Seminar highlights links between religious freedom and economic prosperity

March 6, 2016
Baroness Anelay of St Johns, the Minister of State at the Commonwealth Office, addressing the Seminar on Freedom of Religion and Economic Prosperity, held at Westminster, 2 March 2016. With intolerance increasing around the world, she said the commitment to freedom of religion and belief is needed more than ever.

LONDON, England — In Iran, the Baha’i community continues to endure intense persecution solely based on religious belief, a blatant violation of a fundamental human right. Unfortunately, throughout the world, freedom of religion or belief is one of the most violated rights.

An emerging body of research is suggesting that ensuring such freedoms within business could not only address a major social ill, but also be an unrecognized asset to economic recovery and growth. On 2 March 2016, a seminar held at the UK parliament, and hosted by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Baha’i Faith, heard that there is a strong correlation between religious freedom, economic freedom, and other civil political freedoms.

“These findings are useful in our discussions with business,” said panelist Professor Brian Grim, President of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation. “And there’s a lot that the business world can offer to the human rights community.”

Business leaders and entrepreneurs, it was suggested, might develop a long-term interest in engaging with this area of the international human rights discourse, while their perspectives on these matters might also add an important dimension to the understanding of government and parliamentarians.

“Business is the crossroads of culture, commerce, and creativity. What brings everyone together and produces a successful service, innovation, or production is a common goal,” said Prof. Grim, who highlighted the efforts of one major automobile manufacturer which, realizing it employs people from almost 140 countries, offers an annual award for intercultural and interfaith innovation.

The seminar, which attracted some 70 participants—including parliamentarians, civil servants, academics, human rights activists, business professionals, and faith community leaders—was opened by Jim Shannon MP, who also chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief.

Louise Ellman (centre), the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Baha'i Faith, joins in a small group discussion. Slideshow
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Louise Ellman (centre), the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Baha'i Faith, joins in a small group discussion.

“Religious freedom is a fundamental component of peace and stability,” Mr. Shannon said. “Without religious freedom, talented people are pushed away.”

The matter needs to move up the political agenda, Mr. Shannon said, to ensure greater economic prosperity, stability, and security.

Also on the panel was Baroness Anelay of St Johns, the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. She said, with intolerance increasing around the world, this commitment is needed more than ever.

“Freedom of religion or belief is not just an optional extra alongside the broad spectrum of human rights. It is a key human right in and of itself,” she said.

“Where freedom of religion or belief is not fully respected, it follows that democratic values and the rule of law are not fully implemented.”

One of the keys to success is education, she said. “We need to ensure that children appreciate from the earliest age that everyone must be valued equally.”

Another panelist, Dr. Nazila Ghanea—Associate Professor of International Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford—stressed the importance of every individual having the freedom to decide whether or not to adopt a religion or belief.

"The prerequisite to freedom of religion and belief is the freedom to independently investigate the truth and adopt a belief, be it religious or not,” said Dr. Ghanea.

Referring to the Baha’i International Community document Freedom to Believe, Dr. Ghanea quoted, “The primary task of the soul will always be to investigate reality, to live in accordance with the truths of which it becomes persuaded, and to accord full respect to the efforts of others to do the same.”

Dr. Ghanea asked how such values can be advanced, noting that efforts to transfer standards across different cultures can lead to resistance.

“International standards need to be digested in a meaningful way and people need to make them their own,” she said. “Consultation is a very important way of trying to ingrain values in neighborhoods and societies.”

Participatory discussion groups were then held where innovative ideas were explored to enhance awareness, support religious freedom, and equip businesses with tools and ideas.

The seminar is intended to be the first step in a longer process to build a deeper conceptual understanding of issues of freedom of religion or belief in British political life and society.