Friday, 10 January 2014

Freedom of Religion in the Public and Private Sphere

I have been intending to post on Baroness Warsi's Pope Benedict XVI lecture on "Freedom of Religion in the Public and Private Sphere" for some time. A full text and recording of the lecture can be downloaded from the website of the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales: here. Do read the full text, or listen to the full recording, before continuing to read my comments that follow.

The motif of Baroness Warsi's lecture was the term "inter-faith imperative" - in other words, the vital importance that those of different religious beliefs should act in concert in responding to the three issues she chose to address in her lecture. In speaking of the persecution of religious minorities overseas, Baroness Warsi said:
....this requires not only Christians speaking up for Christians, Muslims for Muslims, or any faith for its co-religionists.
It requires everyone to speak out against intolerance and injustice.
To speak out and stand up for those who come under attack.
Because, if our response is sectarian then that actually reinforces the divisions.
Listening to these words I was strongly reminded of the Charter 77 movement that emerged in Czechoslovakia (as it then was) during the Communist regime. A feature of this movement was the way in which people of widely different backgrounds - ranging from former/reform Communists to Catholic intellectuals - came together in defence of the human rights of all. The original charter states:
CHARTER 77 is a free, informal and open association of people of different convictions, different faiths and different professions, who are linked by the desire, individually or jointly, to insist on the respecting of civil and human rights in our country and throughout the world, rights recognised for men both by the enacted international pacts, the Final Act of the Helsinki Conference and many other international documents against wars, violence and social and spiritual oppression and which are expressed as a whole in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.
Also as I listened I pondered on what might be a clear application of this principle of non-sectarianism in responding to the persecution of minorities, particularly minorities in other countries. It would certainly seem to me appropriate for Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians to condemn violence against gay rights activists, and against LGBT communities, in Russia, and to condemn the failure of authorities to protect those individuals. See, for example, this CBS News report.

Baroness Warsi continued to apply the principle of the "inter-faith imperative" to responding to intolerance in our own country and to harnessing the energy of faith communities, working together, to build a better society.

Amongst the questions asked at the end of the lecture was one about making the provision of aid by the British Government to other countries conditional on those countries having a good record as far as the persecution of religious minorities, perhaps particularly Christians, was concerned. Baroness Warsi's suggestion, in response, was that not adopting such a stance allowed British representatives to "mainstream" the question of religious freedom in their contacts with other governments - and so when they were raised, they were raised with key people in those governments rather than with more junior officials.

The question I might have liked to ask was, in effect, how the consideration of religious freedom might apply for a person in our own country who did not feel able to apply for a job as a registrar, say, because they would not feel able to officiate at a same-sex wedding. In the past a religious test of adherence to the Church of England was applied for some jobs or universities; nowadays are we instead apply a (religious) test of adherence to a certain secular orthodoxy instead?

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