John Milton Lecture on “Freedom of Religion or Belief”, Mansfield College, University of Oxford

Mar 3, 2017 | News

mansfield-college-milton-lecture  – Power Point presentation to accompany the following lecture

Mansfield College March 3rd 2017

David Alton

John Milton Lecture on “ Freedom of Religion or Belief”

In setting the scene for this lecture on Freedom of Religion or Belief and, in thanking Baroness Kennedy, who is one of Britain’s most formidable and principled jurists and human rights advocates, and a deeply admired and respected parliamentary colleague, I would like to invoke the words of John Milton, for whom these Mansfield College Lectures are named.

In 1644 at a time of religious flux and political upheaval, John Milton wrote his Areopagitica, a prose polemic, addressed to the Parliament of England, opposing licensing and censorship.

To a twenty first century audience those circumstances of religious flux and political upheaval have an uncannily familiar ring.

Within the Areopagitica are useful signposts to the importance of upholding difference; the place of conscience; the use of violence; and the confronting of evil.

Milton’s detestation of narrow imposed conformity is expressed in these words:

“I fear yet this iron yoke of outward conformity hath left a slavish print upon our necks.”

His belief in the paramount nature of conscience in these words:

“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”  

His Christian belief in the sanctity of life and disavowal of violence in the insistence that:

“he who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, God’s Image”

And his belief that each of us has to choose between good and evil:

Good and evil we know in the field of this world grow up together almost inseparably…. It was from out of the rind of one apple tasted, that the knowledge of good and evil, as two twins cleaving together, leaped forth into this world. And perhaps this is that doom which Adam fell into of knowing good and evil, that is, of knowing good by evil.” 

In the twentieth century, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the world was forced to confront the nature of good and evil and how best to defend plurality and difference of religion and belief.

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights became the civilised world’s response to the infamies of the 20th century—from the Armenian genocide to the depredations of Stalin’s gulags and Hitler’s concentration camps; from the pestilential nature of persecution, demonisation, scapegoating and hateful prejudice; it emerged from warped ideologies that elevated nation and race.

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration specifically addressed the right of every human being to believe, not to believe or to change their belief.


Article 18 –promulgated in the aftermath of the defining horrors of the Holocaust, and which has acquired a normative character within general international law, insists that:


“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 teaching, practice, worship and observance.”


The declaration’s stated objective was to realise,

“a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations”.

Eleanor Roosevelt, the formidable chairman of the drafting committee, argued that freedom of religion was one of the four essential freedoms of mankind an “international Magna Carta for all mankind”.

She said

“Religious freedom… must be freedom of all religious people”, and she rejoiced in having friends from all faiths and all races.

Yet, not all were fortunate in having an Eleanor Roosevelt to defend their right to freedom of religion or belief.

The four great murderers of the 20th century—Mao, Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot—were united by their hatred of religious faith. It was the bloodiest century in human history with the loss of 100 million lives. And now, in the twenty-first century, often in the name of a religion, millions more have died or been forced to flee their homelands.

When the 30 articles of the UDHR were adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, the eight abstentions included the Soviet Union and Saudi Arabia – which argued that there was a conflict with Sharia Law, although other Islamic countries, including Pakistan, believed that there was compatibility.

The UDHR evolved from the United Nations Charter, promulgated in 1945, and which committed all States to “promote universal respect” for “fundamental freedoms” “without distinction to race, sex, language or religion”.

Alongside the Charter and the UDHR, in 1948, the Genocide Convention defined the crime of genocide – the crime above all crimes.

The Polish Jewish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin – who had lost 49 of his relatives in the Holocaust –developed the concept of genocide based on his own family’s experience, the 1915 genocide of Armenian Christians, at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, and the massacre of Assyrian Christians at Simele, in Iraq, in 1933.

In that same year Franz Werfel published, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, a novel based on a true story about the Armenian genocide. His books were burnt by the Nazis, no doubt to try to erase humanity’s memory, Hitler having famously asked, “Who now remembers the Armenians?” The Armenian deportations and genocide claimed the lives of an estimated 1.5 million Armenian Christians.

