Comment by His Grace Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, Regarding International Religious Freedom
The freedom to choose and practice one’s faith is a fundamental right for all under international law, and yet we continue to see numerous tragic cases around the world in which that same right is non-existent, and exercising this freedom is punishable, sometimes even by death.
As Christians we believe that all are created in the Image and likeness of God, with His Image intrinsic to our human nature, which lays the foundation for respect and love for all. Within this nature, we believe that all have been given the freedom to choose and live according to those choices, and while freedom of religion is one choice that is central to the lives of millions across the world, it continues to be widely violated.
As recently reported by Amnesty International, Meriam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag is a Christian Sudanese woman in Sudan who was sentenced “to death by hanging for ‘apostasy’” after refusing to renounce her Christian Faith and convert to Islam, although she has lived as a Christian since her childhood. Meriam, who is twenty seven years old and is eight months pregnant, was reportedly also sentenced to “flogging for ‘adultery’” because her marriage to a Christian man is considered unlawful. This, among other cases, sheds light on the intensity of the struggle facing so many around the world who strive to merely practice their faith.
The recent and deeply-disturbing development of the kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria who have reportedly been forced to convert to Islam is yet another incident that has shocked the international community, and in which this brutal violation of this fundamental human right is also causing great distress to families who anxiously await the return of their children.
Egyptian Christians know the effect of religious persecution against numeric minority communities in the Middle East all too well, with the emergence of pockets of intolerant Islamism that have led to more attacks on Christians in the eighteen months following the popular uprising of 2011, than over the twenty years prior. This intolerance has not only affected Christians however, as the first attacks after the uprising were on Sufi shrines, and on a separate occasion Shi’ite Muslims were also senselessly killed in the streets. That said, as Christians we do not live defeated but strive to advocate for all who suffer persecution, oppression and marginalisation, be they Christian or otherwise, man, woman, young or old.
The Baha’i community in Iran is likewise no stranger to religious persecution, and 14 May 2014 marks the sixth anniversary of the imprisonment of seven Baha’i leaders, detained for carrying out ‘peaceful activities on behalf of their communities’.
Here in Britain we pride ourselves on our multi-cultural community that seeks to accommodate and provide for all, and rightly so. We cannot however ignore the fact that, for many across the Middle East in particular, the concept of citizenship, justice and equality are not rights available to everyone, and are very much dependent on a person’s religious affiliation.
We must not forget those around the world who continue to face intense persecution for merely attempting to live out their chosen faith. We also continue to pray and advocate for the rights of these individuals and communities so that this God-given freedom may be exercised within the context of peaceful co-existence and cohesion. This will then ensure a spirit of true reconciliation and acceptance within political states and communities that respect all as equal individuals with equal rights.