Bible play: I am a Christian and a liberal - freedom of religion must also include freedom from religion
Last week in Parliament I again raised the vital issue of religious freedom.
It’s a matter on which I have been active since my election to Westminster, through questions, tabling debates and in my roles as Vice-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Religious Freedom and the Parliamentary contact for Open Doors.
As a person with a strong faith, I support this in principle; however, I also recognise that in societies where freedom of religion and belief is properly protected, other rights are also generally respected, creating more open, free and tolerant democracies.
In Westminster I asked the Foreign Secretary to challenge the Pakistani Government to appeal the recent ruling of the Federal Sharia Court that the state courts should apply only the death penalty for blasphemy cases.
Such blasphemy laws are an unjust interference with people's right to religious freedom: to impose them with the death penalty is a double abuse of human rights. It is an unjust and unjustifiable move which could leave Christians and other religious minorities facing death for doing nothing more than practising their faith and could create a climate where exclusion, abuse and vigilantism against such minorities could rise further.
Sadly, I returned to Belfast later in the week amidst a storm of controversy over the cancellation of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged) at the Theatre at the Mill after complaints by some Christians that they viewed it as blasphemous.
I am a Christian. I am also a liberal. I will robustly defend my right to practice my faith, to share it with others and to change my religion if I chose; however, I will also defend that freedom for those with whom I fundamentally disagree as I recognise that freedom is not a fixed quantity - extending it to others does not diminish the amount available for me to enjoy. In fact, quite the reverse is true.
Freedom of religion means just that - freedom - to choose, practice and share one's faith and, by definition, must also include freedom from religion.
I have a right to believe and to be protected from persecution for my beliefs. I do not have the right to impose my views on others.
Censorship of the kind we saw attempted in Newtownabbey is not on a par with the death penalty for blasphemy; however, it is part of the erosion of personal freedoms by those who seek to protect their own religion as opposed to freedom of religion which can create a regressive environment for minorities, whether religious or non-religious.
So whether you want to see the play or not, whether you approve of its content or not, we should all be glad that it is going ahead. It is a mark of a mature society, a liberal democracy, one which guards personal freedom and human rights - the kind I would like to see operating for the benefit of Christians in Pakistan.
It may only have seemed like a silly dispute about a comedy play, but the arguments behind it are no laughing matter.