Religious literacy for civil servants is 'vital', says Open Doors

(Photo: Unsplash/Eva Dang)

The head of Open Doors UK has welcomed the Government's pledge to widen religious literacy training for civil servants. 

Foreign and Commonwealth Office minister Heather Wheeler made the promise in a speech to the House of Commons last Thursday, in which she said that the persecution of people for their faith was a "matter of deep concern" for the Government. 

In her address, she also admitted that the UK Government had not given the persecution of Christians "the attention it warranted". 

"We have recognised that our diplomats and officials must fully appreciate the role that religion plays in people's lives in political and social contexts, and that is why we are working to expand and enhance our religious literacy training," she said. 

The announcement was welcomed by Henrietta Blyth, Open Doors CEO, who said it was "vital for Britain's dealings overseas". 

"Our MPs are right: it's time our civil service 'did religion'," she said. 

"Over 80 per cent of the world believes in God and it's central to the way people live their lives – from the way they do business, to the reason they fight wars.

"It is vital that civil servants and teams across the Foreign and Commonwealth Office understand the role faith plays in so many cultures - for good and ill. You can't properly understand or engage with the world without understanding the role it plays in billions of lives."

She said she wanted to see the UK raise the issue of religious freedom in its trade or aid negotiations with other countries. 

"When we offer aid or negotiate trade we have the chance to speak out to governments about the treatment of their religious minorities," she said.

"But to be taken seriously when we talk about religious issues, we need to understand them first.

"The MPs who spoke up about this are right – understanding the central role of faith in lives around the world can't just be an optional add-on to our diplomatic work – it's central."

The expansion of religious literacy training was one of the recommendations in the Bishop of Truro's review into persecution last year, commissioned by then Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt. 

The review found that "an overwhelming amount of evidence... pointed to the lack of religious literacy of civil servants" in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. In its recommendations, the review said that training "should be an integral and in-depth element of all initial induction training".