My Lords, I add my thanks to my noble friend Lord Elton for initiating this interesting debate. Persecutions of Christians is a growing problem around the world, according to the Henry Jackson research fellow Dr Rakib Ehsan and Dr Matthew Rees of Open Doors UK. This is a worrying situation, also highlighted by the Bishop of Truro’s independent review, many others who have researched this area and the many noble Lords who have spoken on this subject.
Yet the persecution of Christian minorities has become a marginalised issue in much of the western world. An example of this is the underwhelming response to the persecution of Christians, juxtaposed with the reaction to attacks on Muslims by far-right terrorists. After the Christchurch attack, there was unequivocal condemnation, expressions of solidarity with the global Islamic community and clear identification of the perpetrator. After the Easter Sunday suicide bombings in Sri Lanka, there was a much more muted response, avoidance of clear identification of the ideology of the perpetrators and the rebranding of Christians as Easter worshippers.
Western metropolitan liberal politicians, who have adopted identity politics domestically, view Christians through this lens as white and privileged. This leaves western liberal elites, who seemingly celebrate the decline of Judeo-Christian norms, unsure how to approach cases of religious persecution affecting Christians across the world. Followers of Christianity across the world are becoming increasingly demoralised over the lack of urgency shown by western politicians over global persecution of Christian minorities.
There seems to be a view that government departments, such as the Home Office and Foreign Office, are uncomfortable with religion in general and Christianity specifically. This is probably best described as a lack of religious literacy, which has already been mentioned by others. Another big issue is that no one is aware that Christians exist in large parts of the world—for example, the Middle East and Egypt—which have low levels of persecution. There is a degree of political cynicism: politicians loudly condemn the persecution of Muslims in Myanmar, but not Islamist-led attacks on Christians in Myanmar.
Academic historian and Telegraph columnist Dr Tim Stanley speaks of the example of the Nineveh plains, where the persecuted Christian minority has lived since the first century. Iranian-supported Shia militia are persecuting the Christian community. Under Islamic State, these Christians had a choice of leaving, converting or dying, with churches being turned into torture chambers. The Shia militia are now making life incredibly difficult for these Christians, who want to rebuild their lives. The Christian community suffers from various types of persecution: economic, where people are encouraged not to trade with Christians; religious and cultural cleansing, where Shiite heroes’ portraits are displayed in front of Christian monuments and the Islamic call to prayer is blasted from megaphones directed at the Christian parts of the town; and ethnic cleansing, where Christians are encouraged to leave but unverified restrictions on British visas and changes to USA immigration systems make things difficult, according to local sources. According to the Open Doors world watch list, three major trends have shaped persecution against Christians this year. First, authoritarian states are clamping down and using legal regulations to control religion. Secondly, ultra-nationalists are depicting Christians as “alien” or “western” and trying to drive them out. Thirdly, radical Islam has moved from the Middle East to sub-Saharan Africa.
I am sure all noble Lords were delighted when, in July 2018, my noble friend Lord Ahmad was appointed the Prime Minister’s special envoy on freedom of religion or belief, and compliment him on the work he has been doing. This and the commissioning of the Bishop of Truro’s report show that Her Majesty’s Government are taking steps to address the worrying global increase in persecution. Governments cannot interfere in the governance of other nations, but can DfID be more specific about the terms on which aid is given to countries where persecution takes place? Does it know the ethnic breakdown of the populations that benefit from aid programmes? Can restrictions be put in place where it is known that Christian groups are discriminated against? Can Her Majesty’s Government identify Christianity in certain countries as a vulnerability that we should favourably factor in when considering visa applications? There are suggestions that the Home Office is not accepting Christian visa applications from Syria. Will my noble friend investigate this? DfID provides financial aid to countries such as Nigeria and Pakistan. Should we not couple aid with expecting better domestic behaviour? Red Wednesday is the day for commemorating the world’s persecuted Christians. Could we, collectively, do much more to raise awareness of that day?
The most important liberal democratic value is the right to practise religion, free from harassment, discrimination and persecution. The United Kingdom should protect and promote that principle relentlessly across the world, irrespective of religious background.