On freedom of religion or belief, the UK government needs to turn its rhetoric to reality

“The fact is that we simply can’t afford to be religiously illiterate in today’s world. To be religiously illiterate in today’s world is simply to fail to understand how and why others act as they do.” – These are the words of Bishop Philip Mounstephen, the Bishop of Truro, speaking at the deferred 175th anniversary celebration of The National Club earlier this month.

Bishop Mounstephen has been a friend of mine, and of CSW, for a number of years now, so it will come as little surprise that we fully support his assertion. As the bishop outlined so eloquently in his speech, freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), cannot be seen as a “side-bar” or “special interest” issue. In fact, it is a fundamental human right, the abuse of which so often leads to wider human rights violations as it intersects with issues such as poverty, race and gender.

Fortunately, the UK government appears to agree. Last year, upon the appointment of Fiona Bruce MP as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for FoRB, Boris Johnson said: “The UK is absolutely committed to protecting the inalienable right to freedom of religion and belief, at home and around the world.”

We have seen this commitment borne out in other actions too, not least in the 2019 Foreign Secretary-mandated independent review into Foreign and Commonwealth Office Support for Persecuted Christians, which was led by the Bishop of Truro himself.

That report, quite rightly, called on the then FCO to make FoRB central to its “culture, policies and international operations.” It stressed that the best way to bring an end to the persecution of Christians around the world was by promoting FoRB for all, and made 22 specific recommendations to the government.

FoRB has also regularly made it onto the agenda in Parliament, as it will tomorrow when MPs mark the 40th anniversary of the declaration on the elimination of religious intolerance with a general debate in the House of Commons tabled by Fiona Bruce.

However, in over two years since the Bishop of Truro’s report was published, the government has failed to fully implement these recommendations, and one of the reasons is insufficient resources have been allocated to supporting this. Rhetoric is one thing, but every day that passes in which the government fails to turn this rhetoric into reality also represents a failure to assist hundreds of thousands of religion and belief minorities around the world.

Take, for example, the situation in Nigeria, and specifically in its central and northern states. Last year, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for FoRB published a landmark report which asked whether a genocide might be unfolding in parts of the country where armed non-state actors are responsible for a sustained campaign of violence, often disproportionately targeting Christians, which has been ongoing for over a decade.

Thousands have been killed and abducted, while hundreds of thousands more have been forcibly displaced, yet the Nigerian government has taken woefully insufficient action to protect vulnerable communities or combat the threats directed against them.

Rather than holding President Muhammadu Buhari and his government to account for this however, the UK has continued to cultivate warm ties with Nigeria, sending a disappointing message that the lives of innocent Nigerians are less of a priority than securing post-Brexit trade deals, for example.

The UK has appeared similarly blind to the situation of religious minorities in Afghanistan in light of the country’s recent takeover by the Taliban. While the UK government was one of a host of international actors who responded to the takeover by assisting with the evacuation of groups identified as particularly vulnerable to the Taliban, religious minorities such as Sikhs, Hindus, Hazara Shias and Christians were not included in this list, despite a mountain of evidence to suggest that they would be particularly targeted, both by the Taliban and by Islamic State Khorasan.

Now, similar concerns arise for Sudan, where the recent seizure of  power by the military has already occasioned the killing of protesters, the arrest of politicians, and the targeting of known human rights defenders. Prior to Sudan’s fragile transition, religious minorities suffered multiple violations under President Omar al Bashir and his regime for three decades. Many of those loyal to the regime now hold power once again.

These are just three examples of countries on which our government needs to take swift and decisive action to ensure that its words and promises on FoRB do not ring hollow. The implementation of the remaining Truro recommendations is essential, as is the full resourcing of the Special Envoy position.

Also important is the need to plan effectively for the global summit on FoRB, announced yesterday and due to take place in London from 5-6 July 2022, and which, again, will require sufficient resourcing. If this is done well, the event will present an invaluable opportunity to raise, discuss and formulate coordinated responses to pressing FoRB issues around the world.

By CSW’s Founder President Mervyn Thomas CMG