James Somerville-Meikle: Religious services are essential for many people; the Government must not stop them again.

9 Nov

James Somerville-Meikle is Head of Public Affairs at the Catholic Union.

To ban religious services once could be seen as unfortunate. To ban them twice in a year looks like carelessness.

Unlike Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, this is sadly not a comedy.

The Government has once again prohibited religious services in England as part of its second national lockdown. While places of worship can still open for private prayer, religious services are banned until December 2.

Something that seemed unthinkable at the beginning of the year has now happened twice. We must not allow it to happen again.

While closing places of worship in the first lockdown was extremely painful, it was understood that we faced an unknown virus and the priority was to protect the NHS and save lives. We now know significantly more about this virus and how to control it.

If you’ve been into any church since the summer, you will have probably encountered an army of masked cleaners with disinfectant spray, one-way systems, and people collecting contact details for NHS Test and Trace. The efforts of thousands of volunteers across the country have made churches, and other places of worship, examples of how to make public buildings Covid-secure.

This has given faith leaders confidence to speak out against the ban. Cardinal Vincent Nichols, leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, spoke of the “deep anguish” felt by Catholics at seeing churches closed for services. A feeling shared by many other people of faith.

The decision was also criticised by many MPs and peers during the limited time for debate on the regulations in Parliament. Edward Leigh MP, the Catholic Union President, described “outlawing religious services” as a “disproportionate response to the pandemic”.

Outlawing religious services – taking away a basic pillar of religious freedom – is a grave intrusion into our fundamental human rights. It should never become an acceptable response to the challenges we face, particularly not for a Conservative government.

Talk of “outlawing” religious services is no exaggeration. The Government is not simply asking Christians to stop attending church, or suggesting to Jewish people that they should stay away from synagogues, or encouraging Hindus and Sikhs to give up Diwali celebrations. It is forcing them to do this by using the law.

Of course, it’s not just faith groups who are affected by these restrictions. Daily life has become harder for almost every person in England and had consequences for people across the United Kingdom. Millions are worried about their jobs or businesses. There are a growing number of people in need as a result of this pandemic, and faith groups are often on the frontline in providing help.

People of faith are not asking for special treatment, but for religious services to be treated like other services deemed essential for health and wellbeing. It’s an important test of whether we understand the importance of faith to people’s lives and whether we’re prepared to reflect that in policy.

The new restrictions are significantly different to the full lockdown earlier in the year, in many ways for the better. More institutions are considered to be providing essential services, including schools and universities. A greater number of shops have been given essential status, including garden centres. And there will be far more essential journeys, with people encouraged to go to work if they cannot work from home.

The decision to label more aspects of life as “essential” under the new restrictions may help to avoid the social and economic trauma of a full lockdown. But it has also led to the Government straying into difficult territory by determining what is and isn’t essential in our lives – something which is generally best left to people to decide.

Excluding religious services from this list sends a message to faith groups that collective worship is deemed unnecessary.

This was not helped by the Prime Minister failing to mention places of worship in his speech on October 31. People were left to check on the Government’s website to see how the new restrictions would impact their churches, synagogues, and mosques. For the millions of people for whom prayer and worship is the rhythm of their lives, this omission will have been noted.

It shows that once again the “religious literacy” of those making decisions needs to be improved. A good start would be giving more clout to the Faith Taskforce, which was set up by Robert Jenrick, the Communities Secretary, to advise on reopening places of worship after the last lockdown.

The ban on religious services is particularly frustrating given the lack of evidence for the decision. Are people really more at risk of catching the virus in a socially distanced church service than they are in a garden centre or lecture theatre? Or for that matter is a church used for praying more of a public health risk than a church used for worship?

When pushed for evidence on the spread of the virus in places of worship, Patrick Vallance, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, told the Commons Science and Technology Committee: “I don’t think we have good data to answer that with any degree of certainty.”

Had any evidence existed, the response from faith leaders would have been very different. People of faith have shown they are just as prepared as anyone to make sacrifices in the national interest. Closing places of worship was accepted earlier this year, while energy was focused on maintaining the services they run – such as food banks and bereavement support groups. Given the lack of evidence for the current ban, faith leaders have every right to complain.

Controlling the second wave of the virus was perhaps always going to be harder than the first. If there’s one thing worse than not having evidence, it’s being faced with a huge body of evidence and needing to make tough decisions.

Increasingly it seems that policy priorities are shaping the Government’s response to the pandemic, just as much as science and evidence. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it means we need to get our priorities right. Policies that allow people to go to a garden centre on a Sunday morning, but not church, suggests that a rethink is required.

