By Christine Rayner
A “long-overdue” stance by the UK against worldwide persecution of faiths has been welcomed by the Bishop of Truro Philip Mounstephen.
Speaking on his 61st birthday yesterday, the bishop said the formation of the UK Freedom of Religion and Belief Forum (FoRB), which he will chair, was a great step forward and his hope was that it “will enable us all to look steadily at this egregious problem of our time, not to let it be overlooked, and together to face it down”.
In an interview with the Religion Media Centre, the bishop said the forum was “an idea whose time had come” and he was privileged to be at the forefront of the campaign to address global persecution not only of Christians but of “all faiths — and none”.
The forum will be launched formally in September and Bishop Mounstephen will work with representatives of faith communities and religious freedom charities “to ensure the UK plays a leading role in global efforts to advance religious freedom or belief around the world”.
The origins of the forum lie in a report commissioned by Jeremy Hunt, then the foreign secretary, in December 2018 to review the work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in support of persecuted Christians. Bishop Mounstephen, who had been appointed to his Truro diocese a month earlier, oversaw the report, which was published in July last year and made 22 recommendations. All were accepted, he said, by not only the FCO, but also the government — a response that delighted the bishop.
“To be honest, it had a much bigger impact than I expected,” he said. “Of course, there had been discussion and negotiations along the way, but it was still a great achievement.”
Bishop Mounstephen, who has a strong background in missionary work, including time as chief executive of the Church Missionary Society, said the persecution of Christians was highlighted in a leader in The Times in May 2014 headlined “Spectators at the Carnage”. The issue had become significantly worse since then and it was high time it was addressed.
The bishop was very keen to stress that the forum was not set up just to protect the rights of Christians, adding that it was acknowledged Christians have also been the perpetrators of torture and persecution, quoting the example of the Srebenica massacre of July 1995, when more than 8,000 Bosnian men and boys — mainly Muslims — were massacred.
“My reaction is entirely couched in the treatment of all religions and none. We do not privilege one faith over others,” he said.
It is not Christian to claim sole rights to protection. “Yes, the persecution of Christians has been overlooked but we definitely should not favour the treatment of Christians over other faiths.”
Asked if it was unusual to set up the forum independent of the government, the bishop said it was not. “Our aim is to bring together disparate groups with a common cause, to ask for authorities to pay regard to Article 18 of the International Declaration of Human Rights globally,” he said.
The bishop pointed out that the campaign to protect faiths across the world was a growing movement, led by an independent round table in the United States which took “a conscious and quite deliberate bipartisan approach to the whole phenomenon of the protection of individual faiths”.
He quoted as an example the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington in July, 2019, which he attended and where Democrat Nancy Pelosi and Republican Frank Wolf shared a stage to call for freedom of faith. The rights of religious freedom were made a central tenet of Republican policy in December 2018 with Donald Trump proclaiming: “Faith breathes life and hope into our world. We must diligently guard, preserve and cherish this unalienable right.”
Bishop Mounstephen was anxious to stress: “It is important this campaign is not seen as a plaything of the right. We are embracing all faiths — and none.”
He pointed out that Andrew Copson, chief executive of Humanists UK and president of Humanists International, will sit on the steering group of the forum. “In some parts of the world, it is very dangerous to be an atheist,” the bishop said.
The steering group will invite stakeholders to join the forum, to ensure it is a “broad and inclusive” group. These will include “key NGOs [non-governmental organisations] involved in humanitarian work, as well as representatives of Hindu, Jewish, Islamic and humanist groups”.
The forum will meet up to eight times in the first year and the bishop said he had agreed to chair meetings initially, but would step down to allow others to lead discussions. “I am very aware I’m in a position of privilege within the Christian church and we need to give the right message,” he added.
Asked for a reaction to this morning’s news about the US taking a stand against China’s alleged human rights abuses on Muslim minorities in Xinjiang province, Bishop Mounstephen said: “The appalling treatment of Muslims in northern China is well known. I am not surprised at the announcement of US sanctions against the Chinese officials. It is inevitable there will be reprisals.”
The bishop was also pleased at foreign secretary Dominic Raab’s announcement of powers to sanction countries where there had been clear breaches of human rights.
Raab said on 6 July that the issue was supported by all parties and added: “This country makes it crystal clear to those who abuse their power to inflict unimaginable suffering that we won’t look the other way.”
The bishop said: “I am pleased to hear this. The UK needs to say it is not going to be ‘trade at any price’.”