Methodist Church Consultation on Religious Freedom
A Statement from the Methodist Consultation on Religious Freedom
13 to 16 March 2017
In March 2017 in Welwyn Garden City, the Methodist Church in Britain hosted an international consultation on religious freedom involving partners from Cuba, Zambia, Nigeria, Estonia, Portugal, Pakistan and the UK. Additional participants based in the UK were able to represent partners in other countries.
Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines freedom of belief and conscience as a right for all peoples. In 1962 the UN General Assembly decided that Declarations and Conventions should be drafted on the twin topics of racial discrimination and on discrimination based on religion or belief. The Convention on racial discrimination was adopted in 1965 while a Convention on discrimination on religion and belief remains outstanding today. In 1966 the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was adopted by the UN, making the protection of freedom of thought, conscience and religion a legally-binding obligation of signatory states. But for many around the world the right to freedom of religion and belief is being ignored or eroded. There is renewed interest in this area in part because fundamentalism. In addition the desire of some governments to control society has led to persecution and the restriction of liberties that previously flourished.
Together the participants of the consultation shared experience with each other as well as gaining from the insight of faith leaders and others who have provided leadership in this field. As we work to take forward a better appreciation of religious freedom in the life of our churches we resolved to make the following statement arising from our four days together. We seek to share this with the worldwide Methodist community and with others beyond.
Freedom as a public good
Micah 6: 3-4 and 7-8
3 “My people, what have I done to you?
How have I burdened you? Answer me.
4 I brought you up out of Egypt
and redeemed you from the land of slavery.
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
8 He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
These verses from Micah speak of our Lord’s desire that humanity is not constrained by ordinance or religious practice. Liberation from these strictures encourages us to seek for ourselves a way of being that honours God and is guided by eternal values. Whether we are speaking of freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom of conscience or freedom of belief; freedom is liberating and is a public good. These various aspects of freedom are inextricably related.
Freedom must be for all; for example, freedom of religion and belief without freedom for women is not really freedom at all.
Listening to and encountering the experiences of others
During our consultation we heard accounts that were inspiring and others that were harrowing. The diversity of our contexts in which freedom of religion and belief is experienced or denied was very obvious from the outset. We heard accounts of believers who were enriched through shared experience of people of other faiths. Through walking and sharing with our Jewish brothers and sisters we overcome prejudice, hatred and ignorance of which the church has needed to repent. At a well Jesus meets a woman from outside the faith who quenches his thirst and in that exchange both the giver and the receiver are enriched. The consultation benefited from a reflection from Imam Dr Usama Hasan. He stated that the Qur’an attests that ‘there is no compulsion in religion’ and that the Qur’an encourages debate. Is it not also a Christian duty to seek encounter and understanding with followers of other faiths? We may not always agree but even so it is important to move from simply dialogue to relationship.
The Qur’an encourages debate: God debates with Satan. The Qur’an says things like ‘speak truth... say what you believe... argue with the pagans and say one of us is right and one of us is wrong’.”
Our experience of violence
In Nigeria and in Pakistan religious affiliation has marked out individuals or whole communities for attack. In many contexts there are serious violations of freedom of religion and belief combined with cultures of impunity for human rights violations by the state. These induce a climate of fear making it difficult to both hear the experience of people and hold governments to account for breaking international human rights obligations. Democratic governments can, for reasons of short-term economic gain and other political considerations, be complicit in failing to hold such governments to account. How should the international community address the shrinking space for civil society in Pakistan in which the Government of Pakistan is a willing and complicit partner?
Where public order has broken down and police and government fail to provide security, the primary ethical concern becomes the sanctity of life. Faith communities in such dire settings can be very vulnerable. We are challenged to work out how we can form more effective alliances across the worldwide Christian community and act together in solidarity. The consultation was addressed by His Grace Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK who spoke of the pain of the Coptic community who are experiencing increasing attacks in Egypt. He spoke of the need for honesty in our conversations across faiths and to gather around the table the sceptics so that we are not ‘preaching to the choir’.
The worst thing terrorists can do isn’t to kill you – the worst thing terrorists can do is make you hate them – because hatred displaces you from God’s kingdom.
