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Reinvigorating calls for Religious Freedom

Reinvigorating calls for Religious Freedom

Marianne Rozario reflects on the Government’s recent conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief 13/07/2022

In January 2019 Theos’ former director Elizabeth Oldfield commented on the need to ‘rescue’ religious freedom. She concluded that, “…anyone who cares about the freedom of human beings to make their own minds up on existential questions (including to decide against religion), and then to live according to their values, should be in favour of religious freedom”. 

Step forward three years and that call is still needed, but perhaps the UK Government has just shone a spotlight on it.  

Through its Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) Ministerial Conference that took place in London on 5 and 6 July 2022, the UK Government has reinvigorated calls for religious freedom. The event brought together government ministers, faith and belief leaders, and civil society organisations from around fifty countries. The two–day event was themed around the 3Ps – Prevention, Protection, and Promotion. ‘Prevention’ focused on early warning and action, ‘protection’ addressed sharing global knowledge and delivering local action, and ‘promotion’ suggested a need to build FoRB for the future.  

So, what is Freedom of Religion or Belief? Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that, “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 UK Government has stated that FoRB is one of the UK’s long–standing human rights priorities. Its commitment to such a priority became evident as the key theme of the conference desiring to cement freedom of religion or belief as a fundamental human right. UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss at the conference stated, “The freedom to believe, to pray and commit acts of worship, or indeed not to believe is a fundamental human freedom and has been one since the dawn of time”. 

If that is the aim, the current situation is bleak. Numerous examples come to mind when thinking of religious persecution around the world – the Uyghurs, Christians in the Middle East, the Yazidis, the Rohingya – to name but a few. Recent attacks on religious freedom can also be highlighted including the killing of fifty worshipers celebrating Pentecost at St Francis Catholic Church in Ondo State, Nigeria. Despite, or perhaps because of, the current situation, the conference could not have come at a better time. 

The conference has highlighted freedom of religion or belief as a high–priority human rights issue in the UK, and perhaps in Europe, in an unprecedented way. However, can this one–off event enable tangible steps forward on religious freedom? It has the potential.  

Break down the participants present and you unlock the power that the collective can bring. State actors have the ability to give the issue political power, raise awareness, and apply diplomatic pressure. Civil society actors – media outlets, non–governmental organisations – can report or work on the ground but raise the issue globally. Religious actors equally have agency in this matter. Religious actors at the local grassroots level hear, know and inform on occurring atrocities, they are often those trusted by communities, and the ones that stay the longest in communities in times of crisis. Religious actors also influence at the national and international level, being drawn on for their expertise, listened to as respected moral voices, and can be enablers of resources. But together they can achieve more.  

The potential of this conference, for me, lies in its future collaborations between state, non–state and religious actors. The 4th ‘P’ of ‘partnerships’, often added on to the 3Ps paradigm, can be a tool for progress here because uniting each actors’ spheres of influence strengthens the collective fight for religious freedom. An example of a ‘partnership’ from an equally important human rights issue is the Santa Marta Group (SMG). It is an alliance of 58 state actors (government officials, ambassadors, police chiefs, law enforcement agencies), 60 Catholic actors (Catholic bishops, priests and religious orders, Catholic charities), and 10 civil society actors (intergovernmental organisations, non–governmental organisations, other religious actors) from around the world working together to eradicate modern slavery and human trafficking. Since the signing of the Santa Marta Commitment in 2014, this diverse set of actors have in partnership collaborated at the local, the national and the international level. Like the partnerships formed in the SMG, government ministers, faith and belief leaders, and civil society organisations from the fifty countries represented at the FoRB Ministerial Conference have the potential to ‘prevent’, ‘protect’, and ‘promote’ with a wider reach horizontally and a greater influence vertically if they partnered together. 

The FoRB Ministerial Conference was right to emphasise the importance of the 3Ps – Prevention, Protection, and Promotion. But is the 4th ‘P’ of ‘partnerships’ not just as important to be stressed? Can ‘partnerships’ in fact strengthen the other 3Ps? The partnerships and collaborations resulting from the conference might just be its greatest success. After all, as Elizabeth Oldfield suggested, freedom of religion or belief goes beyond political lines and culture wars because it is fundamentally a freedom that is essential to us all.  


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Photo by Meruyert Gonullu:

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko:

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Marianne Rozario

Marianne Rozario

Marianne is Fundraising and Project Management Lead at Theos. She holds a PhD in International Relations exploring the notion of Catholic agency in international society through the University of Notre Dame Australia, as well as a MA(Hons) in International Relations from the University of St Andrews. She concurrently works at St Mary’s University Twickenham as Project Manager of Catholic Mission, Associate Lecturer and Module Convenor.

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Posted 13 July 2022

Freedom of Religion, Religion, Religious Freedom


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