Persecution on grounds of religious faith is a global phenomenon that is growing in scale and intensity.

Evangelical Alliance member organisations, Open Doors UK, looks at global religious liberty as a policy priority this General Election.

Reports including that of the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on​‘Freedom of Religion and Belief’ (FoRB) suggest that religious persecution is on the rise, and it is an​“ever-growing threat” to societies around the world. Though it is impossible to know the exact numbers of people persecuted for their faith, based on reports from different NGOs, it is estimated that one third of the world’s population suffers from religious persecution in some form.

There are 52 governments – including some in very populous countries like China, Indonesia and Russia – that impose either​“high” or​“very high” levels of restrictions on religion, up from 40 in 2007. And the number of countries where people are experiencing the highest levels of social hostilities involving religion has risen from 39 to 56 over the course of the study.

The increasing violations of FoRB are manifest in so many different ways: the rise of Daesh (IS) in the Middle East; Boko Haram in Nigeria; the overspill of criminal activity into community life in Latin America; the abuse of blasphemy laws in Pakistan; the growing nationalist rhetoric of the Indian government that affects Muslims and Christians alike. 

FoRB violations make up a sizeable percentage of human rights abuses across the world and they are amplified further because they underpin so many of the other articles of the UDHR: for example, freedom of assembly (article 20) and the closure of places of worship in countries such as Algeria and Vietnam; the rights of Christian children (article 25) violated by Boko Haram fighters in Nigeria; the right to utilities and services (articles 2125) denied to religious minorities – funeral rights in Bhutan, education in Pakistan, water and electricity in Iraq.

Research has clearly demonstrated that respecting the international right to FoRB leads to more prosperous and stable societies. The UK government can show real leadership by encouraging governments around the world to recognise that FoRB is crucial in itself and in the fight against extremist violence.

The UK policy context

In recent months there has been some significant progress on Freedom of Religion and Belief (FoRB) in both government and Parliament. The Prime Minister appointed a Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief as a dedicated post, for the first time. When Jeremy Hunt was Foreign Secretary he initiated a report from the Bishop of Truro on Foreign and Commonwealth Office support for persecuted Christians. The Foreign Office Select Committee is holding an inquiry on this same topic.

There is also the possibility that a new government will be negotiating new trade deals following Brexit. It is vital that human rights, and FoRB in particular, should be embedded in these negotiations, not seen as a peripheral and optional extra.

A Christian approach

Christians involved in this issue are convinced that the best way to help persecuted Christians is to work positively for FoRB for all – people of all religions or none. Internationally, if the UK government seems only to be concerned with Christians, then it reinforces the view that Christians are followers of a foreign, or western, religion – which is one of the drivers of their persecution in many places.

It is also advisable to use the language of Freedom of Religion or Belief – partly because it emphasises the concern for all, not just Christians, and partly because to many politicians the phrase​‘religious freedom’ is only about special exceptions for Christians.

Questions to ask candidates

  1. Human rights in general, and freedom of religion or belief in particular, are increasingly undermined and under threat around the world. If elected, would you give priority to urging the Foreign Office to take these issues seriously in all their interactions with other governments, and particularly ensuring freedom of religion or belief (and human rights more widely) are at the heart of all negotiations of trade deals post-Brexit? 
  2. The government made a commitment to implement the recommendations of the Bishop of Truro’s report on the Foreign Office support for persecuted Christians. If elected, will you ensure this is done with vigour and enthusiasm?
  3. The recent appointment of a Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief was a very positive step forward. Will you and your party commit to making a similar appointment and ensuring that the post is properly resourced so as to make a real impact?
  4. Open Doors are launching their annual World Watch List report on the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian in Parliament on 15 January. Will you plan to be there, if elected?