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The prophet exposes the King’s idolatry: “Daniel and Cyrus before the Idol Bel” (1633) by Rembrandt shows the emergence of religious toleration

Let us begin with the Cylinder of Cyrus in the British Museum. It is the Proclamation of Freedom by Cyrus the Great (Kourosh-i-Kabir as he is called by the Iranian people today) when the Persian Empire reached its zenith. The emperor is mentioned in the Bible as one of God's anointed who was to bring liberation to the people of Israel, who were at that time in bondage.

The Cylinder of Cyrus was loaned to the National Museum in Tehran for the last year or so (so that it was back home, if you like). At the time, I was engaged in a kind of dialogue with the Iranian authorities and I thought that I would begin my part of the dialogue by saying something about the Cylinder. I said how wonderful it was, this tradition of freedom and tolerance in Iran that goes back to Cyrus the Great. After I had finished, the man who was chairing the meeting on the other side looked at me and said, "Bishop, we are not interested in the past. We are only interested in the future." Well, can it be right for a nation to forget its heritage? Britain is busily forgetting its heritage and needs to be reminded, but what about Iran and Cyrus? 

As I go around the world, in even the most unpromising places, I find a heritage of freedom and toleration. A couple of centuries after Cyrus, we have the Indian king Ashoka, who, after a very bloody reign, became a Buddhist and then proclaimed freedom for people in his empire. He erected a number of pillars proclaiming peace and freedom which we can still see. Today many people who are Buddhists profess peace and reconciliation for themselves, but there are many countries where Buddhism is the official religion and where there is a great deal of conflict — Sri Lanka, for example, or Burma, where both Christians and Muslims find themselves oppressed communities. If people are going to learn from Cyrus, why not from Ashoka?

Then there is Constantine the Great's Edict of Milan (which wasn't an edict and wasn't from Milan, but let that go for the time being). The interesting thing about the Edict of Milan, as far as Christians are concerned, is that we often think it was about freedom for Christians, at last, who had been persecuted by the Roman Empire for so many years. It was certainly that, but it was also a proclamation of freedom of belief for everyone. Constantine wasn't just saying Christians are free now; he was saying everyone is free to practise their beliefs, and I think in that sense the Edict of Milan is very significant. 

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