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05 February 2015

Evangelical Alliance's Religious Liberty Commission launched

Evangelical Alliance's Religious Liberty Commission launched

The Archbishop of Canterbury has called on politicians, the Church and the media to speak out against the "creeping climate of fear and animosity"

The Most Rev and Rt Hon Justin Welby gave the keynote address yesterday at the launch of the Religious Liberty Commission (RLC) at the Palace of Westminster, highlighting the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

The RLC, a new partnership of charities commissioned by the Evangelical Alliance, is calling on the British government to intervene to prevent religious cleansing and violent persecution.

The Archbishop also noted the attacks against Jews in Europe and the firebombing of mosques, telling the audience of parliamentarians and church leaders "that quiet creeping removals of freedom that create a climate of fear and animosity is why we must speak out".

Speaking of the importance of unity, he said: "We must speak out in solidarity. Silence is not an option. Treasuring the dignity of each and every human must mean that we treasure their right to religious belief –even when we profoundly disagree with them." 

But this right to religious belief extends beyond Christians, the Archbishop said, to those of all faiths and none, and should be supported in law at the same level as other human rights.

Whether to follow God is a choice that was given in creation, and extended throughout the life of Jesus, he continued.

The RLC is pressing the Department for International Development to make religious freedom a strategic priority.

It is calling for a special envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to report back on persecution worldwide.

It wants the FCO to produce an annual report to demonstrate the steps taken by the UK government to promote religious freedom.

The RLC is a commission of the Evangelical Alliance, comprising Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Open Doors UK and Release International.

These groups, which have been working for decades to raise awareness of persecution issues, will be collaborating under the banner: 'One voice for the persecuted Church.'

"A staggering 76 per cent of the world's population live in countries with high restrictions on religious freedom," said Mervyn Thomas, the CEO of Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

"The vast majority of those facing persecution are Christians. The situation is simply too important for the world to ignore." Launching the RLC, he added: "Our purpose is to amplify the cries of the persecuted so the world can no longer ignore them."

According to the RLC, Christians are subject to violence, intimidation and discrimination in more than 50 countries. Some are murdered because of their faith. "In the very birthplace of Christianity, the Middle East, the Christian faith is in danger of extinction," said Mervyn Thomas.

The Evangelical Alliance's general director Steve Clifford called on Christian leaders from all denominations to adopt the International Day of Prayer for Persecuted Christians (IDOP) as an annual event in the church calendar. "We must make sure that the plight of the persecuted church is heard," he said.

And the RLC urged the media to give greater importance to persecution issues –especially where there was evidence of religious cleansing.

A victim of persecution in Eritrea, one of the world's most repressive regimes, described the attacks there against Christians. The Rev Dr Berhane Ashmelash said: "Today in Eritrea, Christians are being persecuted. Many are imprisoned and regularly subjected to starvation, heavy labour and solitary confinement.

"Prison could be an underground pit or a metal shipping container. Torture is frequent. People are tied by both hands and legs and hanged on trees for hours or days. One form of hanging is the 'Jesus Christ' which looks like a crucifix.

"I was arrested and tortured with 'Number 8': they tie your arms and put a log under your knees. Many years later, I still feel a numbness on the back of my hand.

"We strongly call for the international community to put pressure on Eritrea for the immediate release of all prisoners of conscience."

The Archbishop of Canterbury said he welcomed the coordination of voices speaking out against persecution under the one banner of the RLC, adding: "I echo warmly the RLC's encouragement for religious and political leaders to speak out in unison against any violation of freedom of religion."