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Interview: The Growing British Concern for Religious Freedom for All

Bishop of Truro continues advocacy after groundbreaking UK government report on the persecution of Christians wins wide acceptance.
Interview: The Growing British Concern for Religious Freedom for All
Image: Dan Kitwood / Getty Images
The UK government's Truro Report on the persecution of Christians was presented at The Church House on July 15, 2019 in London, England.

The American government has long committed itself to supporting religious freedom worldwide.

In 1998, the International Religious Freedom Act obliged the State Department to compile an annual report and designate offending nations as Countries of Particular Concern. It established an ambassador-at-large, created an independent bipartisan commission, and placed a special advisor on the National Security Council.

What about the British? Three years ago, the UK government asked itself the same question.

The answer was delivered by Philip Mounstephen, the Anglican bishop of Truro, within the province of Canterbury. The UK’s foreign secretary tasked him specifically to study persecution of Christians, and the 22 recommendations of the Truro Report were accepted in full by the government.

That does not mean they were all implemented.

This past summer, an independent review found good progress, with five points suffering “constraints” and only three with “no substantial action.” As it was released, London hosted the third in-person ministerial which gathered governments and civil society around the cause, following two ministerials hosted in Washington and an online-only one hosted by Poland amid the pandemic. (The UK event used the European nomenclature of “freedom of religion or belief” (FORB) instead of the Americans’ “international religious freedom” (IRF).)

Last month, Mounstephen visited Lebanon to deliver a lecture entitled “Why Our Religious Freedom Matters.” Hosted by the Middle East Council of Churches, the Bible Society, and Saint Joseph University, he presented an outline of Truro Report findings, broadened to include the persecuted of all religious traditions.

CT spoke with the bishop about his government’s commitment to the cause, whether Americans help or hurt, and how to overcome the younger generation’s rejection of Christian advocacy as an expression of white privilege and neo-colonialism:

Bishop of Truro Philip Mounstephen presents the FCO Persecution of Christians report at The Church House on July 15, 2019 in London, England.
Image: Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

Bishop of Truro Philip Mounstephen presents the FCO Persecution of Christians report at The Church House on July 15, 2019 in London, England.

CT: Our readers know that within the Anglican church there is a spectrum of evangelical and mainline faith, to use the American terms. How do you fit in?

Mounstephen: One of my roles is to be a pastor to the whole of the diocese. I can’t pick and choose and have favorites. But in British terms, I would be defined as an “open evangelical.” I believe in the authority of Scripture, in the finished and all-sufficient work of Christ on the cross, and the glorious grace of God that brings life to the dead.

And you have lived it out in your institutional service.

I was chief executive of Church Mission Society, which was an amazing opportunity to go to some of the most out-of-the-way parts of the world and see the people of God ministering with such love and care and commitment to people often very much on the margins. That was such a huge privilege.

You are a bishop, but you also have a role in global advocacy.

Yes. And I had no expectation when I took it on that it would be so. Before I officially started, I was called by the bishop of Canterbury who asked if I would undertake this work at the request of the then-foreign secretary to review how the UK Foreign Office responded—or not—to the question of the persecution of Christians.

Our team had a strong sense of the wind of the Holy Spirit leading us on. And to my great surprise, the government accepted the recommendations in full, repeatedly affirming it in documents since. It is often referred to in the House of Commons and Lords, holding the government to account for implementation.

I feel this is something God has laid on my heart to do, absolutely convinced that it is one of the major big-ticket items in the world that we must address—for the good of all humanity.

How does your advocacy continue since the publishing of the report?

I thought I would do it for six months, set it aside, and the report would gather dust on some government shelf. But I was very aware that there was no forum for civil society organizations to meet, of which there are many in the UK. So we set up the UK Freedom of Religion or Belief Forum, which I chaired for its first year of operation. It now gathers about 90 different groups, modeled on the International Religious Freedom Roundtable that has been meeting in the US for a long time.

The UK hosted the Ministerial Summit on FORB this summer, and I was involved in that. Today I am here in Lebanon because I want to continue to advocate internationally, and I am due to go to Greece to meet with members of the foreign ministry and the Orthodox church.

Because I am the bishop of Truro, and the report is known as “the Truro report,” it has a currency that is associated with me. So this is a responsibility, and I want to push forward and advocate as best I can.

And because we have this strange system in the UK, in which the 26 most senior Church of England bishops sit in the House of Lords, I will probably take my seat in a year or so, depending on turnover. This will also be a continuing platform for advocacy.

Without making your parishioners jealous, how much time can you give to the issue?

[Laughed] I have to say, people have been very supportive and encouraging. Part of my agenda for the diocese is that I want us to have more of an international perspective. Cornwall is in the far southwest of the British Isles, and it can be quite isolated, including in mentality. Helping the church in Cornwall look outwards with a generous heart to the rest of the world is intrinsic to my calling as Bishop of Truro as well.

Your report mentions the lack of interest Western politicians give to the issue. How has society changed in the three years since?

