Noman Masih died on 15 April, after being set on fire in Lahore, Pakistan, simply because he had identified himself as a Christian. He was just 13 years old.
Just under a month later Ananta Bijoy Das was hacked to death with machetes in north-eastern Bangladesh, simply because he was an atheist and humanist who wrote for a secular blog. Niloy Neel suffered the same fate earlier this month, the fourth such blogger to be killed in Bangladesh this year.
Until recently, freedom of religion was wrongly perceived as a right for religious people. There was a sense that if you were not religious, Article 18 was not for you. But this is a profoundly incorrect interpretation. It is in all our interests to speak up for the protection and promotion of this basic right, because when it is denied to one group, all are affected. Where Christians are persecuted, minorities from within Islam – Shi’a or Ahmadiyya, for example – also suffer, as do Baha’is. Where Muslims are the prime victims, as in Burma and among the Uighurs in China, Christians and other minorities suffer alongside them. And in many parts of the world, those who choose to exercise their right to not believe, to reject religion, to declare their agnosticism, atheism or humanism, they face discrimination, arrest, imprisonment, torture or even death.
The international community is beginning to take these issues more seriously. The United States has long had an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Canada recently created a similar post, the European Union has Guidelines on Freedom of Religion or Belief, and of course the United Nations has a Special Rapporteur on the issue, whose current mandate holder, Professor Heiner Bielefeldt, has proven both energetic and insightful in his approach. A recent debate in Britain’s House of Lords helped highlight the issue, which the United Kingdom says is a priority in its foreign policy. A new network of Parliamentarians from around the world focused on freedom of religion or belief has been established.
All of these initiatives are welcome, but still not enough. Freedom of religion or belief gets attention only in moments of crisis – yet it should be a priority not only in emergency situations, such as the horrific violence by ISIL in Iraq and Syria, but as a proactive initiative to address abuses before they escalate. We would like to see greater co-ordination between like-minded governments and international institutions, so that the protection and promotion of freedom of religion or belief is a constant refrain from policy-makers across the globe, impacting not only foreign policy but also international development policy and trade. Recipients of aid should be urged to end abuses, and steps should be taken to ensure that aid is not given to schools which preach intolerance, and encouraging trading partners to ensure that religious minorities – and those who have non-religious worldviews – are given equal rights in the workplace. Perhaps it is time for a high-level international conference to coordinate strategies and raise the level of attention?
This is an issue which affects individual lives – people such as Alexander Aan, jailed for two and a half years in Indonesia because he is an atheist; Meriam Ibrahim, a Christian threatened with execution in Sudan; Htin Lin Oo, a Buddhist in Burma arrested and jailed after criticising extremist Buddhist nationalists. But it also affects entire communities, and the stability of nations. The current crisis facing the Muslim Rohingya people from Burma, fleeing religious persecution, dire humanitarian conditions and statelessness in their thousands, is impacting the wider region of South-East Asia. Similarly, Libyans and Eritreans on boats in the Mediterranean are escaping a reign of terror unleashed by religious extremists for whom freedom of religion or belief is a concept that simply does not exist.
It is, therefore, in all our interests to ensure that governments, media and institutions around the world speak out for individuals in jail or facing execution, support civil society actors on the ground working to defend freedom of religion or belief, and make it a priority to promote this most basic of freedoms. For without the freedom to think and believe as we will, what other freedoms do we have?