The UK government should be prepared to impose sanctions against countries that persecute Christians, a report commissioned by the Foreign Office has recommended.
It should also adopt a definition of anti-Christian discrimination and persecution, similar to those applied to Islamophobia and antisemitism, the report says. British diplomats and other Foreign Office staff, both in the UK and abroad, should have mandatory training in religious literacy in order to equip them to understand the scale and significance of the issue.
The report, by Philip Mounstephen, the bishop of Truro, was commissioned by the foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, to examine the extent and nature of Christian persecution and assess the UK government’s response.
Hunt said he would enact all of the recommendations if he became prime minister and said he agreed with the report’s conclusion that Christians were the most persecuted religious group in the world.
Hunt said the UK must take a firmer stance on the persecution of Christians around the world. “The sense of misguided political correctness that has stopped us standing up for Christians overseas must end,” he said. “At home we all benefit from living in a tolerant, diverse society and we should not be afraid of promoting those values abroad. It is a sad fact that Christians are the most persecuted religious group in modern times. I am determined to show that we are on their side.”
An estimated one-third of the world’s population suffers from religious persecution in some form, with 80% of them being Christians, it is claimed.
Open Doors, which monitors Christian persecution around the world, has estimated that on average each month 345 Christians are killed for faith-related issues.
The report said: “Evidence suggests that acts of violence and other intimidation against Christians are becoming more widespread.” In parts of the Middle East and Africa, the vast scale of the violence and its perpetrators’ declared intent to eradicate the Christian community had led to several declarations that Christians were suffering a genocide, it said.
Christianity was concentrated in the global south and was perceived therefore as “primarily a phenomenon of the global poor”, it said. “Despite the impression those in the west might sometimes have to the contrary, the Christian faith is not primarily an expression of white western privilege.”
Christian persecution had “multiple drivers and as such it deserves special attention. More specifically it is certainly not limited to Islamic majority contexts. So this review is not a stalking horse for the Islamophobic far right, nor does it give the Islamophobic right a stick to beat Islam with.”
The report added: “There is a sense that for a number of reasons we have been blind to this issue – and those reasons would certainly include post-colonial guilt: a sense that we have interfered uninvited in certain contexts in the past so we should not do so again.”
It acknowledged that Christians had also historically persecuted others. “One thinks with shame of the Crusades, the inquisition and the pogroms. But this is not simply a historical phenomenon. Some of the violence in the Central African Republic has very likely been initiated by Christian militia. And responsibility for the dreadful massacre of 8,373 Bosnians in Srebrenica in July 1995 must be laid squarely at the feet of those who professed Christian faith.”
According to the report, the persecution of Christians had become “a bellwether for repression”, since if they “are being discriminated against in one context or another, you can be confident other minorities are too.”
The bishop criticised the “paucity of awareness of the challenges facing the Christian community” which revealed a lack of religious literacy among Foreign Office staff.
“It seems to me that we currently face two existential threats to human flourishing and harmonious communities: climate change and the systematic denial of FoRB [freedom of religion or belief]. We are beginning to pay proper attention to the former. It is high time we paid proper attention to the latter,” Mounstephen said in his introduction to the report.
Among the report’s recommendations to the Foreign Office were that it should “be prepared to impose sanctions against perpetrators of FoRB abuses” and “seek a [UN] Security Council resolution urging all governments in the Middle East and North Africa to protect Christians and other persecuted minorities”.
The government should “name the phenomenon of Christian discrimination and persecution, and undertake work to identify its particular character alongside similar definitions for other religions”.
Foreign Office staff should also be given “training in religious literacy and belief dynamics”.
Speaking before Monday’s formal launch of the report, Mounstephen said: “My hope is that in adopting my recommendations the Foreign Office will be able to bring its considerable experience and expertise to bear in helping some of the planet’s most vulnerable people.”
Henrietta Blyth, of Open Doors UK and Ireland, said: “The UK government must act now. It must focus attention on the countries where persecution is most severe and where the situation is rapidly deteriorating … This review is a good first step to addressing this. For it to be effective it must deliver real, tangible and lasting change for those suffering persecution.”