Raphael Lemkin argued that “international co-operation” was needed, “to liberate mankind from such an odious scourge”.


The Convention states that the 147 signature countries have a moral and legal duty to, “undertake to prevent and to punish.


In reality, as William Hague has observed, there is a significant “gap between the commitments states have made and the reality of their actions.” Too often, never again has happened all over again.


If there is no basis for enforcement, rights, such as Article 18, become meaningless. Unless those whose rights are being infringed have access to a remedy the promulgated words are little more than a fig leaf.

To try and address this mismatch the International Criminal Court (ICC) was established. It began functioning in July 2002 when the Rome Statute came into force and has the jurisdiction to prosecute individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

By ratifying the Statute, States become members of the ICC and there are currently 124 member States.  Three have given notice of their intention to withdraw (Burundi, South Africa and Gambia, although the latter intends to reverse this) and last month, at its conference in Addis Ababa, the African Union was reported to have called on all African countries to withdraw.

The British Government say that the AU wishes to see reform rather than complete withdrawal.  Chad’s president, Idriss Déby, who was elected African Union chairman at the two-day summit criticised the ICC for focusing its efforts on African leaders.

“Elsewhere in the world, many things happen, many flagrant violations of human rights, but nobody cares,” Déby said at the close of the AU summit.

Never-the-less, notwithstanding an outstanding ICC warrant for his arrest on genocide charges Sudan’s Field Marshall Omar al Bashir Bashir has travelled with impunity to Kenya, South Africa, China, Nigeria, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Qatar and Egypt. All of which makes a mockery of the Court and its jurisdiction.

Bashir says the ICC is part of a “Western plot against him” and meanwhile, he continues to attack civilian populations in Blue Nile and South Kordofan and is accused of using chemical weapons in Darfur.

Or, take North Korea.

Three years ago the United Nations Commission of Inquiry, chaired by Judge Michael Kirby said North Korea’s human rights violations make it a “state without parallel.”  Kirby said evidence adduced by the inquiry “was very similar to the testimony one sees on visiting a Holocaust Museum by those who were the victims of Nazi oppression in the last century” and that the “witnesses told their stories in a low key way, without exaggeration“. Fear of a veto by China has forestalled a U.N.referral to the ICC

The ICC is in the invidious position of being “damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t” and has struggled to obtain widespread international acceptance with the US, India and China, as well as most Middle Eastern states, declining to ratify the Rome Statute which established the Court; and Russia announced in November that it will not now ratify the Statute.

It did so one day after the ICC published a report classifying the Russian annexation of Crimea as an occupation. Mr. Putin’s spokesman said the tribunal had failed to live up to hopes of the international community. He denounced its work as “one-sided and inefficient.” Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch said “This is a symbolic gesture of rejection, and says a lot about Russia’s attitude towards international justice and institutions.”

Russia may also be concerned about ICC jurisdiction in Syria, where its forces have been repeatedly accused of war crimes, while the House of Commons Resolution of April 2016, that ISIS should be referred to the ICC for genocide against Yazidis, Christians and other minorities, has never been acted upon.

Meanwhile, on January 26th The New York Times reported that the Trump Administration would not continue to fund the ICC. Perhaps unknown to Mr.Trump, the US has never actually been a member and does not directly fund the ICC. Like Putin, Trump fears ICC criticism and possible prosecution (in the case of the US the investigation of troops in Afghanistan). The ICC’s Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda said that losing U.S. cooperation to capture indictees would deal a blow to a court that depends on governments that have no enforcement powers of their own, stating, “It was significant to have U.S. cooperation.” Bensouda fears that complete US disengagement will embolden critics of the ICC and that “When increasingly international criminal justice is being challenged, it is this moment that the court needs its supporters. This is critical for the court’s existence.”

Building on the UDHR and the Genocide Convention the great hope for the ICC was that the pursuit of justice would temper behaviour, and be an instrument for peace. The withdrawal of members and the failure, in too many instances, to bring principal offenders to justice risks the emasculation and discrediting of the ICC.

