Will the new British Foreign Secretary take religious persecution seriously?

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt thanked Bishop Mounstephen for his report about Foreign & Commonwealth Office support for persecuted Christians. Photo by British Foreign Office/Creative Commons.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt thanked Bishop Mounstephen for his report about Foreign & Commonwealth Office support for persecuted Christians. Photo by British Foreign Office/Creative Commons.

(COMMENTARY) The resignation of the British foreign secretary who more than any of his predecessors seemed to have ‘got religion’ – Jeremy Hunt - resigned last week when in-coming Prime Minister Boris Johnson refused to keep him in office.

Jeremy Hunt stood up against the pugnacious pro-Brexit premier – and lost.  Johnson wanted to move him from the Foreign Office, but Hunt refused to accept an alternative offer, and quit.

His untimely departure has stoked fears for the survival of his new policy on Christian persecution which would see an international overhaul of an approach to asylum requests in particular, launched to great publicity on Jan. 16 at an event by Open Doors, a Christian persecution watch organization.

Hunt’s replacement Dominic Raab is on record as being against the so-called “values agenda” – code for human rights – and has almost always voted against any development of anti-prejudice and discrimination laws.  Boris himself however has spoken out consistently against negative aspects of Islam.

Now Lord Ahmad, the PM’s special envoy for religion and belief, has written in The Times of London of Boris’ commitment to the Freedom of Religion and Belief (FoRB) agenda.

“He was instrumental in getting No. 10 to create the role of the prime minister’s special envoy on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) — a role that I am proud to hold today — to stand up for millions across the world persecuted for their faith,” Ahmad wrote.

Crucially, he continued: “I saw Boris as foreign secretary working to ensure that our diplomats in our priority countries understood the issues and the need to stand up against Christian persecution and religious discrimination, of all kinds.”

An independent report commissioned by Jeremy Hunt and written by the former head of the [Anglican] Church Mission Society, Bishop of Truro, Philip Mounstephen, was launched at Church House on July 8.

It marks a total departure from the previous laissez faire attitude to Christians around the globe, whom, the report says, amount to more than 80 per cent of the total of those persecuted for their faith.

Jeremy Hunt noted that many in the Foreign Office had ignored Christians out of political correctness.

“What I want to do is to remove any nervousness or sense of political correctness that might have said that Britain shouldn’t be championing the rights of Christians around the world for whatever reasons,” he said, “reasons of history and Empire and all that sort of thing which may have been an issue that we have been a bit shy about in the past and we mustn’t be.”

“And I think it’s also very important to remember that although we are a Western country and a very wealthy country and a Christian country, the vast majority of people we’re talking about are Christians in much much poorer countries, and they are entitled to our thoughts and prayers and action just as any persecuted minority are anywhere in the world and I think that must be part of our mission.”

Mounstephen’s full report includes an investigation of how the Foreign Office handle in-country requests from Christians for asylum on grounds of persecution for their faith.

The language is muted, but the conclusions are grim: Christians have been treated differently from all others, despite their poverty and suffering caused by oppression.  While Islamophobia and anti-Semitism have been recognized, “Christophobia” has not.

With a set of far-reaching recommendations, this should all change.  A strong section on religious literacy training includes five key ideas including:

“Ensure that both general and contextual training in religious literacy and belief dynamics, including the FCO FoRB (Freedom of Religion and Belief) Tool Kit, is undertaken in all roles where this understanding is important (i.e. with other key FoRB players and contexts where FoRB is under threat), and to be undertaken before or at the start of each such deployment. Subject to cost and value for money considerations, roll out to all staff mandatory religious diversity and literacy e-training.”

Said Lord Ahmad, himself a member of the persecuted Ahmadi minority from Pakistan: “There are many useful recommendations in the report and I know that Boris will tackle this challenge as a key priority if he wins.”