Are those on the left really afraid or unwilling to talk in public about the persecution of religious believers around the globe and in particular, that of Christians? Owen Jones, the political commentator who was ranked the seventh most influential left-winger last year by the Telegraph, seems to think so. Writing in the Guardian last month he said this:
‘[T]he persecution of Christians across the globe… is an issue not discussed enough by progressives, partly perhaps because of a fear that it has become a hobby horse of Muslim-bashers. Anti-Muslim websites like Jihad Watch seize on examples of Christian persecution to fuel the narrative of Muslims as innately violent and threatening.
‘According to Rupert Shortt, who wrote Christianophobia: A Faith Under Attack, the persecution of Christians is a “liberal blind spot”, suggesting that we are “very, very sensitised to the perceived sufferings and complaints of Muslims, many of which I will be the first to say are justified.” I think this counterposing is unhelpful.
‘Those of us on the left – who advocate religious acceptance and diversity – must surely speak louder about the persecution of Christians.’
It would be wrong for politicians to favour Christians abroad above other persecuted groups. Alstair Burt MP who was Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office until October last year and is a Christian, recently made this point. All of the major Christian advocacy groups in this country including Open Doors, Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Barnabas Fund agree. Their work is to see freedom of belief (and none) for all around the world. There is also though an uncomfortable truth that goes alongside this – that Christians are more heavily persecuted in more countries than any other religion. If you are speaking out against all of these injustices, the suffering of Christians will be on your lips the most. For some it is easier to say nothing and keep religion out of the conversation than face up to this reality and worry about appearing to be taking sides.
Owen Jones is most likely right in his assumptions. If you try to find an instance of the previous Labour government speaking up on this issue (as I have tried to), there is a good chance you will draw a blank. This has not been the same with other parties, but Labour’s policy appears to have been to circumvent offending some religious sensitivities by avoiding issue altogether.
All of this changed however, at the end of 2013 when Douglas Alexander became Shadow Foreign Secretary. Alexander, who is the son of a Church of Scotland minister and a committed Christian broke the silence in December in an article for the Telegraph:
‘[A]s Christmas approaches, with its beguiling promise of “peace on earth and mercy mild”, how many of us will reflect on the words of our great Christmas carols and be reminded that Christianity was a faith born in the East? How many of us are aware that, while the first Christmas took place in the Middle East, there today that same faith is under threat?
‘Christians are being deliberately targeted and attacked because of their faith. But why, when popes and princes are speaking up, have so many politicians here in the UK forsaken speaking out?
‘Thankfully, some politicians have begun to speak up. Last month, Baroness Warsi gave an important and under-reported speech in the United States warning that a “mass exodus is taking place, on a biblical scale. In some places, there is a real danger that Christianity will become extinct”. And, earlier this month, the DUP MP Jim Shannon secured a debate in the House of Commons on the persecution of Christians.
‘But why, given the scale of the suffering, are these still such lone voices?
‘Across the world, there will be Christians this week for whom attending a church service this Christmas is not an act of faithful witness, but an act of life-risking bravery.
‘That cannot be right, and we need the courage to say so.
‘In the UK today, perhaps through a misplaced sense of political correctness, or some sense of embarrassment at “doing God” in an age when secularism is more common, too many politicians seem to fear discussing any matters related to faith.’
In May when the imprisonment of Meriam Ibrahim hit the headlines, Alexander reaffirmed his commitment:
‘The Labour Party has asked British ministers to apply pressure to the Sudanese government to try and ensure her release, and it is vital that the UK government continue to speak out firmly against her barbaric sentence and to call on the Sudanese government to revoke it. The British government will continue have our full support in their efforts resolve this matter, and in speaking out more vocally on the issue of Christian persecution.’
This is new territory for the Labour party and a significant step forward. The mantra of ‘Not doing God’ has finally been recognised as fallacious and unwise, at least by some. There is no good reason whatsoever why freedom of religion or belief should not be a priority for every political party; it is a basic and essential human right. Douglas Alexander is flying the flag, but clearly he still believes there is more work to do to make sure Labour takes this responsibility seriously. Tomorrow, on the 8th of July he is hosting a meeting on international religious freedom with Christians on the Left and the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for International Freedom of Religion or Belief, specifically to motivate Labour MPs to engage with the subject.
Open Doors, who are one of the stakeholders of the APPG on Freedom of Religion or Belief have said that, ‘We need to do more to encourage the growing number of Labour MPs who are committed to upholding this fundamental right, and the 8 July event is a great way to do this.’ They have asked their supporters to pray:
- That a good number of Labour MPs will attend the meeting and be inspired to give serious attention to freedom of religion
- That freedom of religion or belief will increasingly become a cross-party concern in the UK.
If your local MP is a member of the Labour Party, it is not too late to invite them to attend. The more that all of those in parliament understand and acknowledge the importance that religion and faith play around the world, the better informed they will be to make sense of the significant challenges we face, both now and in the future relating to religion and the persecution that so often goes alongside it. Douglas Alexander is a good man doing good work. It is about time Labour wholeheartedly followed his lead.