The Church of England and the Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales have submitted a joint response to the Independent Review of Foreign and Commonwealth Office support for persecuted Christians, which is being chaired by the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen.
The submission, published on 17 April, expresses disappointment that the Terms of Reference
“are limited to the FCO rather than including other Whitehall departments and bodies, not least the Department for International Development and the Department for International Trade (but also the Cabinet Office, National Security Council and the Home Office). The Government’s work promoting Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) should not be seen as an isolated strand of diplomatic activity, but incorporated into aid, trade, resettlement, asylum and security policy.”
It also stresses the point that Article 18 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights – while non-binding – declares that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”. The submission also draws attention to the “general comment” of the UN Human Rights Committee made in 1993, in which the Committee pointed out that:
“Article 18 protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief. The terms belief and religion are to be broadly construed. Article 18 is not limited in its application to traditional religions or to religions and beliefs with institutional characteristics or practices analogous to those of traditional religions.”
That, says the submission, “is a position that both of our churches share, recognising that freedom of religion or belief is a fundamental component of people’s human dignity and should never be compromised” . Moreover,
“we must recognise that FoRB is of great importance to everyone – whether religious, agnostic or atheist. Defending this right is not a sign of a state’s religiosity, but rather an indicator of good statecraft and the marker of a civilised state. Advocating FoRB and defending this right when it is threatened is now more than ever about advocating peace” .
Furthermore, the submission is critical of what it sees as the FCO’s downplaying of FoRB:
“Notwithstanding the FCO’s Freedom of Religion or Belief Toolkit, the impression is given that FCO officials see Article 18 as a problematic right and one that is either at odds with other rights, such as women’s rights, or it is seen as a ‘Western Christian’ right and one that is best promoted through an array of associated rights, such as the right to assembly. Either way, Article 18 is downgraded with the result … that this most basic of rights becomes orphaned with Ministers and officials apparently self-censoring whenever [it is] impinged. The FCO needs to show greater self-confidence when defending core human rights, of which this is one” .
In particular, it argues that “Trade negotiations should have human rights at their centre”: they give the UK an important opportunity to address the persecution of minorities in countries with which it has an economic relationship . The submission also raises concerns about devoting the review solely to the persecution of Christians:
“Christians probably suffer by far the most harassment and persecution, but focusing on the persecution of individuals from one religion without due regard to an understanding of broader dynamics is likely to skew the Review’s analysis and recommendations” .
Summary of recommendations
Paragraph  of the submission summarises its recommendations as follows:
- “The government should focus on promoting FoRB as a fundamental human right, rather than limiting its attention to specific religious communities.
- The government should take a joined-up approach to FoRB in foreign, aid, security, trade, resettlement and asylum policy, rather than treating it as an isolated diplomatic activity.
- Human rights should be at the heart of trade negotiations. Future Human Rights and Democracy Reports should include a summary of trade agreements with human rights priority countries and human rights standards incorporated in them –including those relating to FoRB.
- Sanctuary should be offered on the basis of need not background, but measures should be taken to ensure that religious minorities have access to resettlement programmes (taking account of religion or belief as a vulnerability criterion where appropriate).
- In addition to reviewing the training provided to staff on human rights, further attention needs to be given to improving the religious literacy of ministers, ambassadors and diplomats.
- The Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief should be a dedicated post, not combined with other roles.
- Diplomatic posts should provide mandatory reports about the FoRB situation in their respective countries.
- Promoting women’s right to religious freedom should be recognised as an important part of work on gender equality.
- Training about local faith communities should be given to diplomats in advance of postings.
- Training on FoRB should be included as one of the Faculties provided by the Diplomatic Academy and linked to career progression.
- Heads of Mission (or other appropriately senior staff) should routinely meet with local faith communities and these meetings should be centrally logged.
- Heads of Mission in parts of the world where FoRB is under threat should also be encouraged to meet representatives of respective faith communities when they are in the UK.
- A session on FoRB, involving academics and expert practitioners, should be included as a matter of routine in the annual Leaders Conference for ambassadors.
- The FCO’s Freedom of Religion or Belief Toolkit should be actively used by all diplomatic posts and this use should be routinely monitored.
- A target should be set to increase the amount spent on FoRB initiatives through funding streams such as the Magna Carta Fund.
- The Foreign Affairs Select Committee should annually scrutinise the government’s work promoting FoRB.
- The government’s approach to FoRB should not only focus on the most egregious manifestations of persecution (e.g. mass killings) but also address less visible systemic issues (e.g. discriminatory legislation) including in democratic states.”
In my view (for what it’s worth) “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” is indivisible: persecution on grounds of religion or belief is always wrong. As the submission – rightly – recognises, it matters not whether the victims of persecution are Christians, Muslims, Jews or atheists. Further, human rights themselves are indivisible: countries that place restrictions on the right to manifest thought, conscience and religion tend to be equally cavalier about such rights as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.
Secondly, a good place for the FCO to start might be in political negotiations at the annual Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), some members of which seem to show scant regard for either human rights or the rule of law.
[With acknowledgement to the article in the Church Times, without which I would have failed to pick up the response.]