Digital Persecution

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:35 pm on 21st April 2022.

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Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton 4:35 pm, 21st April 2022

On 5 and 6 July in London, the largest international gathering hosted by the UK Government this year will take place—the 2022 international ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief. Government representatives from over 50 countries have been invited, together with faith and civil society representatives, to discuss the concerning global trend of increasing restrictions on freedom of religion or belief, and also, it is hoped, to commit to practical steps to tackle that. A session including digital persecution should be at the cutting edge of that conference. My purpose in calling this debate is to highlight why.

Each year, millions of people around the world are increasingly having their freedom of religion or belief restricted, and to devastating impact. A key reason is the increase in persecution by authoritarian regimes, including through the misuse of technology. Right across the world today, people are losing their jobs, education, homes, livelihoods, families, freedom, access to justice, and even life itself, simply on account of what they believe. People are being discriminated against, marginalised, beaten, threatened, tortured and killed, and too often by their own Governments—the very Governments with a duty to protect their freedom of religion or belief. The gross scale of this as a global issue is both under-recognised and under-addressed. One of the aims of this July’s conference in London is to change that.

The Pew Research Centre indicates that 83% of the world’s population live in countries with high or very high restrictions on religion. The campaigning charity Open Doors, in its 2022 world watch list, states that the persecution of Christians has now reached the highest levels since the world watch list began nearly 30 years ago—that across 76 countries, more than 360 million Christians suffer high or very high levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith.

Of course, persecution affects not only Christians but those of all faiths and none. In Nigeria last month, the humanist Mubarak Bala was sentenced to 24 years in prison, now on appeal. Recently, the plight of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Ahmadiyya Muslims and Baha’is across the world has been highlighted by the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance of 35 countries, which I have the privilege of chairing in 2022. Details can be found on the US State Department website.

Why is freedom of religion or belief so important? We need to ask this question, and try to answer it, to set in context this debate on digital persecution and why addressing it is so critical. FORB is important for several reasons. It is important in itself, for us as individuals, because what we believe gives us a sense of worth, f purpose and meaning, and of dignity and identity. It goes to the heart of what makes us human.

Respecting freedom of religion or belief is important because it is so closely connected to other human rights, such as free speech, the right to assemble, the right to work and even the right to life itself. When freedom of religion or belief is not respected by those in authority, all too often, other rights crumble, too. FORB is also important for communities, which are stronger, including economically, when they include everyone. Societies cannot fully develop when they oppress members of minorities.

Freedom of religion or belief is one of the foundations of a stable and secure democratic society. Countries that respect FORB are less prone to violent extremism. Not to put too grand a point on it, promoting and defending freedom of religion or belief is an important element of promoting peace globally. Indeed, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt, one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the UN, envisioned a world of peaceful co-existence between nations, he stressed the importance of four freedoms: freedom of expression, freedom from want, freedom from fear and freedom of belief. How tragic it is that we reflect on this today as the very opposite is occurring less than a three-hour plane flight from here. Let us be under no illusions: freedom of religion or belief is very much a live issue in the plight of the Ukrainian people.

Permit me to take a moment to refer to that. In Luhansk, a Russian rebel-held area of Ukraine taken by pro-Russian separatists in 2014, freedom of religion or belief is now severely restricted. Religious communities need to register to have permission to gather, following a restrictive law that makes it illegal for any religious community to congregate without such permission. As a result, all Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists, Pentecostals and other Protestant communities have been denied that permission. Such unregistered groups therefore meet to worship in a climate of fear. They are subject to surveillance and at risk of repeated raids, with their social welfare activities in their local communities banned and an increasing list of allegedly extremist books banned, including an edition of the gospel of John from the Bible.