I went with a colleague to Sudan last Saturday for a series of meetings and a day conference on ‘freedom of religion’ in Khartoum. Originally, this was instigated by the British Embassy, but then the US and Canadian embassies got involved. The Sudan government wanted to address the theme similarly, so it was all subsumed into one event last Tuesday.

The various meetings (which for me included a roundtable with diplomats, lawyers, academics and religious leaders and a dinner at the embassy with a wider group, including young civil rights people with interesting perspectives on the current protests) were characterised by frank and open conversation. Although running the schedule and chairing the conference itself, there was no restriction on open speech and honest exchange of views. I later did an hour-long television interview (a Sudanese equivalent of the BBC’s Hardtalk) in which the argument was robust as well as comprehensive.

Sudanese newspapers have offered an interesting interpretation of what I said at the conference – much of it news to me. But, they also picked up on some key points. For my address at the beginning of the day I did not have a final script. In fact, as usual when wanting to keep some flexibility in knowing how to address whom (for example, I didn’t know until I got there that the audience would include ambassadors, diplomats, politicians, civil servants, religious leaders, lawyers, academics, police and military representatives), I just had a few notes of key points to make. How to make them – and what language to use – was a matter for judgement at the moment itself.

I reconstructed my speech, not as actually delivered, but in terms of the key points made. Here it is:

I am the Bishop of Leeds in the North of England, but I also sit in the House of Lords (the upper house of the British Parliament). Questions of religious freedom – fundamental to matters of human rights – belong within the political discourse. Politics and religion cannot be separated: politics has to do with the common good – our common life together in a society of which we are equal members – and social order; religion has to do with how people live together and what motivates both individual and corporate behaviour. So, religion is political and politics cannot ignore religion. In secular states religion is too often seen as an add-on to ‘real life’ – a sort of private enterprise that sits alongside real life and social order rather than being integral to them. But, there is no neutrality.

Sudan, then, is not unique in facing questions of how in practice to guarantee freedom of religion, and the Sudanese voice in this challenging area should be heard alongside others. But, today we are focusing on the particular challenges in Sudan.

As I have said in relation to media in the UK, you can’t understand the world if you don’t understand religion. And if I am not free to change or drop my religion, then I am not free at all.

I also belong to an international parliamentary network on freedom of religion or belief. Sudan is not the only country facing challenges in relation to freedom of religion. But, we are here to address the questions particular to the Sudan. This is my third visit to Sudan – a country with whom my diocese has been linked for forty years and a country I have grown to love. So, I am here to listen and learn and be better informed about the situation in Sudan, but also here to offer an outside perspective on a matter of current importance. It is clear that three or four issues predominate here in relation to freedom of religion. I will come back to these in a moment.

Freedom of religion is integral to any consideration or exercise of human rights, based in a common humanity. Constitutions can commit to freedoms that become more difficult when we try to enshrine them in law which then shapes the lived experience of minority groups. It is precisely the translation of these commitments into real experience that is challenging. But, discrimination that is experienced by minorities becomes the touchstone of whether there is actually space for religious freedom that sees all people and faiths as equals and not just the recipients of generosity from the majority.

The three issues that become the touchstone of freedom are: (a) the closure of schools on Sunday in Khartoum State; (b) the demolition of churches and issues of land registration; (c) the default registration of babies as ‘Muslims’ (and the difficulty for Christians and others in correcting it afterwards – it can take years). A fourth issue is apostasy and the freedom to convert.

In my diocese we learned many years ago that leaders and members of faith communities need to build strong relationships when there is peace – when things are good and there is little or no conflict. It is no good waiting until a crisis occurs and then trying to build instant strong relationships; we build strong relationships in the good times in order that we are ready in solidarity for robust conversation when things get more tense.

The particular issues here in Sudan to which I referred earlier become touchstones of how freedom is experienced. So, to achieve a simple change in respect of several matters indicates something substantial about the reality of the commitments made in the Constitution regarding freedom of religion for citizens as equals. How are the commitments made in the Constitution to be translated into law and then protected in practice?

For many years I represented the Archbishop of Canterbury at global interfaith conferences where the key aspiration was ‘tolerance’. This is a weak word in English: it means that I tolerate (bear with) you, but I need not engage with you in any way that costs me anything. As a Christian I must go further. Jesus spoke of loving our neighbour – and love goes far further than tolerance. Love makes equal space and defends the interests of one’s neighbour even at cost to oneself. Love is costly … or it isn’t love.

The question for this workshop is, then, to recommend changes that the Government could easily make in respect of religious freedom. Freedom to convert goes to the heart of freedom of religion. Should an Interreligious Council be revived in order to facilitate strong conversation, relationship and advocacy? Will Muslims – the majority – stand up for the equal interests of Christians and other minorities? I trust that the workshop today will address real changes in Sudan – not only in concepts of freedom, but also in lived commitments that ensure this becomes a reality for those who find themselves discriminated against.

My key question was how to enable especially politicians to hear and respond to critical points. Freedom of religion is indicative of how human rights are negotiated and protected, so the theme itself should be seen in a wider light. There was no element of special pleading by the Christian minority, but that equality of rights and obligations in a mature democratic society must be guaranteed. Constitutions that guarantee rights and freedoms have to be supported by laws that enable them to function; but, religious (and ethnic) minorities in Sudan experience a lack of alignment between law and constitution.

