Baroness Warsi chairs first Religious Freedom Advisory Group


The Foreign and Commonwealth Office hosted the first meeting of a new advisory committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief on Tuesday, during which experts in the field discussed their future global strategy for protecting those suffering under religious persecution.

The meeting was chaired by Senior Minister of State and Minister for Faith and Communities Baroness Warsi, who has been a powerful voice in the fight for religious freedom and consistently reaffirmed the need for the international community to take steps to address the rise in attacks on faith groups and religious individuals around the worl.

The advisory group will advise FCO ministers on the protection of religious freedom across the globe.

In a speech at Georgetown University in Washington last year, the Baroness branded attacks on religious freedom "a dangerous and rising phenomenon" and warned that the persecution of Christians had reached crisis levels.

Many people across the world face "ostracism, discrimination and abuse to forced conversion, torture and even murder," as a result of their beliefs, particularly Christians in the Middle East who are being forced to flee their homes.

"A mass exodus is taking place, on a biblical scale," the Baroness warned.

Speaking of the meeting yesterday, which was attended by Mervyn Thomas of Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Joel Edwards of Micah Challenge, Baroness Warsi reaffirmed her personal commitment to the cause and highlighted the urgency with which the international community must respond.

"Across the world, people are being singled out and hounded out simply for the faith they follow or the beliefs they hold. The persecution of people because of their faith or belief has, I believe, become a global crisis," she said.

"I want to make sure we have the best advice available. This is why we have set up this new Advisory Group, made up of real experts in the field, and of those who are working every day in practical ways to defend the right to freedom of religion or belief.

"I look forward to working with them as we seek to move towards a world where no-one is persecuted for what they believe."

The group's first meeting is timely, as Open Doors is set to send its latest advocacy report – 'Freedom of Religion and the Persecution of Christians' - to MPs this month.

Based on research undertaken for the World Watch List, which ranks countries according to their level of persecution against Christians, the report reveals a marked increase in Christians suffering around the world, particularly in Africa. The killings of 2,123 Christians around the world were reported between November 2012 and October 2013, though this is widely regarded to be a conservative figure. Nigeria and Syria had the highest statistics.

"While the report indicates that it is not the only source of persecution, the main engine driving persecution of Christians in 36 of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian is Islamic Extremism," explains head of advocacy at Open Doors, Zoe Baldock.

"Last year we drew the attention of Parliament and the Foreign Office to the new trend of persecution in Africa, including states where Christians are in the majority. This year we reinforce that, emphasising that the most violent region for the persecution of Christians is the African Sahel belt."

Furthermore, the report suggests that restrictions on religious freedom are both a cause and consequence of "civic and political breakdown".

Though there has been an increase in persecution in Africa, however, North Korea remains officially recognised as the worst country for Christians for the 12th year in a row. Open Doors estimates that up to 70,000 believers are living in labour camps and prisons across the country.

Being a Christian is against the law in North Korea under the rule of Dictator Kim Jong-Un, and believers are forced to hide their faith. Those that are discovered are severely punished, and sometimes even killed.

Thirty-three people were sentenced to death earlier this month for supposedly having contact with Kim Jung-Wook, a South Korean Baptist missionary arrested in October. It is not known whether they are still alive.

A recent report commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council condemns the mistreatment of North Korean citizens and likens the situation to gross violations of human rights in Nazi Germany, South Africa during the Apartheid, and Cambodia under the rule of the Khmer Rouge.

"The gravity, scale, duration and nature of the unspeakable atrocities committed in the country reveal a totalitarian State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world," Michael Kirby, leader of the independent inquiry which compiled the report, told the UNHRC on Monday.

"We can no longer afford to remain oblivious to it, nor impotent to act against it," he declared.

Open Doors has been a loud voice in campaigning for greater freedoms for religious believers in North Korea, and held a meeting in Parliament on 4 March to share the reality of the situation with over 40 MPs and their representatives using the testimonies of those who have survived the harrowing concentration camps.

"I'm stunned and horrified by what has been shared today. How can we do more to help?" asked one MP following the meeting.

"We cannot stay silent. North Korea is in breach of every single declaration of the 1948 human rights bill," added co-chair Fiona Bruce MP.

Open Doors is calling for increased prayer for continued discussions on how to respond, and in particular for God to strengthen those Christians who are suffering under Kim Jong-Un's rule.

In a statement released by the charity, the international Christian community is encouraged to "Praise God for the powerful words of Michael Kirby and the worldwide media impact of the report. Ask God to move people to action as a result."

In related news, the Evangelical Fellowship of India has also published its yearly report on persecution. Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka are named as the states within which Christians face the most danger, with 41, 28 and 27 reports of anti-Christian violence in 2013 respectively.

Although religious freedom is guaranteed under India's constitution, discriminatory legislation punishes those who choose to actively follow the Christian faith and places restrictions on the Church. Seven states in India have anti-conversion laws, which state that those who wish to convert to another religion must first gain official permission. Religious leaders are required by law to report conversions, or risk a three-year jail sentence themselves.

The Evangelical Fellowship, along with other Church groups, is calling on the Indian government to amend legislation that allows the systematic targeting of Christians and other minority groups, particularly in the lead up to the general elections expected to take place in May.