Mervyn Thomas

Chief Executive, Christian Solidarity Worldwide

Guest blogger for FCDO Editorial

Part of FCDO Human Rights FCDO Outreach

8th December 2017 London, UK

Faith Actors Can Play a Positive Role in Defending Human Rights. They Need Support.


The right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) is often misunderstood and dismissed as special pleading by the religious, when in reality, in its fullest form, it protects the right of all people to live their lives according to their deepest convictions, whether or not they have a religion or belief. It must be protected.

However, violations of FoRB, which range from discrimination and harassment to imprisonment or death, affect people of all faiths and none across the globe.

Within this context, we must recognise, promote and protect the potential of faith actors as defenders of human rights.

In countries marred by FoRB violations, religious leaders are often directly affected, or they may also be compelled to become human rights defenders and use their platform to help their communities. Moreover, locally they sometimes have greater legitimacy and access than government agencies, as well as a detailed understanding of inter-faith relations in their area.

In northern Nigeria for example, where non-Muslim communities have suffered attacks by the terrorist group Boko Haram or Fulani militants, the CEO of CSW Nigeria, Rev Yunusa Nmadu, pioneered a reconciliation and peacebuilding initiative in a previously crisis-prone neighbourhood. What began as a gift of food and produce from Christians to local impoverished Muslim families at Ramadan has become a sustained movement of interfaith understanding and trust-building in the community.

People of faith may also be compelled to fight for the human rights of others because of their beliefs. I know this myself working at CSW, which as a Christian human rights organisation holds its Christian beliefs at the very heart of its work and is motivated to contend for the right of people of all faiths and none to FoRB.

We therefore continually see the efficacy of the human rights initiatives led by the faith-based and non-belief organisations that we work with globally.  The UK Government, and the international community, must seek to harness this passionate, grassroots presence of faith actors as defenders of human rights.

Of course, there are occasions when faith actors or movements aggravate or even initiate human rights abuses. Religious intolerance, often fuelled by a narrow interpretation of a religion or belief which views those of other faiths and none as threats to national identity, and which regards race and religion as intertwined, must be challenged.

We have seen the effects of this in Burma, where members of the Rohingya Muslim community have been driven from their homes in the thousands, and subjected to crimes that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has described as a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing’.

Standing up for the rights of others can often be dangerous. In some countries, both secular human rights defenders and faith actors can be targeted with vilification, hate speech and even death.

We must therefore not only empower faith actors working to counter religious intolerance, but also defend and protect them in their work.

The UK government, international community and civil society must engage with, empower and defend faith actors as human rights defenders, so that the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief will be realised in its entirety.

Faith actors can play a positive role, but they need support.

1 comment on “Faith Actors Can Play a Positive Role in Defending Human Rights. They Need Support.

  1. My own personally inspired Faith, Lifism, tells me that GOD works through all Faiths for His supreme loving and peace-making ends. So it’s wonderful to se this reflected by such loving and so faithful individuals and communities in problem spots like those in Northern Nigeria.

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