The challenges facing the Government’s new religious envoy

Anglican Life

Embrace the Middle East

 

Governments, indeed political parties, struggle with an endless tension between what is desirable politically, and what is possible.What they wish to do, and what they can do. A politician I used to work for was fond of quoting his own personal political maxim; “always under-promise and over-deliver; never the other way round”.We are currently witnessing what is the most long drawn out and painful reminder of the truism in most of our lifetimes: Brexit.

So when the government announces its intention to act in a way that bucks recent trend, to work towards an end you believe to be of fundamental importance, it is hard to know whether to jump for joy, or weep in the anticipation of impending disappointment.

A month ago Downing Street announced the appointment of a new Prime Ministerial special envoy on Freedom ofReligion or Belief, a curious title.

Also curious was the strange attempt to link this international priority with domestic concerns.The Prime Minister said at the time: “Religious discrimination blights the lives of millions of people across the globe and leads to conflict and instability.” Amen to that.

But she went on to say that “both here [my italics] and abroad, individuals are being denied the basic right of being able to practise their faith free of fear.”The discrimination being faced by people of the Baha’i faith in Iran, by Yezidis in Iraq or Christians in Pakistan can hardly be equated to current concerns around community cohesion in the UK.

The press release announcing Lord Ahmad’s appointment contained a bewildering array of issues which he would be addressing: from toleration and discrimination to religious liberty and persecution (a sole mention) by way of inter-faith respect and dialogue.

If Lord Ahmad is to provide the kind of leadership needed in this most thorny of policy areas, some very focussed thinking will be required; not only by him, but by the diplomats of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office where he is a minister.I am encouraged that he acknowledges that: “Freedom of Religion or Belief is a human right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It must be respected. People from all faiths or none should be free to practise as they wish. This respect is key to global stability, and is in all our interests.”

He is absolutely right to start with the Universal Declaration.Article 18 states unequivocally that: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

This right was further elaborated by the UN General Assembly in 1981 when it agreed a non-legally binding Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination based in Religion or Belief. But that is about as far as the UN has got to date.Intentions are fine, but actions speak much louder than words.Religious liberty is at present a distant dream.

If the UK is to be effective, nevertheless,in pursuing this goal to the mutual benefit of believers and non-believers everywhere, difficult choices will need to be made.The UK will have to speak with much greater clarity, intent and volume in international fora, and in bilateral discussions, especially with the most egregious flouters of the human right to religious liberty.

The list of offenders is long and among othersincludes China and Saudi Arabia. Will the Foreign Office, and the Prime Minister’s Envoy, ensure that human rights, including religious liberty, feature high, and publically, on the bilateral agenda with these countries? Or will trade concerns, and especially energy and arms, trump such considerations?

Will the right to religious liberty be sacrificed on the altar of Brexit?

We must hope not. And we must keep the Special Envoy’s feet to the fire. The Prime Minister and her advisersdeserve credit for appointing Lord Ahmad, and seeing off strong attempts from the Foreign Office to prevent anappointment in the first place.

The Foreign Office has a long history of disdain for Prime Ministerial envoys.Lord Ahmad must prove that he was not in fact a compromise between an intransigent Foreign Office, with more important fish to fry, and a properly concerned and ambitious Downing Street, unprepared to settle for the usual hand wringing on an issue of vital global significance for all our long term futures.

The Foreign Office likes to think it has one mandate – to promote and protect British national interests.It will not naturally regard fighting for other people’s right to religious freedom as within that compass.I hope Lord Ahmad means it when he says that respect for freedom of religion is “key to global stability and is in all our interests”.The events of the past two decades surely prove him absolutely right.

 

Tim Livesey is CEO of Embrace the Middle East