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What if...?

Reflecting on both the church he grew up in and those under repressive regimes, Colin Sedgwick wonders what might have been - and the importance of signing up to a new campaign to ensure the right to freedom of religion

I became a Christian when I was a rather spotty 15-year old growing up in south-west London.  My decision didn’t exactly please everybody…

My parents were not churchgoers, and my father especially was pretty sceptical. But really he had only himself to blame. He and my mother had sent my brother and me to Sunday School at the local church - largely, I suspect, to give themselves a bit of peace and quiet on a Sunday afternoon (yes, Sunday School was in the afternoons in those days). Well, they got more than they bargained for, as both of us became teenage Christians.

Operation Article 18I think especially of two people from those early days. First, there was Mr Williams, who was absolutely ancient and always wore a very smart dark suit. (Alright, when you’re about six years old anybody over 25 probably seems ancient, but, trust me, Mr Williams really was.) He was my first Sunday School teacher. He used to gather us around in a little circle and tell us Bible stories. I remember now not a word he told us, but I am sure it was all about Jesus.

To tell the truth, the one thing I do remember was that he had a very leaky nose. A big drop would slowly accumulate, like a stalactite in a cave, and we would watch fascinated for it to fall with a splash onto the open Bible on his lap. But it never did. In the nick of time he would whip out a big handkerchief and snuffle it up.

And then there was Doug.

Doug led our youth group when I was in my teens. He was a young man of about twenty, and really passionate about Jesus - he used to talk about being “on fire for the Lord”. And that’s exactly what he was. It was largely under his influence that I made my decision to follow Jesus. Humanly speaking, he more than anyone else changed my life. The rest is history – for forty years now I am the one who has been trying to tell people about Jesus, in my role as a minister.

But I can’t help thinking ‘what if...?’

What if that church my parents sent me to had been closed down and boarded up by the authorities? What then? There would have been no Mr Williams to start me on my journey to Jesus. There would have been no Doug to inspire us with his Bible teaching, to lead us on mad bank holiday rambles up hill and down dale, to engage us in ferocious arm-wrestling contests (ouch! he had a grip like a vice). Ok, there might have been little groups of Christians meeting somewhere in secret, Mr Williams and Doug among them, but I doubt if my parents would have been too keen to send me there.

What if...? Where would I be now? How different would my life have been? Well, of course, I will never know – perhaps God in his grace would have reached me in some other way. But my walk with Christ and my spiritual journey would have been far, far tougher, that’s for sure.

Those early influences on my life... well, I have simply taken them for granted down through the years. But the fact is that they might never have been, had I happened to have been born in a different place or at a different time. What if...?

And that’s exactly how it is for millions today – children, young people, adults, people just like us. The churches that would have welcomed them are shut down. The people who would have taught them are silenced, perhaps even in prison. The good news of Jesus is something they just don’t hear.

And that is why the work of Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), a voice for the voiceless indeed, is so vital. And why supporting it is such a duty - and such a joy.

This is where CSW’s Operation 18 campaign comes in. It’s based on Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: 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.

You can boil that neatly down to three basic freedoms: to choose, to refuse and to enthuse. Everyone has the right to choose what faith (if any) to follow. Everyone has the right to refuse to follow any particular religion or belief. And everyone has the right to enthuse others about their faith, as long as this is done in a respectful, non-coercive and non-threatening way.

These basic freedoms are very obvious and would seem to be uncontroversial. But the fact is that they simply don’t exist in many parts of the world. Professor Heiner Bielefeldt is the United Nations Special Raporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief. His role is to monitor such situations and bring them to the attention of as many international bodies and governments as possible. Christian Solidarity Worldwide is throwing its full weight behind Professor Bielefeldt’s efforts and expertise.

And that is why I would encourage you to do the same. Join CSW’s campaign today and see how you can get behind this vital effort. You really can make an impact in changing the world - and the lives of millions of people - for the better, in the name of Jesus.

Visit http://www.csw.org.uk/operation18 to sign up to the CSW Operation 18 Campaign

Colin SedgwickColin Sedgwick is a Baptist minister living in north-west London, with many years’ experience in the ministry.

He is also a freelance journalist, and has written for The Independent, The Guardian, The Times, and various Christian publications.

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