The persecution of Christians – the UK responds
Something strange has happened. This year Jeremy Hunt (who could be the next Prime Minister), commissioned a review into the Foreign Office response to ‘the global persecution of Christians’. During the launch of the final report, which we attended this week, those in charge of the review said that they were not pleading a special case for Christians. They went out of their way to say that the recommendations applied to all faiths and indeed those who have no faith. Some present at the public launch of the review expressed to us their concerns that the focus had been taken off the plight of persecuted Christians. Our CEO Mike Simpson said that whilst there were some good recommendations in the final report, ‘It feels like a missed opportunity’.
Since the review was announced, Jeremy Hunt has focused on what he calls the ‘misguided political correctness’ of politicians in dealing with this issue (or not dealing with it). In trying not to offend anyone, he says, the British government has embraced a ‘faith-blind’ approach to diplomacy and international aid. But what happens when religious groups such as the Christian minority in Iraq are targeted specifically because of their faith? In ignoring the existence of faith, such groups can fall through the cracks. This has certainly been the case with Iraqi Christians who have been largely ignored by Western governments.
The reality on the ground (in Iraq)
We went to northern Iraq in March and obtained input to the review from two Archbishops. Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda of the Chaldean Catholic Church said, “Christians are the most persecuted minority in the world and it is time that this was addressed or Christianity will not only disappear from Iraq but from the Middle East”. He said that there was a tendency to be “too sensitive to political correctness” and thus the issue of the persecution of Christians gets “put in the too difficult box”. Archbishop Nicodemus Dawood Sharaf of the Syrian Orthodox Church said he had not noticed any work of the British government in support of persecuted Christians in Iraq. He went on to say, “There are many diplomatic missions only seeking to inquire of our situation without actually providing any assistance”.
Who is brave enough to take the right action?
The Anglican Bishop of Truro, Philip Mounstephen (who led the review), said the recommendations were not specifically in support of Christians but “for the common good”. At the launch, just five questions were allowed from those attending. One of these was from a representative of Humanists UK. While championing freedom of speech, this organisation’s long-running campaigns include the abolition of faith schools and the disestablishment of the Anglican Church. How helpful such views are to the besieged congregation of St George’s in Baghdad (Iraq’s only Anglican Church) remains to be seen.
The report is lucid in its findings and recommendations. However, given the evident desire to please all groups, including those with an antipathy towards faith, action on this will be tricky. That being said, we welcome some of the recommendations in the report. Potential sanctions against perpetrators of religious persecution is a serious step. The drafting of a UN Security Resolution ensuring protection of Christians and other faith minorities is also a serious step. But it would take courage from the next Prime Minister. For decades, the government in Saudi Arabia has banned Christian churches within its borders. Does the UK stop its trade with the Saudis until they become more tolerant? Such questions have yet to be answered.
Iraq’s most senior prelate speaks out
The evidence we provided to the review from Iraqi Christian leaders was consistently negative – too much talking and not enough action. In an interview this week, Iraq’s most senior Christian prelate (Cardinal Louis Sako) said: “Little by little, Christians will leave. They can’t live with others who think they are apostate or infidels.” He goes on to say that the persecution and exodus of Iraq’s ancient Christian communities can be stopped but action needs to be taken now, not later.
An important parliamentary debate
The Backbench Business Select Committee will be debating a motion on the review in the House of Commons on Thursday 18th July from 11.50am. The sponsors of this debate are Chris Philp MP (Conservative), Fiona Bruce MP (Conservative), Jim Shannon MP (Democratic Unionist), and David Linden MP (SNP). Other backbench MPs will be in attendance to discuss this important cross-party issue. The wording of the motion is:
“That this House deplores the persecution of Christians overseas; supports freedom of religion or belief in all countries throughout the world; welcomes the work undertaken by the Bishop of Truro in this area; and calls on the Government to do more with the diplomatic and other tools at its disposal to prevail on governments of countries in which persecution of Christians is tolerated or encouraged to end that persecution and to protect the right to freedom of religion or belief.”
Those interested in watching the debate can do so on parliamentlive.tv.
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