Meanwhile, the resurgence of nationalist politics, to the fore in Brexit, Donald Trump’s presidential election victory and with the rise of the Far Right in Western Europe, suggests the tide may be turning against international organisations and institutions, just when they are most needed.

Fatou Bensouda, says that “Any act that may undermine the global movement towards greater accountability for atrocity crimes and a ruled-based international order in this new century is surely – when objectively viewed – regrettable.”

Seventy years after Nuremberg, global justice is clearly still a work in progress. For the UK, the entrenchment and development of the ICC should be a long term priority ensuring that perpetrators of genocide and crimes against humanity are brought to justice and their victims across the world are treated equitably and without fear or favour.

However long it takes, we have a duty to bring to justice those responsible for abhorrent mass executions, sexual slavery, rape and other forms of gender-based violence, torture, mutilation, the enlistment and forced recruitment of children, and persecution of people for reasons of religion or belief.

Now, lest my remarks thus far appear purely theoretical let me divide the rest into a snap shot of what the reality is on the ground and how we might respond.



  1. A snapshot of the state of the world:


 The annual Pew study found that 74% of the world’s population live in the countries where there are violations of Article 18.

In every country where there are violations an estimated 250 million Christians are persecuted.


Put simply, it is a moral outrage that whole swathes of humanity are being murdered, terrorised, victimised, intimidated, deprived of their belongings and driven from their homes, simply because of the way they worship God or practise their faith. As secular liberalism has become increasingly intolerant of religion, old certainties have been displaced while Islam has been used by some to pursue their beliefs in a manner that countenances no alternative view of life.

In this new dispensation the ignored infringement of freedom of religion and belief very easily morphs into persecution and then all too easily morphs into crimes against humanity and genocide.

Jonathan Sacks says:  “The persecution of Christians throughout much of the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and elsewhere is one of the crimes against humanity of our time, and I am appalled at the lack of protest it has evoked. What is happening to Christians in these places is the religious equivalent of ethnic cleansing.””

But many others suffer too.

People like Alexander Aan, imprisoned in Indonesia for two years after saying he did not believe in God; or Raif Badawi, the Saudi Arabian atheist and blogger sentenced to 1,000 public lashes for publicly expressing his atheism.

Or Asia Bibi – condemned to death for so called blasphemy. Having spent five years in prison, her case has again been adjourned.

One quarter of the world’s countries have blasphemy laws –more than one in 10 have laws penalizing apostasy: both used to falsely accuse, intimidate, and persecute.

Whether judged by Asia Bibi’s case, the Lahore massacre, or the assassination of the country’s Christian Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, and his friend, Salman Taseer, the Muslim Governor of the Punjab – who both questioned the blasphemy laws, Pakistan has wallowed in a culture of impunity.

Following a visit I made a year ago to a detention centre where escaping Pakistani Christians and Ahmadis are incarcerated, I collected evidence and launched a report cataloguing this systematic campaign.

One escapee recounted how his friend, Basil – a pastor’s son – was targeted by Pakistani Islamists. Having failed to convert him Basil, his wife and child were burnt alive.

The assailants then turned their attention to his friend.

Attacked and beaten, he reported this to the police. They informed the assailants, who threatened to kill him, his wife, and little girl. They fled the country.

Recall that in 1947, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s great founding statesman, called to the Bar at Lincoln’s Inn, crafted a constitution which promised to uphold plurality and diversity:

Jinnah said: “You may belong to any religion, caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the State…Minorities, to whichever community they may belong, will be safeguarded…. They will be, in all respects, the citizens of Pakistan without any distinction of caste and creed”

Note that none of the £1 billion of British aid, given to Pakistan over the past two years, has been specifically used to promote Article 18 and UK policy insists that what is occurring in Pakistan is “discrimination” not persecution. Words like discrimination, persecution and genocide have direct implications for asylum and aid policies and that is why it matters that we use words accurately.

