What is it that leading British Sikhs, Jews, Hindus, Roman Catholics, Copts, Buddhists, Presbyterians and Muslims have in common? Too often, we hear about the differences between faiths. But this week we saw an extraordinary coming together for a great cause.
On 14 May, Foreign Office Minister Alastair Burt received in person an open letter addressed to the Foreign Secretary by fifty religious leaders. The issue that brought this important and diverse array of faith leaders together was religious freedom or belief. Specifically, the fifth anniversary of the imprisonment of the seven leaders of the Baha’i community by the Iranian government. The only reason for their imprisonment was their faith.
Both Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have said that religious freedom is at the heart of human rights, the right that underpins all other rights. No state should dictate to its citizens what to believe. Iran, like too many other countries that violate that right, has signed the relevant international instruments protecting freedom of belief. And yet it is responsible for the systematic persecution of its Baha’i community, ranging from exclusion from higher education to imprisonment, torture and execution.
Religious persecution is wrong, wherever it occurs. It is wrong when it is applied to anyone of any belief, be they Shia Muslim, Jewish, agnostic, Christian or, yes, Baha’i. In the land of their birth, their simple wish is to practise their faith in peace. Successive Iranian governments have refused them this basic right.
My government is active in lending its voice to that of the leaders of all the great religions present in our country today. Their common decision to sign the letter shows that this is not a partisan cause, but one deeply held. The failure of the Iranian authorities to respect the faith of the Baha’i is a clear demonstration of their disregard for fundamental human rights. I wonder how my Iranian opposite number explains this systematic persecution of people of faith to our common hosts here at the Vatican?
UK Ambassador to the Holy See