My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lord Elton for the timing of this debate, a few days after the review into the persecution of Christians. I appreciate that this debate is about the persecution of all on the basis of their faith or belief, but I will focus on the review. I declare my interests as a practising Anglican and as the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group.
It is most welcome that the majority of the 22 recommendations in the report focus on freedom of religion or belief. Only six specifically mention Christians, and the majority of the recommendations have been raised repeatedly in your Lordships’ House and in the other place. I am pleased that the Foreign Secretary initiated this review, as it has raised awareness of the scale of the persecution of Christians. I too put on record my thanks to numerous individual Ministers who have sought to raise FoRB over many years: my noble friends Lord Bates and Lady Warsi, Alistair Burt, and of course my noble friend Lord Ahmad. I also thank the right reverend Bishop of Truro for his industry and good intentions, having worked to such a tight timescale.
I welcome the new research in the review on what diplomatic posts know about FoRB, their use of the toolkit and whether they are taking action on behalf of Christians who are persecuted. There is also a good recommendation on the need for research and accurate data, as well as religious literacy training, which has been raised by numerous parliamentary colleagues.
However, the priority for any report or work in this area is to review the effects it will have on those who are already being persecuted and are at risk. What might seem like a good idea in London might have very different outcomes for vulnerable communities in, say, Pakistan, especially when messages travel globally in a nanosecond on a smart phone.
I have read all 136 pages of the report, but I cannot find the evidence or analysis to support recommendation 3:
“Name the phenomenon of Christian discrimination and persecution and undertake work to identify its particular character alongside similar definitions for other religions, to better inform and develop tailored FCO policies to address these”.
There is a recommendation at page 137 to,
“commission further research into the particular features of this phenomenon. This should specifically, include the naming of the phenomenon”.
Despite 40 pages of footnotes, there is no indication of where that recommendation came from.
I have never heard anyone in your Lordships’ House suggest that this is a role for the UK Government—and I have heard many suggestions. One must be very careful of the perception that could be created by a Church of England bishop recommending to a Foreign Secretary that they take charge of coming up with a definition of Christian persecution. The Foreign Secretary used a word that has been introduced to the vocabulary, Christianophobia. Even if that is possible to define, is it wise for the UK Government to do it? The danger is that this word may refer to the religion, not the people—a criticism similarly made of the word “Islamophobia”. In this situation, where the religion and the overwhelming majority of adherents share the same root word, we need to be very careful.
As I said in your Lordships’ House when talking about anti-Semitism, we need to be very clear about the distinction between hating or criticising a faith’s tenets and hating people. The latter is the issue we are dealing with, and the report itself makes the mistake in recommendation 3 by referring to the,
“particular character alongside similar definitions for other religions”.
Article 18 protects people, not religions. Anti-Semitism is defined by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and, of course, means Semite people. It is worth noting that both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are being defined by the communities. Who authors a definition does matter. For instance, if anti-Semitism were to be defined by the Israeli Government, it would muddy the issue and potentially put Jews at greater risk.
It is an incontrovertible fact that one risk factor to Christian communities in the MENA region, south Asia and other areas is that they are seen as following a Western religion, are foreigners, are not loyal subjects or are a leftover from Empire times. Where is the evidence in the review that this recommendation will benefit persecuted Christians? Where is the risk analysis to ensure that we do not make the situation worse? Which Church leaders in persecuted communities did the review speak to? Which leaders in India, Pakistan or Iraq said, “I tell you what is a good idea and will help us here”? Were they asked? Did the review speak to the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Dr Ahmed Shaheed, a UK academic?
While we should not ignore Christian persecution due to leftover guilt, we still need to be aware of the risk factor to vulnerable communities of association of Christianity with the West and its foreign policy. Given the lack of any evidence or analysis in the review, will Her Majesty’s Government consider removing, or asking the bishop to remove, this recommendation before it gains more energy? Will they at least risk-check it with the UN special rapporteur? Will my noble friend please do that urgently, because the United States of America is holding a freedom of religion or belief ministerial symposium next week, and one danger currently for FoRB is the alignment with American priorities, which are perceived to be more about persecution of Christians than freedom of religion or belief?
The review has set a hare running, and I hope I do not see a tweet next week about the United States joining the efforts of the United Kingdom Government to define Christian persecution. We just do not know what impact that would have for persecuted Christians. My view is that if the term needs defining, it is for the World Council of Churches and the Vatican to do so.
I am troubled to see in the review such a recommendation without evidence or analysis, which could pose further risk to Christians. I should be grateful if my noble friend ensured that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Cabinet Office review what support and training should be given to the chair of any inquiry who has never conducted an inquiry before, has not had the opportunity to learn about Whitehall from being in your Lordships’ House and is new to the subject area, to ensure that the taxpayer-funded secretariat has the necessary expertise to assist. In particular, when time pressures mean that taxpayer-funded appointments are made without advertising, how are departments ensuring that equality and diversity requirements are still adhered to?
Reviews and inquiries come in all shapes and sizes and are an important part of how our government works. The response to the judge-led-only inquiry into the Grenfell tragedy means that the world of who the public have confidence in is changing. I note that Lord Justice Leveson was wise enough to have six panel members to assist him. I regret that this report was conducted only by Christians; I hope your Lordships agree that to believe in freedom of religion or belief, you do not need to have a particular faith tradition. I hope that the religious literacy training in the Foreign Office and in DfID will mean that the speed-dial will carry them first, for global issues, to the Catholics, rather than anywhere else.