7 October 2020
While COVID-19 has increased violations of religious persecution, upholding freedom of religion and belief (FoRB) has become a much higher priority for UK parliamentarians, attendees of a virtual seminar at the Conservative Party Conference have heard.
The fringe event, jointly organised by SAT-7 and the Conservative Christian Fellowship (CCF) on Monday, included high-profile FoRB advocates: Rehman Chishti MP (formerly the Prime Minister’s Envoy for FoRB), Archbishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church; Fiona Bruce MP; and researcher and commentator Ziya Meral. They were joined by George Makeen, SAT-7 ARABIC Channels Director, and counsellor and SAT-7 presenter, Roshin Soodmand, whose father was executed for his Christian beliefs in Iran.
Roshin shared how, in 1990, her Christian convert father and pastor was given an ultimatum: “You have two weeks: leave your faith or be killed”. Then last December his grave in “cursed ground” was bulldozed in a further act of cruelty.
Meral and Archbishop Angaelos both said that religious conversion continues to attract the most severe persecution. “Conversion globally continues to be a phenomenon that attracts a lot of suffering for who whoever converts from Islam to another religion,” Meral said.
“It’s the big things like choice [of belief] and conversion,” Angaelos explained. “It’s not so much [happening] centrally but on the ground where security forces locally stand by and see things happen. Sometimes it is negligent and sometimes it is being complicit.”
Religious minorities are also highly vulnerable “at times of sudden change and conflict”, Meral said.
Gillingham MP Chishti said that COVID-19 has been one example of this. He mentioned cases this year “when people were put into prison under the guise of COVID-19”. But, as a founder member of the International Religious Freedom Alliance, formed last year, the UK and its partners led “over 20 countries to put out a joint call on behalf of individuals who were being persecuted for their faith”. The July release of a group of Baha’I believers held in Yemen was an example of successful international pressure in which the UK was a leader, he added.
Chishti also reported that strong progress has been made in implementing the recommendations of the Bishop of Truro’s 2019 Review on Foreign Office support for Persecuted Christians. With the aim of making the United Kingdom a “champion” on FoRB, he said seventeen of the 22 recommendations have been delivered or put in process.
Congleton MP Fiona Bruce was upbeat. FoRB “is an issue that has come out of the shadows”, she said. “This is now a mainstream issue and that is real success story”. She added that she hoped that the merger of the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development (DfID) would lead officials responsible for development to recognise religious persecution in the same way that the Foreign Office has done.
Input from George Makeen steered the panel towards the role of positive media in overcoming misinformation and the hatred this causes. While growing up in Egypt, he saw widespread ignorance about Christians in the country that led others to “build their own stories and hatred about Christianity”.
But when SAT-7 launched in 1996 as the region’s first indigenous Christian TV broadcaster, he said “It had religious freedom built into its DNA. SAT-7 brought the Church into people’s rooms and changed the stereotype.” Now, he said “We challenge Christians of the Middle East not to think of themselves as victims but as the ones who can be a better voice for the whole region and for those who are persecuted – calling for human rights for all.”
Meral, an adviser to SAT-7’s Turkish channel, stressed the value of backing channels that promote FoRB from within their own culture rather than beaming in programmes from abroad: “I think supporting grassroots channels like SAT-7 that started in those places as a positive footprint is extremely strategic,” he said.