Freedom of Religion Adjournment

Aristotle is credited with asking the question: ‘What is democratic behaviour? Is it that which preserves a democracy or that which people like doing?’ I tend to believe that it is the former. Democracy is about protecting, preserving and, in fact, reinforcing those things that underpin a democracy. Here in Australia two of those principles—they are valid worldwide—are freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Coming from Australia, it is quite easy to have a world view that assumes that those things are normal and, more to the point, that they are the norm for people around the world. Clearly, that is not the case.

Australians were possibly a little surprised recently to hear about the case of Mr John Short, a 75-year-old Australian who had gone to North Korea as a missionary. He decided to distribute Christian literature there. He was tracked down by the authorities—they had found literature that had been distributed—to his hotel room and he was arrested. Thankfully, as people are probably aware, he was released subsequently—partly because of his age and partly because he was prepared to sign a confession. What the media did not report was that 50,000 to 70,000 Christians in North Korea are locked up in labour camps on the basis of their faith. They have committed no other crime than to belong to that faith. Clearly, in some parts of the world freedom of speech and freedom of religion are not present. As we look at the dysfunction that we see in that ‘kingdom’ which is North Korea, we see significant persecution there—in this case, of Christians.

Interestingly, the German International Society for Human Rights has published information that concludes that 80 per cent of all acts of religious discrimination and vilification across the world are directed at Christians. In Australia, where we tend to see ourselves, according to the Bureau of Statistics, as a Christian country—even people who do not necessarily attend church often claim that heritage—it may be difficult to believe that 80 per cent of all acts of religious discrimination and vilification across the world are directed at Christians.

What do we mean by discrimination, vilification and persecution of Christians? North Korea is country No. 1 on the list of countries that persecute Christians. Sitting at No. 3 now is Syria. Whilst the conflict in Syria is very much a sectarian conflict between the Sunni and Shia, there are also minorities there—both Druze and Christians—who have become the persecuted minorities. Disturbingly, some of the jihadist groups in Syria—particularly ISIL, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant—have reintroduced, in the areas that they control, the ancient tradition, which is still current in Sharia law, of Dhimmitude. The BBC is now reporting that Syria is placing conditions on Christians in line with ancient traditions and writings that say that you have to pay a tax for protection. You convert, you pay the tax or you die. The BBC is reporting now that that is occurring in Syria. They are also reporting numerous stories of kidnaps, rapes and very specific targeting of the minority Christian community in Syria.

It is important to note that this does not occur just in areas held by rebels and violent groups, such as those in Syria. We also see nation states—Iran is a classic case—where many pastors and Christians are currently incarcerated because of their faith. Christians are incarcerated for no reason other than that they are running a church. People there who have decided to change their religion have been incarcerated for that.

In Egypt, much of the world was pleased and encouraged to see the Arab spring. There was great hope for what that might bring in terms of democracy. Again, we tend to look at this through our world view. We assume that democracy means a secular, liberal, plural democracy where the majority elect a government but the rights of minorities are respected such that they have every right to participate in the community and potentially at a future election to see a change of government. That is what we understand to be democracy. But where the legal basis of a country does not recognise the separation of church and state, in practice there is no freedom of religion. And if they also have things such as blasphemy laws, there is no freedom of speech. Those two elements are critical to preserving democracy, as we know.

In Egypt we saw, after the ousting of President Mubarak in 2011 and the election of President Morsi—a member of the Muslim Brotherhood—the redrafting of a constitution which enshrined disadvantage for both women and minorities, including Christians, in terms of the ability to participate fully. That clearly disadvantaged the large Coptic Christian community in Egypt. So it is no surprise that when General Sisi overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood and President Morsi, people said, ‘That’s a shame because that has undone a democratic election,’ On the other hand, we have also seen a nation standing up and saying, ‘We don’t want a situation where freedom of speech and freedom of religion are curtailed because of that mixing that the constitution brought in of church’—in that case I guess it is “mosque”—’and state.’

A number of sections of the community, including many people of the Islamic faith, who did not want to live under a theocracy stood up and said, ‘We do not want to live in that kind of nation.’ Hence the change of government. I wish them well as they move towards bringing in these two principles—freedom of speech and freedom of religion—which are so important. We have also seen Australians detained—I am referring to the issue of freedom of the media—in Egypt.

The last thing that I would like to touch on is that, having seen a pretty grim outlook for Christians, and having talked about the separation of church and state, it is often the case that people say, ‘We really need to keep religion out of politics. The church’—whichever type you want to talk about—’therefore, is bad.’

I was fascinated to see an article in the Financial Review on 28 February by Larry Siedentop, who is a philosopher. He wrote an article called ‘Secularism undermined’. He talked about political philosophy, looking at Islam’s rise, the growth of Christian fundamentalism and renewed insights into Western liberal traditions. I would like to read two quotes which are fascinating. He said:

… in contrast—

to most other civilisations—

Western beliefs are informed by the assumption of moral equality, which underpins the secular state and the idea of fundamental or natural rights.

He goes on to describe the evolution of the Christian church through the Reformation and the value of the individual. In this piece he goes to the concept of the separation of church and state post the Reformation and, I guess, post the treaty of Westphalia. He said:

… properly understood—

the separation of church and state—

can be seen as Europe’s noblest achievement and Christianity’s gift to the world …

Interestingly, rather than people looking at Christianity and saying it is a threat to good secular government, according to the philosopher Larry Siedentop it is actually the origin of the concept of separation of church and state.

As we have debates over the coming weeks about things like section 18C and freedom of speech, I would encourage people to look more broadly at the world. Look at our democracy compared to others and look at the things that underpin it: freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Consider also those who are less well off than ourselves. Do not just fight to preserve those things here but use the influence we can—politically, through trade and other measures—to try and encourage changes in nations beyond our shores so that all people in the world will enjoy those two fundamental human rights of the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion.