Religious freedom essential for stable societies - bishop

The Bishop of Guildford has called upon the Government to uphold freedom of religion and conscience in the UK and abroad.

Introducing a debate on the issue in the House of Lords this week, the Right Reverend Christopher Hill raised concerns about encroachments on religious freedom around the world, including a rise in anti-Semitism and increasing pressures on minority religious groups.

He raised particular concern about the "tragic" increase in violence in Nigeria, where Islamist militant group Boko Haram has bombed churches and vowed to eradicate Christians from the north of the country.

"My point, however, is not to indulge in a tit-for-tat debate about who is persecuted most but to emphasise that no one should be discriminated against on grounds of religion or conscience, for the sake of the stability of societies and their common good in a multicultural and multifaith world," he said.

Reflecting on the court judgement from Strasbourg supporting airline worker Nadia Eweida's right to wear a cross, Bishop Hill said a balance of rights was "indicative of religious freedom as a real and not only a nominal human right".

"Nor is religious freedom ultimately in opposition to other rights, such as freedom of expression, non-discrimination, women's rights and gay rights," he said.

The bishop said it was "essential" that religious communities not only speak out on behalf of their own adherents but those of other faiths too.

"Faith communities should not be slow in condemning behaviour within their own communities which is discriminatory to others," he said.

While the Foreign Secretary has an advisory group on human rights, he recommended the creation of a second group to work "holistically" on religious freedom issues.

The bishop also urged the Government to support the United Nations in drafting a convention on the freedom of religion and belief.

"For 45 years the aspiration of drafting a convention on the freedom of religion or belief has been on ice. Surely now its time has come," he said.

The Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, the Right Reverend John Packer contributed to the debate with a special note of concern about the increasing abuse of blasphemy laws, especially in Pakistan, where they have been used to persecute Hindus and Christians, and prevent Muslims from changing faiths.

"Although it is perfectly appropriate to deprecate the insulting of any religion, it is a denial of human rights to prevent anyone from changing or abandoning their faith stance," he said.

"In principle, Pakistan continues to uphold the rights of religious minorities but, in practice, the existence of the blasphemy laws encourages illegal persecution and rejection."

Bishop Packer said the Government had a responsibility to make clear its rejection of religious bullying "by providing proper protection for those who flee here having suffered from it".

"My experience is that freedom of religion, conscience and non-religion is not taken as seriously as a human right in this country as is political persecution," he said.

"Those who change their religion in particular are regarded with suspicion by tribunals and find that their faith is not taken seriously.

"What I ask for is for it to be stressed by the Government that those who flee persecution in their country must and will receive an equivocal welcome here."