Government can do more to support persecuted Christians - report

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Progress has been made on implementing the recommendations of the 2019 Truro Review into Christian persecution, but more can be done, a review has concluded.

The report comes three years after the Truro Review warned that the persecution of Christians worldwide was reaching genocidal levels.

It made 22 recommendations to the government on how it could enhance its response to Christian persecution and make FoRB central to the culture, policies and international operations of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office - since renamed the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).

The latest report three years on finds that the recommendations have been implemented to varying degrees and that progress in some areas has been hampered by Covid-19, and events in Afghanistan and Ukraine.

It concludes that the Truro Review has had the effect of "increasing awareness" of FoRB within the government and that "there appears to be increased political endorsement for making FoRB a priority as a direct result of the review".

"The FCDO has made strides towards ensuring that FoRB, alongside other human rights and values, is mainstreamed into its organisational culture," it said.

Further down it states, "It is evident that the review has made a significant contribution to making 'FoRB for all' an ongoing thematic priority within the human rights work of the FCDO.

"Additionally, it appears from the interviews conducted for this assessment that Christian persecution features in their human rights work, and many reported that they are giving greater consideration to both Christian persecution and FoRB, more broadly, as a result of the review."

Since the Truro Review, a John Bunyan Fund has been established to provide assistance to people persecuted on the grounds of their religion or belief, with £240,000 going to related projects and programmes since its launch in August 2019.

In July 2020, the UK government announced that it would impose sanctions on perpetrators of FoRB abuses as part of the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime. It has since imposed sanctions on Myanmar generals and perpetrators of human rights violations against the Uyghur minority in China.

A Special Envoy for FoRB has been appointed, with Fiona Bruce MP taking up the role in December 2020. Concerns were raised, however, that the Special Envoy position "has not been sufficiently integrated operationally into the FCDO" and, as such, has faced "institutional challenges" in exercising the degree of authority across FCDO departments envisaged by the Truro Review.

Recommendation 20 asking the UK to seek a UN Security Council Resolution calling on governments in the Middle East and North Africa to respect the religious freedom of Christians and other faith minorities has "encountered constraints during the delivery".

"This recommendation was always going to be a very difficult recommendation to fulfil and has proved to be one of the most challenging recommendations in the review to implement," the report said.

"Nevertheless, the FCDO has pursued it with seriousness, and a significant amount of time, effort, and resources have been deployed in formulating and negotiating a possible Security Council resolution since April 2021.

"Despite setbacks, the FCDO continues to seek a resolution. The deadlock within the Security Council, however, may not shift in the short term.

"Accordingly, it is noted that there are opportunity costs to deploying political capital towards negotiating a FoRB-related resolution in a highly politicised forum such as the Security Council."

"Significant work" has been done to implement Recommendation 11, which called for religious literacy and diversity training for FCDO staff despite some challenges.

"The Assessment Team notes that the meaning of the term 'religious literacy' is contested and developing training modules for the specific purpose of enhancing religious literacy is a challenging endeavour," the report said.

It went on to say that the FCDO has pursued the development of training "with determination" but that uptake of the core module, Religion for International Engagement, has been "slow" and it remains "unclear as to whether the importance of the training has been clearly communicated to staff".

"For example, levels of engagement with the core unit among staff at desk and post varied considerably," the report said.

"Some FCDO staff interviewed were unaware of the core unit, others were aware of it but had not completed the training (but expressed an intention to do so in the future when time permits), and only a few had undertaken the training."

It also notes that the core training is only 'highly recommended', not mandatory.

Elsewhere, some interviewees felt that the original impetus to address Christian persecution was at risk of being "subsumed by, and potentially lost within, the 'FoRB for all' focus".

"In this regard, the background to the review needs consideration," it said.

"The initial impetus for the review lay in calls to prioritise responding to Christian persecution and discrimination."

Elsewhere, it stated, "There are differing views among interviewees as to whether a culture shift has taken place in the FCDO with respect to FoRB.

"Some interviewees observed that a shift has not yet begun to take place, noting that when FoRB issues are raised the discussion moves to human rights more generally and the focus on religion or belief is lost.

"They reported that FoRB has a tendency to be folded into other important human rights priorities, and this tendency can detract from the need to recognise religion or belief as an independent ground of vulnerability."

Other interviewees expressed a concern "that the general association of the review with a Christianity-centric focus carried risks when working on FoRB related issues in-country".

"Posts and stakeholders had largely responded by understanding or reframing the recommendations within the 'FoRB for all' policy priority," the report said.

"Therefore, attempts were made throughout the implementation process to mitigate potential negative consequences of the work of the FCDO being perceived as being overly Christianity-centric."

The report concludes, "Overall, the implementation of the recommendations has assisted in heightening awareness of FoRB for all, and the need to ensure that the persecution of Christians is addressed in as full a fashion as is the persecution of others.

"During the last three years, there have been many positive developments and initiatives undertaken to bring this about.

"However, there remains scope for further developments in order to ensure that the protection of FoRB for all becomes firmly embedded in the operational approach of the FCDO as a whole."

Responding to the report, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said she accepted the assessment.

"We welcome and accept this expert review on progress and in line with the findings, accept their assessment for the need to continue to work to promote and strengthen Freedom of Religion or Belief as a fundamental human right for all. We thank the reviewers for their important work," she said.

"Building on this work, we will continue to ensure that the changes we have made are embedded and to look for opportunities to make FoRB central to the FCDO's wider human rights work. We will do this, working alongside others, to deliver real change for the good, protecting and promoting everyone's right to freedom of religion or belief.

"Our work on this important human rights issue will never be complete, and we will continue to champion global efforts on FoRB."

The independent review was carried out by Professor Nazila Ghanea, Sir Malcolm Evans, Professor Ahmed Shaheed, Dr Gehan Gunatilleke and Dr Caroline K Roberts.

Former Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, who commissioned the Truro Review, thanked Truss for accepting the recommendations in full. 

"Too many people are dying every day for their faith (including more Christians than any other faith)," he said. 

Minister of State, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, added on behalf of the government, "I welcome the review, and I am encouraged by what has been achieved so far in the face of many global challenges.

"Standing up for freedom of faith or belief is a right which we will always stand up for.

"The UK is committed to promoting and strengthening the freedom of religion or belief as a fundamental human right for all – including through hosting an international conference this week bringing together governments, civil society, faith and belief groups."