American pastor Saeed Abedini. Pastor Abedini had been jailed in September 2012 by the Iranian regime for peacefully exercising his faith in private homes. 67 parliamentarians signed a letter calling for his release.
- IPPFoRB embarked on its first fact-finding and solidarity visit to Myanmar.
- IPPFoRB’s Second International Parliamentarians Conference – An Embattled Right: Protecting and Promoting Freedom of Religion or Belief is held in Berlin, Germany, with approximately 90 MPs in attendance.
- Ján Figel is appointed as the first EU Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief.
- Norway doubled its support of religious minorities abroad from NOK 20 million to NOK 40 million and proposed an additional NOK 10 million for efforts to protect religious minorities and safeguard their rights.
- Albania’s parliament passed a new law that would provide additional protection for minority citizens, including the freedom of religion.
- The Colombian government launched a new religious freedom and worship policy aimed at strengthening local inter-religious cooperation and tolerance. In September 2018, 4 major cities (Bogota, Manizales, Santa Marta, and Villavicencio) and 4 departments adopted this new policy. The policy also led to the creation of a Religious Freedom Committee.
- The US Department of State hosted the first annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, bringing together leaders from around the world to discuss the challenges facing religious freedom, identify means to address religious persecution and discrimination worldwide, and promote greater respect and preservation of religious liberty for all. The event focused on concrete outcomes that reaffirm international commitments to promote religious freedom and produce real, positive change.
- The Queensland Parliament passed the Human Rights Bill 2018 (Qld). The Bill protects freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief among other human rights protections.
- Queensland is the third jurisdiction in Australia to enshrine human rights protections.