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Comment: The persecution of Christians should matter to everyone

by
15 July 2020

Sixty-five years since Open Doors was established, the campaign for religious freedom is far from over, says Henrietta Blyth

open doors uk

Brother Andrew and his VW Beetle, in which he transported Christian literature behind the Iron Curtain, in 1955

Brother Andrew and his VW Beetle, in which he transported Christian literature behind the Iron Curtain, in 1955

IN JULY 1955, a young Evangelical preacher, Anne van der Bijl — aka Brother Andrew, “God’s Smuggler” — took his first trip across the Iron Curtain to Poland. He went there to encourage the downtrodden Christians of Warsaw. He was thanked warmly by the pastor, but was told: “When you come again, please bring Bibles with you.”

So began a ministry which has become the charity Open Doors, which supports persecuted Christians around the world.

When the Iron Curtain finally came down, 35 years later, it was famously described by Francis Fukuyama as “the end of history”. Western liberal democracy had won the day, we were told. Sadly, for a new generation of Christians, the world seems anything but “liberal”.

 

“BROTHER, if you had not arrived with rations for us tonight, my wife and I had decided to commit suicide. We have nothing.” These were the words of a pastor in India, speaking to one of Open Doors’ partners a few weeks ago.

In India, nationalist extremists have vowed to eradicate both Christianity and Islam. Lockdown has now given them another weapon to achieve this. Local actors have discriminated against Christians when distributing Government food aid. The Church in India is literally at risk of starving to death.

In Vietnam, villagers seeking aid have been asked to form two lines: Christians and others. Christians are sent away, empty-handed and humiliated.

Elsewhere, Christians are being blamed for starting and spreading Covid-19. Just this week, we heard that, in some rural areas of Colombia, Evangelical Christians are being sent to prison by indigenous ethnic leaders, who deem them responsible for the virus.

Meanwhile, while we discuss the implications of sharing our personal movements on a Covid-19 phone app, members of China’s underground churches have been placing their smartphones in the microwave, to avoid being spied on.

In the last World Watch Report List, we recorded that 260 million Christians face very high or extreme levels of opposition and persecution on account of their faith. Now, with Covid19, they appear to be even harder hit.

Freedom of Religion or Belief (FORB) is Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is the “canary in the coalmine”. When FORB is compromised, other human rights follow: freedom of speech, the right to public assembly, the rights of citizens.

 

FOR decades however, religious freedom, and Christian freedom in particular, has not always generated the same passion and column inches that other human-rights abuses do. Speaking up for Christians imprisoned for speaking about their faith, or even meeting to worship, has been something seen as “best left to churches”.

I am daring to believe, however, that, after 65 years, change is in the air.

Last week, we celebrated the first anniversary of the independent review of Foreign and Commonwealth Office support for persecuted Christians, led by the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen (News, 12 July 2019). Rehman Chishti, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on FORB, reported that UK Government had accepted all 22 of the report’s recommendations, and were gradually implementing them.

Last week, the UK Government announced that it was beginning a series of unilateral targeted sanctions against those involved in human-rights abuses. I am sure that there will be much debate about the use of unilateral sanctions, and I am happy to play “wait and see”.

I was heartened, however, that news of the sanctions was swiftly followed up with a Foreign Office press release, with the headline: “New sanctions regime among push to boost protection for persecuted religious groups.”

The Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, was quoted as saying: “Our new global human rights regime will allow the UK to protect people of all religions, faiths and no belief against serious human rights violations and abuses, and ensure the perpetrators are sent a clear message that the UK will not tolerate their atrocious actions.”

Indeed, among the first raft of sanctions are:

  • Two Myanmar military generals who have been involved in the brutal campaign against the mostly Muslim Rohingya people.
  • Two organisations connected to the brutal treatment meted out in North Korea’s gulags — a place where many Christians reside for crimes such as simple as owning a Bible.

I am delighted, meanwhile, to be joining a new UK FoRB Forum, which will meet for the first time in the autumn, led by Bishop Mounstephen (News, 10 July). I will work alongside a range of faith and civil-society institutions, as well as policymakers. And there are high hopes that other nations will follow suit.

In Washington, DC, the US Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom has announced plans for the creation of 100 similar forums around the world. Our FoRB Forum will hopefully become part of a global network and movement.

There is more commitment and more resource in terms of people and finance being dedicated to this issue than ever before. This is enormously encouraging — but more action is still needed.

 

ON THE first anniversary of the Truro report, it is good to see how far we have come, but there is so much more that needs to happen. Western governments and civil servants are so often blind to religion as a vulnerability. For too long, religious illiteracy has been tolerated in a way that ignorance about other issues would never be.

This shortcoming is at last being acknowledged by governments like ours, and that is cause for celebration.

I am proud to work for Open Doors, a charity which focuses largely on supporting Christian minorities around the world. This is not only because I care about my brothers and sisters in Christ around the world. Time and again, we see how a Christian population within a society can be a force for good; for salt and light, peace and civility.

As we struggle to support a continued Christian presence around the world, I believe that we are supporting a more humane world and future. That is surely something that everyone can get behind.

 

Henrietta Blyth is the chief executive of Open Doors UK & Ireland

Read more about its 65th anniversary here

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