A Westminster Hall debate on ‘Freedom of religion or belief’ has been scheduled for Thursday 12 March 2020 from 1.30pm to 3.00pm. The debate has been initiated by Jim Shannon MP.

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UK Government Policy

In the UK, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) monitors the international situation in respect of religious freedom. In its 2018 Human Rights and Democracy report, the FCO stated that denial of the right to freedom of religion or belief was a “matter of increasing international concern”. It continued:

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.

The report set out that the UK Government has increased financial support for efforts to defend these rights over the past year. This included allocating £12 million for a programme to “find innovative solutions to promote and defend freedom of religion and belief”. There was also £1 million for religious freedom-related projects in Iraq, Malaysia, Burma and Sudan.

The report also drew attention to the estimated 215 million Christians worldwide who had faced religious persecution in 2018. It noted that Christian women and children are “particularly vulnerable and are often subjected to sexual violence as a result of their beliefs”. In response to this issue, on Boxing Day 2018, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt asked the Bishop of Truro to lead an independent review of the support provided by the FCO to persecuted Christians worldwide.

Prime Minister’s Special Envoy

In September 2019 the Government appointed Rehman Chishti MP as his special envoy for religious freedom. His predecessor, Lord Ahmad, would continue to advocate religious freedom in his ministerial capacity.

Independent Review: FCO Support for Persecuted Christians

Speaking at the formal launch of the review in January 2019, the then Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt cited evidence that “80 percent of all the people who are suffering religious persecution are Christian”. The Government asked the review to map “levels of persecution and other discrimination against Christians in key countries around the world”. This would provide an “objective assessment of the impact and levels of FCO support”. The review will also make recommendations to the Foreign Secretary.

The report was published on 8 July 2019. It outlines the seriousness of the problem and makes recommendations to the FCO on steps to tackle it. The report calls for action at the United Nations, including a Resolution to allow UN observers to monitor the problem.

The report states that the “level and nature” of the persecution of Christians in some regions was “arguably coming close to meeting the international definition of genocide according to that adopted by the UN”. The report also said that workable solutions must be found:

My conclusions and recommendations may be uncomfortable to hear: the challenge for ministers and FCO civil servants will be to turn these into workable solutions that can be implemented. The challenge for the rest of our community will be to partner with some of the finest diplomats in the world to ensure that the freedoms that Britain was at the forefront of creating become a reality not only for Christians but for all.

In August 2019 Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged to work to implement the report’s recommendations:

In light of mounting evidence that Christians suffer the most widespread persecution, we asked the Anglican Bishop of Truro to carry out an independent review to ensure that our work in this area matched the scale of the problem. We have accepted, and will implement, all of the Review’s challenging recommendations. We will use the UK’s global reach and programme funding to improve the lives of persecuted people. Today we are opening a call for bids on how to take this forward.

2019 Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry

In 2019 the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee started an inquiry into religious freedom and human rights defenders. The inquiry was closed due to the December General Election. The Committee took evidence on the following religious Freedom questions: 

  • How effective is the FCO’s support for FORB, and is this sufficiently prioritised within its human rights work?
  • How satisfactory was the recent independent review into the persecution of Christians overseas, in its scope and its execution; what has the FCO done to follow up on its conclusions and recommendations; and what are its implications for the FCO’s work on FORB?
  • What has been the impact of the Prime Minister’s Special Representative on FORB?
  • What role does the FCO play in shaping work by DfID, the Home Office, and other departments around FORB?

Religious Freedom Alliance

In February 2020 the US Government launched the Religious Freedom Alliance. The UK and many other countries joined the alliance. 

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