Championing Freedom of Belief

Jeremy Hunt has ordered a review into the persecution of Christians worldwide. We are fortunate in this country to be able to practice our faiths, or have no faith, whichever the case might be. But in many countries of the world this is not the case. 

Our 2017 General Election manifesto called for the UK to lead on establishing the right to religious freedom around the world:

Appoint an ambassador-level champion for freedom of belief to drive British diplomatic efforts in this field, and campaign for the abolition of blasphemy, sedition, apostasy and criminal libel laws worldwide, having already been responsible for ending them in this country.

Jeremy Hunt’s review does not go far enough. According to the Foreign Office, 215 million Christians faced discrimination and violence last year. How many more people from other faiths also faced persecution? 

With an average of 250 Christians killed every month, this review is welcome. But I would like it to go further – we, as Liberal Democrats, champion the freedom of belief, and so any review must look at the global scale of persecution against those of all faiths and none.

The three aims of the review could easily be expanded to include those of other faiths:

  • “To map the persecution of Christians in ‘key countries’ in the Middle East, Africa and Asia” – this could map religious persecution of all faiths worldwide. There is already a lot of research out there!
  • “To provide an analysis of current UK government support” – what is the government currently doing to abolish blasphemy, sedition, apostasy and criminal libel laws worldwide?
  • “To offer recommendations for a cohesive and comprehensive policy response” – this policy proposal should include fighting all religious persecution.

We have just enjoyed the festival of Christmas – Christians in this country have been free to celebrate and worship. Those who are not Christian have not been forced to participate. It is that same freedom to practice or abstain from belief in any country, culture or faith around the world that we need to champion.

* Kirsten Johnson was the PPC for Oxford East in the 2017 General Election. She is a pianist and composer at

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This entry was posted in News and Op-eds.


  • The fact that it’s only considering Christians is plain wrong. There are several countries where simply being an atheist carries a death sentence.

    If the government wanted to make a real difference, they’d start by removing existing UK blasphemy laws. Though they’re not used in practice, the fact that we have them at all is cited by countries which do enforce them as an excuse.

    We’re a lot more free than most of the world, but we’re not a truly secular state yet. Abolishing other religious privileges in the UK – e.g. ending faith schools, removing bishops from the house of lords etc. would be a good start.

  • I do not think that ‘ending faith schools’ is a particularly liberal idea. Surely in a liberal society, parents like myself should have the choice to be able to send my children to a faith (in my case, Catholic) school. The argument that State funding should be removed is convincing for some but what about parents who would not be able to afford fees for the faith schools they would still wish their children to attend. I totally agree that blasphemy laws are fundamentally illiberal (for the reasons cited by John Stuart Mill) and should be abolished.

  • We are very much not a secular state. Our Head of State is the Queen, who is also the Supreme Governor of the Church of England.

    Nobody should be persecuted for their religious faith, or lack of, but the Christian Church of England enjoys a number of priveleges in the UK which are no longer appropriate (if they ever were).

  • Jeremy Hunt is a courageous politician to champion this cause in a country when anti-religious bigotry is on the increase. Christian Solidarity Worldwide regularly reports on religious persecution, and I hope he will accept their testimony. It is true that many people are persecuted for many different beliefs, but that does not invalidate a focus on Christianity – the appalling goings-on in many countries, such as the burning down of churches and the murder of believers attending churches, are scarcely reported in the British press. Our society may be increasingly secular but this is a serious issue and carping about faith schools is inappropriate and tasteless in the context of what this initiative is all about.

  • Robert (Somerset) 28th Dec '18 - 8:39am

    I suspect that Jeremy Hunt’s recent comments on this issue have more to do with burnishing his Tory party leadership credentials than anything else.

    On faith schools, what’s more illiberal than excluding a child from their tax payer funded and often very local school on the basis of their parents religious beliefs or lack of?

  • Peter Watson 28th Dec '18 - 9:39am

    @Robert (Somerset) “what’s more illiberal than excluding a child from their tax payer funded and often very local school on the basis of their parents religious beliefs or lack of?”
    Excluding a child because they fail an 11+ exam (performance in which is often correlated to their parents’ affluence or lack of)? Yet it is not Lib Dem policy to phase out academic selection (I wish it were!).

  • “Let me endeavour very briefly to sketch, in the rudest outline, what the Turkish race was and what it is. It is not a question of Mahometanism simply, but of Mahometanism compounded with the peculiar character of a race. They are not the mild Mahometans of India, nor the chivalrous Saladins of Syria, nor the cultured Moors of Spain. They were, upon the whole, from the black day when they first entered Europe, the one great anti-human specimen of humanity. Wherever they went, a broad line of blood marked the track behind them; and, as far as their dominion reached, civilisation disappeared from view. They represented everywhere government by force, as opposed to government by law. For the guide of this life they had a relentless fatalism : for its reward hereafter, a sensual paradise.”
    W E Gladstone 1876 The Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East

  • On religious and other selection by British state-funded schools:
    Since this March, party policy has been: “We oppose any extension of selection in state
    education, including allowing Free Schools to select by academic ability.” (Policy Paper 128: Every Child Empowered, para.4.1.6.)
    So we do have a broad policy not to introduce more selection, although this unfortunately weakened existing policy that would have ended existing selection in state education.
    The exception is selection based on religion or belief, where we have had a strong policy since Autumn 2017 of phasing out all selection of students by religion or belief.