There is a formula: The bigger the country, the less internationally aware it is. By this standard the most globally aware nation would be Luxembourg. The kind of domestic political issues we have faced in the UK since the European Union referendum has tended to turn the country inwards, and I would say in an unhealthy manner.

There has been a real struggle for the UK to think about what its post-imperial role is in the world. There has been a sense that because we interfered uninvited in the past, we shouldn’t do so again now. That is understandable, but it sounds like washing your hands of responsibility—not in the least because some of the problems the world faces are still the legacy of colonial involvement.

The West has economic power that it can use for good or ill. Isolation is not a good look for any country, and international responsibility lies on the shoulders of every state.

In the younger generation, attuned to this sentiment, how do you promote FORB?

I think this is a problem, and particularly in the European context this understanding of Christianity as an expression of white privilege is quite prevalent. But Christian faith these days is a phenomenon of the Global South, and therefore overridingly an expression of the global poor. So if you care about the global poor, you should absolutely care about the persecution of Christians, and of FORB more broadly.

At lunch with the Lebanese ambassador, he made the point to me that pluralist states, where FORB is respected and diverse communities can flourish, are better trading partners and present less of a security threat. So even to a very pragmatic Western mind, there are good reasons to support FORB.

I am also keen to show how FORB intersects with other key human rights issues that, overall, Western nations are unequivocally committed to, such as poverty and food security. And if you are a woman and a member of a religious minority, you are more likely to suffer human trafficking, forced marriage, or modern slavery. There is a significant intersection with the issue of gender rights.

And frankly, some expressions of the violation of FORB are manifestly racism.

The foreign office must understand how religious the world is. Religious literacy is savvy, even if you don’t believe. Because if you look at the world as if you are looking into a mirror, you won’t do your job well.

Does this framing resonate with public officials?

I am amazed to hear myself say this, but I genuinely believe that the work of the Truro report has reframed the conversation. I know how often it is referenced in parliament by all political perspectives and faith traditions—and by those of no faith. There is a significantly greater awareness of Christianity as a world religion, and the significance of religious faith more generally.

At the same time, while there has been a growing global movement of nations and civil society actors getting behind FORB, undoubtedly the world has gotten worse since my report came out. It is not getting better.

The UK independent review on implementing your report was very positive, with most of the recommendations accomplished, in progress, or addressed in other ways. Do you agree with this assessment?

Yes. There has been significant progress. It is not a done deal, and in some sense it will never be. There are some recommendations that are very hard to implement—such as winning a UN security council resolution championing the rights of Christians and other minorities in the Middle East.

How did you see the description of “constraints?” Has the government committed itself sufficiently in these categories?

In many ways it is the world of practical politics. Some things have been difficult to progress in, and the UK has undoubtedly been in a turbulent time these past few years, and still is.

One of my heroes is Fiona Bruce, the prime minister’s special envoy for FORB, and she is a doughty campaigner on these issues. Lord Ahmed, the foreign office minister for human rights has also done an outstanding job. I want to say no more than that there has been significant progress made, there is more to be done, and a lot of the credit goes to these two individuals.

One recommendation not implemented is making permanent the special envoy.

This is a tricky one. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and the ambassador-at-large position were something of a model for us, and we don’t have statutory hardwiring in the way both are in the US. The recommendations call for the post to be made permanent, but don’t argue about how it should be.

In a sense, the government committing itself to implementation has made it so. Would it help to pass a law? It wouldn’t do any harm, but legislative timetables get crowded. The challenge in the coming years, and goodness knows how politics in the UK will pan out, is to keep this issue front and center.

The report also lists a constraint about committing to FORB training for every foreign office employee. A laudable goal; it also costs money. Was this simply a matter of financing?

I suspect it is not just a budgetary constraint. All things require resources, but also willpower. In general terms, I said we have to put this front and center in operations. Clearly, ensuring that key staff members and diplomats are religiously literate is absolutely essential. There is more to be done here.

You have spoken about the importance of persecution being a multifaith concern. Many Christian organizations have begun speaking more broadly about religious persecution—about the Yazidis, Rohingya, and Uyghurs, for example. Have you seen this result in more concern about Christian persecution from secular individuals and other religious believers?

That is a good question, and how would you know if it has? There is a real risk that if you don’t advocate for FORB for all—and not everyone does—you can unintentionally make Christian communities appear as being stooges of the West. This is the last thing desired by the ancient communities in India, Egypt, and Lebanon. They have been there since the time of Jesus, or shortly thereafter.

Yes, it is an easier sell in a secular Western context, but above all else, it is our Christian duty. We must take Jesus’ words about our neighbor as the radical teaching that it is, a command to care for those who are different from us, and distant to us.

Does it work? I hope so. Should we do it? Absolutely.

We now find organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International showing much more interest in us than before, and these are significant players internationally. I think it has gained us important credibility, and without any sacrifice of integrity, we should make common cause with all we can, for the common good.