Think, too, of Iran – with almost 1000 executions last year -including the execution of Baha’is;  or how Saeed Abedini, was imprisoned for 10 years for “undermining national security” by hosting Christian gatherings in his home. Lady Kennedy and I both spoke in a recent House of Lords debate about the egregious violations of human rights in Iran.

Violation of Article 18 has led to Chinese Catholics like Bishop Cosmas Shi Enxiang, who died last year aged 94, having to spend half his life in prison; to Chinese Protestants, since the beginning of 2016, seeing 49 of their churches defaced or destroyed, crosses removed and a pastor’s wife crushed to death in the rubble as she pleaded with the authorities to desist; and to the harvesting of organs of Falun Gong practitioners.

Think, too, of countries like Sudan and Nigeria.

In Sudan, Meriam Ibrahim, – a young mother of two was charged, and sentenced to death for apostasy and to 100 lashes for adultery. Refusing to renounce her faith, and before being freed, she was forced to give birth shackled in a prison cell.

Three pastors are currently languishing in Khartoum’s jails – one was given a life sentence last month. Archaic and cruel laws lead to stoning and lashings, with Al-Jazeera reporting that in one recent year, 43,000 women were publicly flogged.

Meanwhile, Sudan’s leaders, indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide, continue to carry out their bombing of Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile – home to many who do not share the regime’s religious ideology.

In Nigeria think of the 200 schoolgirls abducted in Chibok by Boko Haram – whose jihadist ideology also seeks to stamp out difference and to eradicate diversity.

And who can ever forget the execution by ISIS of Egyptian Copts in Libya – after they refused to renounce their faith – or the burning or bombing of more than 50 of Egypt’s churches in Egypt’s Kristallnacht?

Think of the plight of Rohingya Muslims in Burma or North Korea, which I mentioned briefly earlier.

I co-chair the All Party Group and have been there four times.

The United Nations Commission of Inquiry into North Korea concluded that around 200,000 people are incarcerated. Along with assassinations, executions and torture “there is an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” and that “Severe punishments are inflicted on people caught practising Christianity”.

One escapee, Hae Woo, a Christian woman gave graphic evidence in Parliament of her time inside a camp -where torture and beatings are routine, and where prisoners were so hungry they were reduced to eating rats, snakes, or even searching for grains in cow dung. She said that in such places “the dignity of human life counted for nothing.”

And think of benighted Syria and Iraq.

The House of Commons, the American Congress, the European Parliament and many other legislative bodies have all declared today’s crimes in Syria and Iraq, against Christians and Yazidis, to be genocide under the terms of the Convention.

The Times said the destruction of Christians “now amounts to nothing less than genocide…while  Boris Johnson said “Isis are engaged in what can only be called genocide …..though for some baffling reason the Foreign Office still hesitates to use the term genocide.”

In Hillary Clinton’s view:

“What is happening is genocide,” Pope Francis said that Christians are subject to genocide. In a recorded message for that launch, His Royal Highness the Princes of Wales condemned “horrendous and heart-breaking” persecution, and spoke of his anguish at the plight of Christianity in the Middle East, in the region of its birth, describing events in Syria and Iraq as an “indescribable tragedy”. This annihilation of Christians is one of the crimes against humanity of our time, and I am appalled and deeply shocked by the lack of protest that has accompanied it.

In 1914, Christians made up a quarter of that region’s population. Now they are less than 5%. Archbishop Bashar Warda of Irbil, during a meeting that I chaired in Parliament, underlined their traumatic, degrading and inhuman treatment, pleading with the international community to provide protection. The same plea was made in Parliament by a remarkable Yazidi woman, a former Iraqi Member of Parliament, who told us:

“The Yazidi people are going through mass murder. The objective is their annihilation. 3000 Yazidi girls are still in D’aesh hands, suffering rape and abuse. 500 young children have been captured, being trained as killing machines, to fight their own people. This is a genocide and the international community should say so”.

How will we answer that woman? Do we intend to use our voice in the Security Council on behalf of the Yazidis and Assyrian Christians?

Words matter: and words like genocide, persecution, and discrimination all have legal definition, but deeds matter even more.

