On Boxing Day 2018 The Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP, HM Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, announced that he had asked The Bishop of Truro to set up an Independent Review into the global persecution of Christians; to map the extent and nature of the phenomenon; to assess the quality of the response of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), and to make recommendations for changes in both policy and practice.
Initially, the aim was to conclude the Review by Easter 2019. However it rapidly became apparent that the scale and nature of the phenomenon simply required more time. Thus it was agreed that an Interim Report focusing on the scale and nature of the problem would be produced by the end of April 2019, with a final report to be delivered by the end of June.
After an ‘Overview’ section, which paints a grim global picture, the Report drills down into analysis of a number of different regions. Detailed analysis of the crisis Christians are facing in particular ‘Focus Countries’ will be added incrementally to the Independent Review’s Website over the next two months with case studies that will be used to review the FCO response. It concludes by drawing some general conclusions that will inform the second phase. It is on the basis of these conclusions and our engagement with all levels of the FCO that the Independent Review will then make its recommendations for policy and practice.
In response to this interim report Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said:
“I asked the Bishop of Truro to deliver an independent, honest, unflinching and hard-hitting report. What he has delivered to me today makes for a truly sobering read. I thank him and his team for their hard work. The interim report comes just after the appalling attacks at Easter on churches across Sri Lanka, the devastating attack on two mosques in Christchurch, and most recently the San Diego synagogue shooting. There is nothing more medieval than to hate someone on the basis of their faith. That it is on the rise should shock us all. I look forward to seeing the Bishop’s final report in the summer, and identifying further specific steps the FCO can take to do more to address the fate of persecuted Christians around the world.”
The Scale of Religious Persecution:
Persecution on grounds of religious faith is a global phenomenon that is growing in scale and intensity. Reports including that of the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on ‘Freedom of Religion and Belief’ (FoRB) suggest that religious persecution is on the rise, and it is an “ever-growing threat” to societies around the world. Though it is impossible to know the exact numbers of people persecuted for their faith, based on reports from different NGOs, it is estimated that one third of the world’s population suffers from religious persecution in some form, with Christians being the most persecuted group.
This despite the fact that freedom of religion and belief is a fundamental right of every person. This includes the freedom to change or reject one’s own belief system. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in Article 18 defines religious human rights in this way:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance. (The Universal Declaration of Human Rights)
Despite the fact that the UDHR is foundational to the UN Charter which is binding on member states, and that ‘the denial of religious liberty is almost everywhere viewed as morally and legally invalid’, in today’s world religious freedom is far from being an existential reality.
The Review Terms of Reference called for ‘persecution and other discriminatory treatment’ to be researched. In the absence of an agreed academic definition of ‘persecution’ the Review has proceeded on the understanding that persecution is discriminatory treatment where that treatment is accompanied by actual or perceived threats of violence or other forced coercion.
Why a focus on Christian persecution?
The final Report will include a fuller, principled, justification for the work of the Review. Significantly, it will argue that a focus on Christian persecution must not be to the detriment of other minorities, but rather helps and supports them. However, research consistently indicates that Christians are “the most widely targeted religious community”. Furthermore, the evidence suggests that acts of violence and other intimidation against Christians are becoming more widespread. The reporting period revealed an increase in the severity of anti-Christian persecution. In parts of the Middle East and Africa, the “vast scale” of the violence and its perpetrators’ declared intent to eradicate the Christian community has led to several Parliamentary declarations in recent years that the faith group has suffered genocides according to the definition adopted by the UN.
Against this backdrop, academics, journalists and religious leaders (both Christian and non-Christian) have stated that, as Cambridge University Press puts it, the global persecution of Christians is “an urgent human rights issue that remains underreported”. An op-ed piece in the Washington Post stated: “Persecution of Christians continues… but it rarely gets much attention in the Western media. Even many churchmen in the West turn a blind eye.” Journalist John L Allen wrote in The Spectator: “[The] global war on Christians remains the greatest story never told of the early 21st century.” While government leaders, such as UK Prime Minister Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have publicly acknowledged the scale of persecution, concerns have centred on whether their public pronouncements and policies have given insufficient weight to the topic. Baroness Warsi told BBC Radio 4 that politicians should set “legal parameters as to what will and will not be tolerated. There is much more we can do.” Former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey said western governments have been “strangely and inexplicably reluctant to confront” persecution of Christians in the Middle East. UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said he was “not convinced” that Britain’s response to Christian persecution was adequate.
There is widespread evidence showing that “today, Christians constitute by far the most widely persecuted religion.” Finding once again that Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world, the Pew Research Center concluded that in 2016 Christians were targeted in 144 countries – a rise from 125 in 2015. According to Pew Research, “Christians have been harassed in more countries than any other religious group and have suffered harassment in many of the heavily Muslim countries of the Middle East and North Africa.” Reporting “a shocking increase in the persecution of Christians globally”, Christian persecution NGO Open Doors (OD) revealed in its 2019 World Watch List Report on anti-Christian oppression that “approximately 245 million Christians living in the top 50 countries suffer high levels of persecution or worse”, 30 million up on the previous year. Open Doors stated that within five years the number of countries classified as having “extreme” persecution had risen from one (North Korea) to 11. Both OD and Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) have highlighted the increasing threat from “aggressive nationalism” or “ultra-nationalism” in countries such as China and India – growing world powers – as well as from Islamist militia groups. According to Persecution Relief, 736 attacks were recorded in India in 2017, up from 348 in 2016. With reports in China showing an upsurge of persecution against Christians, between 2014 and 2016, government authorities in Zheijiang Province targeted up to 2,000 churches, which were either partially or completely destroyed or had their crosses removed.
