Freedom of Religion or Belief Conference 2022
Christian Persecution

International Freedom of Religion or Belief Conference 2022

The inaugural International Freedom of Religion or Belief Conference takes place in London this coming week, on 5-6th July, under the aegis of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). Some 500 faith leaders, foreign ministers, and non-governmental organisations will gather from around 50 countries to discuss and agree action to tackle religious persecution and discrimination around the world.

It has been a while since the Government accepted all 22 recommendations in the review produced by the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Rev’d Philip Mounstephen, which was commissioned by Jeremy Hunt when he was Foreign Secretary (possibly with a slight nudge from the Rev’d Jonathan Aitken).

It has, in fact, been three years since this report was accepted, during which time, while the world contended with a global pandemic, some 360 million Christians endured significant persecution for their faith, and 6,000 were killed for their faith last year alone. Open Doors maintains a Watch List of the 50 countries where Christians face the most extreme persecution: more currently die in Nigeria for their faith than in all other countries combined.

It is encouraging that the current Foreign Secretary has made this a priority for the newly formed FCDO. She hasn’t yet been in the job for a year — and has of course been rather preoccupied with Russia’s butchery in Ukraine and China’s belligerence toward Hong Kong — but she intuitively understands, as Jeremy Hunt came to understand, that freedom of religion and freedom of worship are not only fundamental human rights, but an invisible line between open societies and closed societies. As Jeremy Hunt observed: “Where freedom of worship is hampered or prevented, then usually that’s a sign of lots of other things going wrong, and we wanted to make sure that the UK is doing everything to champion the values that we all believe in.”

Hence his dedication to the mission, and now Liz Truss’s commitment of the entire machinery of the FCDO, which has one of the best global networks of any diplomatic service; indeed, after the US and China, the third biggest diplomatic network in the world.

It’s important that the International Freedom of Religion or Belief Conference isn’t a talking shop of shocking stats and vague commitments in order to ‘raise awareness’ of why we bathe some buildings in red light from time to time. The Evangelical Alliance has called for “long-term solutions” for persecuted Christians. Danny Webster, the EA’s Director of Advocacy, says: “At the summit this week, words must be matched with action. Protecting and promoting human rights should be a cornerstone of our government’s foreign policy, trade deals and overseas development spending. Religious freedom is foundational to free societies and should be at the centre of government action across the globe.” They explain:

Freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) is an important human right, protected in international human rights law and reinforced in domestic legislation like the Equality Act 2010 and the Human Rights Act 1998. FoRB protects all individuals in the religious belief they choose to practice privately and publicly and also protects individuals who decide not to subscribe to any religion or philosophical belief.

A core principle of FoRB is that neither the state, government actors or individuals within a society can mistreat, coerce or discriminate against another based on religious or no belief. It truly is a human right protecting all people around the world.

This Conference will be chaired by Fiona Bruce MP, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, and represents an important opportunity for the UK Government and wider British society to discuss and learn about the importance of religious freedom and the scale of Christian persecution around the world, which surpasses that of any other group.

We are talking about Christian pilgrims being ordered off their bus with a demand that they renounce their Christian faith and make the Islamic profession of belief. When they refused, they were shot in the head. We are talking about churches being desecrated, Christians butchered, children kidnapped and tortured or forced into suicide missions. We are talking about a blog post from 2015:

They were ‘the people of the cross, the followers of the hostile Egyptian Church’ who had been held in captivity for weeks. They were marched to a beach in their orange jumpsuits, forced to kneel and gaze straight ahead for the camera. They said their final prayers, and then these 21 servants of the Lord were simultaneously beheaded by the black shadows standing behind them. And so the sea turned red as the Islamic State claimed its latest band of Christian martyrs – this time Copts – and Egypt weeps for her sons.

And the fulfilment of a longing:

Wherever the devil rides, the Christians will die. While the FCO naively hopes for the region’s dictators, tyrants and medieval monarchies to be replaced with liberal democrats, our brothers and sisters are being crucified and beheaded. The lucky ones are shot in the head. May God forgive us our blindness, indifference and crass press releases of official condemnation.

The FCO – now the FCDO – is no longer naively hoping; no longer blind, indifferent, or a disseminator of vacuous press releases. It has taken seven years of longing and waiting and praying, but Liz Truss is finally doing something.

Thank God.

How can she seize this moment?

Miles Windsor of the Religious Freedom Institute explains:

The U.K. might seek to inspire and embody leadership by directing and resourcing serious efforts that support the dismantling of blasphemy and apostasy laws. Supporting the right of any person to change their religion presents a colossal challenge in many countries and is one essential pillar of religious freedom which needs careful consideration and navigation by government. Such individual self-determination in so many places will have consequences for religious converts, ranging from the loss of livelihood, to the loss of liberty, to the loss of life.

He also suggests that Liz Truss should ‘secure’ the office of the Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, a position which has only existed since 2018 and is rather dependent on (or vulnerable to) the whims and priorities (or distractions) of prime ministers who (as we know) tend to come and go. He suggests:

..the foreign secretary should bring forward legislation to make the appointment a statutory requirement of every British government and to give the envoy’s office the resources and mandate it would need to tackle this global scourge.

..The U.K. government must use the platform of the ministerial to make clear to the international community that it recognizes the vast scale of repression of religious minorities, that it really matters and that it will make it a foreign policy priority to challenge persecution and advance religious freedom for everyone, everywhere. How we consolidate the office of the special envoy will be key to achieving this.

We can hope and pray.