My Lords, I too join in congratulating my noble friend Lord Elton on securing this important debate. We have not focused on persecution on the grounds of faith in this House for several years, although obviously it has often arisen when discussing other business.
I also welcome the Foreign Secretary’s perspicacity in commissioning the Bishop of Truro to review his department’s work on persecuted Christians. My remarks employ the Bishop’s working definition of persecution: namely,
“discriminatory treatment where that treatment is accompanied by actual or perceived threats of violence or other forced coercion”.
I agree with him that establishing a standard definition will help several different departments of government.
While the Foreign Office is self-evidently not the responsible department for domestic policy, the implication is that other government departments—which are—need to have regard to equalities protection enshrined in legislation when considering how British Christians and their beliefs are treated. Can my noble friend the Minister report if and how other departments plan to respond to the Bishop’s findings?
It is a truism in our value system that persecution on the basis of anyone’s faith or religion should always be unreservedly decried, not least because, however nonsensical or even potentially offensive these may appear to non-believers, they provide meaning and belonging—deemed by social scientists to be two of their most important functions. Deeply held religious views are essential to a believer’s identity, their sense of who they really are. Australian sociologist Professor Hans Mol made identity the key concept in his definition of religion as the “sacralization of identity”. By way of example, those who have accepted Jesus Christ have, through him, been adopted as sons of God. This bestows a weighty, indeed sacred, sense of identity. So an attack that goes beyond mere criticism—part and parcel of freedom of speech—and threatens or delivers real harm is actually a profound attack on the inner core of each adherent, not just on their livelihood or safety.
Leafing through the Bishop of Truro’s accounts of atrocities and judicial oppression is a sobering, chilling process, and he provides a much-needed wake-up call. I could have concentrated on any one of his focus countries today. However, I feel compelled instead to talk about how Christian brothers and sisters are treated in our own country. Indeed, I would gently challenge his justification for the focus on Christianity, which emphasises that,
“today the Christian faith is primarily a phenomenon of the global south - and … therefore … of the global poor”,
“primarily an expression of white western privilege. If it were we could afford to ignore it - perhaps”.
This “perhaps” is an important caveat because, if the persecution of Christians in the West, and more specifically in our own country, could be ignored on the basis that they live in a relatively privileged society, this is distinctly at odds with how we treat other minorities. As Jeremy Hunt said this week, this country,
“has always been a beacon for freedom and tolerance”.
We cannot call out intolerance abroad if we continue to tolerate intolerance towards Christians on our own shores.
Mr Hunt also pledged to develop a term for anti-Christian hatred equivalent to “Islamophobia” and “anti-Semitism”, as we heard from my noble friend Lady Berridge. The term “Christophobia”, suggested by various religious leaders, is popularly considered to have been coined in 2003 by law professor JHH Weiler, himself an Orthodox Jew. Weiler challenged wider Europe’s fixation with what Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor refers to as “exclusive humanism”—humanism determined to exclude transcendent reference points from cultural, social and political life.
A striking example of how this played out was in 2004 when the Catholic convictions of Professor Rocco Buttiglione were deemed by European parliamentarians to disqualify him from high office in the European Commission. Despite his sworn commitment, backed by a lifetime of work, to uphold and defend the legitimate civil rights of all, his convictions—not any actions—were held to be in direct contradiction of European law. Yet the deepest roots of European law and culture do not rest in the soil of the Enlightenment but further back in Europe’s Christian history.
Perhaps this is an inconvenient truth, but a civilisation cannot selectively jettison aspects of its developmental trajectory. I could give many examples but have only time to mention a couple. The Christian doctrines of incarnation and redemption taught European man his own dignity and a proper respect for individuality. The Christian idea of vocation—each person’s unique role —is an important precursor to the western idea of individualism. Democratic notions of tolerance, dialogue and persuasion are foundational to the free-will relationship Christianity offers with a creator God. Of course, this has not always been perfectly followed, but historical coercive practices have been rightly disavowed as offences against true doctrine.
A similar day of realisation also needs to come for the adherents of intolerant and coercive liberalism, who judge politicians such as Tim Farron unfit to lead political parties unless they renounce their beliefs on various aspects of morality. Pope Francis has described how Christians in the West face a form of polite persecution that,
“takes away … their freedom, as well as their right to conscientious objection”.
There are many politicians, academics and others who have been stalled in their careers because they vocally, yet politely, resisted the dictatorship of orthodoxy and have been crushed under the weight of confected opprobrium. Even the established Church has to restrain itself from attempting to coerce conformity to liberal societal values on believers who disagree with these on grounds of conscience, not contrariness or cruelty.
All Christians are called to represent faithfully the image of God. The self-giving “imago Dei” was, lest we forget, the inspiration behind the societally transforming movements to end slavery, establish probation and other professions to further human flourishing and drive much philanthropic endeavour in the 19th century. The overthrow of Communism in the 20th century owed much to many eastern bloc Christians, such as the Lutheran pastor in Timisoara, Romania—a clear example. If we airbrush out these aspects of our recent history, disavow the very roots of our social order and, more brutally, bind and gag contemporary Christians who dare not conform with current orthodoxies, we shall have no moral authority when challenging other countries and we shall all be the poorer for it.