Report of Seminar on Freedom of Religion & Economic Prosperity

On 2 March 2016, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Bahá’í Faith hosted a seminar at the UK Parliament to explore the relationship between religious freedom and economic prosperity, and other civil political freedoms.

In attendance were some 70 participants including parliamentarians, civil servants, academics, human rights activists, business professionals, and faith community leaders. The seminar was opened by Jim Shannon MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief.

The members of the panel included the Rt Hon Baroness Joyce Anelay of St Johns DBE, the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Professor Brian J. Grim, President of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation (RFBF), and Dr Nazila Ghanea, Associate Professor of International Human Rights Law at Oxford University.

Louise Ellman MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Bahá’í Faith, moderated the participatory discussions and brought the seminar to a close.


In his welcoming address, Mr Shannon emphasised the importance of Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) as a foundation of any democratic and free society. “Religious freedom is a fundamental component of peace and stability,” Mr. Shannon said. “Without religious freedom, talented people are pushed away.” He provided two examples to illustrate the severity of the situation, including the persecution of the Bahá’ís in Iran, as well the extremity of Daesh.

He drew on Professor Grim’s findings that there is a strong correlation between religious freedom and economic growth, and highlighted the need to move the matter up the political agenda to ensure greater economic prosperity, stability, and security.


Baroness Anelay was then invited to give the opening address in which she emphasised that FoRB is “not just an optional extra alongside the broad spectrum of human rights. It is a key human right in and of itself”.

Baroness Anelay went on to state that, “Where FoRB is not fully respected, it follows that democratic values and the rule of law are not fully implemented”. She stressed the central role of education to ensuring stability, emphasising how education is “one of the keys to success”. She further added “that [w]e need to ensure that children appreciate - from the earliest age - that for a society to flourish, everyone must be valued equally”. In this vein, Baroness Anelay drew attention to one government project that develops lesson plans for primary school teachers in the Middle East to help instil these values.

The Baroness went on to make some pertinent observations about the link between economic prosperity and modern day extremism with which the world is so violently afflicted. She said, “We do this because we know that tolerance and inclusion are the building blocks of stability, not hatred and discrimination…we know stability is the foundation for prosperity [and] because we know that where people live together in harmony, and economies flourish, extremism struggles to take root”.

In her concluding remarks, she noted some striking observations about the reality of the situation that, “Economic cost is often more persuasive than human cost, no matter the misery we see on our TV screens night after night. Governments need hard economic proof, and to validate it they need proof from different sources. So it makes absolute sense to get business engaged in this agenda, lobbying alongside governments and civil society”. “Governments need hard economic proof, and to validate it they need proof from different sources. So it makes absolute sense to get business engaged in this agenda, lobbying alongside governments and civil society.”


Following Baroness Anelay’s opening statement, Mr Shannon invited Professor Grim to share his address.

Professor Grim began his address by speaking about the UK’s role in safeguarding the right to FoRB. He applauded the UK for bringing people together from all around the world, and for promoting freedom of belief, and for making religious freedom work for the benefit of society. This, he said, is what has contributed significantly to business and economic growth in the country. Professor Grim described how the business world has a lot to offer to the human rights community. He gave the example of Iraq, and questioned what the situation in Iraq would have been today if, before Daesh had taken over, people had been offered employment. He described how there are many educated people in Iraq and when asked as to their number one concern, most replied that it was unemployment. Thus, what if the businesses had arrived there first to employ the many educated Iraqis? Would the situation be the same as it is today? Businesses therefore have a huge role to play in protecting and promoting human rights and religious freedom and belief.

“Business is the crossroads of culture, commerce and creativity. What brings everyone together and produces a successful service, innovation or production is a common goal,” said Professor Grim. He then highlighted the efforts of one major automobile manufacturer who, realizing it employs people from almost 140 countries, decided to offer an annual award for intercultural and interfaith innovation, motivating the promotion and protection of FoRB.

“Business is the crossroads of culture, commerce and creativity. What brings everyone together and produces a successful service, innovation or production is a common goal.” Professor Grim proposed that one practical step that can be carried out throughout the world is to encourage business leaders to recognize business people who work in this area and are contributing to FoRB.

In this vein, he introduced the Global Business and Interfaith Peace Awards, a major awards event that recognizes business leaders – current or past CEOs – who have demonstrated leadership in championing interfaith understanding and peace in one of the following categories:

  • Core business

  • Social investment and philanthropy

  • Advocacy and public policy engagement

  • Partnership and collective action

The Awards will be presented on September 6, 2016, at the start of the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, where award recipients will have the opportunity to present their commitment to interfaith understanding and peace while contributing to the UN Sustainable Development Goal 16.