In the US the term used is “international religious freedom,” as opposed to FORB. To what degree are Americans helping or hurting the cause?

[Laughed] There is a new coalition of states called the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance—a deliberate merging of the language—and I think it is a smart move. I am well aware of “religious freedom” as part of the US founding narrative, so it is entirely understandable that you would use it.

But it is important for us to be as broad as possible, that nonreligious people can feel that it includes them also. There is a difference in language, but not a difference in heart.

One of the first things I did was to go to the States and meet people on Capital Hill, from USCIRF, and learn something of the architecture—that we might draw lessons for our context. I was also very aware of your bipartisan commitment, and I remember Frank Wolf and Nancy Pelosi sharing the stage together at the 2019 Ministerial. It was powerful and symbolic.

There is a synergy and shared mind with leading US advocates. What do you see from the evangelical church?

With love, I see the biggest risk that evangelicals face in the US is in confusing the interests of the kingdom of God with the interests of the United States of America. Uncoupling them would be wise.

I want to be very careful, because we are all far more deeply enculturated than we realize. But there is an uncritical narrative among some to support whatever the US does. It is “might is right,” and a sense that the US has a messianic role to play in the world. As followers of Jesus, we must be good citizens, but we have to keep critical distance from the powers that be—so we can speak truth to power.

How does this apply to the role of the government in the Truro report? Someone asked in your lecture if it is just another tool of neo-colonialism.

[Laughed] I’m glad he asked that question. One of the reasons to continue to engage internationally is that Western countries—and I include America—need to recognize that our past involvement has produced significant problems for many. We can’t wash our hands of the whole thing. We have to be engaged, alert, and morally committed players who are true to our values.

I frame FORB in terms of Western liberal democracy, because I believe in it, and believe the Christian faith has broadly shaped these values. But a key Christian value is humility, to admit you might be wrong, and have been wrong. It should not be domineering neo-colonialism, but servant-hearted service, addressing the ills affecting some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

Somewhat similarly, King Charles has called himself a “defender of faith,” while his oath makes him a “defender of the faith.”

He used this phrase several years ago, but he would definitely say he is a defender of the faith, making this clear at his accession. The Church of England is the established church by law, and when people sometimes say to me “the state church,” I say, well not really. We certainly have leeway to speak truth to power and I would always want us to. One of our responsibilities is to be there for everyone. We are not just there for our own, but for all our communities, to care for them.

Part of my role is to be a defender of the faith, as a teacher of the apostolic faith. But I also want to defend everyone’s right to FORB, in the UK and internationally, to regard the vulnerable wherever they are.

The UK is a plural society with a clear Christian foundation—and this is just the right approach. Any onlooker to the queen’s funeral would realize how deeply Christian faith is embedded in our society. There are major challenges concerning belief in the UK, but there is still much present, woven into the warp and woof of British culture.

Archbishop Welby has made statements demonstrating international concern for FORB, and specifically toward the Middle East. Your report said persecution was “perhaps at its most virulent in the region of the birthplace of Christianity.” How do you assess things today?

Yes, it is, and this is one reason I wanted to come to Lebanon. It is the only country in the region with a genuine studied commitment to religious plurality. And yet Christians are still under pressure, and the economic situation has only made things worse.

In some ways Christians are a victim of their own success. They tend to be more international, so there are places for Christians to go when they are faced with dire economic circumstances. What that does to changes in the demographics of Lebanon is a real concern.

Christian communities in the Middle East don’t need to be safeguarded simply as part of the heritage, but because they are a vibrant part of society and have much to offer it. These countries would be much poorer off without them. They need to be supported, and this is in everyone’s interest.

I want Christian communities to flourish, to grow, and have the freedom to practice and share their faith with other people. And I want them to love their neighbors as themselves, and be good citizens in their nations.

How do you see issues related to FORB in terms of traditional Christian communities, and those of converts to the faith?

Careless talk speaks of “freedom to worship.” It is much more. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—framed by Charles Malik, the Lebanese Christian—includes the right to change your belief. This is absolutely vital and must be safeguarded, alongside the rights of the traditional communities.

While here, someone showed me pictures—and I won’t say from which country—of a woman brutally assaulted by her husband, with limbs black and blue, and her face scarred by acid. This is the face of persecution in today’s world.

I found this very humbling. It is one thing to give an interview and spout out theories about key issues, and what governments should do. But it is always about individual people, sometimes of life and death. It really matters.

Many evangelicals have a missionary spirit toward the world, sometimes offensive to secular people who say religion should just be left alone. Is there a tension here in advocacy of FORB?

Friendship is crucial. There are people in the world of FORB who are very different from me, but I count them as friends. In my Christian lifetime we were still using the language of “crusade,” with remarkable insensitivity to how deeply offensive this is to many parts of the world.

We have to learn to share our faith from a position of humility, and deep personal engagement with other people, in friendship. It is the loving sharing of what we value, open to hear the other person also.

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