A quick link to the speech by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, at this morning's opening session of the IPPFoRB conference at the Reichstag in Berlin. More will follow.

 

Following my post last night on the corrosive nature of promises (as opposed to conjectures or wish lists) that can't be made, by people who have no right or authority to make them and who are unaccountable for what happens when they remain unfulfilled, here is another link to the context in which I write.

The conference of the International Panel of Parliamentariians for Freedom of Religion and Belief (snappily known by its friends as IPPFoRB) ended last night in Berlin. Today we meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel for a one-day conference at the Bundestag.

Among the important themes that emerged among the sixty or so national parliaments represented here in sessions yesterday was the discrepancy in many countries between what is written in law and how that law is either implemented/applied or ignored. In many places it is a triumph just to get freedom of religion (among other freedoms – this isn't hierarchical) enshrined in writing. However, what matters is what then is done about it.

One eminent speaker made it dead simple: (a) make good laws; (b) repeal bad laws; (c) hold governments to account on what the law says and demands. Given that everyone here is a parliamentarian, this is clear, applicable and achievable. It doesn't guarantee success, but it clarifies the task.

What emerged from several parts of the world is the pressure under which freedom of religion and religious expression is coming. Attempts to exclude God/religious world views from the public square are not unique to the secular West, but the spurious assumptions behind them seem to have one thing in common: that secular humanism (for want of a better term) is neutral and occupies the neutral place in the public discourse. It is self-evidently true and is purely 'scientific' – that is to say, needs not to make its case for credibility because that case is obvious. The outcome – put briefly – is that liberalising societies demand the right for 'tolerance' unless asked to tolerate views that are inconvenient to its assumptions of what is tolerable. One delegate explained how attempts are being made in his country to shout down any expression of traditional family values or articulation of a conservative view of ethics that derives from religious commitment.

That is not – as the speaker emphasised – to argue the case for the rightness of his views, but, rather, to insist that these views must be allowable if his society is to be truly tolerant (an awful, lowest common denominator word).

So, enshrining rights in law is not enough. Making promises on the back of that law is not enough. It is the implementation of that law that counts, and it is the discourse surrounding debate about that implementation that demands intellectual as well as moral integrity.

 

I am about to leave New York City having attended the second meeting of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief. The acronym IPPFoRB might need a bit of attention…

Convened last year by a small group of parliamentarians from the UK (Baroness Elizabeth Berridge), Norway, Brazil, Germany and Canada, this event brought together a hundred parliamentarians from fifty countries and from every continent – including from Myanmar, Iran, Pakistan and Iraq. The Church of England was involved in planning and running the event.

Not only was there informed and passionate discussion of the challenges in many parts of the world – including the naming and numbering of the persecution of Christians – but there was also the telling of stories from particular countries. This was a remarkable meeting, in the shadow of the United Nations and ahead of the meeting shortly of the General Assembly, of politicians (largely) who recognise the challenges across the globe.

Underlying the discourse lies two tough questions that go to the heart of a world that privileges rights: who, and according to which criteria, arbitrates between competing rights? Who, and according to which criteria, establishes the hierarchies of rights and freedoms? So, which takes precedence when freedom of expression collides with freedom of religion or belief? For some people this is an interesting – if challenging – conundrum; for others, it is a daily matter of life and death. There is a lot of work to do on this, and this coalition of parliamentarians from around the globe has engagaed with it with some energy.

There is too much to report here, but reports and the text of the Resolution will be posted on the website in due course. I tweeted through the main session yesterday, so have a look at my timeline to get a taste.

 

It is no secret that I worked (as a Russian and German linguist) at GCHQ in Cheltenham before heading down the ordination road in 1984 – just after Margaret Thatcher inexplicably banned us from belonging to unions and removed all our rights under the employment laws. Not that I am still sore…

In the last week or so I have only had time to follow superficially the business in the media about the PRISM project of NSA in the USA that has been exposed. It is all very Orwellian (in a 1984 sense), isn't it? Despite shock at the scale and nature of this surveillance, what really surprises me is that anybody should be surprised at what has been revealed.

The conundrum is a familiar one. We want to be protected and free. We want privacy and as little State interference in our lives as possible. We do not want to be watched or supervised every moment of the day. Yet, when anything goes wrong, we react with blaming fury at the lack of protection we have been afforded by those committed to this charge.

