It has to be fought for


Text of the Christmas editorial of The Guardian of London (Dec. 24, 1998)

IN THIS week's usual hectic pre-Christmas rush to buy turkeys, trees and presents, we are increasingly unlikely to spare a thought for the season's religious significance. Even more unlikely is that we will reflect on the freedom we have in Western Europe to chose what to believe and to worship. If we chose to go to a carol concert or attend a service, we are not going to lose our jobs, be banned from membership of a political party or be slapped with a bankrupting tax demand. The idea is, of course, quite preposterous. Or is it?

Some human rights are more fashionable than others was not a theme which cropped up in the celebrations earlier this month of the 50th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Freedom of belief is second only to freedom of speech in the Declaration, but in the secular West, people of minority faiths - most prominently, muslims - passionately argue that it is in this area, that Western liberalism reveals its own blind intolerance. How many human rights experts have been prepared to champion the Scientologists' struggle in Germany, where they are discriminated against in jobs, hiring public buildings, conducting their businesses and banned from political parties?

What is a cult to one man is a peaceful search for utopia to the next. In the hysterical panic which swept through Francophone Europe in the wake of the Solar Temple in 1994, freedom of belief has been an easy sacrifice in several liberal democracies. There is no shortage of anti-cult groups happy to supply allegations. When politicians seize the opportunity of some cheap credit, a cycle of misinformation and harassment prompts persecution complexes which can turn a movement into a paranoid cult.

The UK has reason to be proud of its record and in no small measure that is down to the work of a tiny monitoring organisation, Inform, based at the London School of Economics. It has provided government, police, churches and distressed relatives with objective information for 11 years. But Inform's grants from the Home Office and the churches are not enough; now it's limping into the New Year. In a secular culture where there is increasingly less respect for belief in all forms, its not an issue with much kudos. But you can't pick and chose which human rights you'll champion without undermining the legitimacy of all.

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