Religious Persecution – UK Report should be a wake-up call to Ireland

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon and Bishop Philip Mounstephen

The Anglican Bishop of Truro, Rev Philip Mountstephen, recently completed a report for the British Foreign Office into the persecution of Christians around the world. Very little was heard about it in the UK and nothing at all here in Ireland.

The aim of the report, along with analysing the situation of Christians in a number of countries where violations of their rights in the form of murder, torture and displacement is well known, is also to look at the response of the British Foreign Office to assess whether it is suitable and appropriate given the situation.

The British Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) is essentially the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the UK dept for Overseas Aid (UKAID) was recently re-absorbed into the FCO, just as Irish Aid sits under Foreign Affairs (DFAT) here. The investigation was launched in 2019 and designed to be independent and objective. For that reason, the findings in many areas can reasonably be applied to the DFAT here in Ireland.

The report makes for horrifying reading but the situation is well known to readers of the ALIVE! while those actually working in the Irish Dept of Foreign Affairs seem oblivious. The report notes “In some regions, the level and nature of persecution is arguably coming close to meeting the international definition of genocide”, “The eradication of Christians and other minorities on pain of “the sword” or other violent means was revealed to be the specific and stated objective of extremist groups in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, north-east Nigeria and the Philippines”, “in Syria the Christian population has declined from 1.7 million in 2011 to below 450,000 and in Iraq, largely through the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of ancient Christian communities from the Nineveh Plains, Christian numbers have slumped from 1.5 million before 2003 to below 120,000 today”, “Extrajudicial killings and the enforced and involuntary disappearance of Christians are also widespread”.

Along with this there is the ‘social’ persecution where Christians are systematically marginalised in places such as India, ‘structural’ persecution in China or Uzbekistan, where Christians are denied the right to pass on the faith to their children, or places like North Korea where Christians are sent to gulags. In Pakistan Christian girls are groomed and trafficked into sham marriages, and suffering forced conversion. The list is long.

When has the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs spoke out with some anger at the religious persecution of Christians? Where in any Irish foreign policy is religious freedom highlighted as an area worthy of protection? Or an area of concern? The Irish government will reply that they focus on ‘need not creed’ but the reality is, and recognised in the Trulo report, that this blindness toward religious (Christian) identity when every other identity is prioritised, is damaging and resulting in a significant lack of awareness or sympathy toward the plight of Christians.

In Ireland, for sure, there is a sense that because Christianity was the dominant religion for so long, that it is impossible to fathom that in other parts of the world, it is a minority religion, continuously persecuted in the most horrific ways possible. This may be a reason for the blindness, but it is not an excuse. Working for DFAT and Irish Aid is a well paid career, with many perks and bonuses, especially when working overseas, and these professionals have a responsibility to act professionally.

Unfortunately, it would seem that DFAT and Irish Aid is blind when it comes to the horrendous crimes against Christians or victims of religious persecution. The Irish Aid overseas aid strategy talks about gender equality and climate change and all sorts of rights in depth, but only once makes a reference to religious persecution as one among many others.

This is to be expected in an aid sector that is dominated by secular humanists who have little time for religious belief. All involved in the aid sector scramble to affirm that they are non-religious and that religion has no bearing on their work. Even the faith-based organisations struggle to stand firm and are seduced by the need to be seen to be saying the right things on inclusion, intersectionality and LGBTQI+ as a top priority, fiddling while their Rome literally burns.

As part of the World Humanitarian Summit discussions, the Irish government organised a consultation with different ‘stakeholders’ and members of the public were invited to attend and consult. A number of these that wanted to engage happened to be African diaspora who tried to raise the issue of Christian persecution but their views were unwanted and they were strategically excluded from the process because they raised uncomfortable truths that did not fit with the narrative that was sought.

The Trulo report notes “the significant cultural knowledge in the awareness and practice of religion in society in the United Kingdom which witnesses have suggested is increasingly evident in the culture of the Foreign Office Network. Given the centrality of religious belief to the vast majority of the world’s population and communities this poses a particular challenge for British diplomats seeking to operate between these two worlds.”

Certainly the same should be said of an increasingly secular Ireland and that the government should make a concerted effort, instead of recruiting gender studies experts, strengthen religious literacy in DFAT, recruit those that understand religion rather than those anathema to it. Instead of trainings on ‘inclusion’ that ends up focusing on LGBTQI+ and gender and disability, consider specific training on religion, given that the vast majority of the countries where Irish Aid aims to help, are extremely religious, while Ireland is the opposite.

The report states “this is not about special pleading for Christians, but making up a significant deficit. 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 …  it’s about ensuring that Christians in the global south have a fair deal … it is an equality issue. If one minority is on the receiving end of 80% of religiously motivated discrimination it is simply not just that they should receive so little attention.”

And along with this, “this is also about being sensitive to discrimination and persecution of all minorities. Because the Christian faith is perhaps the one truly global faith it has become a bellwether for repression more generally. If Christians are being discriminated against in one context or another you can be confident other minorities are too.”

The report provides a wake-up call to the British FCO, but it should do the same for Ireland. To the credit of the British, they have taken the steps of doing this review. In Ireland, the government remains in thrall to the deChristianisation of the country and the narrative of Christian persecution cannot be entertained in the current secularising climate where religion, Catholicism in particular, cannot be considered a victim of any kind – it has to be portrayed as the malign force in order to clear the path for its marginalisation.

The report recommends in the strongest terms that the FCO should make freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) central to its culture, policies and international operations. If such a call were made in Ireland, it would not only be DFAT but also many of the NGOs that would recoil in horror such is the cultural antipathy toward religion.

As Ireland takes it place on the UN Security Council, the clear recommendation to the FCO is equally applicable and the Irish Government should seek a Security Council Resolution to call on all governments:

“a. ensure the protection and security of Christians, and other faith minorities, in their respective countries;

  1. facilitate the establishment of security and protection arrangements for Christians, and other faith minorities, within the legal and governance structure of their respective countries;
  2. permit United Nations observers to monitor the protection and security arrangements for Christians and other faith minorities in their respective countries.”

As the report states, the lack of expressed concern is due to a ‘certain post-Christian bewilderment, if not embarrassment, about matters of faith, and a consequent failure to grasp how for the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants faith is not only a primary marker of identity, but also a primary motivation for action (both for good or ill)’. It is this depreciation in value of religious freedom that is a growing blindspot in the developed world.

Irish diplomats and aid workers no longer value religion and thus no longer understand how intrinsically valuable it is to the faithful. They forget that the first pilgrims to America were escaping persecution and looking for religious freedom. They forget that masses of people continually move in order to escape persecution but also to find freedom to practice their faith. They do not leave all that they have behind lightly, or because their faith is of little value. They do it because it is fundamental, and a secularised western world, which still controls the humanitarian aid systems, cannot understand this. It is why religious freedom is downgraded in Europe to being of lesser importance than other perceived rights with politicians and activists empowered to push religion to the margins as it is antithetical to their own secularising belief systems.