The Awards are a partnership initiative of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation (RFBF), its Brazilian affiliate, the Associação pela Liberdade Religiosa e Negócios (ALRN), and the United Nations Global Compact Business for Peace (B4P) platform. Professor Grim then referred to two further initiatives that offer creative approaches to promoting FoRB in the business community:

  1. Empowerment-Plus Initiative: an interfaith social cohesion and enterprise project that helps those experiencing a wide range of socio-economic risks including displacement, unemployment, isolation, crime, addiction and extremism through integration, empowerment and self-reliance.

  2. Corporate Pledge: a pledge where businesses commit to observe four guiding principles:

  3. Promoting sustainable and innovative business by protecting FoRB

  4. Non-discrimination and non-harassment on the basis of religion or belief

  5. Reasonable religious accommodation and inclusion

  6. Protecting and promoting FoRB in our communities

Professor Grim concluded by saying that it is critical to invest in order to make an impact on social cohesion. Further, instead of instructing businesses on what they ought to do, defenders of FoRB should invite business leaders to collaborate together, and to contribute as part of a team effort.


Mr Shannon then invited Dr Nazila Ghanea to present, as the last speaker on the panel. In her presentation, Dr Ghanea highlighted that there has been a marked rise in the incidences of violation of FoRB in many regions, which in turn has fostered a greater awareness of this right. The annual 2015 report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom reported incidents of religious persecution in 33 states, further noting that the rise of non-state actors, including trans-national movements and local groups, “as some of the most egregious violators of religious freedom.”

In her statement, Dr Ghanea outlined a fundamental concept upon which freedom of religion and belief rests, and that is, “the freedom to independently investigate the truth and adopt a belief, be it religious or none”. She further stated that, “the most fundamental of human rights is the right of each individual to investigate reality for himself or herself, and to benefit from the results of this exploration”.

Dr Ghanea highlighted that the majority of people in the world today continue to draw meaning and inspiration from religion and belief, and “any international movement that seeks to dismiss this universal human inclination to investigate truths, is neglecting a core aspect of being”. Thus, were this basic human right to be protected and promoted, society would be able to reach, “a new more mature collective reality in the political sphere, the social sphere, the legal sphere, the religious sphere and even the economic field”.

The links between FoRB, human development economic prosperity was a central theme of Dr Ghanea’s presentation. She outlined how the freedom to investigate reality in all its facets, unlocks human potential, which is the key to social and economic development and prosperity. She further identified that, “One of the failings of development systems is the lack of consideration for latent capacities in human beings, which considers them as passive consumers of carefully designed programs. The freedom to believe is a key step in allowing the masses to take responsibility for investigating reality and discover their role and duties accordingly”.

She concluded by proposing that, “In our increasingly interdependent world, development efforts must be guided by a vision of the type of world community we aim to create, and be animated by universal values and principles”. These universal values must place human development and the opportunity for all beings to flourish at its heart, fostering cultural diversity. This in turn cultivates a “foundation for a new social and international order, capable of creating and sustaining conditions in which human beings can advance morally, culturally, and intellectually with the potential to transform society and social structures”.


Following a break, Louise Ellman MP welcomed the guests back and introduced the next session of the seminar. Participants were seated at various tables for a facilitated consultation and were invited to explore the following four questions:

  1. What is the current status of freedom of religion and belief in the world?

  2. How can individuals and organisations take action in their own networks to promote awareness of freedom of religion or belief?

  3. What are some steps that can be taken to advance freedom of religion or belief?

  4. How can we sensitise and interest media and business in the issue of freedom of religion or belief?

After the facilitated group consultations, participants joined for a plenary discussion, sharing reflections and suggestions for future action. Below are the reflections, observations and recommendations shared by the participants.

Reflections and Observations by the Participants

  • Freedom to believe, and the freedom to express ones belief without discrimination adds value. Diversity of practice can lead to productivity. For example, in one company Muslims were exempt from working on Fridays, but instead could work on Sundays, which contributed to increased productivity of the company. Conversely, companies that discriminate based on religion or belief, lose opportunities for diversity, which can impact on productivity. For example by denying employment to the Bahá’í community in Iran, businesses in Iran are being deprived of diversity.

  • The future of FoRB depends on how religion and ethics is taught, not only in schools, but also in higher education. The way Religious Education is currently taught (which merely highlights customs and rituals) is good enough for cultivating tolerance, but not good enough for cultivating respect and appreciation for diversity. What would education look like if it encouraged a sense of responsibility within young people to earnestly search for truth, as opposed to blindly follow on the one hand, or to reject everything on the other hand (just because it is religion).

