The Church of England’s Bishop of Truro, Philip Mounstephen, is to chair an official British government review into the persecution of Christians around the world. Bishop Philip, who was Executive Leader of the Church Mission Society prior to becoming Bishop of Truro at the end of last year, appeared alongside Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, yesterday (Wednesday) at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London to launch the review. “We wanted to do this not just because freedom of worship is a fundamental human right”, Mr Hunt said, “but because also freedom of worship is the invisible line between open societies and closed societies.”
Mr Hunt began his remarks with reference to last Sunday’s terror attack on the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the Philippines, which claimed the lives of 20 people – many of whom were attending Mass. “This was a very vivid reminder of the terrible truth that freedom of worship is something that cannot only not be taken for granted, but is a growing concern all over the world”, he said.
Egypt had also experienced the type of terror experienced in the Philippines, Mr Hunt said, while persecution also took place in Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, and North Korea. “We know that there are serious and growing issues in China. And also in countries where we might have hoped there wouldn’t be a serious issue, like India, we know that this is becoming a much bigger issue.” He said that a quarter of a billion Christians are suffering some sort of persecution all over the world.
“Where freedom of worship is hampered or prevented, then usually that’s a sign of lots of other things going wrong, and we wanted to make sure that the UK is doing everything to champion the values that we all believe in. . .
“And we want to, if I can put it this way, banish any hesitation to look into this issue without fear or favour that may exist because of our imperial history, because of the concerns that some people might have in linking the activities of missionaries in the nineteenth century to misguided imperialism. And all those concerns may have led to a hesitation to really look at this issue properly, and we don’t want that to happen.”
He said he was looking for two outcomes from the review: “first of all in practical terms, I want to make absolutely sure when I am meeting a foreign minister, a prime minister or a president in another country, and there’s an issue concerning religious freedom, and in particular the rights of Christians, I want to make sure that it is absolutely on my list of things that I need to raise. . .
“Secondly, I want to see what we can do to build an international coalition of countries that are concerned about this so that we can play, I think the role that Britain has played for many years, which is whilst recognising that we’re not a superpower, at the same time, not underestimating the power and influence that we have as a very well-connected country to bring together other countries that share our values and give a voice to people who don’t have a voice.”
He said that the people suffering persecution “are some of the poorest people on the planet and they happen to have the faith that I have, that many people here have, and they happen to be suffering very badly for it.
“There is sometimes good news. I think the news about Asia Bibi this week is extremely encouraging, but the truth is that unless we make a real effort and unless the world knows that we are making a real effort, those bits of good news will become the exception and not the rule. And that’s what we don’t want to allow to happen.”
Bishop Philip also spoke at the launch of the review. He said: “ the Christian faith today is primarily a phenomenon of the global south; and therefore it is primarily a phenomenon of the global poor. Despite the impression that we sometimes have to the contrary – not least when you have a bishop standing in front of you – the Christian faith is not primarily an expression of white western privilege. If it were, then perhaps we could afford to ignore this issue or, more likely, this issue would not exist.
“But unless we understand that the Christian Church is primarily a phenomenon of the global south and the global poor, we will never give this issue the attention that it so clearly deserves.”
He described the Christian faith as a “truly global phenomenon” and said that persecution against Christians was not limited to a single challenge – specifically a Muslim context. “This independent review is not a stalking horse for the Islamaphobic far right”, he said, “and nor will it give the Islamaphobic right a stick to beat Islam with.
“I want to be very clear about that. There may well be questions asked about how the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have addressed the issue of persecution of Christians in Muslim majority countries; but there will certainly be questions to ask of other contexts too and we would be failing if we did not ask those questions.”
The Bishop said that the Christian faith had always been seen as a subversive challenge to those in authority. “‘Jesus is Lord’ was the earliest Christian confession”, he said. “Saying ‘Jesus is Lord’ meant that Caesar was not. The Christian faith will always challenge those who make absolutist claims for themselves. The challenge to absolute power is a legitimate concern of any democratic government.”
The leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, welcomed the review, telling the audience at its launch that religious faith was becoming increasingly important across the world. He pointed to the vitality of Christians as people of hope. He also made the point that being a Christian always involved giving a critique of power.
The review will explore Christian persecution across the Middle East, Africa and Asia and the British government’s response to it. It will recommend a comprehensive policy framework when it reports before Easter.
UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hunt and Bishop Philip Mounstephen speak at the launch of the review: