Skip Content

Archbishop defends religious freedom

Wednesday 4th February 2015

Read Archbishop Justin Welby's speech at the launch of the Religious Liberty Commission in Westminster today.

It’s a great privilege to be here. This is an area of life which has been central to my own prayer and my own thinking for a very long time. When my wife and I got married in 1979, in our first two summer holidays, we took Bibles – with a group affiliated with Open Doors – firstly to what was then Czechoslovakia, and secondly to Romania.

That brought home to us a number of things. One was that God is present in the midst of the suffering of the persecuted church. Secondly that listening to those who are being persecuted is extraordinarily important; talking at them or about them is one thing, but actually hearing them is something quite different, and it burns itself into one’s soul.

Although there’s much talk of persecution in this country I think we need to distinguish our situation – as Rowan Williams did quite rightly – from the serious oppression in places around the world where the response to the call of Jesus to “follow me” is forbidden.

I’m going to expand this to talk about other faiths as we go on, but I’m consciously starting with Christians.

We need to start with generosity and free will, because religious freedom – the choice of how and whether at all we follow God or turn away from God – is something that is given in creation, and in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.

For those of us who are Christians – I’m aware that there are other faiths here – living out that choice as something that we offer freely and around us, as well as something we demand for ourselves, is what distinguishes us from some of the sad and in fact evil history that has characterised the church…

Free choice is essential because that is what Jesus gave those he encountered. Think of the rich young ruler who is offered a choice and goes away saddened (Matthew 19:16-30). Think of the thieves on the cross on either side of Jesus, one of whom turns to him, the other of whom curses him: they have choice (Luke 23:39-43).

The choice to respond in faith or not is right through the Bible. The choice of truth and error is right through the Bible. In the Old Testament, the Jewish scriptures, we see above all in the history of Israel and in the teaching of Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 30:11 ff) and all those books that link in closely to that pivotal book of the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy alone the word ‘choose’ comes more than 20 times; it is fundamental to our understanding of what it is to relate to God and to the world.

We are those who have space, who have free will, who have choice – and then bear the consequences.

For these reasons, even more fundamentally than international law, freedom of religion is a fundamental human right – now enshrined in international law – and should be treated as equal, not subordinate, to other human rights. And for those of us who are Christians, let’s just be quite clear that the church, including the Church of England, has a poor record in this as in many other areas, but perhaps in the last 300 years has begun to learn a little of where it went wrong.

Because human beings are in the image of God, our religious beliefs are a core part of what it is to be human. They form us into who we are; they provide foundations for our deepest convictions, and motivations for our sincerest actions.

That is something that goes back right through history. We see looking back that the formation of the monasteries with Saint Benedict was driven not by the thought that it would be a good idea to have somewhere that was safer as the Roman Empire collapsed around them, where a little bit of civilization could be maintained – let alone, as a friend who mine who’s a Catholic priest said to me, so that gentlemen can live together in community. It was so that faith in Christ could be expressed tangibly and visibly, in lives lived together growing towards Christ.

The trouble with ‘freedom of belief’ is that it’s almost misleading, as it fails fully to convey the total orientation and way of life that some foundational convictions provide. Unlike beliefs of preference, predilections and taste, faith is not an optional extra – or as it usually turns up in the research on marketing that sometimes comes across one’s desk, as a leisure interest. I remember years ago, when the present chief justice of the United States was appointed to his post and was about to go through his Senate confirmation hearings. There were a lot of questions about the fact that he is a Roman Catholic. The question was: would that influence his judgement? And I remember a senator who was interviewed and said, “I don’t mind him being a Roman Catholic, provided it has no effect on what he does.” [Laughter]

Well belief doesn’t work that way. It is essential that when we are talking about freedom of religion – and freedom not to follow a religion – that getting God, understanding what this means, the transformation at the deepest level of the human being that goes with faith in God, is something that isn’t just like saying, “I prefer the colour green to the colour blue”, but it’s often treated that way, a mere matter of personal preference. It is at the very depths of what it is to be human.