Over the next few weeks, difficult decisions will need to be made once again about the way out of lockdown. Above all, this will be a test of what we value. The Government should listen to our country’s faith leaders who have called for places of worship to reopen fully in light of their essential nature.

Banning religious services must not become part of the “new normal.”

Lucy Winkett: Churches have played a vital role throughout Covid. But their buildings are increasingly under threat.

20 Oct

The Revd Lucy Winkett is Rector of St James’s Church, Piccadilly, a writer and broadcaster. 

The new House of Good report by the National Churches Trust confirmed in figures what I, as Rector of a central London church, see in everyday life. Church buildings, whether in urban or rural areas, can be and often are, hubs of community activity inspired by, but not constrained by, their central religious purpose on a Sunday.

The Covid-19 pandemic is causing isolation, loneliness, mental fragility and economic deprivation on a huge scale. Churches provide enormous value, far beyond what is often a small gathered congregation once a week or a couple of times a month.   

It may seem a strange thing for the church to do; to try to quantify in hard data, what the value of its work is. On one level, of course this is right; our main activity – prayer and worship – is almost by definition, immeasurable. But what the report calls the “Halo effect” is key. There are social, economic and cultural activities undertaken by churches in their local communities that can be measured.

The report, which for the first time evaluates the economic and social impact of churches, found them to be contributing services worth £12.4 billion: a combination of direct market value, volunteers’ time, the replacement cost of services and wellbeing value based on the wellbeing adjusted life year (WELLBY) measurement. 

Like many other churches, for years St James’s Church, Piccadilly has provided care and support for anyone who passes by, whether they are local workers, people going through homelessness or people in need of someone to talk to. Churches throughout the UK in every denomination are hosting food banks, addiction support services, mental health support and youth services. The need for these community-building initiatives is greater than ever.  

Although much has been written about church worship going digital as a result of Covid-19, much less attention has been paid to the way that churches have continued to provide help for people in need. While the pandemic closed church buildings for some time, the House of Good report has found that 89 per cent of church communities have continued to provide a range of help to local people, including a highly adaptive approach to the worship itself.

The need for this provision is bound to increase as businesses close and work across the hospitality, travel and cultural sectors dries up and more people are experiencing financial hardship. Families with one or two parents out of work, or in uncertain work, are increasingly resorting to food banks, the majority of which are housed in churches.

More people are now isolated or lonely, deprived of their usual social interactions and unable to meet up with loved ones. This has had a massive impact on mental health and on drug and alcohol abuse – and this will drive up the need for the counselling services and addiction support meetings which take place in church buildings. And the cheery socially distanced coffee morning, which might be the sole social contact for some, is taking on renewed importance as churches find the determination to adapt the old ways of gathering people together.  

But these buildings themselves are under threat, especially in the most deprived areas of the UK. These churches, often hundreds of years old, contend with crumbling roofs, deteriorating church halls, and inadequate kitchen and toilet facilities, which can make them unsuitable for the community help they provide and can lead to them being closed altogether.  

900 churches in the UK are currently on the Historic England “at risk” register and, on average, one Church of England church closes every fortnight. The National Churches Trust is approached by several hundred churches every year who are struggling to afford essential repairs and maintenance of their buildings, but they can only afford to fund one quarter of these applications. 

Many people think that church authorities or government pay for the upkeep of the UK’s church buildings. But it is actually up to parishes themselves to raise the money needed to repair a leaking roof or fix a crumbling spire. Very often, the sums needed are not large, but what this report shows is that the investment, however small, has an amplifier effect in terms of the good work that can be generated in a building that has a functioning toilet, a secure roof, a working boiler.

Because of their strategic importance, Government and the National Lottery Heritage Fund have an important role to play in helping to keep church buildings in good repair. 

Following on the successful “Taylor Pilots” run by Historic England, the NCT report shows that the Government could and should examine how best to establish a new repair and maintenance fund for places of worship. The social and economic benefit of doing so is now plain, and outlined in the data contained in this report.

Simple steps can be taken to increase the social and economic impact that church buildings can have on their localities. The Listed Places of Worship Grant Scheme pays for the VAT incurred in works to listed buildings in use as places of worship. In October 2019 it was announced that the scheme is to be extended by the Treasury for a further year until March 2021. This scheme should be guaranteed for at least the next five years, to provide certainty for churches undertaking repair projects. 

The devolved administrations and local authorities also have a role to play in providing a strategic overview for church buildings. This could include imaginative funding schemes, such as the Community Facilities Programme in Wales, which has provided grants to a wide range of buildings, including places of worship. 

