Freedom Declared Foundation hosted its first person event on Tuesday 5th July. This event was within the Houses of Parliament thanks to Andrew Bowie MP sponsoring the event. The speakers for this event, titled “The impact of COVID-19 on International Freedom of Religion or Belief”, were Emma Wadsworth-Jones, Rabbi Herschel Gluck OBE, Daniel Wheatley, and Dr John Newton.
The first question asked by the chair was how has the COVID-19 pandemic increased infringements on Freedom of Religion or Belief.
Emma Wadsworth-Jones. Humanists International at Risk-Co-ordinator explained that in some countries across the world, COVID-19 was viewed as a punishment for sin, resulting in increased persecution towards non-religious people. Emma also explained how restrictions on international travel also restricted Humanists International ability to help those overseas who were suffering from persecution, increasing the trauma individuals had to go through. In the UK, Emma said the response was also far from perfect, as shown by regulations which permitted 15 people to attend religious weddings in England, but only allowed six people to attend a Humanist wedding.
Dr John Newton, Senior Press Officer at Aid to the Church in Need, described how Marxist regimes in Asia used COVID-19 as an excuse to subjugate Christian communities, particularly in China and Vietnam. John then went on to show how social actors in Nigeria also exploited in the pandemic to persecute Christian minorities, sometimes in deadly ways.
Rabbi Herschel Gluck OBE, Chairman of the Arab-Jewish Form, focused more on domestic infringements of Freedom of Religion or Belief during the pandemic, believing that it was a lack of religious and belief literacy which led to these infringements. Rabbi Gluck stated that it felt that Whitehall was not in touch with the relationship between a believer and God, seeing religion as membership of a club rather than the most important space and destination of their lives. Rabbi Gluck also said that this lack of religous and belief illiteracy can be demonstrated by the fact that parties were being held in Downing Street when it was against the law for places of worship to open.
Daniel Wheatley, Senior Diplomatic Officer for the Baha’i Community of the UK, cited reports from CREID and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on International Freedom of Religion or Belief which show that responses to COVID-19 compounded the marginalisation of faith communities in some countries around the world, with Nigeria and India cited. Not only did it lead to an increase in Freedom of Religion or Belief violations, but the scapegoating of the outsider also resulted in worsening gender and economic inequalities.
The second question asked was about what lessons can be learned from these infringements?
Rabbi Gluck stated that we need to engage in religious literacy. Whilst there has been some attempts in the past to correct this, more effort needs to be done so people through Government and public institutions know what religion is and what religion means to people. Emma then jumped in to say that we cannot forget about belief literacy. Emma reminded the audience that the human right is not “Freedom of Religion” but “Freedom of Religion or Belief”, and that we need to use the correct terminology.
Andrew Bowie MP said that he believed that as well as questioning the actions of Governments, we should also be questioning the actions of religious leaders within the UK. Andrew cited that the Archbishop of Canterbury recently stated that he wished he hadn’t prevented priests from entering their churches during the pandemic, and that the Church of Scotland was particularly quiet during the closure of places of worship in Scotland. Andrew questioned why religious leaders were not more vocal against the closure of places of worship.
The conversation then moved onto discuss specific examples of COVID-19 being used to persecute religious communities across the world.
Daniel Wheatley talked about the situation in Iran where the state has the power to expropriate property of those belief systems the state does not wish to recognise, a practise which has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. This has resulted in increased persecution of the Baha’i community, as well as the secular atheist community.
Dr John Newton showed that COVID-19 regulations were being used to oppress religions in Vietnam, citing the case of 2 positive COVID tests within a church being attributed to the outbreak of 200,000 cases. This led to the suspension of this churches religious license, despite tests showing that members of the congregation did not have COVID. John also explained how there has been an increase of women from Pakistan who have been abducted, forced to convert to Islam, and forced to marry during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Asking from the floor, Baroness Elizabeth Berridge – founder and trustee of Freedom Declared Foundation – asked panellists about the strength of Freedom of Religion or Belief within the UK.
Emma Wadsworth-Jones talked about how the UK does not do well on the Humanists International Freedom of Thought report, saying that non-religious discrimination is systemic. Giving examples of this, Emma cited the role of religious bishops having places in the House of Lords and collective worship in education.
Daniel Wheatley highlighted that we need to make the positive case for Freedom of Religion or Belief in our society. Rather than talk about the consequences of not upholding this human right, we need to talk about the contributions it adds to society when it is properly implemented.
Dr John Newton said that Jewish and Muslim communities are oppressed more in the UK than Christian communities, but that attacks against Christian communities are increasing. John raised his concerns about the increasing “Marxist policing” of language, saying that we should also champion freedom of debate and expression in our society. John gave an example of a preacher being arrested for quoting from Romans because it was reported as hate speech.
Rabbi Herschel Gluck OBE said we ignore Freedom of Religion or Belief in the UK to our detriment, arguing that freedom is a central plan to any civilised society. Rabbi Gluck said that when freedom is lost from one section of society, then all suffer. Rabbi Gluck then went on to say that he fears that there is a war on traditional values, with Ofsted starting a “crusade” for secularism within schools. Rabbi Gluck then said this was part of a larger campaign to deny freedom to large sections of society.
James Bundy, Director of Operations for Freedom Declared Foundation and chair of this event, said it was important to remember that there was only one human right to have been breached in the UK during the pandemic and that was Freedom of Religion or Belief. James said that this showed that Freedom of Religion or Belief is currently not a priority for Governments in the UK, butTo Freedom Declared Foundation was founded to change this.
To conclude, James asked the panel what we should prioritise when championing Freedom of Religion or Belief as we exit the pandemic.
Dr John Newton said that during the pandemic we saw the strength of communities pulling together, and the solidarity which emerges when we all come together to promote the Common Good.
Daniel Wheatley said that the pandemic showed that personal faith and belief gave people resilience during the pandemic, and that resilience benefited society. Giving people the freedom to further build this resilience as we exit the pandemic would benefit our society.
Rabbi Herschel Gluck OBE said that the pandemic reminded us that we are human and that we need more love in the world. We need to care about others even when it is difficult for ourselves. Giving people to believe in what they believe and worship in the way they want to worship is a sign of love towards others.
Emma Wadsworth-Jones concluded the event by saying that we need to remind to promote Freedom of Religion or Belief in an inclusive way, promoting everyone’s right to this freedom.
For further comments, please do get in touch with James Bundy at James.Bundy@FreedomDeclaredFoundation.org