Oxford hosts world’s largest gathering of free speech campaigners

The physicist and broadcaster Professor Jim Al-Khalili will today open the world’s largest event for campaigners for freedom of expression, telling more than 1,000 advocates from 67 countries that many people ‘pay with their blood’ to be able to express their beliefs. Prof Al-Khalili will speak as the President of the British Humanist Association (BHA) at the World Humanist Congress in Oxford, where campaigners will hear from a range of high-profile speakers including philosophers, scientists and human rights activists.

Worldwide millions of non-religious people face discrimination, violence and even death for their beliefs. Nineteen countries maintain the death penalty for ‘offences’ such as apostasy and blasphemy, and in 39 countries people convicted of blasphemy face prison sentences. Religious people, too, face serious threats from sectarian violence and laws mandating state religions.

Prof Al-Khalili said: ‘It’s hard to recall a time in recent years when freedom of thought and expression have been under such threat. Worldwide, countless people pay with their liberty and their blood even to be able to hint at their beliefs and values. It’s intolerable. I’m in awe of the bravery of many of the people who are travelling to Britain this weekend for the World Humanist Congress. Many of them see Britain as a beacon for tolerance and freedom, whatever our own shortcomings. It’s never been more important that we live up to their hopes.’

The World Humanist Congress is a biennial event held under the auspices of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU). The Oxford event marks the first time the Congress has been held in the UK since 1978. Speakers include the philosopher A C Grayling, the Bangladeshi poet, author and campaigner Taslima Nasrin, and the Pakistani women’s rights campaigner Gululai Ismail. Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian author and Nobel laureate, will receive the prestigious International Humanist Award in recognition of his years of advocacy for humanism and free speech.

The UK’s minister for international development, Lynne Featherstone, will welcome delegates to Oxford on behalf of the British Government, which provided a £30,000 grant to help delegates from poorer countries to attend. She is expected to say: ‘Every person, whatever their background or circumstances, deserves the right to live the life they wish, without fear, intimidation or violence. Together, we can help to make that a reality for more people: respecting each other for who we are, regardless of our differences, to build a better world.’

To arrange interviews with speakers or delegates please contact Andy Wasley on andywasley@humanism.org.uk  or Pavan Dhaliwal on pavan@humanism.org.uk or 0773 843 5059

Further information on the full line up of speakers can be found at http://whc2014.org.uk/

IHEU Freedom of Thought Report http://whc2014.org.uk/freedom-of-thought-report/ 

The Congress will highlight three main areas:

1.     Britain as a beacon for both Humanism and freedom of thought: The BHA was a founding member of the International Humanist Ethical Union (IHEU), established as the successor body to the World Union of Freethinkers, which held its last global conference in London in 1938 before effectively collapsing under the twin onslaught of fascism and communism. The BHA is one of the oldest organisations in IHEU, having formed in 1896, and humanists have been prominent in British public life for many generations.
2.     The importance of freedom of thought and expression and the increasingly hostile environment in which these vital freedoms must be upheld. As outlined in the IHEU Freedom of Thought Report, 13 countries still carry a death penalty for apostasy and the rights and the freedoms of the non-religious are increasingly under threat globally from religious violence and state persecution.
3.     How humanists and others can work together to protect these freedoms: IHEU provides support for humanist organisations internationally and advocates on their behalf at the United Nations Human Rights Council and in other forums, as well as providing financial assistance for those in developing countries. Humanists seek to work with others of different beliefs internationally in support of these shared values.

Follow the WHC on social media;

·       The BHA’s Twitter: @BHAHumanists
·       The BHA’s Facebook
·       World Humanist Congress Twitter: @humanism2014
·       World Humanist Congress Facebook
·       The BHA’s Tumblr account
·       World Humanist Congress blog

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.