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Our God-given ‘first freedom’: freedom of religion or belief for all 


October 27 marks International FoRB Day, or Freedom of Religion & Belief Day. Mervyn Thomas, the founder and CEO of Christian Solidarity Worldwide highlights the importance of Christians fighting to protect the right of everyone to freedom in the way they express their belief, no matter their religious affiliation

Religious Freedom 

Religious persecution is not new. Under King Charles II, Baptists experienced extensive regulations restricting religious practice, and arbitrary fines and imprisonment if they refused to comply.

At around the same time, Baptists in America faced violence and imprisonment, a situation that would be echoed later in 20th century Russia.

The concept of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) is not new either. This right was articulated by the Persian Emperor Cyrus the Great in 550 BC, and is found in both the French Declaration of the Rights of the Man and the Citizen and United States (US) Bill of Rights of 1789. 

It was enshrined as a fundamental human right in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) almost 70 years ago, and has been strengthened further throughout the 20th century by additional international and regional covenants.

In fact, the development of the concept of human rights owes much to Baptist and free-church thinking. Christian thinkers, mission agencies and bodies such as the World Council of Churches (WCC) were significant champions of Article 18.

But freedom of religion or belief isn’t just a fundamental human right enshrined in international law; it is our God-given ‘first freedom,’ as articulated in Exodus 8:1. The right entails the freedom to choose or refuse a faith, or to espouse no faith at all. 

As we read in Genesis 1:26-27, God created mankind in His own image and likeness, and gave us free will, including the freedom to believe in whatever we choose - whether that’s in God, in something else, or in nothing at all.

These verses also explain the concept of the inherent human dignity of every individual, on which all human rights are grounded. The fact that we are all created in the image and likeness of God ought to take precedence over religious, gender, race, and all other axes of difference, and determine the manner in which we treat one another.
It also means that, like God, we should not stand by as another human being is deprived of their dignity, regardless of their religion, belief or non-belief.

We have a biblical injunction to stand up for anyone who faces injustice. Proverbs 31:8 tells us to, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.” This is not restricted to speaking on behalf of Christians whose rights are being restricted; we are enjoined to speak up “for the rights of all who are destitute,” and to “judge fairly.”

Some may question the act of defending a group or individual that does not share our beliefs, such as the Rohingya in Burma or the Baha’i in Iran, for example. However, on several occasions the Bible instructs us to ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus makes it clear that our ‘neighbour’ is not limited to people ‘like us’, but includes people who may have completely different beliefs to us.

As Christians, we are called to show Christ’s love to all. In coming alongside people of all faiths and none who face violations of their right to freedom of religion or belief, we are not only opposing injustice – we are also putting that love into action.

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Mervyn Thomas, the Founder and CEO of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a human rights organisation working to bring freedom of religion for all across the world.

CSW has There are a variety of ways Christians can protect the right of everyone to freedom in the way they express their belief. Visit https://www.csw.org.uk/getinvolved.htm for more. 


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Baptist Times, 17/10/2018
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