By Charles Collins
LEICESTER, United Kingdom (Crux) – Britain’s foreign secretary said he was “deeply disturbed” by the fact that 215 million Christians faced persecution in 2018, one of the many instances of religious intolerance highlighted in a new survey published by the UK government.
The 2018 Human Rights and Democracy report, issued every year by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, said that the denial of the right to freedom of religion or belief has become a matter “of increasing international concern.”
“Violations in 2018 ranged from inhibiting the freedom to worship, for example in the Maldives and Russia, to discrimination or targeted attacks against members of minority groups because of their religious identity, such as in Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and Burma,” said the report, published on June 5.
Pointing to the large number of Christians facing persecution, the report noted, “Christian women and children are particularly vulnerable, and are often subjected to sexual violence as a result of their beliefs.”
The Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, announced on Dec. 26 that he had asked Anglican Bishop Philip Mounstephen of Truro to lead an independent review of the support which the UK’s Foreign Office provides to persecuted Christians, and to map the levels of persecution and discrimination against Christians around the world. An interim report was issued last month, while the final report – including the recommendations – will be issued later this summer.
In the preface to the human rights report, Hunt said Christians faced harassment in 144 countries in 2016, compared with 128 in 2015.
“I am not convinced that our efforts have always been commensurate with the scale of the problem or the empirical evidence that Christians often endure the greatest burden of persecution. We must never allow a misguided sense of political correctness to inhibit our response,” the foreign secretary said.
Religious freedom issues took up a significant portion of the Human Rights and Democracy report, partially due to the fact the UK government doesn’t publish a separate report on religious freedom, like the U.S. State Department’s annual International Religious Freedom Report. (The U.S. government actually produces two such documents, since the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom also produces an annual report.)
However, the British government has stepped up its engagement on the issue, and 2018 saw the appointment of Lord Tariq Ahmad as the prime minister’s first Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief. In comparison, the United States legislated for an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, currently former Kansas governor and senator Sam Brownback.
Ahmad helped launched the UK government’s first ever program to find innovative solutions to promote and defend religious freedom, and the human rights report pointed out he has “worked closely with key partners such as the Holy See, the EU’s Special Envoy for Promotion of Freedom of Religion, and the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief.”
In the forward, Ahmad said he is “determined to extend that freedom and champion the rights of people, no matter where they live or who they are, or what their belief.”
“We take a 3-pronged approach: We challenge states, which violate or fail to protect human rights; we work constructively with those that are open to change; and we collaborate with governments, international organizations and civil society groups that share our aims,” he explained.
The 2018 human rights report highlighted religious freedom violations and concerns in many parts of the world.
In Pakistan, it pointed out “the misuse of blasphemy legislation, and in particular the case of Asia Bibi” as an example for when countries “abused their blasphemy laws to target religious minorities.”
It also noted other concerns in the country.
“There were recurrent reports of forced conversions to Islam and forced marriages to Muslim men of Hindu and Christian women,” it added.
In Sudan, the report said minorities “continue to suffer, with worrying limitations on religious freedoms, including restricting Christian schools opening days and reports of churches being destroyed.”
It noted that in the Middle East, the UK was “at the forefront of global efforts” to bring members of the Islamic State Group to justice, including supporting an investigative team to collect evidence of their crimes.
“We supported efforts to help Christians and other minority groups in Iraq to return home, and in Syria we provided a range of support to help bolster civil society, and promote human rights and accountability,” the report said.
The report also mentioned Iran, where, “despite notionally benefiting from constitutional recognition and protection, Christians continued to be persecuted in a systemic and institutionalized manner.”
“In June, four recent converts to Christianity were each sentenced to ten years in prison, and in December 114 Christians were arrested on charges of proselytizing,” the report documents.
Turning to China, the report said the UK government has “serious concerns about a deepening crackdown by the Government of China on religious and ethnic minorities, including credible reports of the use of political re-education camps, and widespread surveillance and restrictions targeting particularly Uyghur Muslims.”
“New regulations introduced in February gave the authorities more control over how individuals practiced their religions. In September, the Vatican signed an agreement on the appointment of bishops with China. However, reports of the persecution and detention of Christians continued, and Beijing’s largest house church (the Zion Church) and the Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu were closed,” the report continued.
The report also expressed concern over Israel’s Nation State law, which was passed in July and opposed by the region’s Christian churches, saying if it passed the Israeli parliament, it “might undermine the equality of members of minorities, in particular of Israel’s Arab Christian and Muslim community.”
The report said that in the future, the UK Foreign Office will continue to use diplomacy to defend religious freedom, promote respect between religious communities; and tackle violations of religious freedom overseas.
“We will start to look into the role of education in promoting respect between people of different religions and of no religion, and will develop a toolkit to challenge educational norms which incite violence and hatred,” it said.