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Passive Viewing Is Over

freedom_of_religionWith the news that 70% of the world’s population is suffering from major restrictions to freedom of religion, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Representative to the EU,  Canon Dr Gary Wilton, demands we must take action

Not so long ago most western homes
gave pride of place to a single television screen.  Today we are surrounded by a multiplicity of screens in our homes, offices, cars, phones and gyms, all bringing us unmediated sights of the world’s disasters, poverty and wars.  More than that – they enable us to witness the freedom or lack of freedom of our fellow men and women.  Screens full of young people demonstrating in the public squares of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have had a powerful impact on their region and beyond.  Aided by blogging, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube countless others, young and old, have been emboldened to speak out for freedom.

On 10 December 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  But 60 years later human rights are still far from universal.  Freedom of thought, conscience and belief, in particular, is subject to widespread violation.  Disturbingly, over 70 per cent of the world’s population suffers from high or very high restrictions on freedom of religion.

Article 18 of the Declaration reads very clearly:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Many governments only pay lip service to the cause of freedom of religion.  Some actively manipulate or violate religious freedom for ideological, political or theological reasons.  Others only give attention to freedom of religion when their own constituency is under threat.

For the Christian Church freedom of religion or belief should not be a matter of self-interest.  Genuine freedom to believe or not to believe benefits everyone.  It underpins peace and democracy, and contributes to human flourishing.  Professor Malcolm Evans concluded his 2011 Lambeth Interfaith Lecture saying:

‘As people of faith it is up to us to champion the causes of others as well as of ourselves. And we must do this based on a positive understanding of the value of freedom of religion or belief for all, grounded as that is in our own understanding of church, conscience and the common good. For if religious believers will not stand up for the religious freedoms of others, irrespective of their faith, why in heaven’s name should anyone else?’

In the Brussels arena, freedom of religion or belief is a highly contested issue.  Some secular voices in the European External Action Service are deeply uncomfortable with any interface between religion and politics.  Other voices from within the European Parliament, and usually from the Christian Democratic tradition, have spoken out strongly in support of persecuted Christian minorities across the globe.  Simultaneously, member state ministries of foreign affairs have been deluged with demands for action when scenes of violence against Christians in the Middle East have hit their citizens’ screens.  How should Foreign Ministers respond?

In February 2011 the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council published its most recent conclusions in relation to intolerance, discrimination and violence on the basis of religion or belief.  Conscious that the world was watching, the Council firmly ‘condemned recent violence and acts of terrorism against Christians, their places of worship, Muslim pilgrims and other religious communities.’

The 27 member states were right to name those communities which have suffered particular violence and persecution.  They were also right to maintain a clear commitment to freedom of religion or belief for all.  The Council’s conclusions ended by welcoming the ‘ongoing efforts to enhance EU actions to promote and protect freedom of religion or belief…’ and invited the ‘High Representative to report on the measures taken and on concrete proposals to further strengthen the EU action.’  At the time of writing the High Representative is yet to report.

Sensitive though the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council is to the watching eyes of the world, member states are not always so alert to how their domestic policies are viewed across the globe.  When Europe seeks to promote its universal values it should not forget that the rest of the world is also watching its actions at home.  The banning of the burka in Belgium and France, the refusal to allow the building of minarets in Switzerland and the display of Christian crosses in the classrooms of state schools in Italy all made headline news across the world.

News headlines rarely capture the nuances or complexities of particular national situations.  But headlines about the burka, the cross and the minaret, coming so close together, gave the impression that Europe says one thing to the world and does another within its own borders.  By definition today’s headlines are quickly gone but they are not quickly forgotten. The worldwide web stores every policy decision and statement for the long term.  You only need to visit the Al Jazeera, BBC or CNN websites to see how true this is.

The July 2011 Wilton Park report on Freedom of Religion observed:

‘It is always easier to ‘name and shame’, than it is to start with oneself. We all have constituencies at home whose experience and concern over abuses, deprivation or discrimination motivate us to raise our voices. But sometimes we also need to turn the mirror around and look at how well we protect freedom of religion or belief for all within our own societies.’

We need to practice what we preach. Foreign and domestic policy need to be seen as a continuum.

In today’s globalised world, foreign policy is no longer just foreign – it is also highly domestic.  When we turn the mirror around we quickly see that the religious and cultural makeup of most western populations is highly complex.  Contemporary mass migration means that most nations of the world host significant diaspora populations; at the turn of the millennium, 175 million people or three per cent of the world’s population lived outside the country of their birth.  This number has continued to grow.

Diaspora populations are as yet unrecognised players in foreign policy.  They don’t just observe ‘the other’ on their screens.  People from north, south, east and west are increasingly living together in the same cities, even the same streets.  Diaspora populations experience and monitor their host countries from within and then pass on what they have learnt to their families and friends at home.  They often report back uncomfortable information about freedom or lack of freedom to practice their religion. Diaspora populations have the potential to be powerful shapers of how one country views another.  Such connectivity has significant implications for the development of foreign policy.  The international sphere is no longer the exclusive preserve of governments and diplomats – it is also shaped by people on the ground, including religious leaders who may have international networks of their own.

This fits well with the emergence of a three stranded and holistic approach to the promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief.  To date, the primary strand has been a classic human rights one focusing on the monitoring and reporting of violations including holding relevant people to account.  This has been accompanied by a second strand – conflict resolution – which has promoted preventative measures and solutions to avoid infringements or violations.  These two strands have been highly dependent on government commitment and activity.  The third and final strand is the interfaith and interreligious approach – with its strong emphasis on building relationships, exploration of shared values and partnership working for the common good.  If this third strand is to flourish, it will sometimes need government support; conversely it will sometimes need government to get out of the way. But this demands serious government engagement with civil society, including the leaders of religious communities.

Freedom of Religion is very much a hot topic, and undoubtedly a complex one. Such restrictions on freedom of religion demand that we are active viewers of the screens all around us.  Diplomats in particular are denied the luxury of passive viewing.  Sights of violence and discrimination against any believer or non-believer should prompt every government representative into action, either at home or abroad.  Not least because someone, somewhere will be prompted to respond and not necessarily for the good.  Inaction is not a credible policy option.  As much as our actions, our inactions are also being watched – by north, south, east and west – and they are held by an international memory that no single nation can control.


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