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Britain should protect the world’s minorities, Bishop tells Foreign Office

08 July 2019


The Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, and the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, at the joint conference at the FCO, London, on Monday

The Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, and the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, at the joint conference at the FCO, London, on Monday

THE restructuring of Britain’s relationship with the EU is an opportunity to step up our global leadership on protecting religious minorities, the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, has told the Foreign Secretary.

In the final report of his review of Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) support for persecuted Christians, Bishop Mounstephen argues that the Government should aim to become “the global leader in championing freedom of religion and belief (FoRB)”.

He also notes that support for persecuted minorities is less prominent in countries where the Britain has a strong financial or strategic relationship with that country’s government.

Post-Brexit Britain may be an opportunity for greater influence on the world stage, the Bishop’s report suggests: “The UK’s opportunities for independent action on the global stage are very significant and have perhaps been under-utilised in recent decades. A restructuring of our relationship with the European Union provides an opportunity to reconsider how these can be better used to serve a commitment to members of minorities in the context of freedom of FoRB. This particularly relates to UK’s global leadership as a sovereign entity within the context of the multilateral institutions.”

The report, which follows an interim document (News, 3 May), suggests that low levels of religiosity in Britain have given rise to weaknesses in its response to persecution of religious minorities abroad. It diagnoses “a certain post-Christian bewilderment, if not embarrassment, about matters of faith”, and a “failure to grasp how for the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants faith is not only a primary marker of identity, but also a primary motivation for action”. It raises concerns about several aspects of current government policy.

One factor was “post-colonial guilt: a sense that we have interfered uninvited in certain contexts in the past so we should not do so again”.

A key theme is the diagnosis of religious illiteracy and the need for training in the Foreign Office (News, 31 May). The review identifies “a significant cultural knowledge deficit in the awareness and practice of religion in society in the United Kingdom”.

The FCO response to FoRB issues and violations is “patchy and inconsistent”, it concludes. Some diplomats have acted in a “dis-interested manner in relation to clear instances of persecution of Christians”. A reluctance by diplomats to challenge “majority-community attitudes towards minorities” had led to “an unwillingness to challenge ingrained prejudice”

Another key finding is that a “need not creed” policy — whereby aid is delivered according to a “religion blind” model — has had “negative consequences” (News, 4 January). It recommends that “urgent” consideration should be given to rejecting it. The Foreign Secretary should “reject the mantra in FCO foreign policy contexts entirely.”

Another recommendation is that the Government should be prepared to impose sanctions against perpetrators of FoRB abuses.

PAChildren visit the burnt main church as Iraqis attend the first Palm Sunday procession in the Christian city of Qaraqosh since Iraqi forces retook it from IS militants, in 2017

“Far too often we heard that UK missions are perceived as operating at arm’s length,” it says. “Where there are UK economic interests and a strategic need for allies the FCO are notably more reluctant to call out persecution against Christians, but in contexts where there is no such interest they appear more willing.”

On Monday, the Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, who commissioned the review (News, 26 December) said that, as Prime Minister, he would accept all of the review’s recommendations.

“The sense of misguided political correctness that has stopped us standing up for Christians overseas must end,” he said. “At home we all benefit from living in a tolerant, diverse society and we should not be afraid of promoting those values abroad. It is a sad fact that Christians are the most persecuted religious group in modern times. I am determined to show that we are on their side.”

The report seeks to correct misapprehensions about global Christianity, warning that, “despite the impression those in the West might sometimes have to the contrary, the Christian faith is not primarily an expression of white Western privilege. . . Unless we understand that it is primarily a phenomenon of the global south and of the global poor we will never give this issue the attention it deserves.”

Conscious of the risk that the review could be regarded as “a stalking horse for the Islamophobic far right”, the report stresses that persecution of Christians is not limited to Islamic-majority countries. It was not about “special pleading for Christians” but about “ensuring that Christians in the global south have a fair deal”.

Because the Christian faith was “perhaps the one truly global faith”, it had become “a bellwether for repression more generally. If Christians are being discriminated against in one context or another you can be confident other minorities are too.”

The focus of the review was on “guaranteeing freedom of religion or belief for all, irrespective of faith tradition or belief system”, Bishop Mounstephen writes. “To argue for special pleading for one group over another would be antithetical to the Christian tradition.”

The report parses the “subversive” nature of Christianity which would “always present a radical challenge to any power that makes absolute claims for itself, and there are plenty of those in the world today.”

It explores case studies in seven countries: Nigeria, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, China, and Indonesia. In Pakistan, it suggests, the current policy of limited “direct advocacy” for persecuted individuals should be reconsidered, “given the very successful former practice of direct intervention in the 1990s”.

The case of Asia Bibi (News, 30 November 2018) was just one of more than 70 blasphemy cases, the report notes: “direct advocacy of those in need of assistance at their time of greatest need may become essential in the future.” The review also heard that the British Government’s support for mainstream education in Pakistan — £2.7 billion over the past two decades — “may in part be contributing to the radicalisation of school-age children” (News, 22 June 2018).

In Syria, it says, the British Government should “examine its historic unwillingness to deal with the issue of genocide determination, and be prepared to make a prima facie assessment as to whether genocide has been committed”, and be “less willing simply to ‘outsource’ issues around refugee resettlement to UNHCR” (News, 3 August 2018).

Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday, Bishop Mounstephen said: “Central to the recommendations is that the Foreign Office should articulate a clear set of core values by which they should operate. One of the great British strengths is pragmatism, but you can take pragmatism too far.

“Our feeling is that there’s a tendency for the FCO to champion this cause if there’s nothing else that gets in the way. My feeling is that we need to have a much more robust, and, dare I say it, principled approach to the issue.”


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