Belfast Telegraph

Conscience clause risk to equality

By Naomi Long

Last year saw shocking incidents of religious persecution around the world. The Middle East continued to be a hotbed for conflict and intolerance; Nigeria and Sudan were just two of the African countries to have been in the headlines for the wrong reasons.

I have been vocal in condemning violence, discrimination and intolerance, while defending the right for all to both freedom of religion and freedom from religion.

In my role as MP for East Belfast, I have hosted and participated in debates on freedom of thought, conscience and religion to demonstrate a commitment to this basic human right.

My intention is to build on this in 2015 and the first stage in this is an event I am sponsoring in Westminster today entitled Freedom of Religion and the Persecution of Christians: The Open Doors Report 2015.

It will provide analysis on the key dynamics of persecution, based on evidence collected throughout the previous year, while hearing from researcher, analyst and journalist Dr Ron Boyd-MacMillan and Nigerian church leader, Rev Daniel Awayi.

Studies show countries which defend and protect the right to freedom of conscience and belief also fare better in terms of protection of meaningful democracy and other human rights and freedoms.

Tolerant societies, based on internationally recognised rights and freedoms, also tend to be stable and peaceful.

But the freedoms for which we are campaigning for overseas must also be jealously guarded at home. Plans for a conscience clause recently unveiled by the DUP, for example, would undermine equality legislation, which is already finely balanced and contains provision for exemptions.

A conscience clause should only be considered in very specific and defined circumstances and no exemption should ever be as broad as covering an entire equality ground, where it would facilitate unjustified discrimination and have serious implications for many.

By continuing to regularly shine a light in Parliament on the issue of freedom of and from religion, I hope it will send a strong message that persecution will not go unchallenged by the international community.

  • Naomi Long is Alliance MP for East Belfast

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