Fiona Bruce MP is the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief.
Today marks the United Nation’s International Day Commemorating Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief.
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”, states Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, committed to by the international community in 1948 following the Holocaust.
Sadly, however, acts of violence against people based on their religion or belief are by no means an issue of the past. Still today, in 2021, people around the world are subjected to such violence that will shape their lives for years to come.
Tragic events unfolding before our eyes in Afghanistan highlight this only too clearly. As the Foreign Secretary said in the House of Commons this week, “we must live up to the best traditions of this country in playing our part in offering safe haven to those Afghans who are now fleeing persecution from the Taliban.”
Still today, close to 3,000 Yazidi women and children are missing after Daesh abducted them from Sinjar in August 2014. Many have been subjected to daily and unimaginable abuse for over seven years and there is no promise that this suffering will cease anytime soon. To this day, there are close to 10,000 Daesh fighters in Syria and Iraq waiting for the opportunity to strike again and attack the religious mosaic in both countries.
Still today, since 2017, over a million Uyghur Muslims and other minorities have been extra-judicially detained in “political re-education camps,” prevented from praying and observing religious practices; facing systematic restrictions on their culture; their places of worship destroyed.
Still today, religious minority women and girls, including from Christian, Sikh and Hindu communities, are abducted in Pakistan, subjected to forced conversions and forced marriages. Some as young as 12 – forced to be adults before their time.
Still today, men and women accused of blasphemy are sentenced to death by courts or attacked by mobs taking ‘justice’ in their own hands.
Still today, perpetrators of brutal acts of violence based on religion or belief enjoy impunity; their crimes rarely investigated; prosecutions do not follow. This sends the harrowing message that you can get away with your crimes, especially if you target religious or belief minorities.
There is much more the international community can do to address acts of violence based on religion or belief. As we mark today, we need to focus on joint action to help victims and survivors of such acts of violence, to hold perpetrators to account and to strengthen steps preventing such egregious acts of violence in the future.
Indeed, the Government has been actively working in this direction, in particular on our manifesto commitment to implement in full the Bishop of Truro’s Review recommendations, which seek to ensure that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) comprehensively responds to persecution based on religion or belief globally.
Plainly the UK can’t tackle this issue alone; to do so effectively requires international cooperation, as the Truro Review recommends. The Government is implementing these recommendations to ensure FCDO work is equipped to address the global challenges to freedom of religion or belief for all, and in its determination to be a force for good in the world.
The UK is also a founding member of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, a growing network of 33 countries fully committed to advancing freedom of religion or belief around the world. Together we identify areas for action and use our collective voice to highlight situations of concern of vulnerable communities – as we did recently, standing with people of all faiths and beliefs subjected to inhumane treatment in Myanmar.
The British Government has also engaged leaders of religion and belief to dismantle harmful misinterpretations of religious texts as part of its work to prevent and respond to sexual violence in conflict. A founding document, the Declaration of Humanity, launched November 2020, has united 50 faith and belief leaders, governments and NGOs around the world in a call to prevent sexual violence in conflict and denounce the stigma faced by survivors, including children born of rape.
This year, the UK is funding projects led by faith and belief leaders in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan that will enable communities affected by conflict-related sexual violence to develop action plans guided by the principles of the Declaration of Humanity.
However, we cannot assume that violent acts against people of faith occur only beyond our borders. In the past few days we have seen a “violent and unprovoked attack” at a cathedral in the UK, where a priest was hit with a glass bottle whilst he sat praying alone in a pew, and heard the shocking news of a woman, whilst speaking of her faith, being attacked with a knife at Speaker’s Corner.
Leaders of religion and belief must play their role in countering narratives which aim to justify such violence whenever and wherever it occurs – indeed this is a job for us all. So let’s mark this year’s International Day of Commemoration with a fresh resolution to strive together to make acts of violence based on religion or belief truly something of the past.