What did the Foreign Office do to tackle religious persecution in 2012?

Today the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has published its Human Rights and Democracy Report for 2012. This annual report highlights the British Government’s  global human rights priorities. It is produced with the intention of increasing awareness of the UK’s role in promoting human rights worldwide, as well as to influence countries with poor human rights records to take more concrete steps towards upholding their international human rights obligations.

The report is extensive and covers a whole range of issues from elections to torture to forced marriage to antisemitism.  Below is the section on freedom of religion and belief in full.   This section of the report is considerably longer than last year’s.  This reflects the established view that the amount of religious persecution is increasing worldwide.  It also suggests that the FCO is taking the issue more seriously.  If you visit the Freedom of Religion or Belief page that this is taken from, at the bottom on the right you can access more information on the 27 countries with the greatest cause for concern and find out in more information about what our government is doing to tackle freedom of religion abuses in each of these countries.

Update (15 April 23:00) : Open Doors have now commented on the report:

‘Open Doors welcomes the government’s acknowledgement of the growth of violence against religious communities, which reinforces the trend we have already highlighted in our own [World Watch] report. We are delighted to see a clear statement that freedom of belief includes the freedom to share it, change it and to teach others about it. We were also encouraged that in his opening speech Foreign Secretary William Hague insisted that “The rights that we promote are universal, and not an attempt to spread western political culture. When the drafting committee for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights first met in 1947, there was a conviction among the parties that the Declaration should not reflect Western values alone.”

‘The report includes a detailed comment on 27 countries of concern (most of which also appear in Open Doors’ list of the 50 countries where it is hardest to be a Christian – the Open Doors includes in its top ten the following countries not recorded as countries of concern by the Foreign Office: North Korea, Maldives and Mali), though we note with some disappointment that there is no reference to Freedom of Religion and Belief in the sections on Somalia and Yemen, which we fear implies that this is not part of the concern about those countries. We would highlight that in our view the FORB sections for Sudan and Eritrea are weak, failing to record the clampdown on Christian foreign nationals in Sudan that became pronounced towards the end of 2012, and the extraordinary number of Christians still imprisoned in Eritrea – which is estimated at over 2,000, with 31 reported to have died in prison in 2012.’

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The promotion and protection of the right to freedom of religion or belief is one of the Government’s key human rights priorities.  Freedom of thought, conscience and belief underpin many other fundamental freedoms.  Often where they are under attack we find that other freedoms are under attack too.

The definition of freedom of religion or belief is broad, and encompasses not only the freedom to hold a belief but also the freedom to share it, change it and to teach others about it and the right to hold a humanistic, atheistic or non-religious world view.  Religion or belief can therefore be questioned or abandoned as well as championed and adopted.  All are equally valid choices, and it is the duty of governments to create space for all.

The Government fully supports the UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, which prohibits “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on religion or belief and having as its purpose or as its effect nullification or impairment of the recognition, enjoyment or exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms on an equal basis”.

The FCO has drawn up a strategy to guide its promotion and protection of the right to freedom of religion or belief internationally.  This strategy has four strands: bilateral, multilateral (work in international organisations), project work and internal FCO initiatives.

As part of the bilateral strand, we regularly make clear to our contacts in governments around the world the importance we place on creating a climate of religious tolerance and eliminating legal provisions and policies that discriminate against religious believers.  We continue to urge other governments to create the conditions for pluralist and non-sectarian societies and to put in place policies which prevent discrimination against anyone on the basis of their religion or belief.

Sadly, the latest report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life suggests that violence against religious communities is on the increase. Some 75% of people now live in countries where governments, social groups or individuals restrict their ability to practise their faith freely.  Furthermore, the report found that restrictions are increasing in each of the five major regions of the world and that the share of countries with high or very high restrictions on religious beliefs and practices is also rising.

Many of the countries where we were most concerned about restrictions placed on freedom of religion or belief in the course of 2012 are featured in the Countries of Concern section of this report (see Section IX).  The present section of the report focuses instead on regional issues, incidents in countries not covered in Section IX, as well as wider UK efforts to combat the rising tide of restrictions on religion or belief.

It is deeply regrettable in particular that religious minorities in the Middle East and North Africa have in a large number of cases suffered as a result of instability linked to the Arab Spring.  In recent years, this has led to substantial numbers of Christians leaving the region, with emigration from Iraq the most notable example.  We deplore discrimination against religious minorities and constraints imposed on their freedom to practise their faith.  The momentous changes we have seen across the Middle East and North Africa are at their core about the people of the region demanding political freedom and greater economic opportunity.  The experience of states across the world has been that more inclusive, accountable governments based on consent and legitimacy are more likely to respect the rights of all, including religious minorities.  In engagement with governments across the region we have continued to raise the importance of respecting minority rights, including in the formation of new constitutions.

