Jeremy Hunt told we must protect UK Christians from persecution

Jeremy Hunt told we must protect UK Christians from persecution

We must protect Christians in this country as well, Jeremy Hunt is told as the foreign secretary raises Easter Sunday alarm over worldwide persecution of churchgoers

  • An inquiry into persecution of Christians should include the UK, MPs have said
  • Jeremy Hunt asked the Bishop of Truro to carry out the international review
  • A nurse was sacked three years ago after she offered a Bible to a patient 

A major inquiry into the persecution of Christians around the world should be expanded to cover discrimination against followers of the faith in the UK, MPs said last night.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has asked the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Rev Philip Mounstephen, to carry out the review and uses an Easter article in today’s Mail on Sunday to say that the Government is determined to act against victimisation worldwide.

But critics said Mr Hunt should acknowledge that Christians face discrimination in the UK, including the nurse sacked three years ago for offering a Bible to a patient. And this newspaper today reveals how a Christian teaching assistant was sacked after daring to raise concerns over transgender education in primary schools.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has faced calls from MPs to expand the inquiry into international persecution of Christians to include the UK

It comes after a teaching assistant was fired after they raised concerns over transgender education in primary schools

A recent survey found that 50 per cent of British Christians say that they have personally experienced prejudice.

Officials say global violence against Christians is rising dramatically, with hundreds killed every month.

Mr Hunt set up his review in December to map the persecution of Christians in ‘key countries’ in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, to provide an analysis of UK Government support and to offer recommendations for a better ‘policy response’.

Tory MP David Davies said: ‘Mr Hunt is quite right to look at the dreadful persecution Christians suffer in some countries – but he should also be mindful that many Christians suffer discrimination in our own country. He should ask the bishop to expand his inquiry’.

Tory MP Sir Gary Streeter, chairman of Christians in Parliament, added: ‘Lots of people in authority – judges, police officers, civil servants – don’t understand people who are motivated by faith. There’s certainly a case to be made that in the UK we are marginalised.’

The inquiry was also called after the high-profile cases of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who faced death threats after being acquitted of blasphemy in Pakistan

In his article, Mr Hunt warns that many Christians around the world will today worship in fear of persecution. He says: ‘The world was rightly shocked by the flames destroying Notre-Dame in Paris… in too many parts of the world, however, it is the congregations themselves who perish.’

It follows the high-profile cases of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who faced death threats after being acquitted of blasphemy in Pakistan.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey welcomed Mr Hunt’s comments, but complained ‘it has taken many years of persuasion for the Foreign Office to even admit that the persecution of Christians is a major problem’.

In his article, Mr Hunt sets out the scale of the challenge by saying that ‘of all the people who suffer persecution for their faith, it may surprise some to know that the greatest number are Christian’ – with 245 million enduring oppression worldwide.

Mr Hunt adds: ‘Some Christians will be worshipping at the scene of unspeakable atrocities’ and cites recent terrorist attacks at cathedrals in Alexandria, Egypt and in the Southern Philippines.

The Foreign Secretary added: ‘The evidence suggests that far from easing, the burden of worldwide persecution is becoming heavier.’

The message was taken up by Theresa May in her own Easter message. She said that, while she would spend the holy day ‘as I do every year, giving thanks in church… for many Christians around the world such simple acts of faith can bring huge danger. Churches have been attacked. Christians murdered. Families forced to flee their homes. We must stand up for the right of everyone, no matter what their religion, to practise their faith’.

Notre Dame was a tragedy. But in too many parts of the world it’s the Christian congregation that perishes, says JEREMY HUNT 

BY JEREMY HUNT

The Easter story begins with persecution but ends in salvation. A man is crucified for his faith, only to rise from the dead and re-join his followers, a miracle that we celebrate today.

But the sombre truth is that millions of Christians will today celebrate Easter while living under a similar shadow of persecution.

Many will be gathering in churches at risk of attack; countless more will have suffered threats or discrimination.

Some Christians will be worshipping at the scene of unspeakable atrocities. St Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Alexandria, Egypt, for example, was the target of a terrorist attack on Palm Sunday in 2017 that killed 17 people.

the sombre truth is that millions of Christians will today celebrate Easter while living under a similar shadow of persecution, writes Jeremy Hunt

The world was rightly shocked by the flames destroying Notre-Dame in Paris last week, a tragedy that touched our common humanity. In too many parts of the world, however, it is the congregations themselves who perish, writes Jeremy Hunt

In the southern Philippines, terrorists planted a bomb in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, claiming 20 lives during mass on January 27 this year.

