On 11 July 2019, the House of Lords is scheduled to debate a motion moved by Lord Elton (Conservative) on the “extent of persecution of people of faith in this century”. This House of Lords Library Briefing provides background information on freedom of religion and belief as a human right, before summarising recent reports on religious freedom worldwide. It concludes with an overview of the UK Government’s response to a reported rise in religious intolerance internationally. The Bishop of Truro is currently conducting an independent review into Foreign and Commonwealth Office support for persecuted Christians. The review was commissioned by Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary.
UK Government Policy
In the UK, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) monitors the international situation in respect of religious freedom. In its 2018 Human Rights and Democracy report, the FCO stated that denial of the right to freedom of religion or belief was a “matter of increasing international concern”. It continued:
Violations in 2018 ranged from inhibiting the freedom to worship, for example in the Maldives and Russia, to discrimination or targeted attacks against members of minority groups because of their religious identity, such as in Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Burma.
The report highlighted that in July 2018, Prime Minister Theresa May appointed Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, Minister of State at the FCO, as a special envoy on freedom of religion or belief. In this capacity, Lord Ahmad has represented the UK during visits to a number of countries to promote freedom of religion and belief, including Indonesia, Iraq and Algeria. In addition, the UK Government has increased financial support for efforts to defend the right over the past year. This included allocating £12 million for a programme to “find innovative solutions to promote and defend freedom of religion and belief”. There was also £1 million for religious freedom-related projects in Iraq, Malaysia, Burma and Sudan.
The report also drew attention to the estimated 215 million Christians worldwide who had faced religious persecution in 2018. It noted that Christian women and children are “particularly vulnerable and are often subjected to sexual violence as a result of their beliefs”. In response to this issue, on Boxing Day 2018 Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt asked the Bishop of Truro to lead an independent review of the support provided by the FCO to persecuted Christians worldwide.
Independent Review: FCO Support for Persecuted Christians
Speaking at the formal launch of the review in January 2019, Mr Hunt cited evidence that “80 percent of all the people who are suffering religious persecution are Christian”. The Government has asked the review to map “levels of persecution and other discrimination against Christians in key countries around the world”. This would provide an “objective assessment of the impact and levels of FCO support”. The review will also make recommendations to the Foreign Secretary.
The review had aimed to report by Easter 2019. However, the Bishop of Truro has stated that it “rapidly became apparent that the scale and nature of the phenomenon simply required more time”. An interim report was therefore published in late April, ahead of a final report expected in summer 2019. The interim report argued that persecution on grounds of religious faith was a “global phenomenon” that was “growing in scale and intensity”. It analysed the situation in a number of different regions around the world before reaching interim conclusions. These included that the “level and nature” of the persecution of Christians in some regions was “arguably coming close to meeting the international definition of genocide”. The report also concluded that the international community had yet to fully implement article 18 of the UDHR:
The challenge that faces us at the beginning of the 21st century is not that we need to fight for a just legal system, it is rather that to our shame, we have abjectly failed to implement the best system that women and men have yet devised to protect universal freedoms.
Responding to the Bishop of Truro’s interim report, Jeremy Hunt said there was “nothing more medieval than to hate someone on the basis of their faith”. He added that the report’s conclusion that religious discrimination was on the rise “should shock us all”. Mr Hunt also stated that he looked forward to the final report, due shortly, as a means to “identifying further specific steps” the FCO could take to “do more to address the fate of persecuted Christians around the world”.