Indonesian supporters of Jakarta's former governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama celebrate his release from prison in Jakarta on Jan. 24, nearly two years after his blasphemy conviction in the world's biggest Muslim-majority nation. (Photo by Adek Berry/AFP)
A few days before Christmas last year, I was invited to a meeting with British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt to discuss the persecution of Christians around the world. Around the table were the archbishop of Canterbury, a Catholic bishop representing the cardinal archbishop of Westminster, the Coptic archbishop, survivors of persecution from countries such as Pakistan and Iraq, and the chief executives of three religious freedom advocacy organizations.
The day after Christmas — St. Stephen’s Day, when we remember the world’s first Christian martyr — the foreign secretary announced that he was commissioning Anglican Bishop Philip Mounstephen of Truro to lead a review of British foreign policy towards the persecution of Christians. Hunt emphasized that he was concerned that Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office was not responding adequately to the scale of persecution of Christians around the world.
While it is vital to advocate for freedom of religion or belief for everyone, and to remember that in many parts of the world Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, adherents of other faiths, and people of no faith face severe persecution in many countries, Christians may be the most persecuted religious group in the world, numerically and in terms of the range of sources of persecution. Hunt expressed concern that political correctness had led to a weak response to this global challenge and he wanted this to change.
Last week Bishop Mounstephen’s final report was released, following an interim report earlier in the year. It concludes that “Christian persecution, like no other, is a global phenomenon” and as such it deserves special attention.
Focusing on it, he argues, “is not about special pleading for Christians but making up a significant deficit.” Blindness to the issue has existed due to a number of factors, including “post-colonial guilt: a sense that we have interfered uninvited in certain contexts in the past, so we should not do so again.” But the need to address it now is urgent to ensure that Christians around the world “have a fair deal, and a fair share of the U.K.’s attention and concern.” It is, he contends, “an equality issue. If one minority is on the receiving end of 80 percent of religiously motivated discrimination, it is simply not just that they should receive so little attention.”
Furthermore, the bishop argues, defending the rights of Christians means “being sensitive to discrimination and persecution of all minorities.” The persecution of Christians is “a bellwether for repression more generally” because wherever Christians are persecuted, other religious communities are too. “So renewing a focus on Christian persecution is actually a way of expressing our concern for all minorities who find themselves under pressure. And ignoring Christian persecution might well mean we’re ignoring other forms of repression as well.”
Out of seven countries highlighted in the report, four — Indonesia, China, Sri Lanka and Pakistan — are in Asia. The remaining three are Nigeria, Iraq and Syria. It highlights the “growth of militant nationalism” as a key driver of Christian persecution in south Asia alongside restrictive legislation such as anti-conversion and blasphemy laws. In East and Southeast Asia, “state authoritarianism” is a key driver of persecution, “with a number of states in the region suspicious of Christianity,” alongside religious nationalism, particularly in Myanmar.
In particular, the report noted the imprisonment of the former governor of Indonesian capital Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok), on blasphemy charges, quoting Human Rights Watch researcher Andreas Harsono who said: “Ahok’s is the biggest blasphemy case in the history of Indonesia. He [was] the governor of Indonesia’s largest city, an ally of the president. If he can be sent to jail, what could happen to others?”
The report highlighted the imprisonment of church leaders in China, particularly the case of Pastor Wang Yi, his wife Jiang Rong and members of Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, Sichuan.
Attacks on Christians in Sri Lanka have risen since the end of the civil war a decade ago, the report observes, with pressure coming from both Buddhist nationalists and, more recently as we saw in the tragic Easter attacks, from radical Islamists. Asia Bibi’s case was included in the report to illustrate the grave pressure on Christians in Pakistan.
Of course, with more resources and more time, the review could easily have included in-depth focuses on other countries in Asia, from Vietnam to Myanmar, India to Laos, Bangladesh to Malaysia. North Korea is mentioned in the regional overview but would merit an entire section itself as perhaps the world’s worst violator of religious freedom. When one considers violations of religious freedom and specifically persecution of Christians, there are few countries in Asia that would be exempt from the list of concerns.
The inquiry was tasked with examining several key questions, including how the U.K. can use its diplomatic network to encourage countries to provide proper security for minorities under threat, whether the U.K. can do more to provide practical assistance to the persecuted, and whether the U.K. has always got its foreign policy priorities right.
The inquiry conducted two surveys, one asking Christians and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) around the world about their experiences interacting with British diplomats, and one directed at British embassies around the world. Many respondents felt that the U.K. failed to “engage with local church leadership and Christian NGOs” and remained “silent and disinterested in the face of persecution.” They were critical of the initiation of programs without consulting local Christian leaders and NGOs. Despite having a comprehensive Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) Toolkit, 63 percent of British embassies have not been implementing it.
While these findings are not true of British embassies everywhere, and in my experience Britain has excellent diplomats who do care about freedom of religion or belief, they nevertheless provide an alarming picture which clearly needs to be addressed. The report notes that “the apparent paucity of awareness of the challenges facing the Christian community reveals a lack of religious literacy that undoubtedly impacts the full exercise of FoRB rights.”
The report provides a range of recommendations for how Britain’s diplomats around the world can better respond to the persecution of Christians. These include strengthening research into the “critical intersection” of FoRB and minority rights with both broader human rights issues and other critical concerns such as security and economic interests; developing new mechanisms, with international partners, to gather information and data to better inform policy development; creating an early-warning system to identify countries at risk of atrocities; and strengthening prevention work and establishing new instruments to monitor and implement FoRB policy, such as the creation of a special FoRB envoy separate from the minister currently responsible.
Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office should also establish a board, chaired by a director-general for FoRB, to advise across government departments on the state of FoRB around the world. The inquiry’s report calls for a follow-up independent review in three years’ time to assess whether these recommendations have been implemented.
In commissioning the review, Jeremy Hunt has shown great vision and leadership. He recognized that a key area of human rights was not receiving the attention it deserves, and he took action to address it. In conducting the review and publishing his report, the bishop of Truro has done a great service by giving a voice to those persecuted for their faith and providing some substantial practical recommendations.
It remains to be seen whether the recommendations will be implemented, but action to address the persecution of Christians around the world must surely now be a much higher priority.
Benedict Rogers is East Asia team leader at international human rights organization CSW. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of ucanews.com.