Egypt has witnessed an upsurge in sectarian violence over the transition period, and we are also aware of reports of abuse against women from religious minorities.  Throughout 2012, we have been in close contact with representatives of the Coptic Church and religious minorities and have maintained a regular dialogue with the Egyptian authorities.  During his meeting with President Mursi at the United Nations General Assembly on 26 September, the Prime Minister stressed the importance of ensuring that the rights of minorities are protected.  We will remain in close contact both with the Egyptian authorities and with leaders of the opposition and will look to the Egyptian government to take the transition forward in an inclusive and democratic manner.

Many Syrians are demanding their right to liberty and dignity and the freedom to choose their leaders.  We continue to meet representatives and members of minority communities regularly.  We will continue to work with the Syrian people, countries in the region and our international partners to support Syrians’ demands for a peaceful and democratic transition to a more open society that respects the rights of all its citizens, whether Allawite, Sunni, Christian or Kurd.

The plight of religious communities has also been a cause for concern in some of the countries of Central Asia.  In Kazakhstan, a new law requiring every religious group to re-register within a year has been the subject of criticism because of the onerous process involved and because there is no legal basis for any religious group with fewer than 50 worshippers.  The law also requires all imported religious literature to be cleared by the State Agency for Religious Affairs.  In response, the British Embassy has tried to strengthen religious freedom by providing training to local officials on the international norms on religious freedoms, which Kazakhstan has undertaken to respect through her signature of various international treaties/conventions.

While Tajikistan remains the only country in the region with an officially registered Islamic political party represented in parliament and the highest number of officially registered mosques, concerns remain about restrictions on their operation and access to them by women and the younger generation, most recently evidenced by the decision to install cameras in some mosques.  Restrictions are not limited purely to Islam; other religious groups including the Jehovah’s Witnesses also experience difficulties.

Indonesia’s constitution provides for “all persons the right to worship according to his or her own religion or belief”.  In practice, all Indonesians are required to identify themselves with one of six specified faiths: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism or Confucianism.  Although Indonesia has a strong tradition of religious diversity and tolerance, hostility towards (and occasional attacks on) the Ahmadiyya, Christian and Shia communities has intensified recently and the central government and law enforcement response has at times been weak.  At the local level, authorities have placed restrictions on religious groups which they consider to be “deviant”, and while central government is responsible for religious affairs it has not overruled a number of local regulations or decrees restricting rights guaranteed in the constitution.  Our Embassy in Jakarta frequently raises freedom of religion issues with the government of Indonesia, and Embassy officers are in regular contact with members of civil society and members of religious groups facing difficulties, such as those related to the Gereja Kristen Indonesia Yasmin Church in Bogor.  In our statement as part of Indonesia’s Universal Periodic Review by the UN Human Rights Council in May, we encouraged the government to tackle violence against minority faiths and promote a climate where such incidents do not occur.  We also continue to encourage Indonesia to accept a visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief.

The British Embassy in Jakarta is using project funds to support a civil society dialogue with the police on religious freedom run by the NGO “Kontras Indonesia”.  We are also supporting a project which aims to increase understanding of, and respect for, religious freedom through radio, television, public discussion and social media.  We will continue to call for religious tolerance across Indonesia and support the efforts of those working to promote pluralism and interfaith dialogue.

In Turkey, a number of minority faith groups have expressed concern that the lack of legal status for some non-Sunni Muslim groups can restrict their activities and access to financial support.  We continue to monitor the case of the world’s oldest Syriac Orthodox Christian Monastery, Mor Gabriel, in south-eastern Turkey, which is the subject of a dispute over land ownership with the Turkish government.  The case has now been submitted to the European Court of Human Rights.  The Greek Patriarchate’s educational training centre, the Halki Seminary, remains closed, despite calls from the international community to allow it to reopen.  The Turkish ministry for religious affairs, the Diyanet, said in 2012 that there was no legal reason for it to remain closed.  Minority faith groups were invited to the Turkish parliament in 2012 to submit their proposals for the new constitution, which has raised hopes that the new document will include expanded rights for these groups.  Church services were held more widely for non-Muslim religious groups.  The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew celebrated the Divine Liturgy of the Dormition of Theotokos in August, for the first time in nine decades.  In September, the third religious service since 1915 was held at the Armenian Holy Cross Church on the Akdamar Island in Lake Van.

The British Embassy to the Holy See acts as a centre for inter-religious debate, and engages on issues such as the Holy See’s relations with El-Azhar in Egypt, the role of the King Abdullah Centre for Inter-Religious Dialogue in Vienna and religious minorities in the Middle East.  In February, a UK Government delegation to the Holy See, led by the then Minister without Portfolio Baroness Warsi and including four Cabinet ministers, discussed inter-religious dialogue and freedom of religion or belief with Holy See interlocutors, including Cardinal Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious dialogue.  Baroness Warsi’s speech to the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy touched on these issues in both a British domestic and international context.

