New international network for freedom of religion and belief

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development’ Office’s UK Aid Connect Fund brings together organisations to create innovative solutions to complex development challenges that deliver real change to the lives of people living in poverty.

The Freedom of Religion and Belief Leadership Network (FoRBLN) will be led by researchers at the Centre for the Study of Social Cohesion (CSSC), part of Oxford’s School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography. Network partners include the Church of England, the African Centre for Parliamentary Affairs, the Jinnah Institute and the Danish Institute of Human Rights and the eight countries in Africa and Asia.

According to the FoRBLN, ‘Freedom of religion or belief is under pressure in many parts of the world and this pressure is arguably greater than at any time since 1945….

‘Countries where religious freedom is guaranteed are likely to be more peaceful and prosperous than those that do not. Correlation does not necessarily imply causation, but…the practice of religion itself involves speech, assembly, and communication through the media, all of which demand accompanying civil and human rights.’

The aim of today’s move is to build a network of FoRB leaders (parliamentarians and religious leaders) which can respond to the challenges in their countries and the wider regions. This will be achieved by delivering training on FoRB issues, so they can propose initiatives for their national or regional contexts and providing them with technical assistance and expertise to allow delivery. This training will be supported by cutting edge research on the role of FoRB in creating more tolerant and peaceful societies.

Professor Harvey Whitehouse, CSSC director, says, ‘Barrier-crossing leaders have a vital role to play in tackling sectarianism and religious intolerance. This kind of leadership can increase the prospect of cooperation not just within but also across the many interest groups that struggle for survival in the world’s most fragile states.

‘Our leadership network will allow us to investigate more deeply than ever before the psychological mechanisms utilised by barrier-crossing leaders by conducting comparative research in eight countries where FoRB is under threat.’

Dr Pieter Francois, CSSC’s Deputy Director and the overall network lead and principal investigator, says, ‘This project is a fantastic opportunity to foster and to understand better the value of freedom of religion or belief.

‘The combination of delivering training, raising awareness, and conducting research…is unique….we will be able to create a robust set of good practices, standards, and metrics which can then be utilised in a much wider range of countries. The impact of this project will be long term and global.’

Meanwhile, the former Northern Irish political leader, who led the cross-community Alliance Party, Professor, the Lord Alderdice, director of Oxford’s Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict (CRIC) and Chairman of the Advisory Board of the network, says, ‘As the world slips into an increasing polarisation of views, promoting freedom of religion or belief becomes both more difficult and more essential.’

‘It is not only a matter of human rights and the maintenance of economic development and intellectual progress; it is essential if we are to prevent our countries from increasing violence against the individual and indeed from catastrophic wars. As our Centre has explored the problem of violent political conflict, we have been forced to address freedom of religion or belief to better understand and find ways to mitigate this other 21st century plague.’

Based on the CSSC’s expertise in group bonding and its impact on intergroup relations, the research aims to understand the psychological processes that can enable religious and political leaders to cross group boundaries and facilitate understanding between factions, as well as those factors that can obstruct the crossing of these barriers and encourage more entrenched and volatile forms of outgroup hostility.

The FoRBLN consortium consists of 11 partners: Tier 1 – The Centre for the Study of Social Cohesion (CSSC) at the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography at the University of Oxford; Tier 2 – Church of England; Tier 3 – African Centre for Parliamentary Affairs (ACEPA), Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR), Drik Picture Library and GalleryInternational Commission of Jurists (ICJ), International Panel of Parliamentarians for FoRB (IPPFoRB), Jinnah InstituteNordic Ecumenical Network on FoRB (NORFoRB), Pak Mission Society (PMS) and Programme for Christian-Muslim Relations in Africa (PROCMURA).