Tackling religious persecution is a moral necessity

Kenyans attend a memorial vigil for victims at the "Freedom Corner" in Nairobi.Reuters

Easter this year took place in the dark shadow of the brutal murder of 147 students in a Garissa University in Kenya. Christian students were callously singled out and brutally killed in cold blood by a murderous terrorist group that continues to terrorise the region.

The sermons and teachings of religious leaders this weekend were rich in references to this suffering. The Archbishop of Canterbury this weekend referred to these victims as martyrs in the latest struggle against rising Christian persecution.

Whilst many of us attended services and sermons during Holy Week, our fellow Christians in Kenya turned to armed guards to protect their congregations on the most important day of the Christian calendar.

So while for many Christians, the past few days have been spent with family and friends reflecting on the importance of Easter, this is also a time to acknowledge the sacrifices made in the struggle to defend faith.

Christian persecution is once again filling our headlines, dominating our prayers and weighing down our hearts.

Even before this latest massacre in Kenya, 2015 had been a year of recurring tragedy. Last month in Lahore, suicide bombers attacked two churches killing 17 people and setting off a cycle of violence across the city. Those murdered included Christians praying at their place of worship, and those brave volunteer security guards that give up their time, and ultimately their lives, to protect their right to do so.

The Open Doors charity recorded 1,062 churches being attacked in twelve months. Each of these individual tragedies together paints a picture of global suffering that cannot be ignored.

That is why the Archbishop of Canterbury was right to appeal for more to be done. He has called on us all to tackle this "climate of fear and animosity". It is our shared task, indeed our shared responsibility to answer the Archbishops call to now "speak out in solidarity" because upholding the dignity of every human being means upholding their right to religious belief.

Today 76 per cent of the world's population live in countries with high restrictions on religious freedom and the vast majority of those facing persecution are Christians. Christians are subject to violence, intimidation and discrimination in more than 50 countries.

Churches and charities already work tirelessly to amplify the cries of the persecuted. But no one is absolved of the responsibility to speak up. In the face of persecution on this scale, neither ignorance not fear of offence can be an excuse for walking by on the other side in silence.

Pope Francis has warned that "the world seeks to hide" the scale of the suffering. Our shared task is to shed light on this darkest of stories.

At this time of great peril, it is the responsibility of any British Government to step up, rather than stepping back. Other governments are already showing strong leadership. The United States and Canada have both appointed international ambassadors for tackling religious persecution. The UK, having fallen behind, should now follow suit.

So an incoming Labour Government will appoint a Global Envoy for Religious Freedom, reporting directly to the Foreign Secretary.

Government should also harness the concern, expertise and understanding of faith leaders from across the UK and beyond. So in addition, Labour would establish a multi-faith advisory council on religious freedom within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

A Labour government would make tackling religious persecution a key foreign policy priority. Not just because it is politically right, but because it is a moral necessity.

Britain must set its sights on striving together to realise the promise of the 21st Century – and that means a government leading in global efforts to support the building of societies that respect freedom of religion as a universal concern.