In July, the Embassy to the Holy See facilitated a visit by students from the Cambridge Muslim College to talk about relations between Islam and Christianity and the Embassy’s role in inter-religious and foreign policy work.  The college’s main role is to train young British Imams.

In 2013, the Embassy will be sponsoring a conference at the Pontifical Gregorian University on religion and secularism.

We have been active in a number of different forums as part of the multilateral strand of our Freedom of Religion or Belief Strategy.  In the EU we have consistently highlighted this freedom as a priority area for concern and supported the decision of the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice President of the European Commission, Catherine Ashton, to develop new public guidelines for EU staff on freedom of religion or belief.  The European External Action Service has drawn on the FCO’s toolkit on promoting freedom of religion or belief overseas, as it seeks to enhance EU work in this area, including establishing clearly defined priorities and tools for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief worldwide.  The FCO toolkit, which was produced in 2009, is designed to help staff understand the human rights issues involved in this area, and gives them a range of options to promote them and combat violations.  It has been used by FCO staff overseas to raise our concerns with host governments about individual cases, as well as to lobby for changes in discriminatory practices and laws.

At the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in Warsaw in October the UK made a statement during the debate and also organised a dialogue on how the OSCE might best add value to the work of its participating states in promoting freedom of religion or belief.  We distilled best practice from this, which we shared with the Director of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).  We also nominated two UK experts to serve on the ODIHR Advisory Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion or Belief and are pushing for the panel to be re-formed as soon as possible.  We believe that in order to be effective the panel must have the opportunity to make a considered input into the work of the OSCE.

In the UN we are working with our international partners to prevent a return to the “defamation of religions” language that previously characterised the international debate.  UN Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18, adopted by consensus in March 2011, enabled more productive discussion of this issue in 2012.  Resolution 16/18 focuses on combating religious intolerance, but also includes some valuable statements about the necessity of protecting the human rights of minorities and promoting pluralism in society.

Together with the Canadian High Commission and Wilton Park, we held a conference on combating intolerance and promoting freedom of religion or belief for all.  This followed on from UN Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18 and looked in particular at how to equip policy makers to promote inclusive pluralist societies and ensure full respect for, and protection of, holy sites and existing and new places of worship.  The conference brought together experts from North America, the EU, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and South and East Asia from both government and civil society.  As well as sharing best practice and developing partnerships and networks, it sought to combat societal and cultural obstacles to inclusion and religious freedom.  A full report will follow later this year.  In 2013, we will look to strengthen our work in this area by developing a political track to foster dialogue and understanding and so to generate a higher level of political commitment.

The UK strongly supports the annual resolutions led by the EU on freedom of religion or belief and the mandate established by the HRC resolution for the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief.

We believe that it is important to increase awareness among FCO staff of the way in which religion can shape foreign policy.  For this reason, and as part of the internal strand in our Freedom of Religion or Belief Strategy, we have commissioned a new staff training course for 2013, focused on developing a greater understanding of the major religions and the way that they shape foreign policy decisions.  It is also aimed at improving communication with minority faith communities and helping us to promote the right to freedom of religion or belief internationally.  We have also organised a number of seminars with external expert speakers and set up a staff focus group to share best practice, insights and expertise.

In 2013, we will continue to speak out to condemn the most flagrant instances of violence and discrimination against individuals or groups because of their religion, regardless of the country or faith concerned.  In a situation where a particular group is clearly being victimised, we will generally speak in defence of that group.  In some situations, however, there can be a risk that choosing to defend a single group will be interpreted as special pleading and can increase rather than diminish the hostility they encounter.  In these circumstances we frame our intervention in the wider context of the importance of the rule of law, stressing that where freedom of religion or belief is constrained or violated, it is society as a whole, regardless of religious persuasion, that suffers.

As well as our bilateral efforts we will also continue to work with international organisations in 2013, including by ensuring that the EU Guidelines on Freedom of Religion or Belief are agreed and circulated, seeking the election of UK experts to ODIHR’s reconstituted Advisory Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion or Belief, and working to ensure the renewal of the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief.  Our key objective in multilateral work will be to solidify the international consensus around the need to do more to combat religious intolerance and promote the right to freedom of religion or belief.  We recognise that although it is imperative on governments to create the conditions for all to exercise their right to freedom of religion or belief, we cannot tackle this issue alone.  We also need civil society organisations and faith groups to play their part in promoting a culture of tolerance and understanding.  We will continue to work actively with civil society to facilitate this.

Image and text (c) Foreign and Commonwealth Office



Categories: Government, Human rights, International politics, Persecution

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