Editorial: The battle for religious freedom – the challenge for 2016

United Kingdom, United States

In his book The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe CS Lewis described a world where truth and values had been usurped by another ideology. It was an ideology which in certain respects could appear plausible, but which at best created a joyless world where it was “always winter and never Christmas”, while any who opposed it faced suffering and persecution.  As we enter the new year, it is worth taking a few moments to reflect on some of the threats to freedom of religion which similarly face our own world:

Political Islam: In much of the world where Barnabas supports persecuted Christians, political Islam presents the greatest threat through its attempts to enforce shari’a either through using the political process as a one way street to achieve this or by means of violence. Each year we see an increase both in the number of countries formally introducing shari’a as part of their legal system and in the extent of shari’a based violence as violent Islamists seek to spread shari’a enforcement. In 2015 not only have we seen IS spread their merciless regime to new areas of Syria and Northern Iraq but groups swearing allegiance to them have emerged elsewhere. For example, Boko Haram, who in March pledged allegiance to IS, have spread their attacks on Christians from Nigeria to neighbouring Niger and Chad. While in Libya 21 Egyptian Christians were executed by an IS linked group in February with a further 30 Ethiopian Christians similarly murdered in April. IS justified this saying that those who refused to either convert to Islam or pay jizya (shari’a tax on non Muslims) should be killed.

However, as well as this increasing geographical spread of shari’a enforcement, we are also witnessing a year on year increase in the intensity of shari’a enforcement. For example, in 2014 both Boko Haram and IS reintroduced those aspects of shari’a relating to slavery, with IS also claiming to have re-established the caliphate. Then, in 2015 IS reintroduced the dhimmi contract. This required Christians in areas under its control to agree to eleven points including payment of jizya of between one and four gold dinars, not being allowed to show the sign of the cross or any Christian books on the streets, not holding Christian worship except in private and only then when it is sufficiently quiet so that no Muslims can hear it, as well as being forbidden from criticising Islam.

Religious freedom
Religious freedom

However, the shari’a enforcement is not simply increasing by violent means. Last year Aceh province in Indonesia began enforcing a strict shari’a code, while in Tanzania the government has been attempting to introduce shari’a courts into the mainland where Muslims are a minority. One of the significant trends in shari’a enforcement during 2015 that the secular press failed to pick up was attempts to ban the public celebration of Christian festivals such as Easter and Christmas. In April the Iranian city of Urmia near the Syrian border followed the example of IS in banning celebration of Easter other than in private homes. In December, Brunei, where nine percent of the population are Christians and which had only the previous year introduced shari’a, similarly banned any public celebration of Christmas with the threat of five years imprisonment for any violation. This was followed a few days later by Somalia also banning Christmas. While even in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ, the Palestinian Authority instructed Christians that there should be a “certain decrease” in public celebration of Christmas.

Humanism

For years western countries have faced campaigns by Humanists to rid public life of all reference to religion, although Christianity which has contributed much to the freedoms the West enjoys has been a particular target. A particular focus of these campaigns has been against Christian moral standards, with Humanists attempting to enforce their own secular version of morality on wider society.  Similarly, Humanist organisations campaign to ban parents from having the option of sending their children to Christian schools, wanting children to be compelled to attend entirely secular schools that reflect Humanists’ own belief system. One of the ways that Humanists have sought to “de-Christianise” western society has been by seeking to rename Christian festivals such as Christmas with terms such as ‘Winterval’ (somewhat inconsistently, many Humanist organisations claim they can celebrate this as it represents the pagan winter solstice!). Recently, the level of intolerance shown by some Humanist groups has increased markedly with for example, a series of lawsuits filed by a US based organisation, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which seeks to prevent schools from including any Christian aspect in their Christmas celebrations, including quite literally removing the baby Jesus from school nativity plays. They wish to create a situation, where, as CS Lewis put it, “it is always winter and never Christmas”.

