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Truro report launched to Ambassadors, FCO staff, NGO leaders and clergy

Truro report launched to Ambassadors, FCO staff, NGO leaders and clergy

CEN Report
June 17, 2019

The Truro Report on FCO support for persecuted Christians was launched to a packed Assembly Hall in Church House on Monday July 15. The launch was chaired and introduced by Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, the Prime Minister's special envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FORB). His own appointment had been suggested by Boris Johnson, when Foreign Secretary, and Theresa May. He apologized that Jeremy Hunt had had to go to Brussels to discuss the Iran tanker crisis.

Lord Ahmad stressed that freedom of religion or belief (FORB) lies at the heart of a person's freedom to be who they are, and is the root of all other freedoms. Bishop Philip Mounstephen of Truro, who chaired the report, highlighted FORB as the canary in the mine. Once that stone is turned over, lots of other underlying ugly injustices come to light. But to single out Christians for protection, he said, often made matters worse for them and the best way forward was to guarantee freedom for everyone.

Dr Habib Malik from Lebanon, the son of Dr Charles Malik who drew up article 18 of the UN Charter of Human Rights, which guarantees religious freedom and the right to convert, argued that that article, on which Saudi Arabia abstained but did not oppose, was the rock on which to build the case for FORB.

The elephant in the room was named by Christy Anastas, of i61 collective which works for reconciliation and bridge building with a particular focus on the Middle East.

She argued that the purpose of religion is to establish a personal relationship with the God we acknowledge, but that much religion had become too much involved with politics and the nation. Young people could see the damage that this has produced. She grew up Christian in Bethlehem which used to be 80% Christian but is now 90% Muslim and said that Christians are being made to accept that the Palestinian territories are Islamic. Aware that what she was saying would be dangerous for her family she nevertheless said that such politicised religion is oppressive, unrealistic, unjust and violates human rights. She pointed to the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday when he challenged not the Roman occupiers but the religious leaders in the temple who imposed their beliefs on people.

Ekhlas Bajoo, a Yasidi from Iraq, spoke of how aged 14 she had been held captive by the forces of Daesh after her father was killed and when she was taken from her mother. For six months she had been repeatedly tortured and raped. She and Jacqueline Isaac, her Egyto-American lawyer colleague have been campaigning for four years to have those responsible for such atrocities against both Yasidi and Christians prosecuted not just for terrorism but for sex crimes and genocide. "I will never surrender," Ekhlas said to a standing ovation.

By live feed from the Vatican, H.E Judy Axworthy, the UK Ambassador to the Papal See was seen handing over the report to the Pope's representative.

Addressing the next steps, Bishop Mounstephen hoped that Churches would move on from charitable support to advocacy for persecuted Christians and use their political muscle to encourage MPs to provide a voice for all those persecuted because of their religion as a major global issue which ranked only with climate change as a threat to the planet. Churches he said have phenomenal networks on the ground in these countries. Lord Ahmad said that £12 million had been earmarked by DFID to assist poor communities to build local civil society to protect FORB.

The question was asked that if FORB is central to a person's identity, what might the basis for the international community and governments to interfere with a country's self proclaimed culture and religious identity which targeted members of minority religions as unpatriotic traitors?

Lord Ahmad replied that no faith sanctions religious persecution. If religion is politicised then countries should be challenged through diplomatic channels to allow greater religious pluralism, by appeal to their constitution and by external levers such as article 18 of the United Nations' Charter which no country opposed when framed in 1947. "If we cannot stand up for freedom of religion with countries who are our allies," he said: what are alliances worth?' One participant noted that the question then is: 'What if Muslim countries interpret those articles and rights in the light of the Quran?'

Some attending the launch from one such country confirmed that only Governments speaking to Governments with believable sanctions, as happened in the Asia Bibi case, would be able to achieve results.

Lord Ahmad and the Bishop of Truro were due to leave the next day for a consultation on FORB in Washington.


