‘Spectators at the carnage’ was how The Times carried the story of launch of the Bishop of Truro’s Independent Review for the UK Foreign Secretary of Foreign and Commonwealth Office Support for Persecuted Christians on July 4 2019.
This week, on Wednesday 8 July, the House of Lords hosted a ‘Zoominar’ for 300 invited participants to hear Bishop Philip Mounstephen, Lord Alton, Jeremy Hunt, who commissioned the report when Foreign Secretary, Rehman Chishti MP, the Prime Minister’s special envoy on Freedom of Religion and Belief and Jim Shannon MP, the chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Freedom of Religion and Belief (FoRB), with others report on what had been achieved so far.
Simply stated, 250 million Christians in 144 countries are the ‘most persecuted’ religious community in the world.
Jeremy Hunt noted that the rights of conscience had been a blind spot in UK foreign policy and that talking about religion, except by a vicar, was currently uncomfortable in the UK.
He wondered whether Alastair Campbell’s famous quote “We don’t do religion” had played a part in that.
Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Secretary for Relations with States in Rome, mused that Christians may have got too used to persecution, become complacent and accepted it as something ‘ you just have to live with’ instead of realising that denial of religious freedom was a litmus test of human rights and underlies the rights of conscience.
The “cover” of Covid-19 has distracted political, public and media attention from FoRB, and under its cover persecution from the four main drivers, crime, religious fundamentalism, authoritarian governments and militant nationalism, has got worse.
Meanwhile the UK Government gives £300,000 a day to Pakistan where a Christian couple were burnt alive in front of their family and the Christian minister for minorities was murdered.
The report recommended that UK Aid should be made conditional on adherence to Article 18 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights that enshrined the right to change religion. While contentious in Islamic contexts, said Bishop Philip, this right must be upheld unequivocally.
Bishop Philip said that the report had found more favour than expected and had pushed the issue into a prominence that it had not had before. It had outlined a new robust foreign policy stance for all ‘without fear or favour’. One immediate result had been the establishment of the post of Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on FoRB, which had survived the change of government and foreign secretary in 2019.
Lord Alton noted that the self-evident commitment of Dominic Raab to the report was not shared by all senior civil servants, and that fashionable politically correct causes ignored it.
Rehman Chishti noted that 11 of the 22 recommendations of the report had already been implemented and was committed to seeing 100 per cent implementation. He cited the sanctions recently passed on those who benefitted from the UK’s freedoms yet committed grievous human rights abuses in their own countries, citing the Burmese Generals as an example.
He has a panel of four expert advisers one of whom is Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, former Bishop of Rochester. Jim Shannon urged people to ask their MPs what they were doing to implement the recommendations.
A clear theme of the Zoominar was that the best way to advocate freedom of religion for Christians was to advocate freedom of religion for all. So Baroness Nicholson spoke of the plight of the Yasidis and frequent mention was made of the Rohinga Muslims in Myanmar and the Uighurs in China.
There is no trade off between developing economic relations with countries and concern for freedom of religion because those countries with freedom of religion are more stable, prosperous and reliable trading partners. But ‘trade at any price’ is not an option.
It is ‘antithetical’ to Christian faith to plead only for one’s own religious adherents said Bishop Philip, because there is no limit to the definition of a neighbour.
In the question session Baroness Cox commended an open urgent letter to the Nigerian Government as a follow-up to their recent APPG report on Nigeria. She, Jim Shannon MP and Archbishop Gallagher from Rome all emphasised the role of prayer in these matters, and that ‘God also tells us to act’.
Bishop Philip announced the establishment of the UK FoRB Forum and invited all participants in the seminars, individuals and organisations to contact the secretary Stephen.firstname.lastname@example.org to enrol and become actors. It will meet first In September. A day to remember the victims of violence based on religion and belief is to be observed on 22 August.
Among 60 questions posed to the participants to be answered on the Truro website, were “Why cannot Britain’s foreign aid be used to help Christians too?” and “How can members of minorities of all religions in majoritarian religious situations be equipped to protect themselves? Freedom of religion conveys a notion of threat to majoritarian religions as it implies a desire to convert. External bodies such as western governments are too far away to assist and trigger further oppressive action. What protection can be offered and provided?”