This week Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt launched his Independent Review into Christian Persecution. Except nothing was actually launched. Nothing published, precious little announced, and it doesn’t look like much has been agreed between Foreign Office officials and the Bishop of Truro, Philip Mounstephen, who Hunt appointed to chair it.
Instead a picture is emerging of a Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) stitch-up.
Don’t get me wrong, I think the Foreign Secretary actually wants to do this. It won’t have been easy to get his new department to go along with the idea, and even harder to make the review independent. But government sponsored reviews are never truly independent. As the Bishop admitted at the non-launch: he is still agreeing ‘terms of reference’ with the Foreign Office. Some independence there.
And therein lies the problem. The FCO – not famed for its advocacy on behalf of persecuted Christians – doesn’t want the review to pack a punch. They want something narrow, cheap, and easy to ignore. How do we know this? Because despite knowing next-to-nothing about what the review is, we have been told a bit about what it isn’t.
And, we are told, the review isn’t going to be cross-departmental. So it won’t involve the Department for International Development or the Home Office. The reviewers will not be able to make any recommendations about either aid spending or asylum – the two critical issues which could actually help persecuted Christians on the ground.
This really matters. DFID’s current policy, reaffirmed only last week is that:
‘It is not possible to disaggregate our spending data by religion…we do not currently have plans to collect data on religion’
In other words they don’t fund groups persecuted for their faith. That’s going to make supporting persecuted Christians pretty difficult, isn’t it?
OK, but at least the review can make recommendations to the Home Office about asylum policy, can’t it – you remember, the policy that led to just one or two per cent of Syrian refugees granted asylum being Christian, and a refusal to offer a safe haven to Asia Bibi? Erm, sorry, that’s a no, too.
At this point the pragmatist might argue this initiative is a start. It gives airtime to the most neglected right in the Universal Declaration: Article 18 – what most people call Freedom of Religion and Belief (FORB).
Again – sorry to disappoint. The Foreign Office doesn’t like this language. They see the FORB movement as legitimising religious bigotry, so they’ve found a way to support it without actually supporting it. Witness the Foreign Secretary’s very careful nuance in public statements over the past week. No talk of FORB. Rather we hear about the need to protect ‘Freedom to Worship’ – a clear and deliberate narrowing of the language. In other words, ‘pray if you want, but the minute your belief system conflicts with our equality agenda, you’re on your own’. This is not FORB. It’s something else, rooted in an imaginary distinction between belief, worship and religious expression – the kind of elementary mistake only theology-proof FCO officials could make.
So it’s starting to look like Sir Humphrey is winning. It’s not too late to save it, but without some extraordinary intervention from the Foreign Secretary this Review will be a horses-for-courses Christians-for-Christians back slapping exercise, hobbled from the start, and subsequently dismissed for its (FCO-engineered) Christian parochialism. And lest you think this analysis unfair to FCO officials (they couldn’t be this hostile to religion, could they?), remember that these were the people who suggested in an official memo that the Pope should go to an abortion clinic for reeducation purposes during his state visit in 2010. In a serious official memo. Forgive me if the ideological obstinacy of a small group of spoiled twenty-somethings in the FCO is hard to stomach while Christian parents are burying their children.
I believe Hunt is sincere, and nobody could second-guess Bishop Mounstephen (rumour has it that he is valiantly fighting for the Review’s independence). But it’s a sad reflection of how little the Christian community has been offered by successive UK governments that they are falling over themselves to pay homage to Hunt for this pointless review. When it comes to Christianity, the FCO is the new blob. Defeating it will be a tall order.