Sharing the gospel
The Methodist Church is a broadly evangelical church committed to sharing the gospel of God’s grace for all. God grants every person the freedom to respond or not to respond to a call to follow him. This freedom for everyone is fully found within both the Gospel and international human rights standards. We heard how new opportunities to share the gospel are contributing to the growth of God’s church, in Cuba for example, as that nation continues to change and develop. Freedom of religion and belief is essential to the mission of the church and this both inspires and challenges us. In many former communist states the linked freedoms of religion and belief, expression, association and assembly are increasingly restricted. Is it possible to develop religious freedom where there is no knowledge but much suspicion around faith? Some of our societies have become fiercely secular; our churches defend the right of individuals to hold no belief but continue to affirm religion as a public good. However in upholding the latter we grappled the reality that the church has all too often treated the freedom of religion and belief in a parochial or utilitarian fashion, focused largely on defending my right or that of my community. The universality of the right to freedom of religion and belief compels us to put ourselves in the shoes of others.
Where Christians consider that they live in a ‘Christian state’ does this encourage us to be less accepting towards subscribers of other faiths or of none?
Public discourse and the role of states and the United Nations
Among the various aspects of civil rights the right to freedom of religion and belief is the least well defined in the United Nations system. The relationship of the State to religion and belief can be very complex. Western Europe is generally considered to be tolerant and pluralistic so it seems odd that politicians and civil servants find it difficult to engage with matters of faith, including Christian faith. We heard examples of how in an increasingly secular Western Europe discussion of Christian faith (or other faiths) is being marginalised or excluded altogether from the public sphere. But as we have already acknowledged, in other parts of the world state opposition to religious institutions can be more serious and harmful.
Constitutional structures are not necessarily reflected in practice for example in Nigeria, which is regarded as a secular state, the Government funds pilgrimages (initially Muslim pilgrimages and now Christian as well) and this is an avenue for corruption. Such policies can arise when governments fail to know how to approach matters of faith and faith leaders engage on the basis of their own faith group rather than on behalf of all citizens. It is helpful to conceive of discussion and legislation on freedom of religion and belief as a means of defining normative standards that build society and prevent conflict, rather than a means for addressing current crises. Even though faith groups are interested parties with vested interests it is nevertheless valuable for such groups to be engaged this process. Given the generally poor level of religious literacy, acknowledged by the current UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, we could do more to reach out to human rights groups with broader rights expertise and engage them in this work. However this approach may not have purchase in places where the stress on civil and political rights is considered to be a ‘foreign’ agenda and where the need for better inter-faith relationships is paramount.
“If you don’t know where you’re going you’re probably going to end up somewhere else”. This sums up the approach of the international community in their engagement with freedom of religion and belief. (Sir Malcolm Evans)
Looking to the future. Our recommendations for our churches and other faith groups
- The issues around freedom of religion and belief need to be worked through in the national context.
- Our national churches could be better resourced with theological materials. A theological resource could be developed and widely shared across the Methodist world.
- The framework of this consultation could be repeated in national contexts
- There is a role to play in supporting Methodist and other faith partners in situations of persecution.
- Action resources should be produced to encourage prayer and solidarity with those suffering violations of freedom of religion and belief. (This could include background on freedom of religion and belief and on people’s lived experience in particular geographic contexts.)
- Support for funding health and education is needed in settings where groups are being marginalised and excluded
- In some situations, for example pressure on governments is required, more overtly political or campaigning action resources may be useful
- Methodism is well placed to make an international contribution in this area
- The United Methodist Church, the Methodist Church in Britain and the World Methodist Council should give thought as to the contribution that Methodism might play in making linkages with other faith groups on global and regional platforms
- The Methodist Church in Britain should strengthen links with the All Party Parliamentary Group on Freedom of Religion and Belief and seek to positively influence the place of freedom of religion and belief in UK foreign relations
Participants valued the learning, fellowship and insights gained from an environment in which they could share with each other freely and safely. There is a desire for us to remain in contact and to offer prayer and support, particularly towards those who are exercising their faith in particularly difficult contexts.
We find ourselves profoundly grateful that God grants us autonomy and freedom to respond to His grace to us. And as we know neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, nor any powers, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.