On Christmas Day, the British Government announced that it had ordered an independent review into the persecution of Christians worldwide. That may not sound like a significant development on the face of it. But for years the authorities have seemed curiously indifferent to the plight of the almost 200 million Christians at risk of persecution today.
British officials have often appeared afraid to focus specifically on the suffering of Christians. The most charitable reading is that they wished to defend the rights of all religious minorities and feared that an emphasis on Christians might leave other groups exposed. In Pakistan, for example, the largest minority is not, in fact, Christians but Hindus. The country also has significant numbers of Shia Muslims and Ahmedis, who also face severe discrimination. Should Britain not lobby on behalf of these communities as well?
A less charitable reading is that the government refused to highlight the plight of Christians because of a combination of cowardice and political correctness. Cowardice, because raising the matter would require some degree of confrontation with unpleasant regimes. Political correctness, because, like much of the elite, many officials regard the Western Christian tradition as an embarrassment. They have attended universities at which Christians are portrayed as oppressors, so it difficult for them to recognise that, in the 21st-century, Christians are among the oppressed.
The independent review is therefore a major counter-cultural step. According to media reports, Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, wanted the study to focus specifically on Christians, rather than religious minorities generally, because Christianity (in its Anglican form) is the established faith in England. It is therefore legitimate to spend state resources on the review. Furthermore, Hunt is convinced that the oppression of Christians is often “a telling early warning sign of the persecution of every minority”. The review will be led by the Anglican Bishop of Truro, the Rt Rev Philip Mounstephen. Officials have asked him to make “ambitious policy recommendations” in his report, which is due by Easter.
A cynic might argue that the review is little more than a PR exercise, announced at Christmas in order to generate positive headlines but unlikely to lead to any momentous changes given Britain’s current political instability. (If the Government collapses over Brexit, then Jeremy Hunt might not even be Foreign Secretary come Easter.)
But cynics are not always right. We should applaud the Foreign Secretary for recognising that anti-Christian persecution is a specific problem and not a vague matter of minority rights. Also, there is encouraging evidence that focusing on particular groups can yield positive results. According to a global study published by the Kantor Center last year, the number of recorded violent anti-Semitic incidents fell by about nine per cent in 2017 compared to 2016. The report attributed the decrease to better security and intelligence, and more government spending, among other factors. This suggests that when states specifically target anti-Semitism – rather than simply making broad statements about minority rights – they can have a significant impact. (Sadly, the study also recorded a simultaneous increase in harassment and abuse, meaning that many Jews still live in a state of great insecurity, despite the decline in violent incidents.)
The independent review of anti-Christian persecution is likely to provoke vigorous debate within the Government. On one side will be those, like us, who believe there is empirical evidence that anti-Christian violence is likely to decrease if it is acknowledged as such. This would in turn strengthen the position of other vulnerable religious minorities. On the other side will be those who fear that Britain will jeopardise long-standing relationships if it makes too much fuss about anti-Christian oppression. Some of the worst persecution takes place in countries such as Egypt, India, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, where Britain has significant diplomatic or business interests. Will speaking the truth put these at risk?
This, in the end, is not just a dilemma for Britain but also for other governments committed to religious liberty. For too long, Western nations have overlooked anti-Christian persecution. Let’s hope that the independent review will encourage them to confront this uncomfortable truth.