Helwys commemoration event highlights the need for religious tolerance

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Cllr Jo White, Baroness Berridge, Rev Tony Peck and Adrian Gray

Religious intolerance and state oppression pose real dangers to personal freedom. And some 77% of the world’s population live under government restrictions on their beliefs.

These were among the key messages at an event at The Well in Retford on Saturday 12 March, commemorating the 400th anniversary of the death of local Separatist, Thomas Helwys, who first advocated universal religious freedom.

Addressing an audience from across the UK, Baroness Elizabeth Berridge, member of the House of Lords and Co-Chair of the All-Party Group on International Freedom of Religion and Belief, outlined examples from history – and today – of religious intolerance and state oppression.

She cited the reigns of Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth I when, to be a loyal subject to the Crown, religious allegiance to Catholicism and Protestantism respectively was required, and the penalty for failure to conform was severe.

More recent history from the Balkan conflict showed the aligning of loyalty to the Serbian state with belief in the Serbian Orthodox Church. The Russian state and the Russian Orthodox Church are forming the same relationship with Russian identity.

In Burma, the Buddhist majority is suspicious of Christian and Muslim minorities, translating into persecution. Iran and Saudi Arabia both practice similar forms of theocracy from opposite sides of Islam. The most extreme current example is that of the so-called Islamic State where religious persecution is being used to attempt to impose a form of government.

Baroness Berridge went on to say that the Pew Research Centre (US)* had estimated that 77% of the world’s population live under governmental restrictions on their beliefs. She explained that an all- party group in Parliament with support from both houses and all parties was trying to raise the profile of the need to stand together to defend the rights of religious freedom for all.

She ended by highlighting that we are today benefitting from the fruits of the sacrifice of Thomas Helwys, who died for his belief in universal religious freedom – for all faiths, and none.

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