13th February 2015 London, UK

Guest Blog from Baroness Anelay: "Freedom to Believe"

This week, we’ve hosted two events at Wilton Park, and in Geneva, on freedom of religion or belief. To mark them, I’m inviting you to join me in our social media campaign #freedomtobelieve.

Here’s why:

Last month I visited a training centre for Imams and Mourchidats (female spiritual guides) in Morocco. What I witnessed there underlined the importance of education in shaping the way people think about the world around them, particularly those who hold different beliefs from their own; or who exercise their right to follow a non-religious belief or to have no belief at all.  Faith should liberate us to engage with those who think completely differently, without fear that they may somehow threaten our own beliefs.

As Minister for Human Rights at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, I oversee UK government work on a range of human rights.  The most difficult of these to protect, I often think, is the right to freedom of religion or belief.  It’s something that almost everyone has a strong view about. Some see it as essential and central. Others take the view that it’s too tricky, or emotive.  Not so, this is a key freedom.  According to figures from the Pew Forum, more than a third of the world’s population now live in countries where there are extreme limitations on the right to freedom of religion or belief and, according to UNHCR, 850,000 Christians have fled Iraq alone since 2003, for fear of persecution.  This makes a mockery of their #freedomtobelieve.

That is why we work closely with our EU partners on cases such as that of Asia Bibi, imprisoned on account of her faith in Pakistan.  Together, we have lobbied at the highest levels for her release.  She has done nothing that would be regarded as a crime in most countries around the world.  Yet she has been on death row for four years. We will not give up on her.

Similarly, take the high profile case of Meriam Ibrahim, imprisoned last year in Sudan and forced to give birth in chains because she would not renounce her faith.  International outcry finally led to Meriam’s release. But there are many more cases that do not make the headlines, where we lobby governments in private because it is more effective.

Whilst confronting these wrongs is important, we also need to build partnerships for change – that is what we were doing earlier this week at Wilton Park by convening a conference to discuss how the global community can work better together to defend the right to freedom of religion or belief. At the same time, we hosted in Geneva a half-day panel discussion with the Universal Rights Group, which offered participants a real opportunity to engage with policymakers and have an interactive discussion on how the international community can best guard against religious intolerance. Back in 2011 we managed to move away from texts at the Human Rights Council that sought to protect religions from criticism (“defamation”), and to agree, instead, a resolution which calls upon all states to tackle religious intolerance, foster religious freedom and pluralism, and to ensure religious minorities are properly represented at all levels of society.

I am under no illusion that a UN resolution automatically translates into action in the societies where it is most needed.  But we have been working with the international community to share best practice and promote practical action to do just that.  For example, we’ve supported training for journalists on how to report on religiously motivated violence without fanning the flames of hatred.  And we’ve been supporting a network of human rights defenders in South Asia, building their capacity to hold their governments to account.

I believe that, difficult though this issue is to tackle, it is not impossible. Let us not be daunted by the task.  But we cannot do it alone.  We need people who value their right to believe, whatever they choose to believe or not to believe, to stand up and be counted.

This is why, this week, we’ve launched a social media initiative on Twitter.  I call on people of all faiths, or none, to join me in defending the right of everyone to have the #freedomtobelieve.