Government ‘should do more’ to promote religious freedom

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Pakistani Christian children play in front of tents for Christian families whose homes were burned down by a mob, in Lahore, Pakistan.

2013 file photo by CNS/Mohsin Raza, Reuters

The government could do more to place religious freedom at the heart of its operations and culture, activists say.

The Catholic Union was among those who urged the government to promote freedom of religion and belief around the world during a meeting earlier this month with Foreign Secretary Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon and MP Fiona Bruce, Prime Minister’s Special Representative for Freedom of Religion and Belief.

The meeting came nearly three years after the release of a report that drew attention to the persecution that more than 250 million Christians around the world face for their faith, pointing to evidence that “Christians constitute by far the most persecuted religion”. The Truro Report, commissioned in 2018 by then Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and carried out by the Anglican Bishop of Truro, Philip Mounstephen, made 22 recommendations which the government pledged to implement in full .

Recommendations included seeking a UN Security Council resolution urging governments in the Middle East and North Africa to protect Christians, consider imposing sanctions on human rights abusers rights against religious minorities and to provide religious literacy training to all Ministry of Foreign Affairs personnel in the country and abroad.

Also present at the meeting were Nigel Parker, director of Catholic Union, John Pontifex and John Newton of Aid to the Church in Need.

“The Catholic Union welcomed the Truro report and we have worked hard to hold the government accountable for implementing the recommendations,” Parker said in the statement. “Although progress has been made, there are areas where the government could do more to put religious freedom at the heart of the operations of the Foreign Office and in particular its culture.”

Lord Ahmad said an independent review had been completed and the government now had the power to impose sanctions. He also highlighted tackling gender-based violence as a priority, in response to a question from Pontifex about the intersections of religious freedoms and broader human rights abuses, referring to the case of Maira Shahbaz.

Shahbaz, a 14-year-old Christian girl, was abducted in Pakistan in 2020, forced to convert to Islam and marry her captor, according to Aid to the Church in Need. His case received wide attention in the UK, with more than 12,000 people signing a petition asking Boris Johnson to grant him asylum, in addition to a letter signed by more than 30 MPs, peers, bishops and leaders charities and human rights organizations. .

“It was important to highlight how much religious minority girls and women are suffering and we were happy to hear how the Minister and the team are taking this matter seriously,” Pontifex said in the statement. “We must all work together to follow up on these words of concern with action.”

The meeting comes ahead of the International Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief, to be hosted by the UK government next month.

“Next month’s Ministerial Conference is an excellent opportunity to cement the UK’s position as a global leader in promoting freedom of religion and belief,” Parker said. “The government must be ambitious in its goals for the conference and seize the opportunity to improve the lives of Christians and other people of faith around the world.”


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