  • Cases of both subtle and more overt discrimination in the UK were shared, highlighting that FoRB is an issue here in the UK.

  • Non-belief and atheism are often subject to hidden discrimination.

  • Questions of how to engage the media were raised. It was noted that local media is often more accessible and receptive to highlighting success stories of FoRB then the international media.

Recommendations from the Participants

International Institutions and the Global Dimensions

  • It was recommended to start a global prosperity and religious freedom peace award to raise awareness and to commend those active in this area.

  • Efforts should be made to raise awareness of minorities in the Middle East and to put constant pressure on governments to keep human rights and FoRB in mind, especially so that their business dealings with regimes implicated in denial of human rights to religious minorities remains a priority.

  • Efforts could be made towards engagement with ILO Treaties and raising FoRB within international labour standards.

  • Spaces, such as this seminar, are a good way of building strategic alliances between civil society and the business world, which keep in the forefront of all engagement.

  • Bi-lateral trade agreements between States and companies should be used as a mechanism to reinforce human rights and religious freedom.

  • Can FoRB harness the networks of fair trade agreements? Does Fair Trade lead to FORB? Can this be another vehicle for change?

  • We should seek to identify new ways to engage those UN member states who are resistant to the full acceptance of FoRB, as enshrined in Article 18 of the ICCPR.

  • It would be useful to look for successful models, as best practice, from around the world that promote FoRB in business. For example, Al-Haq, a Palestinian NGO, makes use of Human Rights Conventions and offers interesting business ideas/models.

UK Foreign Policy

  • Promote awareness of the status of minorities, including the needs of migrants, particularly asylum seekers, for religious freedom and belief.

  • Researchers could be asked to create an index to measure religious freedom and economic prosperity around the world. Could this be something the FCO funds?

  • UK Domestic Issues

  • What is the role of “tolerance” in FoRB? Is it enough? What is needed to move beyond tolerance and expand our perception of unity? What would be a more befitting posture and attitude at this stage of humanity's development?

  • Create local and national spaces, with diverse actors of society, to facilitate dialogue between people of faiths, as well as no faith.

  • Promote and raise awareness at the local level and highlight positive cases that are happening in this area.

  • Working with local populations is crucial if we are to effect a change at the level of culture. Ideas and beliefs about FoRB are created at a grassroots level and as such will be influenced at this level.

  • Our education systems should focus on identifying common ground between the world religions, rather then focusing on what differs.

  • Our education systems should foster an appreciation of diversity, and encourage investigation of reality, rather then focusing on “otherness”.

  • On a more personal level, we need to be humble in our work, have the humility to truly listen to people, and be careful of complacency in own own belief group.

Engaging Business

  • To encourage the UK government and UK businesses to promote the Global Business & Interfaith Peace Awards, to be held at the start of the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, which recognizes business leaders who have demonstrated leadership in championing interfaith understanding and peace.

  • We must allow dialogue and be encouraging of businesses, rather than telling them what to do, or that they are wrong.

  • Provide research to businesses on the correlation of FoRB and prosperity. Highlight that although religious tolerance promotes stability, ensuring FoRB and appreciating diversity promotes prosperity.

  • Through the creation of spaces and forums, such as this seminar, businesses can be invited to come together to reflect on how FoRB can be promoted in their companies. The same way that different religious communities come together in an interfaith context to enhance understanding and build bridges, the same model can be applied for business communities in learning about how to creatively promote FoRB.

  • Use Chambers of Commerce to promote FoRB.

  • Encourage business organisations to conduct an assessment of how well companies promote FoRB in a company.

  • Engage with SME’s and train them in religious literacy. As they grow in size, it will not be a huge cultural shift to accommodate religious freedom.

Engaging Media

  • It is evident that when there is drama and conflict between religions, the media engage, but when there is mutual support between religions, it is much harder to get the media's attention. It seems that local media is more receptive to reporting harmony between faiths, and a few such cases were shared.

  • Could FoRB defenders use the magazine format to promote FoRB and to highlight issues? An isolated article does not have much traction on national or international debates.

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square

© UK Baha'i Office of Public Affairs

This website is owned by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United Kingdom.

The National Spiritual Assembly is the elected governing body of the Bahá'ís of the UK and is a registered charity and a company limited by guarantee.

Registered in England – Company limited by guarantee No. 355737, Registered Charity (1967) 250851

Registered with the Scottish Charity Regulator (SC041673)

The Assembly also represents the Bahá'í communities of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands.

Registered address: 27 Rutland Gate, London SW7 1PD, UK.