The interim report of the Independent Review into Foreign and Commonwealth Office Support for Persecuted Christians worldwide, led by the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, was published today (May 3, 2019).

Foreign Secretary The Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP asked Bishop Philip to lead the independent review.

In its overview, the interim report says: “Despite the fact that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is foundational to the UN Charter, which is binding on member states, and that ‘the denial of religious liberty is almost everywhere viewed as morally and legally invalid’, in today’s world religious freedom is far from being an existential reality.”

The full report is due to be presented to Mr Hunt this summer, and will assess the quality of the response of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), and to make recommendations for changes in both policy and practice. The interim report was intended to map the nature and extent of the problem. But the scale of the issue was demonstrated by the fact that the report was out of date by the time it was published, most notably because of the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka.

Key findings

Among the key research findings drawn together by the review are:

  • The Pew Research Center concluded that in 2016 Christians were targeted in 144 countries, a rise from 125 in 2015. The Center concluded that “Christians have been harassed in more countries than any other religious group and have suffered harassment in many of the heavily Muslim countries of the Middle East and North Africa”.
  • NGO Open Doors revealed in its World Watch List Report on anti-Christian oppression that “approximately 245 million Christians living in the top 50 countries suffer high levels of persecution or worse”, 30 million up on the previous year.
  • Open Doors stated that within five years the number of countries classified as having “extreme” persecution had risen from one (North Korea) to 11.
  • Both Open Doors and Aid to the Church in Need have highlighted the increasing threat from “aggressive nationalism” or “ultra-nationalism” in countries such as China and India – growing world powers – as well as from Islamist militia groups.
  • According to Persecution Relief, 736 attacks were recorded in India in 2017, up from 348 in 2016. With reports in China showing an upsurge of persecution against Christians between 2014 and 2016, government authorities in Zheijiang Province targeted up to 2,000 churches, which were either partially or completely destroyed or had their crosses removed.

‘Terrible reality’

Bishop Philip said: “Through my previous experience of the global church in Asia and Africa I was aware of the terrible reality of persecution, but to be honest in preparing this report I’ve been truly shocked by the severity, scale and scope of the problem. It forces us in the West to ask ourselves some hard questions, not the least of which is this: why have we been so blind to this situation for so long?

“It is essential we now recognise that religion is a massive vulnerability marker for many communities worldwide. The oft-cited Western mantra that we attend to ‘need not creed’ disguises this fundamental fact. Put simply your creed might put you in much greater need – and we cannot be blind to that.

“It is also ironic that many western secularists, Islamic extremists and authoritarian regimes share a common erroneous assumption – that the Christian faith is primarily an expression of white western privilege. In fact, Christianity is primarily a phenomenon of the global south and the global poor.

Two existential threats

“It seems to me that there are two existential, global threats to human flourishing and harmonious communities: climate change and the systematic denial of freedom of religious belief. We are quite rightly becoming sensitised to the former. We must urgently attend to the latter.

“Taking this issue seriously will simply allow the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to do its job better because it impinges massively on key issues such as trade, security and gender equality.”

‘Sobering read’ – Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt

In response, Mr Hunt said: “I asked the Bishop of Truro to deliver an independent, honest, unflinching and hard-hitting report. What he has delivered to me today makes for a truly sobering read. I thank him and his team for their hard work.

“The interim report comes just after the appalling attacks at Easter on churches across Sri Lanka, the devastating attack on two mosques in Christchurch, and most recently the San Diego synagogue shooting.

“There is nothing more medieval than to hate someone on the basis of their faith.  That it is on the rise should shock us all.

“I look forward to seeing his final report in the summer, and identifying further specific steps the FCO can take to do more to address the fate of persecuted Christians around the world.”

To read the interim report and for other related material, visit the review’s website here.