    However, this article is about international freedom of religion and belief, which is important enough that it should not be sidetracked in favour of a related but different topic.

    For me, as a humanist and as a secularist, freedom of religion and belief is a bedrock of my political philosophy, and I strongly support Kirsten’s argument that “any review must look at the global scale of persecution against those of all faiths and none.”

    A review that concentrates solely on persecution of Christians – or focuses primarily on persecution of Christians – and is led by an authority figure in the British state church, says that our government considers the lives and freedoms of non-Christians are not worthy enough of concern to be defended alongside the lives and freedoms of Christians.

    That is blatantly factional, and therefore weakens the credibility not only of the report but also of the government’s international efforts on freedom of religion and belief.

    It is completely inappropriate and ethically wrong for government policy to single out people from one religion or belief for special consideration and defence: it should campaign for freedom of religion and belief, for people of all religions and beliefs, as a fundamental human right.

  • @Toby Keynes
    You have stated that is wrong for government policy to single out people from one religion or belief for special treatment. I agree with that wholeheartedly. I would like to ask though whether you would feel the same if the report were focused on say, Tibetan Buddhism. (I dislike using clichés like this, but I am struggling for other credible examples at the moment, sorry). Christians are being persecuted in various parts of the world. Should we ignore it because they happen to be Christians? Is there any circumstance where you would be willing to highlight life and death persecution of Christians in various parts of the world? I should perhaps say for clarification that the fact that the report is being ordered by Jeremy Hunt causes me much disquiet because I am entirely suspicious of his motives. However, I would like liberal freedom of religion/belief to genuinely be freedom of religion/belief including faiths that others find irksome and invasive.

  • nvelope2003 28th Dec '18 - 6:00pm

    In what way would Britain be a better place if we ignored the dreadful sufferings of Christians in various parts of the world because we could not do anything about the sufferings of others ?

  • @nvelope2003 – I don’t see anyone advocating ignoring the suffering of Christians, just suggesting that our compassion for the victims of religious persecution should extend to all faiths (and none).

    What are we actually able to do about the suffering of Christians around the world that we AREN’T able to do about the suffering of others?

  • Toby Keynes 28th Dec '18 - 7:07pm

    @Chrissie B:
    No, we absolutely should not ignore persecution of Christians, any more than we should ignore persecution of Buddhists.
    And of course persecution of Christians undoubtedly exists, so it should be highlighted in the report, alongside persecution of people of other faiths and beliefs. But it should not be treated as a higher priority than persecution of others.

    As a nation, we CAN do something about the persecution of others, just as we can do something about the persecution of Christians. And we should.

  • nvelope2003 29th Dec '18 - 9:36am

    Peter Watson etc : Perhaps some of those who favour non selective comprehensive schools should send their own children to them before forcing other people’s children to go to them. Forcing children to endure a sort of watered down grammar school education when they would be more suited to practical or technical studies which would be of benefit in gaining useful and satisfying work is not very kind and is alienating them from education and creating skill shortages.

  • @ envelop2003. Usual Daily Mail stuff. No evidence provided.

  • Matt (bristol) 29th Dec '18 - 7:56pm

    I’m afraid I can’t help but note the highly personalised way this has been reported – as a stroke of genius direct from the brain of Jeremy Hunt – combined with the similar way the perceived immigrant crisis in the channel is being reported by the media as Sajid Javid taking ‘personal charge’.

    It’s nakedly apparent that two cabinet ministers are on simultaneous manoeuvres here, spinning their portfolios in ways that will reach backbenchers, party chairpersons, and grassroots Tories, through the Daily Mail and its ilk. As usual, they’re not bothered about the rest of the country; if Theresa goes, they need to appeal to a specific, older, whiter, majority Christian-by-culture grouping. They know the dogwhistles to blow.

    In terms of the issues itself, what Kirsten outlines is the only sensible policy, and as an active Christian myself, it worries me that many otherwise liberal, middle-of-the-road Chrstians with an interest in social justice, fall for the guff that Christians globally are a special case, getting specially nasty persecution, and that special measures for them wouldn’t result in a backlash and special reprisals.

    All democratic nations should be working together to end religious persecution by state, devolved state or quasi-state bodies. The fact that this does not already feature in the political agenda of the foreign officer is depressing.

