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19 April 2018

Risk and relationship: partnering up with the Human Rights Commission in Northern Ireland

Risk and relationship: partnering up with the Human Rights Commission in Northern Ireland

Protecting the right to freedom of conscience, thought and religion goes right to the heart of the kind of society that we all want to live in. That is the message from the launch of a joint project by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland. 

The project, an animation opening up the conversation about how human rights and freedom of religion interact, is part of a series covering a number of human rights and will likely be used in educational settings to raise awareness and start discussions. You can view it here

The animation is short, accessible and helpful, but in and of itself is not the biggest story. It’s the partnership behind it that is much more interesting. 

The Evangelical Alliance NI has engaged with the Human Rights Commission around policy issues as we do with many public bodies, meeting with a number of commissioners while representing the views of our membership.  

In 2016 we organised a prayer walk as part of the Human Rights Festival. We planned to stop at key points throughout Belfast to pray for our city and country. Our plan was to pray for the Christian, civic, legal and political leaders as they work for the marginalised and vulnerable. We met at St Anne’s Cathedral, moving on the Human Rights Commission buildings, City Hall and the High Court.  

Pro-choice activists turned up at our first stop to protest the decision to include the Evangelical Alliance in the festival. They deemed us to be ‘anti-women’ and ‘anti-human rights’ because of our belief that both lives matter when it comes to the abortion debate. We invited them to join us in our prayer walk but they weren’t in the mood.  

By contrast, at our next stop the Human Rights Commission had arranged for us to come into the building for tea and coffee. They graciously allowed us to pray for and with some of the commissioners. This act of generosity and hospitality following the protests and calls for our exclusion humbled us. It opened up a new dimension in our relationship. 

It wasn’t long after this that the Commission approached us and asked if we would be interested in partnering with them to develop a new animation. This was an interesting moment for both organisations – we both understood the risks involved then and indeed now.  

We can commend lots of the work the Human Rights Commission are doing and affirm the deeply Christian roots of modern Western human rights law. However, we have huge reservations on the broad direction of travel of human rights in a wider culture of individualism where little is said about personal responsibility and where relationships are being shallowed by transactional consumerism. We believe Jesus is our Saviour, Redeemer, Lord and the final Judge of all the earth. 

In short, we probably see the world quite differently and actually directly oppose the Commission when it comes to some profoundly important issues. 

However, we agree that we want to disagree well. We share common ground around many basic rights and freedoms which are important to everyone regardless of religious beliefs. We can celebrate together the freedom in this country to hold very different beliefs, or none, and to express these beliefs and share them with others. 

Here is what the Chief Commissioner Les Allamby said in our joint press release:  

“We are pleased to launch this animation today with the Evangelical Alliance. It provides a vital opportunity to raise awareness of the human right to freedom of conscience, thought and religion. As a society it is important that we respect the freedom to hold different religious beliefs or to hold no religious belief at all. There is an important legal and human rights framework that protects these issues, while recognising the parameters within which it applies. We hope that everyone will watch the animation and consider the wider issues it raises.” 

Peter Lynas, Director of Evangelical Alliance said this: 

“Belief, thought and conscience are critical to who we are. That is why it is great to partner with the Commission in talking about the fundamental right to freedom of conscience, thought and religion. It is so important we ensure the vital role of faith in the public square. We hope this animation will help people to talk openly about their faith or beliefs, sharing them with others, rather than seeing faith as a private matter.” 

The launch includes a panel discussion with figures from the Presbyterian Church, Catholic Church, Baha’i Faith and humanist association. The panel is a visual representation of the very freedom that we are talking about. Rights can look very noble and sensible on paper but they are worked out in gritty human relationships between very different people in everyday life. We hope that our risk and relationship with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission in this moment models what exercising faith in the public square can look like. We hope this right is protected and exercised robustly and graciously for many years to come. 

 What the Human Rights Act says 

 Article 9: Freedom of thought, conscience and religion  

1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; 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 worship, teaching practice and observance. 

2. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.