Recommendations read out at the end of the day included some key ones: Sunday rules in Khartoum State that forced Christians to have Friday and Saturday as public holidays – meaning that Sunday had to be a work day – have been dropped. Problems of land registration and the demolition of churches were addressed head-on, and consideration will now be given to how the processes might be made more transparent and discussions with affected communities be handled more wisely. The registration of babies as default Muslims (and the later correction of such in the case of Christians and others) will be looked at – the principle objection was acknowledged and the administrative processes will be addressed. Perhaps the boldest recommendation – which was suggested by a government minister – was the establishment of a law reform commission to examine and report on divergence between law and constitution.

We will be following up progress on these and other matters (clear and strong representations from Muslims across civil society that apostasy should play no role in civil law and that sharia should not frame the law of the state, for instance).

So, a full visit, excellently facilitated by the British Embassy (and including preaching, meeting bishops and clergy), saw some frank discussion of challenges in Sudan, especially those that concern deeply the wider international community. Security was tight, but Khartoum felt largely relaxed. Protests are being organised at many localities rather than in one place, and some activists are clear that they will lead to change. We will see.

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This morning the BBC is publishing a review of its engagement as a public service broadcaster with religion. I warmly welcome the report and the way the review was conducted, but also have one or two questions – I will return to these later.

The key to understanding the thrust of the report lies in the introduction by Lord Hall, the Director General of the BBC:

We believe that the plans we have set out will build on this to deliver an even more profound approach. They will ensure that the BBC better reflects the UK, the world, and the role that religion plays in everyday life. They will also raise understanding of the impact religion has on decisions made at home and abroad.

This goes to the heart of the matter. Religious broadcasting is not about proselytism or evangelism. It is about enabling people to understand the world and why it is the way it is. As the report notes, almost 85% of the world’s population has a religious faith, worldview or culture – and they derive their motivations, comprehensions and assumptions about human beings, human behaviour, place in the world, and social order from the lens through which they look.

I like the quotation now engraved in the wall of New Broadcasting House behind the statue of George Orwell:

If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.

And that goes for all of us.

My questions are the usual ones: who, when, how and how much. In other words, when will we see the plan that clarifies who is responsible for establishing clear means to achieve these important aims, what are the timelines for delivery, and how much resource will be committed to making sure the promises are realised?

Well, that set the cat amongst the pigeons. Last night I posted a response to the dismissive and sneering comments by Today presenters on BBC Radio 4.

I am about to do Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 this morning (different medium, different language, different culture, different agenda), but wanted to have a second go at last night’s story.

Despite criticism of the underlying dismissiveness of Today presenters’ comments, I would defend them, the programme and the BBC to the end. Although each presenter has a differing degree of apparent disinterest in the slot, they are still courteous, professional and do the country a massive service by holding power to account. (Whichever political party is in power thinks the BBC is against them – which probably means they are doing the job we need them to do.)

It is easy to snipe from the sidelines, but, religious dismissiveness aside, they serve us well.

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.

 

Having published on the Reimagining Europe blog (with a good opening joke) a somewhat exasperated post about the political discourse around the EU Referendum in England, I went on to read the latest tract published by the William Temple Foundation and found it addressing – more eirenically than I did – some of the central issues that lie behind our limited discourse.

Written by Craig Colhoun, Director of the London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE), it is entitled Religion, Government and the Public Good. Commending the importance of imagination (imagining the world we wish to create), he identifies three problems for our contemporary political discourse, and they are pertinent to our current debates:

We live in an era that is shaped by three difficulties in being articulate. These are difficulties in saying things that we want to say but can’t quite get out, things that we know at some level but have trouble making explicit. Articulacy depends on language, on narratives, on the way we represent the world to ourselves. But we have trouble putting things properly in the focus of attention. We find it hard, I’d suggest first, to articulate a sense of purpose greater than instrumental self-interest. Second, to articulate a shared identity that is strong enough really to bind us to each other and at the same time capacious enough to recognise differences among us. And third, to articulate our relationship to history and the future, and thus to time beyond the most short-term, immediate and even ephemeral engagements.

Not a bad place to start. Or, to put it more pointedly, who is articulating a bigger vision for what the UK might become in the world of which we are inextricably a part – a vision that goes beyond mere self-interest or short-term utilitarian individualism?

Suggesting that the loss of a religious vocabulary has been harmful to our secular discourse – not primarily because it was religious, but because the imagination that fired it has not found articulation in any other vocabulary – he reflects on William Temple's social vision and invites us to constitute a new imagining of (and, therefore, commitment to) the world:

Religious traditions can be powerful shapers of such understanding. They influence how we understand not just God or angels or the power of prayer. They also influence how we understand moral obligation and social relationships. Religious imaginaries can make marriage more than merely a contract between two individuals because it is a sacrament and embedded in a community. They can impose a sharp differentiation between the sacred and the worldly. They can encourage a relationship of either stewardship or dominion in regard to the earth. This suggests why it is misleading to try to reduce religion to a set of propositions about the world that are either true or false. That misses the extent to which religious understandings, embedded in practice as well as thought, are constitutive of the world.

I doubt if Donald Trump will find his own social or economic assumptions reflected here. But, the questions Calhoun asks dig beneath some of the glib, shortsighted and purely instrumental (utilitarian) language that currently fires the passions of those arguing about our future in the European Union.

 

During our recent trip to Iraq with Christian Aid, we had a difficult evening with a Christian priest who accused us (on behalf of the Western church) of completing the work of ISIS by encouraging Christians to leave Iraq and Syria.

Giles Fraser has thought further about this and published his observations in today's Guardian. It can be read here.