The new civic religion

For the last 2-3 generations the West under the influence of Humanism and other secular ideologies has increasingly discarded the Judaeo-Christian heritage that for centuries has underpinned its public life, morality and freedoms. At the same time we are seeing the emergence of a new form of “civic religion” in the West that is humanistic and intolerant of key parts of historic Judaeo-Christian belief and practice.  Underlying the new civic religion is a humanistic assumption that religion is a cultural phenomena rather than an issue of ultimate truth. One of the key philosophical underpinnings of this new civic religion is John Rawls Theory of Justice published in 1971. Rawls invites us to imagine a world behind what he calls “a veil of ignorance”. In this imaginary world where there is no religion, no moral absolutes, no ties of family or nation, we have no property – we just exist. He then asks what would be a fair and just society if we were to create one on this blank piece of paper? The result, which at first sight can sound plausible, is one where all religions are treated equally, all forms of morality and all forms of ‘family’ structures’ must be tolerated – and all community organisations are required to tolerate them. It is a world where people have no fixed ties to any particular country, but can simply choose to live in whichever country gives them the best deal.

It is a vision that can sound attractive until one starts to unpick its assumptions. It is in fact a sleight of hand. First, because in practice it assumes at the beginning that there is no God and consequently there are no moral absolutes; secondly, because Rawls then insists that there is one (and only one!) moral absolute – that all beliefs and lifestyle choices are equally valid and so no one - including religious organisations such as churches - should be allowed to discriminate against anyone, including in employment, on the basis of their beliefs or lifestyle choices. What this creates is first, an enforcement of libertarian values on wider society, including churches; and secondly, an homogenisation of society, where religious and civil society organisations are only allowed to have their own distinctive beliefs, values and ethos where these fit in with these libertarian values. In other words, even though it claims to be based on “tolerance”, it is in fact profoundly intolerant of anyone holding historic biblical Christian beliefs.

One of the consequences of the enforcement of this new civic religion in the West is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to hold public office as a teacher, social worker, judge or politician without at least nominally subscribing to a particular set of beliefs. Freedom of speech is being similarly undermined with attempts even being made to prosecute pastors for comments made from the pulpit that are deemed to be offensive to those such as Muslims as we saw even in a recent court case in Northern Ireland. This is a major reversal of the centuries’ long progress that most western countries have made towards full freedom of religion.

If we take the example of the UK, we can see how it undermines the very foundations on which freedom of religion has over the centuries been built. In England the 1559 Church-State settlement of Elizabeth 1, which is affirmed by every monarch in their coronation oath, sets out separate spheres of influence for the church and state. The church is not allowed to encourage allegiance to a foreign power and the state in turn forbidden from interfering in the interpretation of scripture. This principle was later developed in two separate directions, when the USA became independent in 1776 there was a complete separation of church and state, while in Britain a series of acts removed the requirement to hold a particular set of beliefs in order to become a teacher (1719), lawyer (1791), mayor or member of a local council (1828), member of parliament (1858), fellow or professor at Oxford and Cambridge universities (1871). In all of these areas pressure is now being exerted to ensure that anyone holding one of these public offices, at least nominally, subscribes to this new civic religion.

Similarly, in the USA, the constitutional separation of church and state which was designed to protect the freedom of religion, which was the very reason many of the first settlers emigrated there, has now been turned on its head and is used to prohibit the public exercise of religious belief.

This reversal of the centuries’ long march towards full freedom of religion represents a very dangerous road for the West to take at any time, but particularly when it is facing a massive threat from political Islam.

Centuries before Christ, the Prophet Isaiah spoke of the time when Israel would similarly face the loss of her faith, her values and her national identity in the face of impending violence and subjugation by the pagan Babylonians. The words Isaiah spoke then are still deeply relevant today:

"Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and who seek the LORD: Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn” (Isaiah 51:1).

We believe that these three, Political Islam, an increasingly intolerant Humanism and the development of this new civic religion will be the major battleground in 2016 for the future of religious freedom.