The Times view on the appointment of a new envoy for freedom of religion: Secret Prayers
The Iraqi parliament has formally recognised Christmas as a national holiday. That move last week may have been chiefly a goodwill gesture to Pope Francis who plans to visit next March. But in a country where Christians have been fleeing in their thousands, it holds out the promise of less persecution and more tolerance. Many had feared that the Christian community would die out in Iraq; since the fall of Saddam Hussein four fifths of the 1.5 million Christians have left the country. Yet the outlook for Christians in many other parts of the world is much more bleak. In Sri Lanka, where an Easter bomb killed 250 worshippers last year, churchgoing still arouses a sense of anxiety. China has been closing churches and jailed a pastor for nine years after a secret trial.
Boris Johnson’s appointment of a personal envoy to look into religious freedom, not just of Christians but all creeds, is therefore a shrewd move. Fiona Bruce, MP for Congleton and former chairwoman of the Conservative Party’s human rights commission, has contributed to reports on Chinese persecution, including the treatment of Uighur Muslims. As religious rights envoy she will strengthen the government’s ambition to make human rights advocacy a pillar of foreign policy.
According to the non-governmental organi- sation Open Doors, attacks on churches rose globally from 1,847 in 2019 to 9,488 this year. Some 260 million Christians were either persecuted or seriously discriminated against over the past 12 months. Islamic jihadism has not died with the hardcore Isis group. It still drives Boko Haram, which claims to have been behind the recent kidnapping of hundreds of schoolboys in northern Nigeria. But it is state persecution that is most worrying. It is almost impossible, barring the massive use of force, to deter terrorist groups from attacking Christians. They operate often in lawless space. Even autocratic governments can, however, be called to book. One function of British development aid should be to nudge governments towards creating safe space for Christians. Pakistan uses harsh anti-blasphemy laws against Christians. China uses facial recognition technology to identify worshippers. The authorities swat away criticism.
Britain, like many countries, has expressed outrage at the incarceration of the Uighurs and of Burma’s displacement of Rohingya Muslims. Apart from the moral depravity of setting up brainwashing camps and driving people from their homes, regimes need to recognise it as a matter of self-interest to treat all minorities fairly. The seeds of a new wave of jihadism could be sown in the Bangladeshi camps where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya families are quartered. Meanwhile Christian victims often go unnoticed. Yet they comprise by some estimates about 80 per cent of those persecuted for their faith. Converts from Islam are treated particularly harshly. In Iran it is forbidden to produce Christian literature. In Afghanistan it is illegal for a Muslim to leave Islam.
Ms Bruce must be more than a do-gooder in her new role. And she cannot just bang the drum for Christians. Embassies abroad need to be quicker off the mark if they hear reports of ethnic cleansing, of antisemitism, of churches being looted, of new discriminatory laws in the making. Religious friction will be one of the flashpoints of the 21st century and it needs to be better reported. As for the Iraqis, let’s hope they will be celebrating Christmas for many years to come.