Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s new Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) has been praised by Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need as “a doughty defender of religious freedom”.
Fiona Bruce, MP for Congleton in Cheshire, was named as the new envoy on Sunday, three months after the resignation of her predecessor, Rehman Chishti.
Ms Bruce, an Anglican and an evangelical, said in a press release announcing her appointment: “There is much to do, and my post will be placed at the service of some of the most vulnerable people across the world.”
She continued: “This appointment comes in the light of continuing large scale horrors taking place – such as those against Uighur Muslims in China, Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and Yazidis in Iraq and at a time when, as the late and much respected former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, stated, ‘the persecution of Christians throughout much of the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, and elsewhere, is one of the crimes against humanity of our time.’”
ACN welcomed the news of Ms Bruce’s appointment. Neville Kyrke-Smith, ACN UK, said: “Fiona Bruce has proved herself time and again to be a doughty defender of religious freedom and she has been a trail-blazer in speaking up in Parliament about persecuted Christians. In doing so, she has helped pave the way for the progress already made on Freedom of Religion or Belief.” Mr Kyrke-Smith said ACN had worked with Mrs Bruce on parliamentary debates in which she has highlighted the findings of ACN reports.
Catholic peer Lord Alton, a former trustee of ACN, told The Tablet Mrs Bruce’s interest in religious freedom issues had been “sparked by attending an event for parliamentarians organised by ACN”. He added: “I hugely admire the work she has undertaken on issues of freedom of religion or belief and she will make an outstanding Special Envoy.”
However human rights advocate Ewelina Ochab questioned how much Mrs Bruce could achieve. She noted that the role “is an add-on to other many duties” and the envoy is given no support staff, unlike in some other countries. She told The Tablet: “A role of this calibre requires adequate resources.”
Mrs Bruce is the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group, co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for North Korea, and vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief. She sits on the Parliamentary Joint-Committee on Human Rights and is Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, an appointment made by then-Prime Minister David Cameron. She is also a prominent member of the conservative Evangelical Alliance.
However, Humanists UK expressed “alarm and disappointment” at the appointment, highlighting in a statement Mrs Bruce’s voting record on abortion and LGBT rights and accusing her of being “a committed opponent of FoRB for the non-religious at home”.
The National Secular Society issued a more conciliatory statement urging Mrs Bruce to adopt “an even-handed approach” to FoRB. "It's vital to recognise that freedom from religion is a necessary corollary to freedom of religion … We hope to work with Ms Bruce and the government to ensure that everyone's right to freedom of religion or belief is upheld and protected equally," it said.
The previous Special Envoy, Rehman Chishti, was widely respected by religious freedom campaigners but resigned in September over the Government’s controversial Internal Market Bill.