This Baedekers Guide of discrimination and persecution is by no means comprehensive. And less you dismiss this as simply about far-away places, of little concern, who among us expected, 120 years after the Dreyfus case and 70 years after the Holocaust, to hear again the cry of “Death to the Jews” on the streets of France and Germany or to learn of the murder of an Ahmadi shopkeeper in Glasgow punished for wishing his Christian customers a happy Easter?

All this underlines the scale and the urgency of the task.

Like the canary in the mine, early indications of abuses of freedom or religion or belief are a harbinger of far worse that will come.

Conversely, societies that make Article 18 a corner stone see their societies stabilise and prosper.


2.What Might We Do?

First, we need to understand the nature and scale of what is happening. Then we need to promote Article 18, consider better ways to hold those to account who violate it, and create widespread debate about the benefits that flow from the promotion of freedom of religion or belief. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed by the Nazis, said that “not to speak is to speak, not to act is to act” – and too often we are guilty of silence and inaction.

Understanding the central importance of freedom of religion or belief is a sine qua non – both in a domestic and international context, whether fashioning measures to counter extremism or promoting community cohesion or, or in trying to understand global conflict and consequences  like the 55 million people now living as refugees.


The BBC’s courageous chief international correspondent, Lyse Doucet, reminds us that

“If you don’t understand religion —including the abuse of religion —it’s becoming ever harder to understand our world”.

When President Trump announced that he was going to ban Muslims from the US did this demonstrate an understanding of the biblical injunction to recognise the stranger standing at the door? Did it understand the difference between someone committed to Jihaddism and someone who is not? And by conflating Shias and Sunnis it bizarrely links Iran to ISIS while Iranian Shiites are enemies of ISIS.

Although 90% of Americans believe in God it doesn’t necessarily mean they understand religious belief. And the public expectation is that, notwithstanding Alistair Campbell’s assertion that his Government did not “do God”, the public believe politicians should have such an understanding.

A poll last week by Com Res found that nearly half of all British citizens expect their politicians to understand religion and belief. Barack Obama was right when he said that it is a “practical absurdity” for politicians to ask people to “leave faith at the door.”

Perhaps he had in mind those political elites who, like the Soviets of the 80s, thought the world would inevitably become secular and that it was their job to make certain that religion was eradicated.

In 1917 after they seized power the Communists, who adopted atheism as the State philosophy, banned any kind of religious awareness. Lenin called “any religious sense, even toying with the idea that God exists, an unspeakable abomination and a detestable plague.” In 1923, a revolutionary court in the Soviet Union sentenced God in absentia to death. They shared the belief of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who triumphantly proclaimed: “God is dead and we killed him.”  In the 1980s, travelling in the former Soviet Union, I saw the closed churches and met the families of Christian and Jewish believers sent to gulags or psychiatric institutions. Millions of believers died but God didn’t.

And, despite their best attempts religion remains part of the human condition.  For most people in the world religion is not just about their personal belief but is the prism through which they view all other things and through which communal and individual identity is fashioned.

Worldwide, more than eight-in-ten people identify with a religious group with 5.8 billion religiously affiliated adults and children around the globe, representing 84 percent of the world’s 6.9 billion people, and with 84% of the world’s population declaring a religious faith – refusing to eliminate God – it is clear that the world is not conforming to the premise that religion is in its death throes. This begs the question, just who is on the wrong side of history?

And certainly, if you don’t understand and respect what makes people religious you can’t possibly understand the world.

But understanding is one thing and the insistence on the right to believe, to change your belief or to have no believe is another.

Article 18 is a foundational human right—many would say the foundational right. While there should be no hierarchy of rights, and all rights are interdependent, without the freedom to choose, practise, share without coercion and change your beliefs, what freedom is there?

At every opportunity, we must promulgate freedom of religion or belief. When we in the UK say we don’t need a special envoy to promote this because “every ambassador will do so” we need some way of benchmarking the effectiveness of their efforts.

