Dr Martin Parsons has a PhD in Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations and has been involved in supporting persecuted Christians since the 1990s, including while living in Afghanistan as an aid worker under the Taliban. He previously wrote an annual survey of Christian persecution for ConservativeHome.
“This is not about special pleading for Christians: rather it’s about ensuring that Christians in the global south have a fair deal, and a fair share of the UK’s attention and concern. So in that sense it is an equality issue. If one minority is on the receiving end of 80 per cent of religiously motivated discrimination it is simply not just that they should receive so little attention.”
(From the Bishop of Truro’s Independent Review for the Foreign Secretary of Foreign and Commonwealth Office support for Persecuted Christians.)
Spot on, some may say. However, the most important thing about the bishops’s review, which Jeremy Hunt set up just after Christmas, is not what it actually says about persecuted Christians – which isn’t new, anyway. It’s what it says about the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Go back to the 1990s, and the review observes that the Foreign Office was actively engaged in advocacy on behalf of persecuted Christians in such countries as Pakistan. That date, incidentally, is significant as, by then, communism, which had been the main ideological driver of Christian persecution around the world, had collapsed. However, Islamism was already on the rise in countries such as Pakistan, which by 1990 had already introduced the main aspects of its blasphemy laws.
However, the review found that today Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB), particularly for Christians has, with a few fine exceptions, largely dropped off the radar of most UK embassies and High Commissions overseas. No-one can make the excuse that there is now less persecution – far from it, as some of us were warning long before jihadists such as Islamic State were able to control large parts of Syria and Iraq where they executed, enslaved and religiously cleansed Christians and other minorities.
Well before then, the rising tide of Christian persecution was being carried out both by state actors in forms such as the spread of sharia enforcement and by non-state actors in ways which ranged from communal violence, following spurious blasphemy allegations in countries such as Pakistan, to the terror attacks on churches in northern Nigeria. But somehow the Foreign Office became distracted with a myriad of other issues.
The independent review headed by the Bishop of Truro discovered that, during the last five years, 63 per cent of UK diplomatic missions overseas had never implemented the ‘FoRB toolkit’ – the FCO’s primary means of assessing the status of Freedom of Religion or Belief in their host country. Indeed, six UK missions admitted they had never even heard of the toolkit.
The review did find some embassies, such as those in Islamabad (Pakistan) and Jakarta (Indonesia) which actually had an embassy official with specific responsibility for freedom of religion issues. But, even there, this was a part-time role for a single officer with a “huge number” of other responsibilities. In short, there is no overarching FCO strategy on the importance of freedom of religion in UK diplomacy.
To be fair, the Foreign Office went through something of a rough period when Tony Blair was Prime Minister, often being side-lined in foreign policy-making by Number Ten which led to a downgrading of the importance of detailed country knowledge and even such traditional forms of diplomatic training such as language acquisition.
However, when William Hague became Foreign Secretary in 2010 he began a process of reversing that decline. The whole area of freedom of religion was particularly championed by Baroness Anelay when she was Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
The independent review praises the appointment of Lord Ahmad, her successor at the FCO as the Prime Minister’s special envoy to promote religious freedom, noting that this has brought a renewed awareness of the importance of FoRB at the Foreign Office.
It also specifically praises Lord Ahmad for his contact with embassies around the world, which led, among other things, to the reopening of a number of churches which had been closed by the Algerian government. So what is needed is not so much a new direction as continuing that journey, so that the Foreign Office once again does what we used to lead the world in doing.
The independent review makes 22 specific recommendations, some of the most important of which are:
- The UK should again become a global leader in championing freedom of religion or belief.
- Advocacy for victims of religious persecution should be a regular and normative part of the work of UK diplomatic missions, which should also be providing data on the status of FoRB in their country back to the Foreign Office in London.
- The FCO should undertake detailed research to better understand the ‘huge increase’ in discriminatory acts against Christians around the world and give that phenomena a specific name (in his speech welcoming the review Jeremy Hunt termed it ‘Christophobia’).
- The post of ‘Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief’ should be made permanent and should be supported by a Director-General level champion to lead the FCO’s FoRB team. This is an excellent recommendation. There is an urgent need to ‘beef up’ to tiny FoRB unit at the FCO so that it can provide detailed analysis of emerging global trends in the persecution of Christians and other minorities. However, that will require not simply a senior diplomat, but an adviser with specialist expertise in FoRB to head up that unit and fully support the endeavours of the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy, Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister in spreading FoRB around the world.
- There should be a specific ‘John Bunyan’ stream of funding, promoting FoRB within the Magna Carta Fund, which the present Government launched in 2016 to promote democracy and human rights across the world.
- Training in religious literacy and FoRB should be mandatory for all FCO staff.
- A full cabinet discussion of ForB issues – including the need for departments ‘to recognise religious affiliation as a key vulnerability marker for members of religious minorities’ i.e. recognise that Christians and Yazidis etc. are targeted by jihadist groups precisely because of their faith. That is spot on. The failure of UNHCR’s vulnerability criteria to include anything which would directly encompass victims of the sort of religious cleansing we have witnessed in the Middle East is the primary reason why so few Syrian Christians and other religious minorities have been resettled under the governments’ Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme.
- ‘All of these foreign policy recommendations to the Foreign Secretary should be reviewed independently in three years’ time’ to ensure they have been implemented.
Of course, the real risk of all this is that the report gets praised – but is then quietly filed away. What needs to happen is a change of Foreign Office culture – and that these recommendations be institutionalised. Since freedom of religion largely developed in this country, and spread from here across the world, this is an area in which we really should be taking the lead. A good start would be for the Foreign Secretary to institute an annual report to Parliament on how UK foreign policy is helping spread FoRB. That would require all embassies and high commissions to report on it annually.
Our new Prime Minister has a whole host of incredibly urgent and important priorities to get through. However, it’s worth recollecting that so too did Margaret Thatcher in 1979 – and she achieved most of them. But, it is sobering reflect that she concluded her autobiography The Path to Power by saying her greatest achievement as Prime Minister was bringing freedom of religion to the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe. That’s a genuine legacy.