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.
Cllr Jo White, Baroness Berridge, Rev Tony Peck and Adrian Gray
These were among the key messages at an event at The Well in Retford last week (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.
Rev Tony Peck, General Secretary of the European Baptist Federation, described the life of Thomas Helwys, including his time spent in Gainsborough with John Smyth, from Sturton. They left for Amsterdam in 1608 and established a Baptist principle of belief in A Declaration of Faith of English People Remaining at Amsterdam in Holland (1611). Helwys returned to England and set up the first English Baptist Church at Spitalfields, London.
He then published A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity, containing the first English language plea for universal religious freedom – for all faiths, and none. He denied the King’s right to impose laws requiring religious conformity and the King responded by imprisoning him in Newgate prison, where he died in around 1616.
Deputy Leader of Bassetlaw District Council and Portfolio Lead for Regeneration, Cllr Jo White, opened the event to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the death of Thomas Helwys. She acknowledged the importance of the area around Retford where the founders of the Baptist, Quaker and Methodist denominations had originated, together with leaders of the Mayflower Pilgrims.
Bassetlaw District Council is proud of this unique aspect of our heritage, she said, and has created an annual Festival of Stories leading up to 2020, the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower Pilgrims reaching America. This weekend (Friday 11 and Saturday 12 March) was the start of the Rebels and Religion Festival, with the first national Christian Heritage Conference held at The Well on Friday, which was a great success. She also looked forward to this becoming an annual event.
Local historian, Adrian Gray’s book was launched at this event, entitled From Here We Changed the World. Cllr White commented that this is “a bold statement, but it is a fact, and one we are very proud of”. She thanked people for attending and encouraged everyone to “work together to make positive changes for our future and the future of our children”.
A Release International representative and an Open Doors representative were interviewed by Richard Warren (Assistant Pastor, The Well). They confirmed that 200 million Christians around the world today suffer some form of persecution. The Christian church has become a target for people wishing to express their disapproval of the actions of Western democracies, especially where Christian peoples form minority groups in other cultures.
The event was brought to a close by Adrian Gray. Forty-five visitors joined him for a guided tour of churches relevant to the Helwys story in Askham, Sturton, Saundby and Glentworth; and Gainsborough Old Hall.
Music was provided during the event by Dan Bailey and Lynn Clapperton.
*The Pew Research Centre (US) Latest Trends in Religious Restrictions and Hostilities:
“Looking at the overall level of restrictions – whether resulting from government policies or from hostile acts by private individuals, organizations and social groups – the study finds that restrictions on religion were high or very high in 39% of countries. Because some of these countries (like China and India) are very populous, about 5.5 billion people (77% of the world’s population) were living in countries with a high or very high overall level of restrictions on religion in 2013, up from 76% in 2012 and 68% as of 2007.”