Freedom of Religion

Growing up in a predominately Christian country like Zimbabwe has meant that I have really taken freedom of religious belief as a norm. This past three days I have been in Berlin, Germany attending a international gathering of Members of Parliament to consider how to foster this freedom, as expressed in Article 18 of the UN Charter for Human Rights, in an increasingly conflicted world.

MDC-T local government secretary Eddie Cross

MDC-T local government secretary Eddie Cross

It was quite an experience being in a room with Members of Parliaments from 60 different countries on every continent of the World and representing every Faith imaginable. I learnt that over 70 per cent of the world lived in States where freedom of religious practice was restricted in one way or another, by the State. I learned that 7000 Christians had lost their lives in 2015, just because of their faith. No estimate was available of the deaths of differing sects of the Muslim faith, but it ran to tens of thousands in the same year.

In fact I wrote down a list of the active conflicts taking place right now on planet earth and came to the conclusion that 20 conflicts were the consequence of some form of religious intolerance. In the 20th Century it seems, mankind went to war mainly on ideological grounds, now we fight over our different religious beliefs.

What is particularly disturbing is that these conflicts are finding expression in so many different forms – outright war with tanks, aircraft and guns on the ground, to secret cells planning murder and mayhem in many countries. The prospect of religiously inspired terrorism haunts almost all countries and the evidence was ever present, even in Berlin, in the form of armed Policemen on the streets and in the corridors of the buildings we visited.

The group I was with has only been in existence for two years – remarkable when you think about the issues at stake. Zimbabwe is a relatively homogeneous State with 80 per cent Christian and 80 per cent Shona speaking population. Our Muslim Community is tiny and the Christian consensus so strong that all other religions hardly get a look in. We are fortunate in this respect – most other countries are not so lucky, we also have constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion.

Religious minorities in many countries are under extreme pressure. The Christian Communities in the Middle East, ,many stretching back centuries, are all under persecution and are being decimated. The most extreme forms of this religious intolerance being the “Islamic State” in Iraq and Syria and their offshoots in East and West Africa. More Christians have been martyred in the past 100 years that in all the decades since the birth of Christ. In countries like Saudi Arabia no other religious practices are tolerated and the Government uses it huge financial resources to sponsor the growth of the official religion of the State all over the world.

The question that was posed to us in this Conference is why were religious freedoms so important in the world? My own answer to that question would be that mankind, for whatever reason, is incurably religious. As Augustine said two thousand years ago – “every man has a God shaped hole in his heart”. That is as true today as it was then. In fact in Africa agnosticism and atheism is virtually unknown. We can hardly imagine a world without God.

It is not an easy subject for any of us. I find it very difficult to accept the Burka with its veil over the face – in the most extreme form the veil is accompanied by a metal plate. To me this signals the diminished stature of women in the Muslim world and I cannot see any justification for this practice. I simply cannot understand how women, anywhere, can accept such restrictions to their freedom but it is a reality – millions of women accept the practice and wear the drab restricted clothing dictated by their religious leaders.

The problem arises when we either try to impose our own brand of religion on others or deny differing forms of faith any validity. In this conference in Berlin we saw this up front when a Lebanese Christian was called a “Kafir” in an open meeting by a Muslim colleague. This is the Arabic word for an unbeliever in Muslim terms. The fury unleashed in our Christian colleague was understandable and illustrated the problem in micro.

I watched Hilary Clinton trying to deal with this issue in the US following a spate of bombings by a young American of Afghan descent. She made the point that the struggle against terror attacks was not an attack on Islam – rather extremists, many of whom are Muslims of one kind or another. But we must all admit that the worst violence is reserved for conflicts between differing sects of the same religion. So that we have the Irish conflicts; essentially between different forms of Christianity, and now, in this Century, the conflicts between different forms of Islam.

I am quite sure that the Holy Books of all faiths do not in any way call for violence in any form against persons of other faiths. Certainly the Bible does not do so and anyone who uses the Bible as a basis for violence in any form is guilty of misusing the Holy Book. Most Muslims would say the same for their own faith and the Koran, but it does not seem to make any difference to the combatants.

At the end of a long struggle against British occupation, the Indian sub continent came to Independence and in the process unleashed violence on a vast scale between the Hindu and the Muslim populations – many of whom had lived in harmony for centuries. 10 million people lost their lives and the continent was divided into three countries – more or less constantly in conflict for the following half century.

The UN Charter, to which almost all of the Countries of the World have signed up for, makes freedom of religious belief a basic tenet of modern Governance. It also allows freedom to change your belief and to have no faith at all. It seems so simple and logical – why would anyone adopt a different stance to this most basis of human activities. What harm does it do if we differ in what we believe? Yet, the whole world is caught up in this struggle and none of us can escape its consequences.

Angela Merkel spoke to us of her belief in Christianity and the need to respect the beliefs of others. She spoke of Germany’s commitment to a free and more open world where all of mankind might seek the betterment of its members. She spoke of the migrant crisis and the danger of classifying all who differ from us as being on the “other” side.  She is a leader who tries to apply her principles to the way she governs – always a difficult task and while we were in Germany her Party was defeated in two key elections by a Party on the right which does not share her ideals. Tough call, but I admire her for her steadfast refusal to compromise her ideals.

So what can we do about securing recognition for freedom of religion? We resolved as Members of Parliaments to seek to ensure that the Constitutions and the law in our respective countries entrenched the right and to see that these laws are enforced and observed in our countries. Easy in a place like Zimbabwe, tough in many other areas of the world, but at least this is a start.

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