Last week’s Church Times featured the issue of early marriage – often far from voluntary for the young girls involved , and with potentially devastating consequences for their future lives.
Deeply concerning issues like this will be at the heart of a Conference the UK Government is hosting in central London this July – the 2022 International Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief, which it is my privilege to be co-organising in my role as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB).
The role of Special Envoy for FoRB covers three key areas:
Firstly, from my office in the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office, I work to help strengthen the FCDO’s work defending and promoting FoRB for all, both here in the UK and through our diplomatic posts across the world, in particular by implementing the recommendations of Philip , Bishop of Truro in his Review of this work (https://christianpersecutionreview.org.uk/).
Tragically, abuses of the right to FoRB across the world are all too common, despite it being one of the rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights drawn up after the atrocities of the Holocaust. Article 18 states “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
Indeed Bishop Philip, now a dedicated and passionate champion of FoRB , stated after he embarked on his Review three years ago, that with regard to the abuse of ForB globally, he was “shocked by its scale, scope and severity.” The research organisation Pew estimates that 83% of the world live in countries where there are some restrictions on religion or belief. Open Doors in its 2022 World Watch list estimate that 360,000 million Christians are highly persecuted, simply on account if their beliefs – and that this situation is getting worse (https://www.opendoorsuk.org/). And, of course, persecution and discrimination don’t just affect Christians, but people of all faiths and beliefs. We will not all agree on our beliefs, but we should all agree that upholding Article 18 matters – today as much as it ever has.
Right across the world today people are losing their jobs, education, homes, livelihoods, families, freedom, access to justice and even life itself, simply on account of what they believe. People are being discriminated against, marginalised, beaten, threatened, tortured, and killed, and too often by their own authoritarian governments – the very governments with a duty to protect their freedom of religion or belief.
A second aspect of my role as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief is to work with civil society – with organisations from across the UK like Christian Solidarity Worldwide (www.csw.org.uk), Aid to the Church in Need (https://acnuk.org) and many more who, often at great cost to their staff and volunteers, seek to draw attention to how people’s right to FoRB is trampled on and violated in many countries, and who campaign for change. I meet regularly with such organisations, working effectively together under the umbrella of the UK FoRB Forum (www.ukforbforum.org) established little over a year ago, with Bishop Philip as its first chair.
And thirdly, my role as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for FoRB involves my working internationally, as part of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance (IRFBA), of which the UK was a founding member in 2020. This year I have the privilege of chairing the IRFBA, a growing Alliance of 36 countries who are committed to defending and protecting FoRB. Our collective voices are stronger than our individual voices and our Statement of Principles can be found at https://www.state.gov/declaration-of-principles-for-the-international-religious-freedom-alliance/. One example of our work was that during the height of the crisis in Afghanistan last year when so many were seeking to flee that country, IRFBA representatives were able to coordinate the rescue of almost two hundred individuals whose lives were at risk there due their beliefs – one IRFBA country provided a plane for a flight out and another IRFBA country provided visas for resettlement.
It is highly likely that some of those rescued in that way may not otherwise be alive today, and there are so many individuals around the world suffering similarly – simply because of what they believe. It’s important to constantly remember how FoRB violations do affect individuals – it helps bring home the true scale of the suffering which numbers alone, – such as those I’ve quoted above – however disturbing, cannot truly do.
Individuals like 71-year-old Valentina Baranovskya, her son, and others like them, serving prison sentences in Siberia – for being Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In Nigeria, 18-year-old Leah Sharibu has passed her 4th anniversary in captivity, kidnapped by the Boko Haram extremist group, and unlike the other 113 girls abducted with her, the only one still not released, because she refused to deny Jesus.
And in Vietnam, Nguyen Bac Truyen, a lawyer who has supported prisoners of conscience, including with regard to their freedom of region, is serving an 11-year sentence in a prison, a thousand kilometres away from his wife.
Over the next few weeks in the run up to the 2022 International Ministerial Conference on FoRB, I and my Deputy Special Envoy David Burrowes are touring the country to raise awareness across our country’s faith communities of the extent of this tragic, yet under recognised and under addressed global phenomenon, and about the Conference itself. This week I spoke in Chester Cathedral (double hatted as a Lay Canon there!); David with churches in Windsor and at an interfaith event in Bristol. See https://endthepersecution.uk/ for more details, including upcoming events.
This summer’s major FoRB conference, bringing together government Ministers, faith and belief group leaders and representatives and civil society actors from over fifty countries will be an important human rights milestone. Our aim is to discuss FoRB concerns – but more than that, we hope to promote ideas and agreement on practical steps to address this devastating global issue which is blighting the lives of millions, – and to inspire the next generation to champion the importance of Freedom of Religion or Belief for everyone, everywhere.
Fiona Bruce is Member of Parliament for Congleton, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief and a Lay Canon of Chester Cathedral.