Parliamentarians and religious leaders from around the Commonwealth will gather at Lambeth Palace next month to discuss ways to strengthen religious liberty. Details of the event were given by the Bishop of Rochester, James Langstaff, during a debate in the House of Lords – the upper house of Britain’s Parliament – yesterday (Thursday). In the debate, Lord Alton of Liverpool, a cross-bench – or non-party political – member of the House of Lords, highlighted the fact that while 95 per cent of people in the Commonwealth profess a religious belief, around 70 per cent of the population live with high or very high government restrictions on the right to freedom of religion and belief.
Lord Alton said that the political idea of the right to freedom of religion or belief had “its origins in the horrors of the Holocaust” and was “intended to respect the dignity of every individual and community.” He added that “our right to believe, not to believe or to change our belief”, as set out in Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was “one of very few non-derogable rights in the human rights arsenal”.
He said: “The drafters of the human rights framework knew its importance. It is not something that we can simply sweep aside, either because some believe it is irrelevant or because others are nervous of the potential for conflict. No, it is a right that must be upheld and promoted for the positive change it brings to the world. Freedom of religion or belief goes to the very essence of our humanity—the right to hold our deep-seated beliefs, think our own thoughts and follow our consciences.”
The debate was a precursor to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), which takes place in London and Windsor Castle on 19-20 April. In the days leading up to that meeting, four fora will take place addressing issues related to trade, gender justice, youth and civil society. The two-day meeting at Lambeth Palace is one of a number of side-events that will be taking place around the CHOGM meeting.
“Unfortunately, it is the case that some of the worst-offending countries when it comes to religious freedom are found within the Commonwealth,” Bishop James said in the House of Lords’ debate. “In the margins of the Heads of Government meeting, the . . . Archbishop of Canterbury, working with the Commonwealth Initiative for Freedom of Religion and Belief, is convening a gathering of parliamentarians and religious leaders to discuss over two days how they may, among other things, hold their Governments and constituencies to account in relation to these concerns around religious freedom.”
In the debate, the bishop outlined the strong links between the Commonwealth of Nations and the Churches of the Anglican Communion, saying: “the Anglican Communion extends significantly beyond the nations of the Commonwealth. Nevertheless, for obvious reasons of history, there is a very substantial Anglican presence in many Commonwealth countries.
“Within the Anglican Communion we have a rich network of companion links between dioceses in different parts of the world. . . The nature of the Commonwealth as a network of autonomous free nations also has some parallel with the life of the communion, wherein each province is autonomous yet links together through what one might call family likeness, and the position of honour granted to . . . the Archbishop of Canterbury.”
He continued: “We share with the Commonwealth and our companion dioceses a great number of areas of concern and involvement, not least around climate change, resilience, sustainability, issues of human trafficking, modern slavery and gender violence, the roles of women and young people, and the building of positive frameworks in civil society.
“We are very pleased that people from across the Anglican Communion will be participating in some of the forums around the forthcoming meeting – for example those from Swaziland, Mozambique and Sri Lanka in the forums concerned with women and young people.”
My diocese has companion links with two Anglican dioceses in Tanzania. We also have a link with the diocese of Harare in a country that many of us wish to see as an active participant in the Commonwealth once again before too long. In my diocese, well over 30 parishes and schools have active relationships with parishes or schools in Tanzania or Zimbabwe, and I myself will visit both countries later this year.
He also raised the difficulty that members of the Anglican Communion have in obtaining visas to attend Anglican events in the UK, and spoke of the example of his own diocese’s companion links with two dioceses in Tanzania. “I may travel and people from my parishes may travel freely to Tanzania,” he said. “It is not always possible for people to come back the other way, and we feel somewhat embarrassed about that.
“It is easy enough to get visas for bishops to visit: it is the ordinary people, very often. Whatever guarantees we may give, many of these people lead subsistence lives in a subsistence economy and would not have any need for a bank account, and thereby find it hard to demonstrate their bona fides. If we could have some further conversations with Her Majesty’s Government about that, we would be hugely grateful.”
He said that the companion links demonstrate the strengths of people from different religious groups working together. “My friend the Bishop of Kondoa in Tanzania leads a diocese in a very rural part of the country where the population is more than 90 per cent Muslim,” he said. “Neither community compromises on its beliefs, yet there is in many places an ease of relationship and a mutual respect from which we in this country can learn a huge amount.
“I recall visiting one place where, although it was Ramadan, the Muslim village elders came out in numbers to greet the bishop and me. Indeed, they greeted the bishop as ‘their’ bishop. I learned later that they had donated to the church in that village land on which to build a church building and the priest’s house. In another place, the local councillor – a Muslim – was the first to donate a substantial sum to put a roof on a new church building.
“In the town of Kondoa itself, the diocesan Bible school, as well as training priests and lay ministers, runs a year-long empowerment programme for young women. On that programme, Muslim and Christian women study together alongside each other. These are practical examples from which certainly I have learned a great deal.”
Responding to the debate, Lord Ahmed of Wimbledon, a minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, said that the Heads of the Commonwealth had recognised the freedom of religion and expression at previous meetings, and that the British government would use CHOGM’s summit in April to “encourage the Commonwealth to build on that.”
He said: “Freedom of religion and belief is a priority for the Prime Minister, for the Secretary-General [of the Commonwealth] and for me, as Minister for Human Rights. We will discuss this bilaterally and during the course of the Commonwealth summit through various forums.
“I also acknowledge the great work done by Lambeth Palace. We look forward to the event that is being organised on this issue in the margins of the Commonwealth summit during the course of the week. I pay particular tribute to . . . the Archbishop of Canterbury for his continuing support and leadership on this important issue.”
Watch the Bishop of Rochester’s speech: