On 4 May 2020, Lord Alton of Liverpool, Luke de Pulford and Ewelina Ochab hosted the first webinar from the series ‘40 Minutes on Human Rights with…’ The webinar series will be featuring guest speakers working on various aspects of human rights.

The first guest speaker, Bishop of Truro, Rt. Rev. Philip Mounstephen, who conducted the Independent Review for the Foreign Secretary of FCO support for Persecuted Christians.

The address from Bishop Philip:

‘Good morning everyone. I’m honoured to have been asked to launch the first of these webinars looking at contemporary issues in human rights – and today we’re starting with the issue of religious persecution, or the denial of Freedom of Religion or Belief if you prefer, recognising that the latter term is slightly wider in its scope.

I should start these few words with a confession and with a caveat.

My confession is that when Ewelina first asked me to do this my instinct was to decline. There was, I figured, quite enough going on in the Diocese of Truro to excuse me from this. But then, I thought, it’s precisely because of this current crisis that I need to do this. This coronavirus crisis is huge – but if we allow it to become the only story, and our defining narrative, we will in effect be turning a blind eye to some grave and continuing injustices in this world, including the systematic denial of FoRB. That is why this webinar series is so timely – and is why indeed after my initial reluctance to do it, I accepted the invitation. Persecution, we have to remember, takes no holiday.

My caveat is that I do not pretend to be an expert on this issue. I was drafted in at short notice to lead the FCO sponsored review into this issue last year, so inevitably I’ve been significantly exposed to the issue, and indeed try my best to keep abreast of it. But I don’t pretend to be an expert and there are almost certainly many here today who are much better informed than I am – and I hope we will hear from them during our time together.

But to come back to the Review I chaired, I suggested that there were two existential threats to human flourishing and harmonious communities in the world today – or rather in the world when I was writing it. One, I suggested, was climate change and the other was the systematic denial of FoRB. I suggested that we had begun to take one seriously, and it was high time we did the same with the other.

It’s worth asking how the current crisis has impacted them both. Clearly carbon emissions have been significantly reduced. Whether that situation will continue remains to be seen, though I hope it will. But what of the denial of FoRB? What does that look like in a time of coronavirus?

A central thesis of my report was that the systematic denial of FoRB should be of pressing concern to western governments not only because it’s an issue worthy of attention in its own right but because of the sinister nature of the forces driving it: forces have which significantly grown in power in recent years and which sometimes overlap.

Those four forces are these: crime on a semi-industrial scale where governments are weak, especially in Latin America; religious fundamentalism which includes but is certainly not limited to Islamic fundamentalism; authoritarian governments that are intolerant of dissent, and militant nationalism that is often intolerant and suspicious of minorities.

So what might be happening in each of these scenarios in this current crisis?

I suggest, sadly, that in probably every one of these contexts persecution is like to be on the rise. To take the situation of organised crime often driven by the drugs trade and gang warfare: those weak governments which struggled to contain it at the best of times are hardly likely to be in a better position to tackle it now when so much of their energy is taken up with containing this current health crisis.

In a situation where religious fundamentalism drives the denial of FoRB again, I suspect, the outlook is unlikely to be better. Here too governments will be distracted; the attention of news media will be directed elsewhere, so the current crisis could act as a cloak for increased persecution. Certainly anecdotal reports from Nigeria in recent days have been far from encouraging. Added to which it’s hard to imagine Boko Haram sitting quietly at home practicing social distancing.

And what of authoritarian governments that are intolerant of dissent? Again I think the picture is unlikely to be encouraging. There have been suggestions in the media in recent days that the position of people such as Vladimir Putin and President Xi are less secure than once they were because of their failures in managing the pandemic, but I suspect reports of their demise are likely to be exaggerated. It’s an irony of our time that one country which has been lauded for its effective handling of the crisis is Vietnam – but it’s been able to do so because of its own authoritarian and repressive command and control regime under which Christians certainly have certain suffered repression and a denial of their FoRB.

In general we should expect to see authoritarian governments using the cloak of the pandemic to accrue more power to themselves and to use that in increasingly repressive ways.

And all that I’ve said about such governments could also be said of the forces of militant nationalism that are inherently intolerant and suspicious of minorities and of ‘difference’ and are likely to be even more repressive of them in the current contexts. And it is of course an age-old human reflex to construct conspiracy theories and to blame and victimise those who are different when crises come. I see no reason why this current situation should be an exception to that rule.

And to those four factors I think we should also add the inevitable distraction of western governments from this issue due to their own efforts to contain and manage their own contexts faced with this pandemic. There will precious little extra bandwidth available for the protection of minorities elsewhere in the world.

So my general take is that the current crisis is unlikely to be good news for upholding the right of FoRB globally – though I’d be delighted to be told I’m wrong!

And I think we should be equally cautious about the world beyond this current crisis. What kind of world will be going into? Speaking here from Cornwall the death toll has been relatively low – but I think the economic hit we are likely to take will be very significant – and I don’t think we should underestimate generally how great the economic impact will be: I’m suspicious of the language of bounce-back given the damage we’ll have sustained.

So in a post-Covid 19 world a huge amount of western governments’ energy and attention will go into domestic economic recovery, with, again, little bandwidth for other issues. Globally countries where persecution is already an issue will face sharp economic pressures, and those pressures always tend to exacerbate rather than relieve persecution.  

So I’m not, sadly, sanguine for the future. If there is one point of light it lies in the observation that in this season we’ve never been more isolated – but have never been better connected. My hope is that that connectivity will endure, that the voices and stories of the persecuted will be better heard and that the clandestine cloak upon which persecution so often relies will increasingly be denied to it. That at least is my hope, and indeed that is my prayer. Thank you very much.’

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