Understanding the Truro Report

By Vinay Samuel and Chris Sugden
July 19, 2019

Much of the information presented by the Truro Report will already be known to people and organisations concerned about persecution of Christians around the world today. Most of the information was sourced from the activity of such organisations who have already shared it widely. The number of witnesses cited and rigour exercised does not of itself guarantee originality since they may well have spoken to many others earlier.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has been active in the area since 1998 and produced well researched annual reports. In spite of the backing of most US Presidents, the impact of its reports in relieving pressures on persecuted Christians has been meagre. National Governments in Asia, North Africa and the Middle East reject the reports' findings and consider them as unjustified interference in their nations' internal affairs. India refuses to allow any member of USCIRF into the country.

A report commissioned by the Foreign Secretary of Britain will be taken seriously by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and is likely to shape its policy in advocacy for better protection of Christian minorities in countries where they face hostility and violence.

A core task of the report is ' to assess the quality of the response of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), and to make recommendations for changes in both policy and practice.' The report is muted on what has given rise to the increase of the persecution of Christians.as a global phenomenon prompting the report. However evidence exists that in the Middle East and now in the Sahel, UK and US military policies have destabilised the regions and produced anti-Christian movements which for better or worse see the US and UK as at the very least allied with Christians who therefore become sitting targets for their violent response. Further, omission of the UK from the survey omits the fact that Government policies in the UK have increasingly denied religious freedom in both expression and practice of Christian social ethics.

We would like to highlight two concerns. The first is the consequences of the report for the relationships between the governments and Christians in the nations studied. While the report is careful not to attack their governments and commends dialogue and persuasion, many governments in nations where persecution not only persists but is increasing, are likely to be offended and harden their stance. Their relations with Christians will go south and increasing activities of persecution will go unchecked. The burden of dealing with such a situation is likely to increase on local Christians. Evidence available to us suggests that many leaders of churches, especially independent churches, who are targets of persecution want no connection whatsoever with Western organisations and do not want Western governments or their agencies to advocate for them as it only increases their vulnerability and risk.

Organisations who are working in the area of responding to Christian persecution often appear to believe that international pressure will bring positive change. International awareness is fine. But in most cases international pressure is counter-productive. Pressures from western governments have rarely changed the situation on the ground. Western pressure is rejected as another example of the colonial reflex of the post-colonial West. What local Christians, Churches and organisations need is support for their own efforts to deal with the challenges they face. The Truro Report gives little guidance on how this can be done.

While the report commendably notes that 'the Christian faith is primarily a phenomenon of the global south - and it is therefore primarily a phenomenon of the global poor' (p.16), the pattern of international partnerships for development, and political and social change between the West and the global south which appears to provide the template for action as though the FCO was DFID, does not apply in this very sensitive area where religion and politics are mixed together. The key question is not what is happening to persecuted Christians, and thus seeing them as objects, but how are the Christians as subjects of their own destiny themselves responding to their persecution and what kind of help and solidarity are they saying will be helpful. Local Christians are the ones to decide and direct what kind of partnership they need and want.

Therefore the omission by and large of the direct voices of persecuted Christians, rather than being filtered through western research however rigorous, independent and well intentioned is very regrettable since those voices themselves, rather than the implications and conclusions drawn from them are the key to developing any appropriate response from those outside their situation. Guidance based on that evidence is needed for how partners should proceed, be they the FCO, agencies or churches.

Secondly, the Truro Report is similar to most other state or secular reporting on Christian Persecution in not recognizing the way many Christians understand and respond to persecution. They see it as a part of their Christian discipleship. Christians, especially when they are a minority, expect to be persecuted. Persecution does not come as a shock to them. Victim language is not their first or continuing response. The Christian religious tradition is unique in teaching its followers to expect persecution and prepare for it. Christianity has a tradition of responding to persecution since its founding. These responses are not as helpless victims but as those called to suffer. This understanding rarely informs reports on Christians persecution and is not present in the Truro Report. This is not an argument for passivity but for recognising the resources that the faith itself gives to those being persecuted. Surprising as the team was headed by a bishop!

This report first appeared in the Church of England Newspaper

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