LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Britain’s Foreign Office is lighting its offices red in a sign of solidarity with the world’s persecuted Christians.
Red Wednesday is a campaign promoted by Aid to the Church in Need and Christian Solidarity Worldwide to encourage people to “stand up for religious freedom” by shining red light on prominent landmarks and churches, as well as other activities to highlight global religious persecution.
Rehman Chishti, the UK Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, was scheduled to lead a candlelit procession from Parliament Square to Westminster Cathedral for a liturgy focusing on persecuted Christians in countries such as Iraq, Pakistan, and Nigeria.
It is the first time the UK government has given such an endorsement to the event, and Aid to the Church in Need UK (ACN UK) sees it as fruit of the unprecedented Foreign Office-commissioned independent inquiry into the persecution of Christians led by the Anglican Bishop of Truro, Philip Mounstephen.
The report recorded the widespread persecution Christians face worldwide, and notes that Christianity is by far the most persecuted religion on the planet.
“Following the endorsement of #RedWednesday in the Bishop of Truro’s review into [the UK Foreign Office] support for persecuted Christians – commissioned by former Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt – the procession is a real chance for Christians to stand together and in a very visible way, show that the lives of Christians and other persecuted minorities matter,” said ACN (UK)’s Patricia Hatton.
The British government has stepped up its engagement on the issue of religious liberty, and 2018 saw the appointment of the prime minister’s first Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief. In comparison, the United States legislated for an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom in 1998, a position currently held by former Kansas governor and senator Sam Brownback.
Fionn Shiner, ACN (UK)’s parliamentary and press officer, told Crux the UK Foreign Office’s participation in Red Wednesday is “encouraging” as a “symbolic gesture.”
However, he said he hopes the rest of the recommendations in the Truro report are implemented.
These include seeking a UN Security Council Resolution urging all governments in the Middle East and North Africa to protect Christians, and other persecuted minorities, and allow UN observers to monitor the necessary security measures; considering imposing sanctions on perpetrators of serious human rights abuses against religious minorities, including Christians; giving funds dedicated to helping persecuted Christians; mandatory training on religious literacy to all Foreign Office staff, at home and abroad; and requesting all British embassies in relevant countries to deliver tailored responses to any violations of freedom of religion or belief.
However, Shiner said changing attitudes among government officials will take years, especially since most are “religiously illiterate and it will take more than a few months to change that.”
“While there is an attitude in Western countries that religion is a settled issue, unimportant to how people live their lives, in most of the world religion is still incredibly important. It influences people’s entire worldviews: How they dress, act, think, eat, drink, etc. Government officials are going to struggle to understand vast parts of the world if they have no understanding of religions, how they interact and the difference and overlap between their worldview. Different religions lead to differences in behavior, cultural norms and attitudes. Religious literacy, when trying to understand the world, is a must,” he said.
Shiner said this makes the Truro Review recommendation for developing religious literacy among UK Foreign Office staff especially important, “because of the old adage of teaching a man to fish.”
ACN UK says the matter of protecting persecuted Christians is urgent, especially in Syria and Iraq, where the ancient Christian population has collapsed in the face of Islamic State Group persecution and other violence. The organization estimates that Iraq’s Christian population has dropped from 1.5 million to around 150,000 in 15 years.
“One thing we would like to see is the United Nations providing refugee camps specifically for Christians in the region. Our reports indicate that Christians are sometimes not allowed into the UN refugee camps and if they do manage to gain access, they are often subject to violence, intimidation, humiliation and persecution inside the camps themselves. The UN does nothing to protect Christians seeking refuge despite this being a known danger,” Shiner told Crux.
He pointed to data which said the Zaatari Syrian refugee camp – with 80,000 residents – does not host a single Christian family.
“The international community should push for the creation of Christian specific refugee camps, as well as stamping out the Islamic extremism prevalent in current camps,” Shiner said.
He also pointed to the right of return for Christians in Iraq and Syria, whose leaders want the Christian presence in the region – which has existed since Biblical times – to continue.
“In order for this to happen, entire communities need to be rebuilt. This includes the rebuilding of communities, housing, churches, the creation of jobs, etc. Christians might well wish to return to their homelands but they aren’t going to do so if they don’t feel they have a viable future there,” Shiner explained.
“If the international community committed to rebuilding Christian communities as a means of maintaining a Christian presence in the Middle East, then it could put a stop to the hemorrhaging of Christians from the region. It may also lead to an increase in the Christian population,” he said.
Shiner said the final thing the international community could do is “bring the perpetrators of atrocities in Iraq and Syria to justice.”
“This is also one of the Truro Review’s recommendations, for the Foreign Secretary to request a Freedom of Religion or Belief-focused discussion at a Cabinet meeting to discuss [the UK Foreign Office] championing the prosecution of ISIS perpetrators of sex crimes against Yazidi and Christian women, not only as terrorists,” he said.
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