The Foreign Office has kindly responded to my Telegraph piece from last week, which suggested that they could do more to confront the
religious cleansing sweeping the Middle East. In an extended version of a letter he has sent to the paper, the Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt says
that his department is doing plenty:
‘Concrete examples include: Iraq, where the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have raised religious freedoms and where the FCO is funding a further meeting of the High Council of
Religious Leaders; Algeria where I recently met a delegation of Christian leaders to discuss the challenges they are facing; Egypt where the Deputy Prime Minister has raised our concerns direct
with the Prime Minister; and further afield, in Pakistan where we have been working closely with the Minister for Minorities to increase the profile of religious freedom.’
But I’m afraid the response only shows just how far the FCO has to go. Take Iraq, where the FCO is ‘funding a further meeting of the High Council of Religious Leaders’. Does it
really think this will make the slightest difference to the number of Christians being executed by Salafi militias? A thousand have been killed by the sectarian violence there, and two-thirds of
the 1.4 million Christians have now fled. The only thing left for Britain to do is grant them asylum, not sponsor talking shops for religious leaders.
Egypt is midway into becoming an Iraq. This time last year, Islamist fanatics were targeting Coptic churches. One Arab Spring later, and the Egyptian military is now mowing
down Christians. It’s great that Nick Clegg is expressing his concerns to the Egyptian Prime Minister about the unfolding bloodshed, but his chances of making the slightest bit of
difference are comparable to a snowball’s chance of floating all the way down the Nile.
Burt says he ‘met a delegation of Christian leaders to discuss the challenges they are facing’ in Algeria on 26 Oct. That’s good to hear. But it’s not going to have much effect if
William Hague doesn’t even raise the subject when he travels to Algeria (which he didn’t). It’s no good
listening to concerns if they’re not passed on. Although Algeria, it should be said, is far from the worst offender.
So what should the FCO be doing? It should stop religious repression long before it gets to the Iraq/Egyptian phase where massacres are taking place. In my Telegraph piece I gave a few suggestions:
1) Deny aid to any country that does not allow freedom of religious practice (to anyone: Jews, Bahais, Christians, Sunnis).
2) Publish an annual report on religious freedom, which would send a clear message about how seriously Britain takes this.
3) Make clear that promoting religious freedom is regarded as a means of conflict prevention, because the next wars are as likely to be within countries as between them.
And what about William Hague giving a speech devoted to this? Nicholas Sarkozy has already called it ‘religious cleansing’, and
Hague — the best speaker in Parliament — could make an even bigger impression.
I’d concur with one of the clergymen I most admire, the former Bishop of Rochester Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali. Born in Pakistan, he knows the problem of religious sectarianism as well as
anyone, and his letter to the Telegraph appears under the
‘The so called Arab Spring may be a winter for Christians, women and other groups. The demands of the shari’a in the areas of blasphemy, apostasy, freedom of worship and of
expression will further exacerbate the position of Christians and other non-Muslims. It is time now not just for the “quiet diplomatic word” but for action at an international level to
secure the future of religious minorities in the Islamic world.’
What Burt has done is good, but is nowhere near enough. He’s a good minister, and Hague is one of the government’s best talents. Together, reformulating their policy, they could ensure
that Britain leads the world in confronting this new evil.
P.S. The Conservative Party’s Human Rights Commission has spent years calling for the Foreign Office to beef up its focus on religious freedom, most recently in this report. It suggested that the government ‘appoint a special envoy for international freedom of religion
and belief in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and re-establish an FCO Freedom of Religion Panel to advise the Government on violations of religious freedom and methods of promoting religious