10th December 2014 London, UK

Tobias Ellwood blogs for Human Rights Day: Freedom of Religion or Belief in the Middle East and North Africa

For Human Rights Day Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Tobias Ellwood, blogs on Freedom of Religion or Belief in the Middle East and North Africa (to see this post in Arabic, click here: ow.ly/FJHxS).

Today – exactly sixty six years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – conflict and instability in the Middle East and North Africa threaten a whole swathe of human rights, including the crucial right to freedom of religion or belief. Violence committed in the name of religion has increased and, in particular, the plight of religious minorities is deeply worrying.

Almost daily, we see heart-rending images of suffering, as communities that have existed peacefully for centuries flee for their safety – in particular, Christians are rapidly deserting the region, and Yazidis have been forced to leave areas where they have lived for years. But we know that it is not only Christians and Yazidis who are suffering. People of many faiths – be they Sunni, Shia, Druze, Alawite, Jew, Baha’i, or any other group – are all affected.

In the summer, I met Archbishop Athanasius Dawod, Head of the Syria Orthodox Church in the UK, to discuss the difficulties being faced by religious groups in the region. I heard first-hand about the appalling atrocities being committed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and the way they are threatening and intimidating minority groups. These brutal acts reinforced to me just how vital it is that we work with our international partners to build and strengthen inclusive governments that will uphold the rule of law and protect the rights of all, whatever their religion or belief.

It’s vital that people of all faiths – or none – can participate fully in society and live without fear of abuse or discrimination. We regularly urge all governments in the Middle East and North Africa to ensure the protection of all religious minorities and to encourage them to develop inclusive political systems that represent all of their citizens.

At a global level we work through bodies like the United Nations to encourage worldwide acceptance of the importance of freedom of religion or belief. This should not be seen as a human right that is only important in some parts of the world, or only relevant for some sectors of society, but instead as a freedom that should be guaranteed for everyone, everywhere. If you watch carefully, often freedom of religion or belief is the first freedom to be attacked. And where that is tolerated, other freedoms, such as freedom of expression or women’s rights, often soon follow.

We back our words with actions, by working proactively in countries where we can to tackle these issues and to help build more inclusive societies.  For example, in Yemen we have been supporting a grassroots community reconciliation initiative to ease tensions between different communities. In Iraq and Syria a number of UK-funded projects have brought together religious leaders from all denominations to foster greater understanding between faiths, and to support reconciliation. In Tunisia, we are supporting a project run by the Centre for the Study of Islam and Democracy which has been looking, amongst other things, at the protection of religious minorities under the new constitution.  Beyond the Middle East and North Africa region, we have been strengthening networks of Human Rights Defenders working on freedom of religion or belief issues, and promoting better-informed media reporting of religious conflicts.

So today, as the global community celebrates International Human Rights day, I’d like to underline the importance of freedom of religion or belief. Limits to this freedom not only restrict the rights of the individual, but, in many cases, fan the flames of conflict. This is why the UK is working with partners across the Middle East and beyond to promote and protect this universal right.