In a digital age it must be well-nigh impossible to work out what is, what isn't and what might one day prove to be vital or useful 'intelligence'. So, everything gets trawled up. It is yet another outworking of the maxim we so uncritically accept in other areas of life: that if we can do something – technologically – then we should do it.

The problem for the intelligence agencies is that their 'enemy' doesn't wear a big badge or simply speak with a funny 'Igor' accent. The benefits of technological advancement mean that the technology of espionage and terrorism advance. We can't have unlimited freedom and at the same time expect total security from threats by nasty people who don't think our freedom is up to much anyway.

Yet, we clearly need an informed, rational and responsible public debate about just how much freedom we are prepared to give up in order to increase security. We must collectively agree where ethics and effectiveness meet in a very complex world where some people just will not play by the rules of cricket.

And my view? I am wary about judging what I don't know: for example, and by definition, we have no idea how many crimes have been prevented because of hidden intelligence work. We would probably be horrified if we knew what was really going on out there where the unpleasant people seek ever more cunning ways to destroy people they don't like. I think PRISM looks like indiscriminate overkill and an intelligence network that has got out of hand – rightly provoking questions about power and its potential abuse. But, if I want to draw in the reach of surveillance by the State, I must also be prepared to pay the price if the nasties get through the gaps.

And, of course, we get worked up about this at the same time as we live in a place where we get photographed by the authorities a million times a day: England.

[It's not a very] funny old world.

 

This morning we met with four of the bishops of Sudan. Each explained the situation in their own diocese and we had a very fruitful conversation about how we can best build on our relationship to mutual benefit. The talk was open, honest, trustful and opened several doors to future work together.

One bishop was missing. Andudu, Bishop of Kadugli, is in Juba, Southern Sudan, as he is unable to return to his own diocese for reasons of safety. In June 2011 he was in the USA for medical treatment when Sudanese forces started their attack on the Nuba Mountains. While there he made some comments – perhaps without on-the-ground direct knowledge – and the Sudanese government took exception, making it impossible for him to return without endangering his life. His family is in Uganda. He was represented at our meeting this morning by one of his Canons who has had to flee Kadugli and is being cared for by the Diocese of Khartoum.

The situation has confused me a little – the rhetoric in the UK sometimes attributing motive and consequence where convenient, but not making complete sense. I fully accept that this might be evidence of my stupidity rather than a comment on the people doing the reporting or commentating. I could not understand why the bishop (and others could not return, especially as it is more peaceful in some areas right now than it has been). Today I began to grasp it (although what follows is not intended to be a full analysis).

The Sudanese government is attacking supporters of the SPLA. Kadugli itself is under government control, but other areas of South Kordofan are controlled by the SPLA. Thousands of people have fled and the humanitarian cost is being paid for by neighbouring states which are absorbing them. However, the government does not want a repeat of Darfur and, so, has prohibited the erection of refugee camps. This means that people escaping have to find their way to relatives in other cities – leading to families of ten or twenty living in very tight accommodation that was already overcrowded with a single family.

The other dioceses are caring for the refugees who exited by the gateway of El Obeid en route to places like Khartoum. These people have nothing and the people looking to help them have little. More could be said, but suffice it to say here that the courage, tenacity and quiet commitment of the bishops and their people to care for these displaced people is admirable. Last year I launched a 'Kadugli Appeal' in Bradford and so far we have raised £100,000 to enable these people to feed and assist those displaced. Of course, the need goes further – for example, children being absorbed into church schools in Khartoum – but at least something useful is being done.

Each diocese in Sudan faces this need for care of displaced and often traumatised people at the same time as losing some of their leading people to the South. This is another matter to which I will attend when I return to Bradford next week. But, the challenge is enormous… and is being tackled by good people with quiet determination and a shed load of love. It is very humbling.

It is also clear that government attacks in South Kordofan cannot be reduced to simple categories of political allegiance, race or religion, but is shaped by various mixtures of all three. Any analysis that seems simple… is probably wrong.

Our conversation went beyond the diocesan situations to wider issues such as the influence of Saudi Arabia in Sudan and other parts of the region. I was reminded of the need for people like me (who are involved in global interfaith dialogue) sometimes to check the western liberal perspective and look through the lens of Christians in places like Sudan where Islamic rejection of conversion from Islam to Christianity is more than an academic matter. Enough said… for now.

