Tim Dieppe comments on the recent government review into persecuted Christians overseas.
The Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, commissioned the Bishop of Truro to produce an independent review into global persecution of Christians and the quality of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) response to it. The review was published on 8 July.
The review agrees with the widespread evidence that Christians are by far the most widely persecuted religion in the world. It is estimated that some 80% of persecuted religious believers are Christians. It also states that in some cases the persecution of Christians meets the tests of genocide. The report notes that “Christianity now faces the possibility of being wiped-out in parts of the Middle East where its roots go back furthest.”
One would have thought, given these disturbing facts, that a significant portion of our foreign aid budget would be going to support persecuted Christians. In fact, very little, if any, is getting to persecuted Christians. The clear conclusion is that the Foreign Office has been discriminating against persecuted Christians in its distribution of foreign aid.
Aid for minorities in Pakistan?
Pakistan is highlighted in the review as a focus country, and the case of Asia Bibi is discussed. The case of Asia Bibi created headlines throughout the world. An illiterate Christian, she was incarcerated for nine years, and sentenced to death over allegations of so-called blasphemy. Shamefully, the UK failed to grant her asylum, while judges risked their lives by granting her freedom. Indeed, two brave politicians who spoke up on behalf of Asia Bibi were consequently murdered. One revelation, that was new to me in the review, was that a meeting with members of Asia Bibi’s family at UK government offices was cancelled at extremely short notice – the family only found out about the cancellation after they had gone through security and arrived at reception.
“There are many Asia Bibis here”
Lord Alton secured a short debate in the House of Lords on 2 July on aid programmes in Pakistan and how they are related to the treatment of minorities and in particular the case of Asia Bibi. The subject of this debate relates directly to the question of why foreign aid to Pakistan is not reaching persecuted Christians.
The Bishop of Coventry said in the debate that he was told by a bishop from south Punjab,“There are many Asia Bibis here.” Lord Alton noted that Asia’s prison cell is now occupied by Shagufta Kauser – another Christian woman who, together with her disabled husband, faces execution for allegedly sending blasphemous texts in English.
Why was asylum not granted?
The Bishop of Coventry explained that in his contact with Asia Bibi’s family spokesperson he was clear that the UK was the family’s preferred destination for asylum. Baroness Cox asked the government:
“Did Her Majesty’s Government refuse asylum to Asia Bibi because of fear that that would prompt unrest in the UK and attacks on embassies? If that is so, does the Minister agree that such an appeasement of militant extremism indicates a serious threat to our democracy and a betrayal of the fundamental principle of providing asylum for refugees under threat of death?”
This question did not receive a direct answer.
“They want to kill me in a way that the Christians will remember”
Baroness Cox, along with Lord Alton, has visited Pakistan for herself to hear from victims in person. She explained:
“Young girls have been abducted and forced to change their religion or have been forced into marriage. Others are in prison or have been sentenced to death for apostasy.”
In one case:
“One man, called Cale, was accused of blasphemy in Pakistan. He described how he was arrested by the police and taken to a remote location where he was tortured, hanged upside down, shackled and beaten for seven days. After a month in prison he was cleared of the charges, yet the local mob wanted to kill him. He told me, ‘They want to punish me with a very painful death such as no one has ever seen before. They want to kill me in a way that the Christian community will always remember.’”
£383,000 every single day
Lord Alton articulated the problem with the vast amounts of aid we send to Pakistan:
“Over the past decade, £2.6 billion of British aid has poured into Pakistan—on average, that is £383,000 every single day—but failure to differentiate how and where we spend that money leads DfID to say that it has no idea how much of the aid reaches these destitute, desperate minorities. Disturbingly, last week the National Audit Office, after highlighting an example from Pakistan, said that, ‘overall government is not in a position to be confident that the portfolio in its totality is securing value for money’.”
