Empire, Mission, Ecumenism, and Human Rights: "Religious Liberty" in Egypt, 1919-1956

By Stuart, John | Church History, March 2014 | Go to article overview

Empire, Mission, Ecumenism, and Human Rights: "Religious Liberty" in Egypt, 1919-1956


Stuart, John, Church History


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I am grateful to the British Academy for a Small Grant award that helped facilitate research for this article. I thank also the anonymous reviewers for Church History for their comments.

Histories of legal and of religious change are rarely meshed together.1 Human rights are something of an exception; their religious as well as legal aspects have received a good deal of attention from historians.2 John Nurser has shown how influential religion was in the formulation of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.3 More recent studies have focused on rights and freedoms accorded (or not accorded) religious minorities, and on Christian missions engaged in proselytization, an activity long controversial and now also stimulating debate about the extent to which human rights can indeed be considered "universal."4 Discourse on human rights has altered a great deal since the 1940s. Then, in the context of totalitarianism, global war, and the Holocaust, representatives of many world religions saw in human rights a kind of "world faith to fill a spiritual void."5 Some were also influenced by ideas about post-war "world order."6 From what Samuel Moyn has described as "an anarchic cacophony" of debate emerged agreement on human rights negotiated in part by lawyers and in part by religious organizations, the most influential of which were American and Protestant.7 As the United States exerted increasing influence on world affairs during the 1940s, so American Protestantism influenced both U.S. foreign policy and international human rights discourse.8 It did so as part of an ecumenical movement committed to religious freedom and human rights.9 Many others, neither Protestant nor Christian, shared that commitment. Even so, emphasis on Americans and on international ecumenism obscures important elements in mid-twentieth century human rights discourse, notably the extent to which British imperialism influenced the thoughts and actions of Protestant missionaries and ecumenists.

The British Empire figured prominently in American (and American Protestant) discussion of human rights. With some exceptions, the empire provided a "fair field" for all missionaries and from this arrangement Americans and other western nationals benefitted. By the late 1930s, however, Americans were increasingly critical of British imperialism.10 This attitude influenced American Protestant support for universal human rights. What was the attitude of Protestant missionaries from Britain at that time? On matters of empire, their views, as might be expected, reflected the pluralistic range of British Protestant culture.11 For all that, they were influenced also by the situation in a particular country, or a particular part of the British Empire. One issue with which missionaries of many different nationalities were preoccupied before, during, and after 1948 shaped ideas about rights. That issue was religious liberty.

Two decades before the Universal Declaration, missionaries described religious liberty in terms of a "human right."12 But what did missionaries mean by "religious liberty," an issue with an already long and controversial history in Britain, Europe and the United States?13 Missionary expansion in non-western regions overseas raised yet further complications, in terms of freedom to proselytize and freedom of conversion to Christianity. Such freedoms were at the heart of missionary interpretations of religious liberty. To those and other ends missionaries negotiated with western secular authority, including national, imperial and colonial. They might request government support for treaty rights and for guarantees of religious toleration: according to James G. Greenlee and Charles M. Johnston missionaries professed in these respects "a manifest obligation to call upon the state in humanity's name."14 That obligation might prove both onerous and exacting. One might turn for examples to many parts of Britain's empire in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. …

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