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Cameron backs Bill for Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief

17 April 2024

Post should be on a statutory footing, says Foreign Secretary

Alamy

A rally in Kolkata earlier this month was organised by the United State Forum of Catholics and Protestants of West Bengal, in protest against the continuous attacks on minorities. It was led by priests and religious from various districts of West Bengal

A rally in Kolkata earlier this month was organised by the United State Forum of Catholics and Protestants of West Bengal, in protest against the cont...

THE Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron, has said that the Government supports a Private Member’s Bill that would make it a legal requirement for the Prime Minister to appoint a Special Envoy for International Freedom of Religion or Belief.

The International Freedom of Religion or Belief Bill was introduced into the House of Commons in October by the Conservative MP Fiona Bruce, who has been the Special Envoy since December 2020 (News, 1 January 2021). The Bill received its Second Reading in January.

The Bill would put the post of Special Envoy and an office to support their work on a statutory footing; at present, the Prime Minister is not required by law to appoint such an envoy.

The envoy’s duties would include working “to promote and protect international freedom of religion or belief”, and to “raise awareness of cases of concern involving persecution or discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief”, the Bill says.

In the House of Lords on Tuesday afternoon, the Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, asked Lord Cameron whether he would support the Bill. The Bishop said that he hoped to bring the Bill forward to the Lords in the next few weeks, once it had concluded its Commons stages.

He said that putting the post on a statutory footing, as the Bill did, was a recommendation of his independent review on religious freedom which he completed as Bishop of Truro in 2019 (News, 12 July 2019).

Lord Cameron replied: “I very much agree with the Bill. In fact, I insisted that it went forward with government support. Fiona Bruce does an excellent job in this regard and, for the first time, one of these governmental envoys will be placed on a statutory footing. That reflects the importance that we in this Government and in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office [FCDO] attach to celebrating freedom of religious belief.”

Bishop Mounstephen also asked Lord Cameron what assessment he had made of the current state of freedom of religion or belief in India, given “disturbing reports of violations of freedom of religion or belief in the Indian state of Manipur over the past year”.

Lord Cameron replied: “India is committed via its constitution to freedom of religion and belief. Where specific issues or concerns arise, the UK Government of course raises these directly with the government of India.”

In response to questions from other peers, Lord Cameron sought to emphasise the Government’s commitment to strengthening religious freedom around the world.

“My department takes this very seriously: not only have we set up the envoy and are putting that into legislation, but we have dedicated staff in the FCDO who look at freedom of religious belief,” he said. He referred to a resolution on freedom of religion put forward by the UK and Emirati governments to the UN Security Council last year, which the Council voted unanimously to adopt (News, 23 June 2023).

Lord Singh of Wimbledon, a cross-bench peer, said that, in India, “Christians have been persecuted again and again, and Sikhs are told that if they behave like Hindus, they are fine; otherwise, they are termed separatists.” He asked whether Lord Cameron agreed that freedom of belief should be “at the forefront of the Commonwealth Charter”.

Lord Cameron said that his department had raised questions about religious freedom with the Indian government in the past. “That should continue.”

Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee, a non-affiliated peer, said that Bishop Mounstephen’s report had stated that Foreign Office staff were often not equipped to deal with instances of Christian persecution, and had recommended mandatory training on religious diversity and inclusivity. Why was the current training not mandatory, she asked.

Lord Cameron replied: “There is a lot of diversity training in the FCDO, and there is a dedicated number of staff for dealing with freedom-of-religious-belief questions, but I shall certainly ask the specific question about whether the training is included in this area.”

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