Clearly this money is failing to reach persecuted minorities and is not made conditional on better treatment of minorities. Lord Alton said:
“I hope that new Ministers in the department will reassess how DfID spends UK money, why it does not target beleaguered minorities and why it is not made conditional on the removal of hate material from school textbooks and discriminatory adverts reserving menial jobs for minorities.”
The response from the government gave no concrete assurances along these lines.
Aid for the Christians in Iraq?
The review also highlights Iraq as a focus country and notes the extent of persecution of Christians there and that most of the displaced Christians have sought shelter in Erbil. The 2018 FCO Human Rights and Democracy Report states that the UK government has provided £252.5 million of humanitarian relief to Iraq since 2014.
I was present at an address by The Rt Rev Bashar Warda, Archbishop of Erbil at Civitas on 20 May 2019. He explained that Christianity in Iraq is close to extinction. Before 2003, there were as many as 1,500,000 Christians in Iraq, or 6% of Iraq’s population. Today it could be less than 250,000. This means that, “Those of us who remain must be ready to face martyrdom.”
Throughout the history of Islamic rule, there has not been equality for Christians. Archbishop Warda explained:
“It is not, and has never, ever, been a question of equality. Fundamentally, in the eyes of Islam, Christians are not equal. We are not to be treated as equal; we are only to be tolerated or not tolerated, depending upon the intensity of the prevailing Jihadi spirit. Yes; the root of all of this is the teachings of Jihad, the justification for acts of violence.”
Nothing for the Christians!
Archbishop Warda was blunt:
“Your government is generous with your taxes when it comes to rebuilding Iraq. Unfortunately, everything they give is sent to the UN or other third-party NGOs. I have to say that, to date, not one single penny of it, and not one single penny from the EU or the USA or any other major donor, has been offered to the schools, university or hospital of my arch-diocese. I cannot say where it goes, but most assuredly it is not seen in any of the projects that have the greatest chance of bringing diverse Iraqi groups together in peace.”
“Will a peaceful and innocent people be allowed to be persecuted and eliminated because of their faith? And, for the sake of not wanting to speak the truth to the persecutors, will the world be complicit in our elimination?”
Aid for other causes
The report noted that of those they interviewed:
“Quite rightly, witnesses felt, there was an outcry from the UK government over the Rohingya Muslim crisis in Myanmar, but politicians and media said very little about the Christian minority groups who were targeted as much as the Rohingyas, and who also had to leave their homes and country.”
The FCO Human Rights and Democracy Report says that £129m of funding has been committed to the Rohingya crisis. This same report states that £2.71 billion has been provided to Syria and Syrian refugees. These, and others, are worthy causes, but there appears to be a clear lack of provision for persecuted Christians, sometimes suffering genocidal persecution. This is all the more glaring given that Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world.
The review concludes with some recommendations for the FCO. Amongst these are to“articulate an aspiration to be the global leader in championing Freedom of Religious Belief.” Also, to “Name the phenomenon of Christian discrimination and persecution and undertake work to identify its particular character alongside similar definitions for other religions.” This might cause the government to realise that there is anti-Christian discrimination taking place in the UK, for example in the cases of Felix Ngole, David Mackereth, Richard Page, Joshua Sutcliffe, and many others.
Discrimination against Christians needs to end
Jeremy Hunt has responded to the review by saying:
“The sense of misguided political correctness that has stopped us standing up for Christians overseas must end. At home we all benefit from living in a tolerant, diverse society and we should not be afraid of promoting those values abroad. It is a sad fact that Christians are the most persecuted religious group in modern times. I am determined to show that we are on their side.”
This is an admission that political correctness has resulted in aid not reaching persecuted Christians overseas. It is an appalling admission that the FCO has therefore been discriminating against Christians in its allocation of foreign aid. The evidence from Pakistan and Iraq above supports this conclusion.
I hope that this review is a catalyst for change at the FCO. Certainly, change is needed. It is time for discrimination against Christians to end. The FCO aid budget should be completely overhauled. Jeremy Hunt has done persecuted Christians a favour by commissioning this review. Now it needs to be acted on.