“It’s not about the differences, but the commonalities”. Harriet Hoffler reports on the 2017 wave of the Emerging International Leaders Programme on Freedom of Religion or Belief.

Harriet Hoffler, Cumberland Lodge Scholar 2016-2018

As scholars and involved citizens, it goes without saying that we must rely on (trustworthy) statistics to corroborate our research and, ultimately, to prove our points. We make sure that the data are reliable by assessing the methodology, the number of those sampled and how representative the sample is, and then we form opinions and subsequently take action based on those findings.

When the meticulously compiled Pew statistics on governmental and social restrictions to the freedom of religion and belief reveal that over 75% of the world’s population lives in countries that restrict such freedoms – and this number is rising – it is surely a compelling and urgent global call to action.


‘Without the full and unimpaired right to think and believe freely, the value of rights pales into relative insignificance. One enjoys these other rights precisely in order to be free, and being free means nothing if it does not mean freedom to think and believe and change in your belief from the good to the better and better as the truth progressively reveals itself to you. The right to be free inwardly is the end and justification of all other rights… The very essence of freedom is the right to become, not the right to be.’ – Charles Malik, Reflections on the Drafting of Article 18 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), 1968


One of the greatest challenges for FoRB – as expressed in Article 18 of the UDHR – has always been how best to understand it – not only in the context of other UDHR rights, but the subtle nuances with which the freedom shapes us as individuals and society as a whole. During this year’s Emerging International Leaders programme on FoRB at Cumberland Lodge, Professor Malcolm Evans (University of Bristol) spoke of Article 18 being an ‘orphaned’ right during his lecture and explored how best to adopt it, Professor Thomas outlined the challenges of putting the right into practice in a political sense, Professor Grace Davie (University of Exeter) explored how religious (or otherwise) the world really is today, while Baroness Butler-Sloss discussed how best to live with and respond to difference. Understanding not only the theoretical basis of Article 18 and its intersection with other rights, but the practical, contextual and thematic ways in which it shapes and impacts everyday life, was a critical part of the programme.

On a summer’s day in late July, the first cohort of almost 50 students of 26 nationalities –50% of them Commonwealth Scholars and 50% Chevening Scholars – graduated with flying colours from the 2016/17 programme at Cumberland Lodge. This marked the culmination of three residential weekends over the course of four months, where international students from a wide range of academic disciplines were introduced to the concept of freedom of religion and belief, and to why and how it is ‘not just an optional extra, or nice to have; it is the key human right’ (as Baroness Anelay put it, in a House of Lords debate on 16 July 2015).

CSC and Chevening Scholars present to the group in July

Early in April 2017, we were taken on a journey to understand the importance of FoRB, via human rights and the legal basis for Article 18. We studied how the Article is (or should be) protected by governments, judges, legislators and multilateral organisations. In June, we returned to the Lodge to examine FoRB in conflict. We heard about the balancing of rights, the difficulties of marrying politics and religion, and the importance of religious literacy. We learnt how to respond effectively to challenging dialogue and were encouraged to face up to our own prejudices. In July, FoRB was in action: we heard about relevant projects funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO); the importance of interfaith work; and the impact of local and globalised advocacy. We revisited ‘the roots’ of FoRB, dreamt up ‘grassroots’ projects, learnt how to be proactive advocates, explored how and why stories about religious issues make the news, and heard genuinely inspiring examples of what is being done, by motivated individuals, to help protect minority groups and the right to FoRB, around the world.

Groups brainstorm at the July retreat

The weekends were staggered over four months, with each one building on the knowledge gained from the previous retreat and the accompanying briefing reports. This schedule gave participants enough personal space to reflect on the challenging topics that were covered at each stage, which made for incredibly dynamic group work sessions when everyone got together again. All this was enhanced by social media resources and networking that connected the students between retreats, encouraging them to share stories of their own experiences, to ask (and answer) any questions and discuss current affairs through a FoRB ‘lens’.

The participants are keen to keep this network alive: there have also been exciting conversations about convening sub-groups for particular thematic areas of interest, so that funding might be sought in the future for particular projects.  This must surely be one of the most enduring impacts of the programme: it has empowered students to be aware of how FoRB works in practice, not only in the ‘rights-based’ sense, but in practical terms – what to look out for, how to look out for it, and how, as individuals and leaders, we can exert influence to protect the right for the wider social good.

As often seems to be the case at Cumberland Lodge, many of the critical ‘lightbulb’ moments – snatched conversations or in-depth chats that inspired us with the drive and confidence to go out and change the world – came in the unstructured times, whilst chatting over a cup of tea and eating a slice of lemon drizzle cake or, perhaps more aptly, whilst admiring the BFG-themed educational exhibition in the Ante-Room, where “all dreams is beginning”, as Roald Dahl put it.

One group shares their personal impressions and understandings of FoRB

To echo Charles Malik, apart from the incredible line-up of progressive, structured learning, knowledge accumulation and sharing, informal conversations, lightbulb moments and the evidence of a real commitment and confidence to engage with FoRB as emerging leaders, the true value of this programme for me was that it has empowered and equipped students from such diverse backgrounds to embody the essence of that freedom themselves.