APPG REPORT – Commentary on the Current State of International Freedom of Religion or Belief (2020)

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This year has been a year of unprecedented challenge, as individuals, families, communities and societies have come together to meet and combat the threat posed to us all by the global COVID-19 pandemic. It is often
asserted that religion or belief practices are ‘fixed’, ‘unchanging’ and, by implication ‘unchangeable’ – such assertions sometimes connoting that such beliefs are at best of little relevance or, at worst, are somehow a
negative influence, on the world in which we all live and which we all share. On a positive note, this year has shown how untrue this caricature is. As traditional modes of worship or of coming together have had to be set
to the side, new ways of doing so have emerged, and have been embraced: the experience of ‘lockdowns’ has caused many to reflect on what it means to be human, and to explore new ways of understanding themselves
and the world around them. We have witnessed an outpouring of innovation and exploration in so many fields, including (unsurprisingly) that of religion or belief. There has been a tremendous amount of flexibility,
responsiveness and reappraisal of long held assumptions, practices and approaches – an openness to the new, alongside the reassurance in troubled times that for so many their religion or belief provides. And in the face
of adversity the pandemic has yielded many examples of strengthened community spirit across religion or belief divides.

The Commentary recalls the UN Secretary General’s observation that there has been a “tsunami of hate and xenophobia”. Religion and belief communities have been blamed for the virus; made scapegoat for the
outbreaks; castigated as irresponsible ‘super-spreaders’; accused of being resistant to implement public health measures, of peddling ‘phoney’ remedies, of opposing vaccinations – etc, etc. Whilst freedom of conscience
must of course be respected, many of these attacks, which have made some religion or belief groups the target of conspiracy theories and of hate speech have amounted to little more than self-serving attempts to deflect
attention from the failure of the authorities in relation to these matters.

But there have been other implications too, as fear fuels the flames of some of the traditional opponents of the freedom of religion or belief: the scapegoating of the ‘outsider’ and of the vulnerable, the poor and the
marginalised. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that for many, the pandemic has provided a backdrop to a further deepening of the repression and suppression which they have been facing – as some states have taken
the opportunities presented by the ‘eyes of the international community being elsewhere’ to return to their oppressive practices. As this Report makes clear, many marginalised communities – including minority religion
or belief communities – have indeed faced intensified discrimination since the outbreak of the global pandemic, arguably even genocide.

This year in particular, in which the UN Special Rapporteur has placed a special focus on the impact of gender on the enjoyment of the freedom of religion or belief, it is shocking to note the extent to which issues concerning gender discriminations have once again risen to the fore. The longstanding impacts of genderbased discrimination continue to be damningly negative, exacerbating the dehumanisation, inequalities and
violations which were already being suffered. These have included, in the case of gender, the further limiting, or even the closing of, access to services within wider society, and being trapped in violent misogynistic and
homophobic private settings, or with unequal burden of childcare and of the economic effects of the pandemic.

The response to the pandemic has shown us that it is not religion or belief communities which cling to the past: it is those who seek to negate the freedoms of religion or belief who do so. Whilst lamenting its continued
need to do so, we commend the APPG for drawing attention to both the continued and the new themes that arise from shedding a light on the global situation of freedom of religion or belief in this Commentary. We
recognise the challenge that upholding freedom of religion or belief poses, and the need for a rights-based response.