A “MISGUIDED political correctness” must not inhibit the Government’s response to religious persecution, the Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said on Boxing Day, as he announced a global review of the persecution of Christians.
Echoing recent interventions by Prince of Wales and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Mr Hunt said that “with Christianity on the verge of extinction in its birthplace, it is time for concerted action that begins to turn the tide.”
While laying claim to global leadership on religious freedom, he said that he was not convinced that Britain’s response to the threats facing Christians had “always matched the scale of the problem, nor taken account of the hard evidence that Christians often endure a disproportionate burden of persecution.
“Perhaps this is born out of the very British sense of awkwardness at ‘doing God’. Perhaps it’s an awareness of our colonial history, or, because Britain is a traditionally Christian country, some are fearful of being seen to help Christians in desperate need.
“Whatever the cause, we must never allow a misguided political correctness to inhibit our response to the persecution of any religious community.”
Mr Hunt has appointed the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, a former executive leader of the Church Mission Society, to lead the review, and to report back by Easter. Bishop Mounstephen described it as a “vital piece of work”.
Mr Hunt’s remarks focused on the Middle East, where, he said, the Christian population had fallen from 20 per cent to five per cent of the total, during the past century. It was “not hard to see why”, he suggested, citing the Palm Sunday 2017 attack in Egypt (News, 13 April 2017).
Last week, he had met an Iraqi doctor, “who told me how patients had threatened her and her family with beheading when they heard she was a Christian who refused to convert. Step by agonising step, we are witnessing the erosion of Christianity as a living religion in its heartland.”
His intervention comes after strongly-worded warnings about the position of Christians in the Middle East voiced by Prince Charles and the Archbishop. This month, Archbishop Welby suggested that they faced “the threat of imminent extinction”, and the Prince, speaking at a service at Westminster Abbey, praised the courage of those “battling oppression and persecution or who have fled to escape it” (News, 7 December 2018).
A delegation of senior Middle Eastern clergy met with Government ministers after the service, urging them to do more to help their congregations (News, 4 January).
Mr Hunt also acknowledged the “deeply perilous” situation of Christians in other regions. He cited Open Doors’s estimate that, globally, about 215 million Christians suffer persecution. Last year, the charity arranged for an Iraqi priest to present the Prime Minister with a Bible burnt by ISIS and a petition signed by 800,000 people, asking the Government to support Middle Eastern Christians (News, 15 December 2017).
Open Doors’s annual World Watch List suggested that Pakistan had the highest rate of violence, with a higher number of abductions, forced marriages, and attacks on churches than any other country (News, 26 January 2018).
Mr Hunt spoke of Asia Bibi, “whose plight has moved the hearts of the British public”. The Government has been urged by C of E Bishops to offer her asylum (News, 29 November). Bishops have also raised concerns in the House of Lords about the religious literacy of those who process asylum applications.
This year, there have also been reports of a “dramatic upsurge” in attacks on Christians in India (News, 9 February), and disputes over the roots of attacks by herdsman in Nigeria (News, 6 July).
The Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Baroness Scotland, has been challenged about the protection of Christians who are persecuted in Muslim-majority societies (News, 13 October 2017). Of the ten countries that lead Open Doors’ list, all but one — North Korea — are Muslim-majority. It estimates that more than 3000 Christians were killed for their faith in 2017, more than twice as many as that reported in last year’s report. Two-thirds of these deaths took place in Nigeria
While suggesting that Britain had shown “global leadership” on international religious freedom, including the appointment of Lord Ahmad as Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, Mr Hunt said that he wanted the review to consider “whether we are doing all we can”, and to ask “some tough questions and offer ambitious policy recommendations”.
Mr Hunt said: “Britain has — in my view — the best diplomatic network in the world, so how can we use that to encourage countries to provide proper security for minority groups under threat? Have we been generous enough in offering practical assistance, and does the level of UK support match the scale of the suffering? Have we always got our foreign policy priorities right in terms of advocating for and expressing solidarity with this group?. . .
“Britain has a strong history of standing up for the rights of all religious communities. I am proud of the way the UK has led the world in condemnation of the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Rohingya community in Burma; as well as our response of passionate anger to the recent resurgence of anti-Semitism in our own society.
“It is not in our national character to turn a blind eye to suffering. All religious minorities must be protected and the evidence demonstrates that in some countries, Christians face the greatest risk.
“We should be willing to state that simple fact — and adjust our policies accordingly.”
His suggestions bear similarities to Open Doors’ recommendations to the Government. The charity has also suggested that the Government use post-Brexit trade negotiations to “champion human rights”.
Mr Hunt closed his remarks by citing St Paul in the Second Letter to the Corinthians, who “foretold of the suffering that Christians would face through the ages, but still saw reason to hope”.
Christians remain the most persecuted religious group in the world, the Pew Research Centre says (News, 29 June).