09 June 2022, The Tablet

Government 'should do more' to promote religious freedom

Shahbaz, a 14-year-old Christian girl, was abducted in Pakistan in 2020, forced to convert to Islam and marry her captor.

Government 'should do more' to promote religious freedom

Pakistani Christian children play in front of tents provided for Christian families whose homes were set on fire by a mob, in Lahore, Pakistan.
File photo from 2013 by CNS/Mohsin Raza, Reuters

The government could be doing more to make religious freedom central to its operations and culture, according to campaigners.

The Catholic Union is among those who urged the government to promote freedom of religion and belief around the world in a meeting earlier this month with Foreign Minister Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon and Fiona Bruce MP, the Prime Minister’s Special Representative for Freedom of Religion and Belief.

The meeting came nearly three years after a report was published which called attention to the persecution more than 250 million Christians worldwide face for their faith, pointing to evidence that “Christians constitute by far the most widely persecuted religion”. The Truro report, commissioned in 2018 by then-foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt and carried out by the Anglican Bishop of Truro, Philip Mounstephen, outlined 22 recommendations which the government committed to implement in full.

Recommendations included seeking a UN Security Council resolution urging governments in the Middle East and North Africa to protect Christians, consider imposing sanctions on perpetrators of human rights violations against religious minorities and providing religious literacy training to all Foreign Office staff at home and abroad.

Those present at the meeting also included Nigel Parker, director of the Catholic Union, John Pontifex and John Newton from Aid to the Church in Need.

“The Catholic Union welcomed the Truro report and we’ve been working hard to hold the Government accountable for seeing the recommendations implemented,” Parker said in the statement. “While progress has been made, there are some areas where the Government could be doing more to make religious freedom more central to the Foreign Office’s operations and especially its culture.”

Lord Ahmad said that an independent review had been completed and the government now had the power to impose sanctions. He also pointed to addressing gender based violence as a priority, in response to a question from Pontifex asking about the intersections of religious freedoms and broader human rights violations, referencing the case of Maira Shahbaz.

Shahbaz, a 14-year-old Christian girl, was abducted in Pakistan in 2020, forced to convert to Islam and marry her captor, according to Aid to the Church in Need. Her case received widespread attention in the UK, with more than 12,000 people signing a petition calling on Boris Johnson to grant her asylum, in addition to a letter signed by more than 30 MPs, peers, bishops, and leaders of charities and human rights organisations.

“It was important to highlight the extent to which girls and women from religious minorities suffer and we were glad to hear how the Minister and the team are taking this matter seriously,'' Pontifex said in the statement. “We all need to work together to follow up these words of concerns with action.”

The meeting comes in advance of the International Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief, which will be hosted by the UK government next month.

“The ministerial conference next month is a great opportunity to cement the UK’s position as a world leader in promoting freedom of religion and belief,” Parker said. “The Government should be ambitious in its aims for the conference and seize the opportunity to make life better for Christians and other people of faith around the world.”



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