Church buildings are “key places” – a ready-made network of responsive hubs that look after the care and wellbeing of the local community.

Together, let’s make sure these Houses of Good remain at the heart of the communities for which they were built – and can continue to play an integral part in the building of community and strengthening of society among all of us, from all faiths and none.

Rehman Chishti and Knox Thames: Freedom of religion is under threat. Trans-Atlantic efforts can combat that.

12 Oct

Rehman Chishti is an MP and the former UK Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on FoRB. Knox Thames served as the US Special Advisor on Religious Minorities at the State Department for both the Obama and Trump administrations.  

The United States and the United Kingdom have worked closely on joint efforts to promote freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) worldwide. It’s a reflection of our shared values, and the partnership presents a unique opportunity for joint action. And the time to act is now.

Religious repression is at all-time highs, with the Pew Forum reporting 84 per cent of the global community lives in countries with high or very high restrictions on faith practices. That’s not to say everyone is persecuted, but that the space for freedom of conscience is shrinking. People of all faiths and worldviews are affected by these trends, which have implications beyond human rights, including international security and the growth of violent religious extremism.

Solving a problem this large requires diverse coalitions. Through our work, we recognised the substantial advantages of partnerships with like-minded governments. Thankfully, there is unprecedented interest in a new trans-Atlantic effort to promote this fundamental freedom.

In the UK, the Truro report, launched the day after Christmas in 2018 by Jeremy Hunt, the then UK Foreign Secretary, specifically examined persecuted Christians. The report found troubling examples of Christian persecution, but noted that other communities also suffer, and recommended Her Majesty’s government do more to assist all persons persecuted for their beliefs. I (Chishti) was tasked with setting the 22 recommendations into policy, getting 17 into place before leaving office.

In the US, the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 created a special ambassador at large on the issue and office, as well as required the annual reporting on religious freedom conditions worldwide. During the Trump administration, the State Department convened two ministerial-level summits that elevated the issue and launched a new Alliance to bring together the most committed countries on advancing religious freedom for all.

We both believe that holistically advocating for everyone’s right, as opposed to singularly focused on just one community, is the best approach. We grounded our activities in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which protects freedom of conscience, the right to change faith or have no faith, meet alone or with others for worship, and share one’s religious views. While, of course, we should speak out when individual groups face persecution, we must do so in the context of advocating for the right of religious freedom for all. A balanced approach focused on the right will ensure space for all beliefs.

Why? We’ve seen that it’s the most durable path to guaranteeing the right over the long haul. Environments where every individual is free to seek truth as their conscience leads is one where every community can thrive. In contrast, narrowly focused efforts, such as Christian persecution by Hungary or the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s concentration on Muslim persecution, will most likely fall short of their long-term goals. It’s not that Christian and Muslim persecution isn’t happening – it most definitely is, and we must speak out.

But an environment providing freedom of conscience for all will ensure that individual communities can survive in the future. Otherwise, we risk creating religious Bantustans of special exemptions or carve-outs benefiting specific groups.

Working closely with Sam Brownback, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, we instilled this approach into the new International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance and its founding charter. Alongside our Dutch and Brazilian counterparts, the UN Special Rapporteur Ahmed Shaheed, and key civil society experts, we helped build an organisation of 30+ nations from different regional, political, and religious backgrounds. Of course, none of these countries are perfect, but they all agreed to uphold their Article 18 commitments at home and abroad, including contentious issues like conversion and free speech.

Working together with those committed to the same principles can meet the challenges of today. For instance, the Alliance devised new strategies to advocate for all, such as a statement on Covid to ensure that the pandemic doesn’t become a pretext to limit religious freedom. Another vital network we participated in with Canada – the International Contact Group for FoRB – was also grounded in this religious-freedom-for-all approach.

In the face of new challenges and opportunities, progress will depend on North American and European leadership. The challenges facing religious freedom are beyond the capabilities or influence of any one government or organisation. Fortunately, our common understanding creates a platform for coordinated and elevated activity. Now, in addition to the US and UK envoys, others exist in several countries and organisations: Canada, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, EU, the Netherlands, Norway, OSCE, Poland, Romania, Sweden, and the United Nations.

The time is right for a more assertive trans-Atlantic approach, but parliamentarians and governments must demonstrate a lasting commitment to the right. Freedom of thought, conscience, and belief isn’t a conservative or liberal value or some sideshow to other issues, but a fundamental human right relevant to people of all faiths and none worldwide. It deserves the full attention of the international community.