Evidence shows not only the geographic spread of anti-Christian persecution, but also its increasing severity. In some regions, the level and nature of persecution is arguably coming close to meeting the international definition of genocide, according to that adopted by the UN. The eradication of Christians and other minorities on pain of “the sword” or other violent means was revealed to be the specific and stated objective of extremist groups in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, north-east Nigeria and the Philippines. An intent to erase all evidence of the Christian presence was made plain by the removal of crosses, the destruction of Church buildings and other Church symbols. The killing and abduction of clergy represented a direct attack on the Church’s structure and leadership. Where these and other incidents meet the tests of genocide, governments will be required to bring perpetrators to justice, aid victims and take preventative measures for the future.
The main impact of such genocidal acts against Christians is exodus. Christianity now faces the possibility of being wiped-out in parts of the Middle East where its roots go back furthest. In Palestine, Christian numbers are below 1.5 percent; in Syria the Christian population has declined from 1.7 million in 2011 to below 450,000 and in Iraq, Christian numbers have slumped from 1.5 million before 2003 to below 120,000 today. Christianity is at risk of disappearing, representing a massive setback for plurality in the region.
In its 2017 ‘Persecuted and Forgotten?’ report on Christian persecution, ACN stated: “In terms of the number of people involved, the gravity of the crimes committed and their impact, it is clear that the persecution of Christians is today worse than at any time in history.” Given the scale of persecution, the response of the media and western Governments has come under increasing criticism. Former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks told the House of Lords: “The persecution of Christians throughout much of the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, [and] elsewhere is one of the crimes against humanity of our time and I’m appalled at the lack of protest it has evoked”. This echoes the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal: “‘Does anybody here hear our cry? How many atrocities must we endure before someone comes to our aid?”
Given the scale of persecution of Christians today, indications that it is getting worse and that its impact involves the decimation of some of the faith group’s oldest and most enduring communities, the need for governments to give increasing priority and specific targeted support to this faith community is not only necessary but increasingly urgent.
Whilst we make no claim for this Report to be comprehensive in its scope there seems little doubt that it describes a global phenomenon of discriminatory behaviour and physical attacks, some sadly deadly, on Christian children, women and men, often from the world’s poorest communities. Although the regional summaries, which make up the bulk of this Interim Report, detail very significant challenges in places as far apart as North Korea and Latin America, there are more positive developments in parts of the world. The historic accord between the Grand Imam of Al Azhar and His Holiness Pope Francis in UAE earlier this year and the recent announcement of a change in the law in Bolivia to decriminalise proselytism and so recognise the right to change ones religion are positive steps forward.
These however are the bright lights in the broader landscape of growing abuses in the area of Freedom of Religion or Belief. The regular, widespread discriminatory behaviour against minority communities is interspersed with major incidents such as the Easter Sunday massacres in Sri Lanka (the third Easter in a row that has been targeted by radical islamists). The problem with the rolling global news cycle is that today’s outrage against the Christian Community is all too soon forgotten and replaced by the next.
Although we have rightly begun this Independent Review by calling out the inconvenient truth that the overwhelming majority (estimated at 80%) of persecuted religious believers are Christians, we would be doing a major disservice to the powerful legacy of the framers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights led by Eleanor Roosevelt, and specifically to the memory of the Lebanese Ambassador Charles Malik (the originator and champion of Article 18) if we were not to set the Review properly within the context of the duties, rights and freedoms for all. The comprehensive nature of Article 18 should come as no surprise as it was rooted in two years of global research and an assessment of every human culture and belief system that the drafting committee could persuade to submit evidence. We should have complete confidence in the Universal Declaration and the legal structures and systems that grew out of it, because it was so comprehensive an assessment of the human condition.
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.
Having set out the context of the Independent Review and engaged in a brief tour d’horizon of the current situation around the world, this leaves us in a strong position to review the work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in its work at all levels over the last five years, specifically in its role to support the 80% of persecuted believers who follow Jesus Christ. Over the course of the next two months I will be engaging with FCO Embassies and High Commissions in a discussion about what actions have or have not been taken. I will also be considering the role of Ministers and policies at the centre of the FCO. I will consider the role of the FCO in representing the UK with like-minded partners, both in bi-lateral partnerships and within a multi-lateral context. And whilst, in the wording of the Terms of Reference, ‘The Review will focus on the work of the FCO; other public authorities may wish to take note of the points of learning.’ And I hope indeed that they will. In short I will be assessing what would be the appropriate response to the needs of the numerically average Christian believer, a young 16 year old Nigerian Christian woman whose rights may well have been taken away in the prime of youth and promise.
My conclusions and recommendations may be uncomfortable to hear: the challenge for ministers and FCO civil servants will be to turn these into workable solutions that can be implemented. The challenge for the rest of our community will be to partner with some of the finest diplomats in the world to ensure that the freedoms that Britain was at the forefront of creating become a reality for both Christians, and people of all faiths and none, around the world today.
Rt. Rev. Philip Mounstephen
Bishop of Truro