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Dear Friend of KLICE,

We are pleased to present KLICE Comment.

This month KLICE Director Jonathan Chaplin writes on Religious Freedom.


The Global Charter of Conscience, launched in the European Parliament on June 21 and in London on 28 June at a Premier Lecture by Os Guinness, seeks to forge a new global alliance in defence of what is probably the most widely disregarded human right today, the right to religious freedom. According to a recent Pew Forum report, three quarters of the world's population face serious, often lethal, threats to their beliefs. Given that violations of freedom of religion are invariably associated with breaches of other basic human rights such the right to life, liberty and association, the urgency of this initiative can hardly be overestimated.

An initiative of the European Evangelical Alliance, the Charter was drafted by a fifty-strong group led by Os Guinness, and representing many faiths and none. It has been endorsed by (among others) Habib Malik, whose father Charles Malik was a chief drafter of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Heiner Bielefeldt, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.

The Charter is, first of all, a vigorous reassertion of the familiar opening clause of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration - "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief". It also reminds us that this is a right attaching to believers not beliefs, thus providing little comfort to those who would invoke "blasphemy" or "defamation" to silence criticism of religion (on which see the fine work of Lapido Media and Hudson Institute). But it also offers a pointed commentary on the remaining clauses in Article 18 which are often neglected: "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". Importantly, the Charter aims to protect not just religious believers but also adherents to "secular and naturalist worldviews" whose right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief is equally affirmed and is also under threat.

The Charter's reassertion of a "right to change religion" will be welcomed by Muslim reformers everywhere and stands as a direct challenge to officially Islamic, and Marxist, states which cynically profess it but systematically suppress it. But western liberal democracies, while by comparison highly compliant with the right, are also currently struggling to find a judicious balance between the "right to manifest religion...in public", whether individually or in association, and other newly formalised equality rights. The Charter doesn't only speak to nasty foreign regimes but also challenges liberal democracies to live up to their own professed commitments. In the weeks after a German court ruled, shockingly, that the circumcision of children was a breach of human rights, it is clear that this is no artificial concern.

What should give the document wide appeal is its open acknowledgment of the reality of religious pluralism - "pluralism makes religious liberty more necessary, just as religious liberty makes pluralism more likely" - and of the demanding implications of pluralism for how all faiths should comport themselves in the public realm. It openly embraces a "cosmopolitan and civic public square...in which people of all faiths, religious and naturalistic, are free to enter and engage public life on the basis of their faith". It reckons frankly with the challenge of "living with our deepest differences". An assertion of religious freedom must therefore go together with an "engagement in public conversation over the common good" and a renunciation of any attempt, whether by religious conservatives or liberal secularists, to monopolise the public square and marginalise opponents or minorities. The challenge to the former is that "there are no rights exclusive to any privileged religion", while to the latter it is that attempts to exclude religion from public life is "illiberal, unjust, and a severe impoverishment of civil society".

The Charter is thus offered as an alternative to both a "sacred public square" and a "naked public square", as the background document puts it.The civility it commends is neither docility nor relativistic indifference but one which can countenance "robust and noisy public debate". Indeed it "encourages people to 'turn up the volume' on their beliefs and convictions, with a renewed confidence in their freedom to do so - while always remembering the requirements of civility".

The larger aim of the Charter is to make a globalized, interconnected world, in which clashing beliefs increasingly impinge upon each other, "safer for diversity". Both religious and secular citizens and organisations should be able to find their most cherished aspirations safeguarded, and their worst fears allayed, in this timely restatement of a vitally important human right.

Jonathan Chaplin


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