It is salutary that I have just started reading Walter Brueggemann's 2012 book The Practice of Prophetic Imagination. His starting point is that Christians operate in the real world with a 'narrative' that refuses to accept the 'dominant narrative' of the world in which we live. Without ducking the challenges of this, he maintains that Christians must constantly rehearse their own narrative, with God at the centre… even though this God is rejected in the world's dominant narrative (which he later describes as 'self-invention, competitive productivity and self-sufficiency' resulting in 'military consumerism'). Against this, the Christian narrative has to do with 'wonder (instead of self-invention), emancipation (instead of the rat-race of production), nourishment (instead of labour for that which does not satisfy), covenantal dialogue instead of tyrannical monopoly or autonomous anxiety), a quid pro quo of accountability (instead of either abdicating submissiveness or autonomous self-assertion), waiting (instead of having or despair about not having)'.

His point – which (a) he draws out from both Old and New Testaments and (b) reflects the call to responsibility as the heart of freedom that Joachim Gauck speaks about in his little book Freiheit: Ein Plädoyer – is that the world's narrative does not prove adequate (see how an obsession with security leads to massive insecurity, for example), but that this is too often not recognised or appreciated… even by Christians who are supposed to sing from a different hymn sheet. You'll have to read the book to get the point, but Brueggemann bangs the drum he has been beating in almost all his writing and preaching: that Christians must refuse narratives of defeat, ending, destruction and loss by holding to one that affirms perseverance, newness, creation and hope. “Choose life,” is the challenge of the Deuteronomist – which assumes that choices must be made and responsibility taken for those choices. In other words, Christians cannot be escapists from the challenges of power in the world, but, rather, challenge that world's assumptions (and exertions of power) by choosing to live differently in it.

It is perhaps not surprising that this reads with particular power here in Sudan as the day draws towards its close and the Muezzin calls the people to prayer.

 

It has been fascinating listening (in the car on the drive from London to Liverpool) to all the stuff on Germany 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I did a 30 minute slot on a radio station this morning and was interested to listen to the memories of Germans from the east and west of that surprising and momentous day two decades ago.

GorbachevBut, amid all the memories, it has brought to my mind a different event.

Last year I was in Astana, Kazakhstan, for a conference and was seated at dinner one evening with the Chairman of the Senate, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Tokayev is a very fluent English speaker and a politician of broad experience. I think there were seven or eight of us around the table and the conversation ranged widely over all sorts of political matters. Being a little opportunistic, I thought I’d grab the chance to ask questions I could never ask anyone else: Tokayev knew Gorbachev and Yeltsin and worked closely with both of them.

YeltsinI asked him why it was that Gorbachev is seen in the West as a great hero – the one who liberated the East and ended the Cold War – and Yeltsin is seen as an egotistic drunk who was an embarrassment to everyone who saw him. His response surprised me. He said that Gorbachev was a loser (my word) who sanctioned a massacre in Kazakhstan only several years before Glasnost kicked in and then oversaw the collapse of an empire; Yeltsin, on the other hand, was admired for his strength, political ability and his drinking. Apparently, in Russia a man who can hold huge quantities of alcohol is revered rather than resented.

This made me realise again that it is too easy to assume that everybody sees the world through the same lens. The way we judge ‘strength’ in the West might be totally different from how it is viewed in the East. It was fascinating listening to Tokayev telling stories of people who are legendary in my world, but for very different reasons and from very different perspectives.

It is a similar story in Germany today. Ostalgia (as it is being called) refers to the sort of romantic memories of the old German Democratic Republic. The world of the Berlin Wall was easier to understand: east and west, capitalist and communist, etc. But there were things of value in the east: universal health care, full employment (even though much of the work was not great), cheap travel, good education, etc. One German commentator I heard this morning noted that ‘you cannot put a price on freedom’, but that freedom comes at a price: freedom to fail, to be unemployed, to lose, to be poor, and so on.

The events of this night 20 years ago remind me that freedom must never be romanticised – but it must be highly valued. The fall of the Wall brought losses as well as gains. But life is like that. Isn’t it?