Amid a rise in religious intolerance “sensitivity” is key, Alistair Burt told delegates at a Conservative Party fringe event on Wednesday 3 October.
“Incidents of religious intolerance and religious discrimination are on the rise across the globe,” Rt Hon Alistair Burt, Minister of State for the Middle East, said on Wednesday. He was speaking at a prayer breakfast on religious freedom co-sponsored by Middle East broadcaster SAT-7 and the Conservative Christian Fellowship.
Talking to conference delegates along with church and community leaders, Mr Burt confirmed that the perception of “a spike” in religious intolerance is correct and is not just affecting the Christian faith.
Having heard SAT-7 UK Executive Director, Rachel Fadipe, outline how SAT-7 supports Middle East Christian and fosters tolerance, and listened to Mansour Borji, Advocacy Director of Article 18, relate his work on behalf of Iranian Christians, Burt defended the right of Christians to share their faith. But he stressed the need for cultural sensitivity, especially in regions like the Middle East and North Africa.
“The proclamation of our faith is important and fundamental to us,” he stressed, “but an understanding of context is not weakness; it’s sensitive.”
The minister began by commending the approach taken by SAT-7 and Mr Borji. “I want to commend what we’ve heard in terms of its sensitivity,” the minister said. “If you are working in the Middle East, where the infusion of faith with everyday life … runs right through societies, through governance and everything else, not to have a sensitivity for the cultural context is harmful. I am deeply impressed by the way in which SAT-7 goes about its work because an understanding of the structure of society is vital.”
Mr Burt said this same sensitivity was essential for the government’s own work in promoting religious freedom, even though this “quiet” approach can be misunderstood by those who want it to be more outspoken.
In addition to its established education programmes, diplomatic tools, and work on behalf of individuals, the minister said the government had “become aware of the need to advocate more firmly for [religious freedom] and, in a non-threatening manner, try and raise the issue.”
He spoke of “upping the game” in terms of giving UK diplomats “a toolkit about how they raise and deal with issues of religious freedom” and praised the appointment of Tariq Ahmad, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief. “I know that the Conservative Christian Fellowship and others have campaigned for a long time that the government should have an advocate, as they do in some other countries, and I’m sure friends here will be pleased that this is something the Prime Minister has done.”
The minister also echoed the importance of education for critical thinking and tolerance that SAT-7 is promoting. He pointed out that the population of Egypt had grown by 10 million since the year 2011 and the populations of the Arab world and Africa will grow by “something like a third by 2030”. “These people will need jobs, he said, and current “authoritarian” methods of learning will not equip states with the critical skills they will need.
Church grows amid suffering
Earlier in the meeting, Mansour Borji had given examples of how intolerance is producing immense suffering in Iran and yet the Church is growing rapidly. A day before, he had spoken to four Christian believers who are now imprisoned in Tehran’s notorious Evin jail, simply for organising worship in their homes because the government will not allow them to register places of worship.
Despite this, he said, “Faith endures and it’s amazing to see the impact that persecuted Iranian Christians are now having in Afghan communities because of a common language: “Now we see growing Afghan churches and a mixture of Afghan and Iranian fellowships.”
Borji said SAT-7’s broadcasts to Iran and Afghanistan play an important role in this, allowing believers to share their stories and “giving people hope and a sense of identity that, beyond my home fellowship of five, ten or twenty people, I am part of a global church that will care and pray for us.”