LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Since Brexit has dominated the UK news for the past three years, it might be easy to miss the great strides being made by the government in promoting religious freedom in the same time period.
The latest move has been to appoint Rehman Chishti, a Conservative Member of Parliament, as the new Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief.
He replaces Lord Tariq Ahmad, the inaugural holder of the position. Ahmad was appointed to the post by then-Prime Minister Theresa May last year.
The position is similar to the United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, currently former Kansas governor and senator Sam Brownback.
Ahmad launched the UK government’s first ever program to find innovative solutions to promote and defend religious freedom, and also worked closely with the Holy See, the EU’s Special Envoy for Promotion of Freedom of Religion, and the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief in developing the role.
However, Ahmad had a pretty full plate. He was also the Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict and Minister of State for the Commonwealth and the United Nations.
Chishti’s appointment means Britain will now have a dedicated person on the issue of religious freedom.
The appointment also strengthens the position’s institutional standing, since it will now have existed under two prime ministers.
A “special envoy” is not a statutory position, and can be abolished by the prime minister – by contrast, the United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom is mandated by law.
The appointment also came with assurances that the implementation of the recommendations from the recent independent review into the UK’s support for persecuted Christians will continue, under Chishti’s lead.
The review, led by the Anglican Bishop of Truro, pointed out various reforms Britain’s Foreign Office should take to better identify and combat the persecution of Christians around the world.
This news was welcomed by religious freedom activists, who will always be nervous a new government won’t prioritize the promises made by its predecessor. This is especially true with the present prime minister, Boris Johnson, who came into office in July with the singular purpose of completing the drawn-out divorce between the UK and the European Union.
The previous Foreign Minister, Jeremy Hunt, had been a strong advocate for religious liberty, but he had also been the chief rival for the leadership of the Conservative Party after May announced her resignation.
With Johnson’s victory, Hunt was out of the cabinet, but his successor – Dominic Raab – has promised to continue his policies.
“A staggering 83 percent of the world’s population live in nations where religious freedom is threatened or banned. It is an area where the UK can and must make a difference,” Raab said when Chishti’s appointment was announced.
Like Ahmad, Chishti is a Muslim. Chishti is the son of an imam, and was born in Pakistan, arriving in the UK when he was only 6.
When announced in his new position, Chishti said “my family and I have always been able to openly and freely practice our faith.”
“I want to ensure every citizen around the world is able to enjoy this basic right. Freedom of religion, practice and belief is one of the foundations of a free society,” he said.
Chishti was a leading champion for Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Christian mother who spent nearly a decade in prison facing a death sentence after being accused of insulting the Quran, and has often spoken out against Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws.
He called on the British government to offer her asylum after her eventual acquittal last year, and resigned as the Conservative vice-chair and trade envoy to Pakistan over the UK government’s refusal to do so.
Based upon his past advocacy, Chishti is expected to be a more muscular advocate for religious liberty than the often more diplomatic Ahmad.
The Catholic Church welcomed his appointment, offering their support for the new envoy.
Already, it is paying dividends: Earlier this year, the Catholic and Anglican churches offered a joint proposal calling for the Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief to be a dedicated position.
The bishops must also have approved of a specific mention by the government that Chishti will “advocate for the rights of all individuals here in the UK … who are being discriminated against and persecuted for their faith or belief.”
There have been accusations that the Foreign Office’s emphasis on religious freedom wasn’t being emulated, especially in the powerful Home Office, which handles security and immigration issues in the UK.
The Home Office has drawn complaints from Christian leaders for rejecting asylum applications from Christian converts from the Middle East, who can face a death sentence for apostacy.
The bishops have called on the government to take a “joined-up approach” involving not just foreign policy, but also security, trade, resettlement and asylum policy, rather than treating it as an isolated diplomatic activity.
Catholic leaders have also suggested the UK government produce an annual report on religious persecution, similar to the one published by the U.S. State Department.
However, the looming Oct. 31 Brexit deadline — and the expected resulting confusion and/or chaos – means church leaders might have to wait just a bit to get their full wish list. But they are certainly happy that with Chishti’s appointment, a few more items have been checked off.
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome
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