In 2019, the Bishop of Truro, Rt Rev Philip Mountstephen published his findings into the scale of Christian persecution around the world. Ahead of this summer’s international summit in London, we assess what progress has been made and what challenges lie ahead for the government.

So much has changed in three years. A global pandemic, Brexit and now war breaking out in Eastern Europe. And yet for millions of Christians around the world, little has changed; in fact life is getting worse.

Open Doors note that in 2021 more than 360 million Christians around the world suffered significant persecution for their faith. Afghanistan took the number one position this year following the takeover by the Taliban, and the situation in countries such as Malaysia continues to deteriorate. Nearly 6,000 Christians were killed for their faith, with more dying in Nigeria than all other countries combined.

Bishop of Truro: independent review on the persecution of Christians

In 2019, foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt commissioned the Bishop of Truro to report on the scale of Christian persecution globally and where the foreign office could provide better support. The resulting Truro review outlined how Christian persecution varied in different continents and under different political systems globally. It also set out 22 recommendations for the foreign office to better protect Christian communities and promote freedom of religion or belief (FORB) for all, covering:

  • making freedom of religion or belief central to the foreign office’s organisational culture and international operations;
  • improving the religious literacy and understanding of the British embassies located in Britain; and
  • having greater cross-government working between the foreign office and other governmental departments.

You can read all 22 recommendations at chris​tian​per​se​cu​tion​re​view​.org​.uk

So, what progress has been made with these recommendations?

The answer in short is some, but it is difficult to say with any certainty.

In July 2020, the foreign office stated that implementation has already begun on half the recommendations, while work is ongoing to deliver the rest.” In April, foreign secretary Liz Truss said, we continue to make progress on implementing all the recommendations in the Truro review.”

We welcome the minister’s continued commitment and await the independent assessment report due this summer.

One positive to come out of the review is the creation of a special envoy position on freedom of religion or belief. This role has been held by three different conservative MPs and is currently held by Fiona Bruce (MP for Congleton). Through her dedication and commitment, she has ensured cases of religious abuse overseas are brought to attention of the prime minister and contributes regularly to commons debates, raising FORB awareness and understanding among other parliamentarians.

"We currently face two existential threats to human flourishing and harmonious communities: climate change and the systematic denial of freedom of religion and belief. We are beginning to pay proper attention to the former. It is high time we paid proper attention to the latter."
Bishop of Truro
Rt Rev Philip Mountstephen
The Bishop of Truro

The spotlight is on the foreign, commonwealth and development office

At the time the Truro review was published, the foreign and commonwealth office and the department for international development operated as two separate departments with separate policy priorities and budgets.

In 2020, the departments merged to form the new foreign, commonwealth and development office (FCDO), bringing aid spending, development policy, and diplomacy into one department.

On the one hand, this merger makes strategic sense as the UK operates in an interconnected world, especially following the aftermath of a global pandemic. It is necessary that the foreign office and international development officials met and have access to the same briefings, so there is agreed action on issues relating to global health and humanitarian support.

On the other hand, it is possible the FCDO will prioritise the nation’s interests above development policy – a legitimate concern raised by development charities and organisations prior to the merger, and of particular concern when it comes to the government being effective in promoting religious freedom abroad.

Foreign policy tends to focus on promoting British interests overseas, whereas development policy is centred on a longer-term collective action and investment overseas, where the primary benefactor of decisions is not the UK government nor the British public but citizens within the local community or nation. When it comes to implementing the Truro Review in full, we foresee this will be a difficult policy issue for the FCDO to resolve given the different and competing interests in the department.

Three years on from the Truro review, July’s international ministerial (or, leaders’ summit) on FORB is a significant moment for our government. Can the government demonstrate significant progress and a will to advance freedom of religion or belief long-term?

Only time will tell.