A vigil in the Philippines for persecuted Christians. Picture Credit: Ryan Eduard Benaid/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Artillery Row

The fight for religious freedom 

Parliament should heed Fiona Bruce and make freedom of religion and belief a priority at the foreign office

Tomorrow, Fiona Bruce MP will be presenting a private members bill to Parliament. It’s not a dramatic bill; it isn’t seeking earth shattering commitments from the government. However, it is an important bill and one that should receive widespread cross-party support. The bill proposes that the role she currently occupies, Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB), is secured as a statutory requirement. It means all further governments must appoint a FoRB envoy and guards against the deprioritisation of this concern.

There is more clarity on how repression impacts Britain’s interests around the world, whether in relation to trade, security or immigration

Religious freedom isn’t a particularly fashionable cause but there are an increasing number of parliamentarians, ministers and officials that are recognising the scale of the problem of repression against religious communities globally. On 19th September, parliamentarians from across political divides spoke in a Westminster Hall debate, highlighting the global scourge of persecution and demanding greater action from government to address the issue. 

Speaking in the debate, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Minister Stephen Doughty MP expressed “real concerns about the clampdown and the trends that we see globally.” He stated, 

“There is huge concern across the House about these issues and a desire for the Government and the United Kingdom to play a role in promoting freedom of religion or belief not only domestically, but globally through our diplomatic networks and other engagements…”  

Religious freedom abuses are evolving with our times and with technological developments. In a troubling development in recent years, authoritarian regimes are using social media platforms to seek out and pursue religious minorities, religious freethinkers, and those who choose to reject religious beliefs. In the aforementioned debate, Preet Kaur Gill, Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston, also drew attention to “the effects of social media on promoting misinformation, intolerance and inflammatory speech that challenges people’s right to freedom of religion or belief, especially in crisis areas” and demanded that, “His Majesty’s Government must do more. More must be done to enforce respect for FORB throughout the world.”

Many in Parliament are compelled by a deep humanitarian concern for the millions who endure a litany of soul and body crushing cruelties on account of their beliefs or religious identity. There is also a growing awareness of the dynamics of religion in the most seismic geopolitical concerns of our day and the critical interplay with religious freedom violations. There is more clarity on how repression impacts Britain’s interests around the world, whether in relation to trade, security or immigration.  

The bill put forward by Fiona Bruce is one small but vital step in the right direction

The last fifteen years have seen remarkable progress made to advance religious freedom as a UK foreign policy priority. The All Party Parliamentary Group for Freedom of Religion or Belief (APPG FoRB) was founded in 2012 and has become one of the most active APPGs with one of the largest memberships. The position of the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for FoRB, currently held by Mrs Bruce, was established in 2018. At the end of 2018, then Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt launched an unprecedented independent inquiry into the FCDO’s response to the persecution of Christians around the world. Bishop Philip Mounstephen led that inquiry and published recommendations which the government says they have accepted and are implementing. In the Summer of 2022, the UK Government hosted an international governmental conference for advancing FoRB, bringing ministers from FoRB-respecting and FoRB-violating nations to London to highlight the challenge and promote change. 

The UK is fast becoming a leader on the international stage for this cause and that has been demonstrated through Fiona Bruce’s impressive chairmanship of the International Freedom of Religion and Belief Alliance (IRFBA), a union of around 40 countries committed to advancing religious freedom around the world. 

For all of the positive advances in UK policy, the global religious freedom landscape remains bleak. We are witnessing grotesque scenes of mob violence in India and Pakistan. China continues its horrifying purge of Uyghur Muslims. Russia persists in its assault on Ukrainian Orthodox and Evangelical communities and their places of worship. Algeria is sentencing Christian ministers to years in prison for the peaceful exercise of their religious duties. Having driven out the Armenian population from their autonomous enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan is setting about erasing the religious heritage which is so integral to the historic identity of that nation. 

Now, the Israel-Hamas conflict is producing new images of inhumanity and devastation to break our hearts daily, and that situation, which is likely to spill over into the wider Middle East and North Africa region has colossal and terrifying implications for religious freedom in every corner of the world including here in the UK. We are already seeing these played out with a rise in antisemitism and islamophobia. In the US last week, a six-year-old Palestinian boy was stabbed to death and his mother injured because they are Muslims. 

This depressing picture could result in a sense that all the developments in UK foreign policy are achieving nothing. However, advancing religious freedom is an extraordinarily challenging task and it can take years and decades to influence the attitudes and policies that perpetuate the problem. The response from the Government must be to double down on its efforts. We must further prioritise religious freedom with the implementation of creative and intelligent programmes that address the causes. And we must take a long-term view of the challenge. There is so much more that we can do to ensure that the dynamics of religion and religious freedom are deeply understood by our politicians, civil servants and diplomats in postings around the world in a way that drives serious engagement and purposeful activity. The bill put forward by Fiona Bruce is one small but vital step in the right direction. 

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