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70 years on, Asia Bibi reminds us to thank God for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Joel Edwards argues that Christians who are doubtful of a secular code of human rights should embrace it and all those it protects

When Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi was released after ten years on death row following a trumped-up charge of blasphemy, the spotlight of the media turned to Christian persecution. Bibi's situation, which remains uncertain as her family seek sanctuary in another country, is a reminder that Christians are still experiencing unprecedented levels of persecution in some parts of the world.

Earlier this year Mary Ann Glendon, historian and Catholic ambassador to the Vatican told us that “the world is an increasingly hostile place for all religions.” This is especially true for Christians. It’s hard to give precise numbers, but according to the Pew Foundation who specialise in religious persecution, well over 170 million Christians suffered persecution in 2017.

But it’s not just overseas. When the UK’s Supreme Court exonerated Asher’s Bakery recently for refusing to bake a cake endorsing gay marriage, many of us rejoiced, not only because a Christian business won a legal battle, but because this upheld the principle of freedom of conscience.

Article 18

These realities are likely to create an element of cognitive dissonance for Christians as the world commemorates the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) on 10 December and particularly Article 18 which claims to protect our religious freedom. 

Article 18 Of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."

So why should Christians pay any attention to the promises enshrined in the secular instruments of ‘rights’ either in the UDHR or its UK equivalent, the Human Rights and Equalities Act?

With its culture of secularised individualism, not everyone believes that ‘rights’ are fit for purpose. Some believe they can even pose real threats for people of faith – especially Christians. Perhaps Ronald Boyd-MacMillan’s Faith that Endures was right to warn us that human rights are ill-equipped to protect Christians from persecution.

But before we organize anti-UDHR prayer gatherings for the 10 December, let me offer a few counter-intuitive ideas.

The Christian case for the Human Right of freedom of religion

The first is to acknowledge that even though it was an amazing exercise in political agreement just three years after the last Great War, the UDHR is not a utopian achievement. I agree, too that the language of ‘rights’ can be difficult. Karl Barth’s distinction between ‘human right’ and ‘rights’ is worth a deeper conversation. But the most transformative places to have such conversations will not be in our prayer gatherings or Sunday services. It will be out in civil society where they are being discussed.

The second thing is to remind Christians that we have an uncelebrated legacy in the UDHR.  Far from being bystanders, Christians thinkers, missionaries and activists were key architects in the UDHR and the composition of Articles 1 and 18. Vastly important ideas such as ‘personhood’ ‘dignity’ and ‘choice’ flowed from the thoughts and writings of Christian drafters such as the Lebanese leader, Charles Malik, the French philosopher and key drafter, Renè Cassin and the chair of the drafting group Eleanor Roosevelt.

In the run up to the 1948, a flurry of activity from missionary societies in the USA and Europe worked with the newly formed World Council of Churches to ensure that freedom of thought, conscience, belief and religion safeguarded the right to preach and practise the Christian faith. The UDHR was inseparable from the church’s ‘missionary need’ in the post-War world. Christians were, so to speak, ‘all over the project’. So much so, that in his book, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, historian Samuel Moyn talked of “the striking prominence of Christian social thought among the framers.”

Why Christians should embrace Article 18

The problem we have is that here in the UK, across Europe and the old Euro-centric empires of the West, the cross-currents of religious and secular pluralisms are challenging the old order of Christian hegemonies. Its throwing us back to days more akin to the first 300 years before Christians began ruling the known world in which we now longer hold pole position. This means that the stream of secular battles we are facing (and will continue to face) have made most Christians allergic to the ‘secular’ tools of Article 18 and its protection of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB).

There are probably two reasons for this. First, the problems of our religious freedoms have been largely associated with public services where competing freedoms are contested and where the human rights instruments have more to do with fair play in public spaces than human dignity as an intrinsic obligation. The second, is that even where Christians use the language of ‘religious freedom for people of all faiths’, we really mean religious freedom for Christians only.

Western Christians are not being persecuted. By and large we take our cases through legal channels of employment tribunals and the courts. But if you are Asia Bibi, poor and victimised by religious bigotry, Article 18 becomes quite important.

The same is true for Rohingya Muslims in Burma, Bahais or Jehovah Witnesses in Iran, or Christians in Eritrea, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, North Korea and China. Across our continents the most sacred global agreement we have on the preservation of human dignity, choice and conscience appears in Article 18 of the UDHR which Christians worked so hard to secure.

A moral accomplishment

As we approach the 70th landmark, FoRB – that is freedom of choice and conscience for people of all faiths and none - is not a political construct; it’s a moral accomplishment. Its preservation should be regarded as a missional exercise for it’s the Christian’s way of translating the story of the Good Samaritan into the atrocities affecting 80% of the world’s population who experience FoRB abuses. And many of these people are non-Christians.

This means that we are called to defend Christians and everyone else robbed of the freedom to choose, change or dump their faith. When the world sees us defending an imprisoned atheist blogger committed to human dignity or a brutalised Muslim in Sri Lanka, the claim that God loves the world will make better sense.

In a volatile world Christians should regard the UDHR and Article 18 as a rallying point for a global morality in which we remind people that we are still convinced that everyone is made in the image of God.

Read Andy Bannister's piece marking 70 years since the UDHR: 'Who created human rights? (and why it's a problem for atheists)'

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