Artillery Row

Putting religious freedom back on the map

The next Prime Minister must pick up the torch of liberty

Last week, Westminster was a thoroughly thrilling place to be. The atmosphere was electric. The temperature climbed, literally and metaphorically. Powerful voices demanded attention and demanded change. An impassioned call for a better way forward reverberated and built to a crescendo. I’m not talking about the decline and fall of a Prime Minister. Something far more important was happening just around the corner from Number 10.

For one Conservative blonde bombshell, the first week in July will be remembered as the week when it all came crashing down. For another, Fiona Bruce MP, it marked a heroic zenith. Bruce, as Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Religious Freedom, along with her small but remarkable team, overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles in order to successfully deliver the international UK Ministerial Conference to Advance Freedom of Religion or Belief. “The Ministerial”, for short, is an annual international government conference established in 2018 by the US State Department. 

The UK iteration delivered a powerful message about religious freedom. It was understood that the persecution of people based on their religious identity and convictions is a global blight of unfathomable proportions. There was clarity that the restriction of religious freedom didn’t only impact minority religious groups but was detrimental to the stability and flourishing of communities and nations more broadly. And there was a sense of determination for governments, religious leaders, and campaigners to work together better, to redouble their efforts, and to focus on achieving tangible outcomes in the advancement of this essential human right. Increasing and improving education around religious freedom and peaceful pluralism was highlighted as a priority going forward. Leaders, including Liz Truss, were clear that impunity for nations that violated these freedoms couldn’t continue. 

The conference swelled with positivity

The UK Ministerial was far from perfect. International attendance, especially the presence of foreign government ministers, could have been better. More tangible strategic outcomes could have been pursued and policies advanced. There was also a notable increase in the presence and volume of campaigners stretching the platform of religious freedom beyond its reasonable parameters. However, even with its faults, the conference swelled with positivity, resolve, and collaboration. 

But has all of the energy and clamour for religious freedom that built through the course of the ministerial conference been muted by the blanket focus on the party leadership campaign? Does the buzz around who’s backing Rishi, Penny, and Liz drown out the voices of the oppressed, marginalised and persecuted who, last week, so powerfully told their stories and called for more meaningful government action? It should not.

During the last leadership contest between Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson, both candidates made public commitments to defend people around the world who are targeted because of their religious identity and convictions. They pledged to promote the cause of religious freedom. Doing so showed a deft understanding of the importance of religion and religious freedom in foreign policy from two former Foreign Secretaries. It also showed an awareness of the importance placed on this issue by Conservative members. 

Indeed, religious freedom is an area of policy which crosses the political divide in a way that few others can. The leader who champions religious freedom is not only a leader with compassion for the downtrodden, they are a leader with a grasp of history and an understanding of the threat that religious freedom violators pose to regional and global security and stability. The leader who champions religious freedom doesn’t just stand up for minorities abroad; they are pursuing policies that have an impact on their own citizens at home. Any candidate for the premiership would be wise to consult the likes of Fiona Bruce for suggestions on policy commitments, or leaders from the All Party Parliamentary Group on FoRB such as MPs Jim Shannon or Nusrat Ghani. 

There are several immediate steps the government can take — beyond continuing in bilateral and mutilateral diplomacy — to promote religious freedom and mitigate abuses in countries where this fundamental right is most at risk. 

There are several steps the government can take

There are opportunities to provide further training for British diplomats serving abroad so they have a comprehensive grasp of all of the critical dynamics in their post. There’s a need to appropriately resource the FCDO, and particularly the office of the Special Envoy for Religious Freedom, to engage in these issues that cut across crises such as Ukraine, Afghanistan, and China. 

The Government should invest in the secure reporting and improved collection of data on violations so that a clearer, indisputable picture can be established and so early warning mechanisms can be developed. Additionally, the government should commission research into the extent of government abuse of new technology and social media in the violation of religious freedom around the world, and respond appropriately to the findings. 

There are myriad additional policies that could be advanced by a winning campaign. But this isn’t just about getting over the line and into Number 10. It’s about the millions and millions of human beings who live under repressive conditions, and those who suffer abhorrent persecution on account of their faith. 

We are all looking for a leader, a prime minister, who will stand as a voice for the voiceless. We want a prime minister who will pursue religious freedom for everyone, everywhere.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover