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29 June 2017

The Alliance’s work towards religious freedom for all

The Alliance’s work towards religious freedom for all

Campaigning for the freedom to preach, worship and against any kind of discrimination due to religion was one of the Alliance’s earliest areas of work. Resolutions passed at the founding conference in August 1846 and at the inaugural British conference in November 1846, the Alliance’s intention to support “those who may be engaged amidst peculiar difficulties and opposition” were declared. 

Sir Culling Eardley Smith was one of the key founders of the Alliance, chairing the inaugural conference and the executive council of the new organization. He quickly developed the Alliance’s role as an international religious liberty campaigner. He became a respected international figure and used his contacts within parliament to get support from the foreign office for religious liberty work. At that time the work was primarily concerned with the discrimination that evangelicals were experiencing in Roman Catholic countries in Europe, although campaigns on behalf of Nestorians in Syria, Jews in Italy and Russia and Roman Catholics in Japan also feature in our archives. 

Culling led a number of international deputations and developed a network of contacts among the ruling households of Europe. In 1851, when the Duke of Tuscany signed a decree banning anyone from possessing a Bible, a group from the Alliance met with Lord Russell, the foreign secretary, and then went to Tuscany to negotiate with the Grand Duke. In 1855, Culling was able to meet with the King of Prussia to appeal on behalf believers, and also lead a successful campaign on behalf of Muslim apostates in Turkey who were facing the death sentence. Our archives also show that Culling coordinated a letter writing campaign that included a direct appeal to the Sultan of Turkey, as well as letters to many world leaders. 

This established the Evangelical Alliance as the religious liberty campaign group and led to numerous campaigns over the following 100 years, mainly in Europe and the Middle East. 

Nestorian Christians in Persia, for example, had been suffering persecution from Muslims and to bring their plight to the attention of the world and to appeal directly to the Evangelical Alliance for assistance, two of their members embarked on a yearlong trek on foot from Syria to Hamburg, where they were able to get a steamer to London. The Alliance promised to appeal to the Shah of Persia on their behalf. This was done by briefing the British Ambassador to Persia, who met with the Shah. As a result, the Shah gave land and £100 to rebuild a church destroyed by local Muslims. 

A long-running campaign to obtain the release of Protestants who had been imprisoned for meeting for worship and for distributing Bibles in Spain took place in the 1860s. The sentences imposed on the prisoners were exceptionally harsh – eight or nine years of penal servitude, loss of civic rights and the payment of the costs of the prosecution. The Alliance organised petitions to be sent from their local committees around the UK and at the same time the matter was bought before parliament by supporters Lord Robert Peel and Hon. Arthur Kinnaird. A large campaign meeting was also held in London, chaired by Lord Shaftesbury. Lord Robert Peel was the main speaker. Alliance representatives visited the prisoners, delivering a letter of support. A deputation also visited the Spanish prime minister. This was unsuccessful, as was a petition signed by 30,000 members of the Protestant Ladies of France, which was presented to the Queen. The Queen was reported to have said as the prisoners were heretics she would rather have her right arm cut off than sign an act of grace for them. But the sentences were eventually commuted to banishment. Appeals for further clemency were refused. 

A more successful campaign took place in 1879 when a group from London visited the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I to appeal for freedom to worship without penalty or harassment. At first the visitors turned up at the wrong palace (Vienna) and they had to travel for a few extra days to meet with the emperor in Godollo, Hungary. However, the effort was worthwhile as emperor agreed to see the group and ordered an investigation then shortly afterwards improvements were being reported by the Alliance’s contacts in Austria. 

The Alliance continued its international religious liberty work into the 20th century, campaigning in Spain, Brazil, Portugal, Peru and Germany. 

Today, there are other organisations working with us to promote religious liberty; our Religious Liberty Commission consists of Open Doors, Release International and Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

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