Pressing repressive governments toward reform will not be easy or costless. China is playing hardball, with its persecution of UighursTibetansChristians, and the pressuring of countries daring to speak out. Pakistan’s abusive blasphemy law is in overdrive, while India is taking a wrong turn against minorities. Burma’s genocide against the Rohingya grinds on, while Christians in Nigeria suffer from Boko Haram.

In response, networking efforts among like-minded allies can share the burden and multiply the effectiveness of bilateral engagements. For instance, sanctions and other corrective measures like the Magnitsky act, which our countries have implemented, can create political leverage to encourage change. Hopefully, others in Europe will follow. Speaking out on specific cases is another example, such as on Yemen or blasphemy laws. To further elevate, our countries can use our UN Security Council seats to press for reforms. We can share data and train diplomats. All European and North American countries can immediately response to atrocity crimes, including genocide, or establish early warning systems.

More action is desperately needed. Governments must take this human right seriously and incorporate concerns across their policies. People of faith must speak up for persecuted believers (and non-believers) from other communities, to stand in solidarity with the repressed. Religious leaders should tackle this issue head-on, using their pulpits to advocate for soul freedom of all.

Everyone speaking up for everyone, even outside their belief system, is most impactful for the global effort. By working together, as rights-respecting communities on each side of the Atlantic, we can make a difference.

Desmond Swayne: Nigeria is independent, but it still needs Britain’s help

1 Oct

Sir Desmond Swayne is a former International Development Minister, and is MP for New Forest West.

Today, Thursday October 1, is the 60th anniversary of Nigeria’s independence from British rule. Celebrating Independence Day is important for any nation and it is no less the case for Nigeria which, having moved on from the days of British rule, has become one of the continent’s most prosperous, most populous and fastest growing nations. It is estimated that Nigeria will have a larger population than the United States by 2050 and it is already the largest economy in Africa.

This diamond jubilee of independence is of great national significance as it celebrates Nigeria’s past ties and collaborations, as well as future opportunities to build stronger connections and trading relationships in this post-Brexit new world. There will be many socially distanced celebrations to commemorate this occasion – the International Organisation for Peace and Social Justice will be holding an online thanksgiving prayer event for example.

However, beyond the joy of Nigeria’s Independence Day celebrations, this prayer event has another purpose, a more sombre purpose – and that is to highlight, mourn and campaign for further positive progress in the ongoing battle against the Boko Haram insurgents and other militia groups threatening the peace of the nation and the region. Since the year 2000, it is estimated that there have been almost 100,000 deaths in Nigeria caused by internationally recognised Islamist extremist groups who have been targeting both Christians and Muslims alike. This existential threat could well have wider global implications if we do not pray and act against it in a timely manner.

This continuing tragedy is underrepresented in the UK media and the scale of the crisis is sadly not fully recognised by all. I commend the hard work of organisations such as OpenDoors, HART, PSJ UK, CSW and others working to raise awareness of the situation in Nigeria.

There has also been some good news recently in this respect from the UK government. I fully support Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s recent announcement that he is considering diverting billions of pounds of foreign aid to bolster security. This would be a welcome early benefit from the new FCO and DFID merger and a step forward for many of us, who have been looking for an official recognition of the links between aid, security and development.

It is my hope that the UK government will move forward with this and use the aid that we give to Nigeria – almost £300m in 2018 – to ensure that Nigeria does more to safeguard human rights and protect lives. This strategy to help the millions of innocent citizens in Nigeria, trapped between some of the deadliest terrorist organisations, Islamic State West Africa and Boko Haram, as well as unidentified militias and bandits has broad public support. For example, a recent ComRes poll showed that requiring foreign aid to Nigeria be targeted on measures that safeguard human rights received over 50 per cent approval and rose to almost 60 per cent support for sanctions on individuals found responsible for these human rights abuses.

Of course, our foreign aid can do great work in countries like Nigeria, building schools, revamping hospitals and updating agricultural equipment. However, we must also continue to ensure that this funding does indeed go to those in need and does not disappear into a labyrinth of wasteful bureaucratic machines. Moreover, without support for persecuted and targeted groups much of our aid projects could simply be destroyed or rendered useless by attacks.

If the UK government embraces this bolder approach to foreign aid we will be able to genuinely use our position on the world stage to make life better for those in need all around the globe.

With the world still in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic, today’s series of celebratory events in Nigeria and in the UK will be slightly muted with its citizens looking to governments in both nations to do more and follow through on its verbal commitments. Governments have a responsibility to protect their people and I hope to be raising more celebratory glasses to toast when this is fully achieved in Nigeria.