  • Peter Watson 29th Dec '18 - 8:26pm

    @nvelope2003 “Perhaps some of those who favour non selective comprehensive schools should send their own children to them before forcing other people’s children to go to them.”
    You often make this point but never name names so it can come across as a slur against everybody who takes a different view to your own even if that is not the intention. Do you have anyone particular in mind? For what it’s worth, I went to a comprehensive school as did/do my children.
    In an area with grammar schools, the de facto alternative is a secondary modern rather than a comprehensive so I would not consider a parent hypocritical for wanting their child to attend one of the grammar schools while also wanting to change the system. I do however consider the Lib Dem approach to grammar schools hypocritical because it simultaneously attacks them while appearing happy to maintain existing ones.

  • nvelope2003 30th Dec '18 - 9:31am

    David Raw: As stated many times previously I do not read the Daily Mail, Express, Sun, Star, Telegraph. I have an interest in education having taught in a comprehensive school and I talk to ordinary people. The only person I know who favours comprehensive schools has a keen interest in the Common Entrance Examination.
    Mr Clegg appears to have sent his children to some sort of fee paying school and I know of others such as Diane Abbott who did the same. Those Scandinavian countries who have abolished all except comprehensive schools are now experiencing declining education standards. Germany wheich has kept grammar schools is the leading European nation and has high levels of skilled people unlike Briatin. We have to do what is right not what is easy.

  • nvelope2003 30th Dec '18 - 5:31pm

    Peter Watson: In many areas such as mine there are no grammar schools within 40 miles. In those areas where they still exist I would not criticise any parent for sending their own children to one. What annoys me are the parents who claim to suport comprehensive schools but refuse to send their own children to one nearby and instead send them to independent schools which charge fees whilst less affluent parents have no such option. There are a number of these schools here and the local authority subsidise bus services to some of them. I do know people who support comprehensives but send their own child to an independent school. There is nothing wrong with the local comprehensives and as a Liberal I believe in choice but that should not be dependent on ability to pay. If it is right on Liberal principles to have independent fee paying schools then similar schools must be provided for those whose parents cannot afford to pay or alternatively the state should pay for children to attend independent schools if the parents wish it.
    I do not want any good school to close down but selection by parental wealth is wrong. Since most grammar schools were closed about 40 years ago those jobs which used to go to state educated people now mostly go to people educated in public/independent schools which charge fees.
    It seems that the Liberal Democrat party knows that many if not most of its supporters like grammar schools but the activists who attend party conferences do not so they are hedging their bets by not advocating abolition but opposing new ones. I dislike any kind of uniformity because no one really knows whether it would work so that is why I would not abolish independent schools, comprehensives or grammar schools anymore than I would force the Baptists to merge with the Anglicans or the Methodists etc. The whole point of our party is freedom of choice where possible.
    As regards research I recall being told that nuclear power would mean electricity would be so cheap that we would not need a meter which is patently untrue. Those who are determined enough can prove whatever they wish, at least in their own view.

  • Peter Watson 31st Dec '18 - 12:33am

    A lot of points (well made!).
    I do not think that academic selection should be conflated with private schools which select and/or are selected for a variety of reasons (not least perhaps an unedifying desire for segregation on socioeconomic grounds). As long as parents and schools are taxed appropriately then I do not have a problem with private provision as an option for those who can afford it. For those who cannot, evidence indicates that the best possible education system is not one based upon academic segregation so it would be perfectly valid for a parent to acknowledge that even if opting out of state education themselves.
    Also, I’m not sure about your final point on research which seems contrary to an evidence-based Lib Dem approach. A lot of this ground has previously been touched upon by other (long!) threads (e.g. and
    Choice is very important and is probably the issue I find most difficult to balance with other principles, practicalities, and priorities. In many ways though, choice is restricted in a system in which entry to some state schools is barred because of failure to pass an exam, especially if that exam disadvantages those from poorer backgrounds, does not recognise that a child’s talents in one area might not be matched by their abilities in another, and does not account for different children developing at different rates and in different ways. Perhaps choices and opportunities should be more important within schools than between them.

    (Apologies for derailing the thread by introducing this topic in response to a point about faith schools. Nobody should be persecuted because of sincerely held religious beliefs and I think the article takes the right line by welcoming Hunt’s review but also suggesting it could go further.)

  • nvelope2003 1st Jan '19 - 9:40am

    Schooling is one of those issues which people use to show where they stand on the left right divide but the Conservatives and even Labour,Liberal Democrat and Green politicians, many of whose members like grammar schools, support comprehensives because they do not want their expensively educated offspring having to compete for jobs with those who had a free education at a grammar school. The Conservatives like to offer the prospect of a restoration of grammar schools like the French Right used to hint at a restoration of the monarchy but without any intention of doing it.
    All this sort of confusion is what has brought down the old party system in Europe and could do the same here.
    I am in favour of research based policies but time and again we have seen research used to support the views of the researcher and the passage of time has often shown that the results of research were mistaken. People have lost faith and there is little evidence at the moment that the smaller traditional parties have gained from this although local parties and independents have done so in some areas.
    Freedom must mean the freedom to propagate faith and those with religious beliefs who pay their taxes are entitled to have this basic concept imparted to their children at schools which base their teaching on those concepts, in this overwhelmingly secular world where belief seems to be ignored or ridiculed in favour of nothing.

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