The world was rightly shocked by the flames destroying Notre-Dame in Paris last week, a tragedy that touched our common humanity. In too many parts of the world, however, it is the congregations themselves who perish.

As the Prince of Wales wrote on Good Friday, there is something inexpressibly tragic about the innocent being murdered because of their faith.

There is a peculiar wickedness about hate-filled extremism that justifies murder because of the God someone chooses to worship. Of all the people who suffer persecution for their faith, it may surprise some to know that the greatest number are Christian.

In total, about 245 million Christians endure oppression worldwide, according to the campaign group Open Doors. And last year more than 4,000 Christians were killed because of their faith.

Flames and smoke rise from the blaze at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris on Monday evening

A crane works at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris on Friday as art experts attended to remove all of the paitings

In 2015, Christians faced harassment from governments or social groups in 128 nations, according to the Pew Research Centre. By 2016, this had risen to 144. China imposes the ‘highest levels of government restrictions’.

Should religious persecution matter in an increasingly secular world? The truth is that, if a regime tries to control what you believe, it will generally seek to control every other aspect of your life.

Where Christians are persecuted, other human rights are often brutally abused.

Yet the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed by the United Nations General Assembly without a single negative vote in 1948, enshrines ‘freedom of thought, conscience and religion’.

The declaration makes clear that everyone has a right to the ‘practice, worship and observance’ of their faith.

Britain has always championed freedom of religion or belief for everyone. In my first weeks as Foreign Secretary I prioritised the plight of the Rohingya Muslims, horrifically targeted by the army of Myanmar (formerly Burma.) But I am not convinced that our efforts on behalf of Christians have always measured up to the scale of the issue.

In the Middle East, for example, the survival of Christianity as a living religion now hangs in the balance. A century ago, about 20 per cent of people in the region were Christians; today the figure is below five per cent.

The bitter irony is that Christianity is retreating in the very region of its birth, where its earliest followers worshipped. Anxious not to offend minorities or appear ‘colonialist’ in troublespots around the world, British governments have occasionally taken refuge behind the principle that all religions must be protected.

But this must include Christianity, where those targeted are often extremely poor, female and living in or close to poverty.

We must not allow misguided political correctness to inhibit our response. So I have asked Rt Rev’d Philip Mounstephen, the Anglican Bishop of Truro, to conduct an independent review of the Foreign Office’s efforts to help persecuted Christians and report back to me later this year.

Questions need answering: do we counter oppression based on religion as forcefully as that based on politics or other characteristics? How can we use the considerable influence the UK has in much of the world to better stand up for religious minorities?

I hope he will recommend practical steps for how the Government might strengthen its response.

When I moved house last year, I came across a book that I first read when I was about ten. It was called God’s Smuggler by Brother Andrew van der Bijl, a Dutch missionary. At the height of the Cold War, when Christianity was struggling against communist oppression in Central Europe, Brother Andrew began to smuggle Bibles across the Iron Curtain. His book quotes Karl Marx’s famous boast about mobilising the letters of the alphabet to fight ideological battles: ‘Give me 26 lead soldiers and I will conquer the world.’

Brother Andrew noted how ‘this game could be played both ways’. So he set off for Marxist capitals, carrying suitcases packed with Bibles, helping Christians to preserve their faith in defiance of iron-fisted repression.

When I first read God’s Smuggler, it was barely possible to hope that the Iron Curtain would one day fall. So when the Berlin Wall dissolved before our eyes in 1989, it was a wonderful blow for freedom, allowing all the European countries that Brother Andrew had visited to win their liberty.

Yet perhaps this good news has made us complacent about problems elsewhere. Exactly 30 years later, 245 million Christians are still at risk. The evidence suggests that far from easing, the burden of worldwide persecution is actually becoming heavier.

So as we celebrate Easter today we must not be indifferent.

This year I marked Lent by writing 40 letters to 40 persecuted Christians or those campaigning on their behalf. My first letter was to Brother Andrew, now 90, assuring him that the UK stands in solidarity with persecuted Christians around the world: ‘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.’

I will continue to make this case for the millions who suffer as a result of their beliefs and British diplomats will continue to be advocates for all those denied the right to practise their faith.

Many of the recipients of those letters, by dint of the danger they are in, should not be named publicly. But they include men and women, clergy and worshippers, who have been personally targeted by terror organisations, had their churches attacked or been imprisoned by draconian regimes.

Britain is on their side. We care about those who stand up for the right to believe and express one’s faith, and we care about the decent and humane values that inspire those rights.

I hope that one day letters of this kind will not be necessary.

Until then, everyone of faith should remember persecuted Christians in our Easter prayers and in our actions.

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