In December 2018, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office commissioned an independent review of the persecution of Christians around the world, with recommendations to follow about how the Government could respond more proactively and robustly. The timing of this seems particularly important: the United Kingdom is engaging with a global problem at a time when our domestic political debates seem all-consuming.
The release of the interim report at the beginning of May by the Bishop of Truro, Philip Mountstephen, makes for harrowing reading. Many of our brothers and sisters across the world are being persecuted for their faith, ranging from government intimidation, arrest for owning a Bible, exclusion from education or employment, and – in the most extreme cases – loss of life.
Another reminder of the dangers Christians face around the world came when an Iraqi Christian leader warned that the faith community faced imminent eradication. This is particularly tragic given the UK’s involvement in deposing Saddam Hussein in 2003, with the spread of democracy used as one of the justifications for the invasion.
This issue has moved up the parliamentary agenda. In January, 98 MPs attended the Westminster launch of the Open Doors 2019 World Watch List in Parliament, where the latest list was published of the fifty countries in which Christians face the most severe persecution.
It was a humbling event to attend, and the stories shared by persecuted Christians make it clear the extent to which this growing problem requires attention.
The Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has made Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) a priority during his tenure. Indeed, he has spoken regularly and persuasively about the need for the UK to promote democratic values abroad, and to ensure that people have the right to live free from oppression. This includes the freedom people enjoy to practise their religion.
However, the Government’s concern for the plight of persecuted Christian communities has strayed into somewhat uncomfortable territory. Just after Christmas, Hunt wrote an article warning that ‘misguided political correctness’ may have prevented the UK from standing up for persecuted Christians up until now. He went further in January, essentially suggesting that postcolonial guilt prevented the UK from taking the issue of Christian persecution, referring to the ‘hesitation to look into this issue without fear or favour that may exist because of our imperial history’.
In this context, there is a right sense of concern that the review has been commissioned in order to satisfy a political agenda. If this is the case, the review will be misguided not only in its motives, but also its strategy. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has provided a submission to the review, offering an excellent analysis of why the Government ought to promote FoRB as a fundamental human right, as opposed to focusing on a particular religious group.
We can only understand the persecution of Christians, and seek to prevent it more effectively, when we understand how it fits into the wider picture, as religious persecution of all kinds is on the rise.
This requires a greater understanding of the rampant nationalism in many parts of the globe that stresses allegiance to the state, which is often bound up in a religious identity.
This requires a greater understanding of fundamentalism, which stresses the supremacy of one religion or one ideology over all others.
This requires greater understanding of secular movements that deny the role of religion in the public sphere.
When undertaken in isolation of these factors, a review into Christian persecution provides incomplete answers.
How, also, do we respond morally to a report that focuses only on those persecuted for one faith? The most important matter here is that people are suffering. People who share our faith are worthy of our deepest concern, our most heartfelt prayers, the knowledge of our fellowship and God’s faithfulness even in the midst of great hardship.
By taking some verses in isolation, it seems that there may be biblical license for Christian favouritism. Paul writes in Galatians: ‘whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith’ (Galatians 6:10).
But how does this fit with the wider story revealed to us in scripture? How does what appears to be a call to prioritise the wellbeing of our Christian brothers and sisters relate to our understanding of the indiscriminate love Jesus calls us to emulate as we follow him? In the parable of the Good Samaritan, help for a neighbour is demanded and offered on the basis of need, regardless of creed.
As Christians, we are required to face up to tough choices. But we do not have to embrace a false choice about who we help and how we help them.
And so we ought to broaden our thinking, to be more ambitious about what we can do. To limit the scope of a review into persecution only of those with one faith or belief seems unnecessarily narrow. We can do more.
I would encourage you to read the report in all of its matter of fact and moving detail; to pray for people who face persecution, whose faith inspires them to incredible acts of bravery in the face of hostility; and to reflect on how, as Christians and citizens of a country with the means to make a difference worldwide with regard to FoRB, we can encourage our Government to stand up for people of all faiths.