On Wednesday a large number of MPs met to discuss the persecution of Christians around the world and what the Government’s response through the Foreign Office should be. The debate was secured and organised by Naomi Long MP, with a great deal of support from Open Doors. Nearly two thousand of their supporters contacted their MP asking them to attend, which undoubtedly made a difference. She also acknowledged the help of Christian Solidarity Worldwide and His Grace, Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK
Mrs Long highlighted the increased persecution of Christians in countries in Africa not previously associated with persecution and underlined that “the Arab spring has had disastrous consequences for religious freedom and has promoted a major exodus of Christians from the Middle East.” She called on the Government to explain how they were responding to these challenges, and stated that “the right to have a faith and to practise that faith, both in private and in community with others, and to change one’s faith and not be disadvantaged or endangered for reason of one’s beliefs, is a basic and fundamental human right that should apply universally.”
She drew attention to the fact that “The nature of persecution is incredibly variable. In some situations, it will take the form of a “squeeze”, with pressure being applied, while in others it is in the form of “smash”, with recourse to violence. However, either kind represents a denial of article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights and should be resisted.”
Mrs Long concluded: “I trust that continued focus on such matters in Parliament, whether through debates like this or through the work of the all-party group [on International Religious Freedom], will send out a clear message that religious persecution will not go unseen or unchallenged by the international community and that the cause of religious freedom and freedom of conscience will have a strong international advocate in the UK Government.”
One MP interrupted her speech to highlight the value of the Open Doors Handbook of Prayer, stating that “all churches in the UK could usefully have copies of its World Watch List of the 50 countries where Christians are most persecuted… it is informative, helpful and useful for all churches.”
In reply, Foreign Office Minister David Lidington said “As the excellent report from Open Doors made clear, violence, discrimination and systematic persecution threaten Christian communities in Africa, the Middle East and certain other countries around the world. The Government shares many of the concerns expressed in the Open Doors report. We condemn all instances of violence and discrimination against individuals or groups on the grounds of their religion, regardless of the country or faith concerned. As the report rightly emphasised, our condemnation should extend not solely to the more extreme forms of suffering inflicted upon people because of their religion or belief, but to any and all forms of such discrimination.”
He revealed that “We require our embassies and high commissions around the world to monitor violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief. We are clear that freedom involves not only the right to hold personal thoughts, but to manifest them individually and collectively. We provide our missions overseas with what in the jargon we call a toolkit—a set of detailed monitoring criteria—to help staff at our embassies and high commissions to analyse in detail the many potential manifestations of discrimination on the grounds of freedom of religion or belief, including discrimination in access to education and employment, or other administrative or legal restrictions on groups, buildings or individuals.”
Importantly, the Minister emphasised that “The Government’s position is to condemn laws against so-called apostasy and any government policies anywhere in the world that punish people for changing their religion or belief voluntarily and freely.”
Tying this debate in alongside this week’s annual Foreign Office’s Human Rights and Democracy Report, there are signs that the Government is taking the issue of religious persecution, which statistically is primarily aimed at Christians, increasingly seriously. Even though it is still difficult to identify tangible evidence of the Foreign Office’s action on this, their rhetoric is certainly heading in the right direction.
Many thanks to Zoe at Open Doors for providing much of the material for this post.