The Persecuted Church: An Exploration of International Laws in Support of Religious Freedom

The persecuted Church has been in focus from the very beginning of the Lausanne Movement. Article 13 of the Lausanne Covenant deals with “Freedom and Persecution.” The article ends with these words: “We do not forget the warnings of Jesus that persecution is inevitable.”

Throughout history, the persecution of Christians and the Church has been overwhelming. It started with the Romans during the time of the early Church. Some research today says that more than 200 million Christians are suffering from misinformation, discrimination, and persecution. All simply because they are Christians.

It is of great importance that the Lausanne Movement keeps a permanent and strong focus on the persecuted Church. Those in the West need to listen to their voices and speak up for our suffering brothers and sisters.

In 2005, the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization (LCWE) printed a report on “The Persecuted Church” (Lausanne Occasional Paper No. 32). It was a result of the work of “Issue Group 31” at the Lausanne 2004 Forum for World Evangelization in Pattaya, Thailand.

I had the chance to participate in Pattaya and attend the meetings of this Issue Group. It was an encouraging time when Christians from different denominations, churches, and movements came together for the same purpose. As a result of this meeting and the close fellowship created within the Issue Group, the Religious Liberty Partnership (RLP) was established in 2006. Members of RLP are mainly CEOs of leading Christian NGOs around the world fighting for freedom of religion. Once a year we meet and share our visions, burdens, and experiences.

The theology of persecution and the suffering Church is well-documented in many Lausanne papers and publications. In this short article I will point to the most important tools and instruments available when dealing with the persecuted Church and the issues related to international legal protection of the freedom of religion and belief.

Of course, prayer is tool number one. However, below we will take a short look at more worldly instruments at hand.

International Rights and Freedom of Religion and Belief
Freedom of religion and belief is a fundamental human right; it is one of the foundations of a democratic society. Historically, religious freedom was one of the first recognized human rights; today, there is international legal protection of freedom of religion and belief.

The basic elements of freedom of religion and belief have the status of international customary law. A country is thus obliged to respect the right regardless of ratification of international texts. This point of view is primarily based on the general acceptance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948) and on the many countries who have ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (CCPR, 1966).

UDHR is the main international text on human rights. However, being a declaration, the text is not directly judicially binding, and therefore not “law” in its strictest sense. CCPR is the only international, judicially-binding text that expressly deals with freedom of religion and the right to choose a religion.

Another important United Nations (UN) declaration is the UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion and Belief (1981); however, this is a “soft law” like UDHR.

The right to change one’s religion is also expressed in some regional instruments, such as the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR, article 9) and the American Convention on Human Rights (article 12).

Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The UDHR is the most famous UN declaration. It is quoted in thousands of books, articles, periodicals, public relations campaigns, and political speeches. Article 18 covers our topic: religious freedom:

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.

Article 29 of UDHR then gives reasons for limitations on the rights and freedoms.

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
Article 18 of the CCPR also deals with religious freedom. It states that:

  1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of his or her choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his or her religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, and teaching.
  2. No one shall be subject to coercion, which would impair his or her freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his or her choice.
  3. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
  4. The parties to the covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians, to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.

As the reader will discover, article 18 in the CCPR contains the possibilities of restrictions and limitations. And here we touch a very important element in the declaration. All of the readers who have been involved in religious freedom and human rights issues will express a big “Yes!” and immediately refer to their knowledge of bad practice.

The most common excuse for state involvement, restrictions, and trouble for churches in many countries is the “care for” public safety and “national harmony.” Some say that if a person leaves one’s religion and converts to the Christian religion, he or she will create social unrest and disturb the harmony in society.

To help us reflect, there are, like other limitations and the CCPR, three provisions that each kind of limitation must fulfill:

  1. The limitation must be prescribed by law. This is a part of a broader “rule of law” principle.
  2. The limitation must be “necessary.” There has to be a “fair balance” between the aim pursued and the limitation. This leads to a principle of “proportionality.”
  3. The limitation must serve one of the listed purposes—and only the following purposes may legitimate limitations: public safety, public health, public order.
  4. Fundamental rights and freedom of others. The question of proselytism and the “Code of Conduct” (re: missionary activities, etc.).

Final Comment
At Lausanne III in Cape Town this October, there will be representatives from the most closed countries in the world. Some of these will not be able to give their real names or explain in detail where they live and work. If you are attending the Congress, please respect this. But pray for them and with them. Try to learn about their society, the constitution of their countries, and the rule of law (or lack thereof). Article 18 of the CCPR is a good starting point. (Full text can be printed out from Internet). Above all, ask them how you and your church can support them and in what way they want you to be their voice in your local environments.

Bjørn A. Wegge has been general secretary of Norwegian Mission to the East (NME) since 2002. NME is a Christian missions and human rights organization in Norway founded in 1967. He holds a M.A. in religion and philosophy from Oslo University and has done studies at Fuller Theological Seminary in California.