UK must do more to protect freedom of religion and belief – Dr James Holt

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LAST week the United Kingdom hosted an International Ministerial event to discuss Freedom of Religion and Belief (FoRB). Leaders, academics, and interested parties from around the world came to London for the event and associated fringe meetings.

Governments everywhere must ensure that every person has the right and the freedom to express their religion and belief. Many of the fringe events of the ministerial event highlighted infringements of FoRB around the world. The treatment of Uyghur Muslims in China, Yazidis in Iraq and many other communities around the world are horrendous and it is right to condemn them. These condemnations must also be accompanied by action.

The UK must condemn the denial of the rights associated with FoRB. We must agitate for change and for rights to be respected by people around the world.

We might be left with the impression from the ministerial events that freedom of religion and belief is a foreign policy issue. This is wrong, FORB is a moral issue that affects us in the United Kingdom. In order for the UK to be effective in our promotion of FoRB in other countries, we must first of all get our own house in order.

Although the Equality Act (2010) enshrines religion (and belief) as protected characteristics, there are elements of legislation, and the implementation of laws, that would suggest that we have a way to go as a country. At Freedom Declared Foundation we have found that there is a lack of religious and belief literacy among some of our elected officials. For example, Lord Braid, the judge who ruled that the Scottish Government had infringed upon human rights legislation by closing places of worship during the second lockdown, suggested: “It is not clear that the respondents (the Scottish Government) have fully appreciated the importance of article nine (Freedom of Religion or Belief) rights. They have admittedly paid lip service to article nine by referring to it, but there is no evidence that they have accorded it the importance which such a fundamental right deserves.”

In the UK there also appears to be a rise of anti-religious hatred – including but not limited to Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and anti-Sikh hatred. Much more needs to be done to challenge behaviour that creates an environment where people do not feel safe or protected because of their religion and belief. Whatever our beliefs, it is imperative that we stand against injustice anywhere, not just when we are affected.

Every level of government and society needs to reflect on its commitment to FoRB. In doing so, they need to listen to the voices of all people. For many people, religion and belief is a core aspect of their identity, not something that can be taken on and off. In the spirit of the ministerial event, the UK must take the lead in putting FoRB into action, not just in other countries, but most importantly at home. Only then can we be truly world leading in helping others meet their responsibilities.

Dr James Holt is Associate Professor of Religious Education at the University of Chester and Chair of Freedom Declared Foundation, a UK charity dedicated to the promotion of FoRB.

Twitter: @jamesdholt @FeedomDeclared

This article originally appeared in the Herald, and can be viewed here.