The Most Reverend and Rt Hon Justin Welby gave the keynote address at the launch of the Religious Liberty Commission at the Palace of Westminster.

Archbishop Of Canterbury Condemns Silence Over Religious Persecution

The Archbishop of Canterbury has called on politicians, the church and the media to speak out against the 'creeping climate of fear and animosity' at the launch of a new partnership to address the growing problem of violence against Christians worldwide.

The Religious Liberty Commission (RLC), launched at Westminster, is calling on the British government to intervene to prevent religious cleansing and violent persecution.

The Most Reverend and Rt Hon Justin Welby gave the keynote address at the launch of the RLC at the Palace of Westminster. Highlighting the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, attacks against Jews in Europe and the firebombing of mosques, he told an audience of parliamentarians and church leaders:

"It's a great privilege to be here. This is an area of life which has been central to my own prayer and my own thinking for a very long time. When my wife and I got married in 1979, in our first two summer holidays, we took Bibles - with a group affiliated with Open Doors - firstly to what was then Czechoslovakia, and secondly to Romania.

That brought home to us a number of things. One was that God is present in the midst of the suffering of the persecuted church. Secondly that listening to those who are being persecuted is extraordinarily important; talking at them or about them is one thing, but actually hearing them is something quite different, and it burns itself into one's soul.

Although there's much talk of persecution in this country I think we need to distinguish our situation - as Rowan Williams did quite rightly - from the serious oppression in places around the world where the response to the call of Jesus to "follow me" is forbidden.

I'm going to expand this to talk about other faiths as we go on, but I'm consciously starting with Christians.

We need to start with generosity and free will, because religious freedom - the choice of how and whether at all we follow God or turn away from God - is something that is given in creation, and in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.

For those of us who are Christians - I'm aware that there are other faiths here - living out that choice as something that we offer freely and around us, as well as something we demand for ourselves, is what distinguishes us from some of the sad and in fact evil history that has characterised the church.

Free choice is essential because that is what Jesus gave those he encountered. Think of the rich young ruler who is offered a choice and goes away saddened (Matthew 19:16-30). Think of the thieves on the cross on either side of Jesus, one of whom turns to him, the other of whom curses him: they have choice (Luke 23:39-43).

The choice to respond in faith or not is right through the Bible. The choice of truth and error is right through the Bible. In the Old Testament, the Jewish scriptures, we see above all in the history of Israel and in the teaching of Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 30:11 ff) and all those books that link in closely to that pivotal book of the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy alone the word 'choose' comes more than 20 times; it is fundamental to our understanding of what it is to relate to God and to the world.

We are those who have space, who have free will, who have choice - and then bear the consequences.

For these reasons, even more fundamentally than international law, freedom of religion is a fundamental human right - now enshrined in international law - and should be treated as equal, not subordinate, to other human rights. And for those of us who are Christians, let's just be quite clear that the church, including the Church of England, has a poor record in this as in many other areas, but perhaps in the last 300 years has begun to learn a little of where it went wrong.

Because human beings are in the image of God, our religious beliefs are a core part of what it is to be human. They form us into who we are; they provide foundations for our deepest convictions, and motivations for our sincerest actions.

That is something that goes back right through history. We see looking back that the formation of the monasteries with Saint Benedict was driven not by the thought that it would be a good idea to have somewhere that was safer as the Roman Empire collapsed around them, where a little bit of civilization could be maintained - let alone, as a friend of mine who's a Catholic priest said to me, so that gentlemen can live together in community. It was so that faith in Christ could be expressed tangibly and visibly, in lives lived together growing towards Christ.

The trouble with 'freedom of belief' is that it's almost misleading, as it fails fully to convey the total orientation and way of life that some foundational convictions provide. Unlike beliefs of preference, predilections and taste, faith is not an optional extra - or as it usually turns up in the research on marketing that sometimes comes across one's desk, as a leisure interest. I remember years ago, when the present chief justice of the United States was appointed to his post and was about to go through his Senate confirmation hearings. There were a lot of questions about the fact that he is a Roman Catholic. The question was: would that influence his judgement? And I remember a senator who was interviewed and said, "I don't mind him being a Roman Catholic, provided it has no effect on what he does." [Laughter]