It is common knowledge that our island’s deep-rooted relationship with Catholicism spans hundreds of years, stretching all the way back to the 6th century and St Gregory the Great.
Yet, despite our longstanding spiritual ties to the Vatican, it might surprise some readers to learn that full diplomatic relations between the UK and the Holy See are still relatively new. It was almost exactly four decades ago that the British ambassador Sir Mark Heath presented his credentials to St John Paul II and our legation to the Holy See became a fully-fledged British embassy.
Since then, ties between the UK and the Vatican have only strengthened, something I saw first-hand on a visit to the Holy See last month as the government’s faith minister. My visit represents the flourishing friendship of our governments, where we work together to tackle the challenges of our time, from climate change to helping refugees fleeing war and persecution, including, of course, the Ukrainians escaping Putin’s deadly invasion.
This friendship is founded upon our ancient attachment to Rome. I was honoured to meet Father Stephen Wang from the Diocese of Westminster and Rector of the Venerable English College, the oldest English institution outside the UK, which, for 660 years, has prepared generations of Catholic clergy for life as priests in England and Wales.
But the highest honour of all was meeting His Holiness Pope Francis face-to-face in St Peter’s Square. In the brief moments I spent with him, his warmth and godly wisdom shone through. I consider it one of the great privileges of my life to have met him while representing Her Majesty’s Government.
It came just after His Holiness held his weekly general audience where thousands of the faithful from around the world come together to worship, pray and sing. I even met a group of pilgrims from Nigeria – where I originally come from – and we shared stories about our backgrounds and what brought us to Rome. This encounter has been on my mind recently after the heinous slaughter of at least 50 Catholics celebrating Pentecost at St Francis Church in Ondo state, Nigeria. No Christian should ever have to live in fear or be a target for practising their faith.
In meetings with diplomats from the Holy See and with my ministerial counterparts in the Italian government, I made clear the UK’s unwavering commitment to protecting freedom of religion or belief globally and countering extremism at home.
We agreed to champion the tremendous inter-faith work that’s taking place right now to promote community cohesion.
In fact, one of my last visits on the itinerary was to the Great Synagogue of Rome where, in 1986, Pope John Paul II hailed Jews as the elder brothers of Catholics and prayed for a better world with the chief rabbi on the first papal visit to a synagogue since St Peter.
As the faith minister, I’m passionate about everyone’s right to worship. It’s sadly one which is denied for many people around the world, especially to Christians, who are the most persecuted religious group. I am proud, however, to be part of a government that is working hard to change this. Our response to the Bishop of Truro’s review into the global persecution of Christians “wildly exceeded” his own expectations. Last year, we made sure that freedom of religion or belief was included in a G7 communiqué for the very first time.
On 5-6 July, we are hosting an international conference in London bringing together governments, civil society and faith groups from all over the world. Our aim is to accelerate efforts to prevent freedom of religion or belief violations and robustly defend this human right in every corner of the globe.
Closer to home, our government takes a no-tolerance approach to hate crime. We have some of the strongest laws in the world to protect all communities from such hostility and deal with the perpetrators.
We continue to monitor incidents closely and following the rise in cases of online abuse, we are boosting protections against hate crime on social media. Our Online Safety Bill will create clear responsibilities for tech companies to keep UK citizens safe.
Faith has an unparalleled power to inspire and bring people together but sadly it can also be the target of terror and hatred. Our relationships with the Holy See and countries around the world will continue to flourish for many years to come.
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