Skip to main content

Freedom of religion or belief, including the freedom to change religion, or have no faith, is a fundamental human right and one that I believe passionately should be enjoyed by everyone, everywhere.

The reason I believe it matters – is not just for its own sake, or even because we know that more than three-quarters of the world are guided by their faith. It matters because where such freedoms are absent, curbed or suppressed, intolerance and mistrust flourishes, splitting communities down religious fault lines. Once communities are divided, it does not take much to spark tensions and spill over into violence.

The United Kingdom is an incredible country where people of all faiths and none are free to practice, profess and propagate their faith without fear of discrimination, persecution or violence. Over the centuries, the UK has welcomed people from all over the world – I’m one of them, or my parents were: the partition of India forced them to move to Pakistan, and then in the early 1950s my father migrated to the UK.

From the landscape that greeted my father in the 1950s, Britain has changed. Spires and steeples have been joined by minarets and menorah, domes and temples. As you look over the rich and diverse tapestry that is modern Britain today, we have more than 1,700 mosques, 400 synagogues and 300 gurdwaras, often standing side by side with churches and cathedrals.

I am proud, as we should all be, of our religious diversity, but it would be wrong to suggest that it is always easy to integrate religious minorities into a society where there is already a dominant religion. When we stand up against religious persecution abroad and promote religious tolerance and respect internationally, we know from our own experience how challenging it can be and continues to be. When a temple is built on your street or a halal butcher opens in the market it’s a demonstration that your religion is one of many, and not the only one. At times this can be difficult, and the battle of ideas is by no means won, even in the UK.

Therefore, it is important for governments and faith leaders to keep making the argument that we have nothing to fear from accepting other faiths into our society; that mutual respect is a sign of strength, not weakness; and that when faiths take the difficult step of defending each other’s rights, they are spreading the universal message of tolerance, respect, understanding and peace – the universal message of all religions.

In my role as a Minister at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and more recently with the additional responsibility as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief, I’ve seen some positive examples of respect and tolerance amongst faith communities across the world. In the Middle East, Lebanon is seeking to establish itself as a model of peaceful coexistence of faiths in a region of great instability. In Abu Dhabi, a third Christian cathedral – for the Greek Orthodox faith – has just opened. And a mosque beside the Catholic cathedral – which had carried the name of the Crown Prince – has just been re-named at the Crown Prince’s request as the Mary, Mother of Jesus Mosque.

Outside the Middle East, I have also seen religious diversity flourishing in Ghana, with Christian and Muslims communities working together. And most recently, during a visit to Sudan – a country which is desperately challenged economically, and is still recovering from deep-rooted conflict, I saw the hope that was provided by the respect between faith leaders.

Yet tragically, as we look around the world, millions of people face the most appalling persecution every day because of their beliefs.

Even in Europe, where we have some of the strongest rights protections in the world, tragically anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are on the rise, and attacks on those who look or dress differently are increasing. It is essential that they are dealt with robustly and in a united fashion.

Further afield, we have all been horrified by the barbarity of Daesh, including towards Christians, Yazidis and Mandeans in Iraq and Syria, and the despicable crimes of Boko Haram’s against Nigerian Christians. These acts by terrorist organisations are appalling. But it is not just non-state actors who are to blame.

For too long, far too many states have failed to prevent religious discrimination, or even to ensure the rights of citizens of all faiths – and none – are protected by the law. In Egypt, Coptic Christians still do not enjoy equal citizenship rights. They continue to face social pressure that restricts their freedom to worship, build churches, and play a full role in national life. When legal protections are lacking, popular prejudices go unchecked, people suffer harassment, and that harassment can turn to persecution, exclusion, and – tragically for many – violence.

In some cases states are going further than that and are actively trampling on their citizens’ rights. As we look around the world today, this is the reality for: Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Rakhine state; Baha’is in Iran; Christians and Uighurs in China; and Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. In Saudi Arabia, non-Muslim religions are banned and the death penalty is imposed for apostasy. While in Pakistan, blasphemy laws are used to intimidate atheists, Christians and other minorities, and we have seen the state turning a blind eye to attacks on Christian minorities and the Ahmadi Muslims. All are being failed by their respective governments, the very people whose responsibility it is to protect them.

It is therefore right that tackling discrimination and promoting tolerance around the world is a priority for the UK Government. Our Prime Minister has spoken of the need to “stand up for the rights of people of all religions to practice their beliefs in peace and safety.”

We lobby governments directly about specific cases. We urge them to protect the rights of their citizens and, where appropriate, we press them to change legislation that discriminates against minority groups, or to introduce safeguards to protect the misuse of certain laws.

We also work with international partners through the UN and other bodies to promote religious freedom; to build consensus on the importance of the issue; and, just as importantly, to ensure that religious persecution in itself does not go unpunished.

We have been at the forefront of a campaign to bring Daesh to accountability and justice, committing £1 million to help establish a UN-led investigative team to support the collection of evidence.

And we spend millions of pounds every year on grassroots projects around the world to counter hate speech, to promote tolerance and understanding of minorities, and ultimately build mutual respect between communities.

I am therefore proud of the role our Government is playing in standing up for persecuted minorities – be they the Christians of Algeria or the Rohingya Muslims of Burma, to name but two communities. Yet, so much more needs to be done.

Building mutual respect is essential. As His Holiness Pope Francis rightly says, people of different faiths – and none – need to “fully understand our respective convictions” if we are to succeed in breaking down the barriers between us.

The UK Government is strengthening links with faith leaders in this country. For example, I have introduced regular faith roundtables to discuss the pressing foreign policy issues of our time and deepen our understanding of religious perspectives on them.

Education is also vital if we are to eliminate intolerance and break down the barriers between communities for good. As Nelson Mandela said, no child is born hating his neighbour; intolerance is something that is learned. We must educate our children to understand other religions, in the hope that the next generation will be wiser than those that have come before it. And schools have a vital role, including faith schools. I myself am a product of a Church of England School; my mother insisted on it. She believed it was essential to learn about and respect other beliefs. My wife and I have made the same choice as parents, our daughter and one of our sons attend Catholic schools, whilst our youngest is at a Church of England nursery. It doesn’t dilute our faith, but rather strengthens it, through respecting those of other faiths and none. The crucial thing is that schools teach inclusivity and mutual respect.

While all these Government-led efforts are important, tackling intolerance is not just about government action: there are things that individuals can do in their communities too.

Religion itself can be part of the solution. As his Holiness Pope Francis said during his visit to Burma last year: “Religious differences need not be a source of division and distrust, but rather a force for unity, forgiveness, and tolerance and wise nation-building.”

This positive force can help to ensure that people of all faiths and none truly feel part of the wider community, their country, and their nation. On Christmas Day last year, non-Christian restaurant owners across the UK opened their doors to feed the homeless. Young people from the Muslim community spent New Year’s Day picking up litter. In North London, the local Jewish community raised thousands of pounds for the family of a murdered Asian shopkeeper. Small acts of compassion like these demonstrate that we are all part of the same community. They dispel misconceptions and prejudice, and build lasting bonds and friendships.

Every act of intolerance, every attack by neighbour on neighbour, community on community, and country on country is an attack on society as a whole. Humanity cannot afford for this to continue. We need to be intolerant of intolerance; to speak out against discrimination in all its forms; to fight impunity; and to hold states true to their international commitments. Rest assured the UK will play our part in defending and strengthening the essential and fundamental human right of freedom of religion or belief.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon is the Minister of State for the Commonwealth and the UN and the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief. This article first appeared in our Centre Write magazine Staying Faithful?. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.