And when the Government say this is “one of the Government’s key human rights priorities”, we need to provide resources which are commensurate with the scale of the challenge – certainly more than one full time FCO desk officer. Compare the £34 billion spent on military operations since the Cold War with the paltry resources deployed in promoting Article 18.

We also need a consistent, coherent international strategy.

It is inconsistent to denounce some countries while appeasing others, complicit in jihadism, through financial support or the sale of arms.

For example, since the present conflict began in Yemen, we have sold £3.3 billion of arms to Saudi Arabia. We are perceived as hypocrites when business interests determine how offended we are by egregious human rights violations.

And we can be much more proactive in galvanising an international strategy.

Nelson Mandela once said that the Commonwealth makes the world safe for diversity. We need to use it more.

Kofi Anan called the BBC World Service “Britain’s greatest gift to the world” and it now reaches some 265 million people. In deploying smart power what better vehicle is there?

And social media: ruthlessly and grotesquely used by ISIS.

The next generation are being reached via the internet and smartphones – but the religious and secular communities are failing to counter this with common perspectives, common ethical ideals of and underlining how we can learn to live together.

We urgently need a persuasive new narrative capable of forestalling the unceasing incitements to hatred which pour forth from the internet, capturing unformed minds, and manifesting themselves in hate crimes, discrimination, persecution and worse.

As General Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army observed, the devil needn’t have all the good tunes. The Facebook for the Bible page has 4.5 million followers while the God Wants You Too

Now app has 2 million active users each month.

Note also – as John Milton would most certainly have done – that there are 44 countries world wide that censor the internet – and the five worst offenders when measured against the criterion of “an open and free” internet are Saudi Arabia, China, Vietnam, Yemen and Qatar – while North Korea completely bans the internet. Look at the direct correlation with the curtailment of freedom of religion or belief.

If we are to successfully combat this, Jews, Christians, Muslims and others must no longer see one another as an existential threat. The media and scholars must help with this task.

As part of a deeper inter-faith dialogue scriptural texts must be placed into their proper context and not turned into a pretext for violence or as a justification for the ridiculing or demonising of others. Genuine dialogue would seek common ethical imperatives and understanding that can guide us in the complex times in which live.

People of faith and of no faith must understand and enter in to one another’s stories.

Jonathan Sacks reminds us how the displacement narratives of Isaac and Ismael, Jacob and Esau, Leah and Rachel, can all be used to promote, mutual respect, coexistence and reconciliation.  As Lord Sacks says in “The Dignity of Difference”:The great faiths provide meaning and purpose for their adherents. The question is: can they make space for those who are not its adherents, who sing a different song, hear a different music, tell a different story? On that question, the fate of the 21st century may turn”.


Those societies that make space for those who sing a different song see many blessings.

We should better emphasise – as Dr.Brian Grin has done – the tangible benefits that accrue to a society that protects its minorities, encourages diversity and promotes freedom of religion or belief. On the credit side of the balance sheet never forget the contribution people of faith have made to the development of our institutions and to society.

Religious networks are often at the forefront in opposing corrupt or authoritarian regimes, in fighting for the dispossessed and most vulnerable in our society, and in shaping peace and reconciliation.

In 1965, Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s proclamation on religious freedom, correctly observed that a society which promotes religious freedom will be enlivened and enriched and one that does not will decay.

And, finally, perhaps we also need a new Convention on Religious Freedom to sit alongside the Convention on Genocide – but if we promote such Conventions let’s dedicate ourselves to upholding and enforcing them too – and with universal application – making sure that words like genocide, persecution and discrimination are matched by deeds and are reflected in the way we do business with; sell arms to; or provide aid programmes to those who violate Article 18.

In examining the obligations that flow from Article 18; in providing a snapshot of the state of the world and in suggesting some things we might do, you might still be asking is freedom of religion and belief relevant?

It is because, as Lyce Ducet pithily remarked:  If you don’t understand religion —including the abuse of religion — you won’t understand what is happening in our world.

It is because it is a moral outrage that, in the 21st century, men, women and children are being executed, terrorised, and relentlessly persecuted because of the way in which they worship God and it is because every person should have the right to be able to do so without fear or favour.



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