Jeremy Hunt’s persecuted Christians initiative at the Foreign Office is to be welcomed. By asking the Bishop of Truro, Philip Mounstephen to engage the question of how the Foreign Office can assist persecuted Christians he avoids jumping to easy answers.
I draw most hope by the thing he has been criticised for – ruling out the involvement of other departments including the international aid department and the Home Office. This means he has focussed the Bishop of Truro’s inquiry on what is helpful and achievable in British foreign policy.
It is all very well asking the British government to throw its weight around in supporting persecuted Christians, but this will often have the opposite effect to that desired. Look what happened when Western governments threw their weight around in Iraq and Syria – the effect was felt most adversely by the region’s persecuted Christians.
British and American foreign policy can have a disproportionately adverse effect on the church overseas. That does not mean that western governments should not do what they need to do but that they should avoid identifying their foreign policy with the Church.
To make British aid contingent on treating the Church fairly would have the effect of putting Christians in the frame. The Church would be seen as a creature of western foreign policy, which would lead to further persecution.
In the debate around Asia Bibi, the British Government has rightly chipped away quietly behind the scenes, not wishing to further enflame a country that was on the verge of civil war. Happily, the Imran Khan government of Pakistan (with the support of the international community) has played a blinder. I have been critical of the Church of England, and especially the Archbishop of Canterbury, for saying too little – after all he didn’t even tweet out a prayer of thanks when the Supreme Court judgement originally came through. I’m happy to apologise for my misjudgement. The Archbishop was right to be reticent and resist polarising the situation into a ‘Christianity vs Islam’ that might have damaged Pakistani Christians greatly.
So the Bishop of Truro will have to carefully consider what sort of interventions Britain should make for the persecuted Church that do the least amount of harm. Very often, the only thing that the Foreign Office can do is to take up the cause of persecuted Christians behind the scenes. This may mean building some extra infrastructure around the role of Lord Ahmed – the government’s envoy for religious freedom. It would be good also to have an annual government report on religious persecution. The Open Doors Watch List is all very well in its way, but it absurdly puts Saudi Arabia as far down as 15th (a country where there is no religious freedom whatsoever) and Nigeria in 12th place (where Christians have been slaughtered by Boko Haram and Fulani Tribesmen). It could do with being replaced by something official and useful for policy makers and NGOs.
Church needs to find its moral voice
The Church should call us to debate moral purpose rather than acting as an echo chamber of the left, according to an explosive article in the Sunday Telegraph(https://bit.ly/2Ga5e9U).
Dr Richard Turnbull of the Centre for Enterprise, Market and Ethics, questioned the Church of England’s uncritical support for the European Union. He expressed ‘discomfort’ with some recent statements by leaders of the Church of England, especially Archbishop Welby’s strange claim that the EU has been “the greatest dream realised for human beings since the fall of the Western Roman Empire”.
Dr Turnbull argued: “The Church cannot, and should not, make its voice heard by reinforcing such a perception of elitism, or by identifying the Gospel with the state, and its provision. Perhaps it has grown so close to the establishment that it cannot conceive of any responses to social or economic questions which do not involve an expansion of the state, rather than a genuine debate around moral ideas and principles.”
According to Turnbull, the Church cannot engage in a debate because it is out of touch with any notions of how the market actually works and a vision for welfare that is not locked into a left-of-centre notion of a high-tax, interventionist social model.
“Today,” he writes, “we are in danger of outsourcing our responsibility for social welfare to the state, so giving greater moral weight to a pound raised in taxation than one remaining in the family unit. That does not mean there is no role for the state in caring for the vulnerable; nor does it mean that proper public debate around the nature of the modern company is out of order. It is, though, a warning against presumption.”