If human rights are normative, as we believe, for how humans ought to be treated, then the precious, God-given gift of human dignity is the foundation on which these rights stand. We have value, every human being has value, because we are valued by God. Rights spring from the ineradicable dignity that we are given in creation, and we have a responsibility before God, as those who trust in Him, to protect them.

We must be models ourselves; we must speak out in solidarity. Silence is not an option if we are to stay true to our faith. If our religious beliefs are a core part of our humanity, then treasuring the dignity of each and every human must mean we treasure their right to religious belief – even when we disagree. Religious freedom is a precious freedom, but it is also profoundly delicate and complex. It is not private, but public. It is lived out and expressed publicly.

I’ll speak about other faiths, but in Christianity to start with, to belong to Christ is to be part of the family of Christ. I look around and I see people here today – to my intense pleasure – Christians from the Levant and the Middle East. When they are attacked, we are attacked as Christians… but within Islam there is a similar concept: when Muslims in one part of the world are attacked, that is an attack on the people of Islam.

Religious faith is lived out in community. It’s lived out in love for one another. We may passionately disagree with doctrines of a different faith, but we need to recognise that faith is something that is public, that is something that we do together – and the moment that is attacked, the whole concept of what it means to belong to God is undermined. The public witness of the church that loves one another is a blessing to its community… and yet throughout history it is in its public gathering that the church is attacked.

Because of its public, communal nature, gathering of those who believe in God – Christians and other faiths – are a challenge in a diverse society. We find it fine to say that a particular church is going incredibly well and is full every Sunday. But at the same time – we see reports about it – we are deeply uncomfortable about the mosque down the road that has people outside because they can’t fit them in.

Well, if we believe in freedom to choose, if we believe in freedom of religion, what’s good for one is good for all. We must speak out for others persecuted for their beliefs, whether it be religious or atheistic: taking responsibility for someone else’s freedom is as important as protecting my own. It is as much the right of Stephen Fry to say what he said and not to be abused by Christians who are affronted, as it is the right of Christians to proclaim Jesus Christ as their Saviour: that is his freedom to choose, that is given to us in creation.

In the last two years my wife and I have visited every province of the Anglican Communion (37 of them). We have seen extraordinary stories of courage and persecution – not only the persecution of Christians, but the suppression of any diversity. In the Middle East we know that Christians are fleeing their homes… in Pakistan, I had an anguished email on Tuesday from our bishop there about a school that had been raided and attacked. By the grace of God people weren’t killed, but it is a routine part of life.

We know about the attacks on Jewish communities – this atrocious development of attacks on Jewish communities, particularly across Europe. We know about attacks on Muslims; mosques firebombed in this country. We know about attacks on other faiths.

But we also know in some countries about the quiet, creeping removals of freedom, which breed a climate of fear and animosity. The lesson we learn from the moving reading earlier about the plane going past is: why was that possible? It didn’t happen overnight. It began in the 1930s with the disparagement of Jewish people; with them being treated as less than entirely human. And by the time they were being carted off screaming in trains, it was more or less tolerated.

That breeding of a climate of fear and animosity is where we must first speak out. We must speak with humility and boldness. (I’m saying we now as the churches.) Boldness we do. But also we must speak with deep humility – the humility of the alcoholic who used to do this sort of thing themselves, but has learned right from wrong, and stands up and says, ‘Don’t be as I was’.

I welcome this coordination of efforts by the Religious Liberty Commission. And I echo its encouragement for religious and political leaders to continue to speak out in unison against all and any violation of freedom of religion.

Finally I am grateful for its support in resourcing us as church leaders with knowledge and encouraging us to engage with and pray for the persecuted church.

Freedom of religion embedded in the very way we are human. Freedom of religion is in international law. Freedom of religion is God-given and God-called. It is preserved by humble, confident care of what it is to be a human being, and the knowledge that when human beings live out their lives faithful to Christ – and I’m talking here as a Christian – they are the most human they will ever be.

Thank you.

Find out more about the Religious Liberty Commission 

Back · Back to top