November 9th was the anniversary of the day the Berlin Wall began coming down. It was also the anniversary of the beginning of Kristallnacht, the November 1938 Nazi pogroms against Germany’s Jews. Not a bad moment for an audit of progress, or lack of it, in protecting human rights around the world. The UN Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) is our best shot at defining the simple demands of human dignity, with Article 18, the right to freedom of religious belief (FoRB), its bellwether, now violated on a global scale.
British foreign policy has been equivocal in its promotion of rights from a high point under Foreign Minister Robin Cook’s much ridiculed “ethical dimension”, to the loss under austerity cuts of dedicated human rights staff, to Britain’s recent refusal to grant asylum to Asia Bibi, released from imprisonment on false blasphemy charges in Pakistan, and Boris Johnson’s cavalier negligence which landed Nazinin Zaghari-Radcliffe with a five year prison sentence in Iran.
In December 2018 Jeremy Hunt, Johnson’s successor as Foreign Secretary, asked the newly appointed Bishop of Truro, Philip Mounstephen, formerly head of the Church Mission Society, to review the persecution of Christians in key countries around the world, to analyse the FCO’s response to their plight, and to recommend a “cohesive and comprehensive policy” against their persecution. A surprising announcement because freedom of religious belief, let alone Christianity, had not been treated as a priority in the UK’s human rights work.
The Foreign Office’s neglect of religious persecution springs from at least two major causes. Firstly, over the last two decades the FCO, reduced under austerity has been struggling with new priorities: climate change and environment, countering religious extremism, sexual trafficking, rape as a weapon of war, not to mention BREXIT, Putin, and Trump, a crowded in-tray. Secondly and more significantly, Britain, especially its ‘Establishment’ has become a more openly secular country suspecting proselytism behind every missionary bore-hole and clinic and putting jobs, trade and arms sales before public criticism of human rights violations.
Britain’s civil servants follow government directives; diplomats paid lip service to promoting FoRB. A minority did value contact with religious leaders over and above their instrumental value in furthering UK policy objectives, and did do their best to help people of faith who were persecuted. The outcomes of policy directives seem to have depended on the belief, or prejudice, of individual diplomats and civil servants. All embassies and High Commissions were supplied with an FCO toolkit on freedom of religion but, when asked, only 63% of the “low-level” of returns from a questionnaire said they had implemented the toolkit’s provisions. Interviews with religious leaders and communities told the equally depressing story of a small minority of embassies and High Commissions, mainly in the Middle East and North Africa, active in providing effective help for persecuted Christians and in advocating FoRB with host governments.
The Bishop of Truro’s Report’s, focussing on the persecution of Christians in the context of the wider FoRB, thus avoiding rebuttal as special pleading, takes us – instructively - back to the years after the Second World War and the origins of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. The World Council of Churches’ Commission on International Affairs led by the Lutheran theologian Dr. Frederick Nolde, originally lobbied for the nascent UN to establish a Commission on Religious Liberty. It soon became clear to the Churches that these rights had to be part of a wider declaration of other human rights. Eleanor Roosevelt was the first chair of a Commission whose drafting committee produced the UN Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR). The contribution of the British Council of Churches, the Conference of British Missionary Societies and the Greek Orthodox Lebanese Foreign Minister, Charles Malik, was to add “the right to change belief” to the right to hold beliefs, their public expression and performance. It was another world. The veteran British missiologist, J.H. Oldham, saw the UNDHR with its Article 18 on religious freedom as “a new secular structure for the ‘good society’ that would inherit the fruits of the Christian centuries”. We would not wish to describe a universal declaration that way today.
What then did Bishop Mounstephen come up with? Well, a first rate and comprehensive report published in July 2019 which both details the extent of Christian persecution and places it firmly within a general wider decline in respect for FoRB, a decline affecting all faiths. The Report’s individual country assessments make fascinating if shocking reading.
Most notably the Report advocates an early warning system designed to pre-empt persecution, the mainstreaming of FoRB within existing programmes of democratisation, development and peace-building, together with further training in religious literacy for FCO staff. It also asks for a standard definition of persecution and a better understanding of the particular character of discrimination and persecution of Christians. It identifies the variety of triggers and drivers of Christian persecution. In the Bishop of Truro’s own words at a recent meeting: “If you lift the stone of persecution and look underneath, what is it that you find? You find gang warfare on an industrial scale driven by drug crime; you find authoritarian, totalitarian regimes that are intolerant both of dissent and of minorities; you find aggressive militant nationalism that insists on uniformity; you find religious zealotry and fundamentalism in many different forms that often manifests itself in violence”.
I hope the FCO doesn’t shelve this important work. The situation has been deteriorating with Christians persecuted in 144 countries (up from 125 in 2015 according to the respected Pew Foundation in 2016). Quoting the organisation Open Doors, the Report gives the figure of 245 million Christians in the top 50 offending countries currently experiencing persecution today. Progress in combatting violations of FoRB has been reversed whether in the cultural genocide of the Uighers in China or the decline in the number of Christians surviving in Iraq’s Ninevah Plain - alongside the Yazidis - from 1.5 million before 2003 to about 120,000 today. Between 1990-2017, 45 Catholic priests and a Cardinal were murdered by drugs cartels In Mexico. Such human rights violations are now have an alarming a scale, scope and severity scale and have multiple causes.
This Report on the persecution of Christians is a painful, revealing read, a spur to action and easily available*. In a positive step, government circulated it to the Home Office and DfID. Politicians must be pressed about what they intend to do to implement its findings. A General Election provides unique opportunities. As William Wilberforce said presenting a report on the slave trade to the House of Commons in 1791: ‘You may choose to look the other way, but you can never again say you did not know’.