A general election for persecuted Christians?
If voters raise their voices about Christian persecution now, that echo will be ringing in the ears of the new intake MPs when the new World Watch List is announced in January, writes Stephen Rand
The general election is upon us. The Christmas tills have competition, as politicians announce daily giveaways of staggering proportions –kerching! It almost drowns the sound of Brexit indigestion – a bad attack of the Brussels sprouts?
I’ll confess to a mind-numbing paralysis: it feels as though it should be important, but a sense of wandering hopelessly in an unrecognisable political landscape tempts me to feel alienated from the process as never before.
But this has always mattered to me. I initiated advocacy campaigning first at Tearfund and then at Open Doors because I believed that we could and we should speak up for those who have no voice, and that an almost inaudible one voice would merge with others to make a noise that would be heard: together we could make a difference.
And in 2019 we had seen that happening. Open Doors have been banging the drum for those facing persecution for many years; this year it received the ComRes Parliamentary Award for "Best Social, Religious or Family Campaign".
More importantly, in January more Parliamentarians than ever before attended the launch of the Open Doors World Watch List; the gathering was addressed for the first time by the Foreign Secretary, who had just announced that he had invited the Bishop of Truro to report on the effectiveness of the Foreign Office in supporting persecuted Christians.
This was an unprecedented breakthrough in terms of government attention to this issue. The report was duly delivered – not least with assistance from Open Doors (and others). Then Theresa May resigned, Foreign SecretaryJeremy Hunt failed to succeed her – and it looked as if all this positive momentum would be lost.
When Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson had given little sign of being interested in the reality of persecuted Christians. But now, amidst all the Brexit furore, he announced that he was appointing a Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief as a dedicated position: Theresa May had initiated the role, but as one among many responsibilities.
The irony was that it was that Special Envoy who last month stood up in the House of Commons, as they debated the Queen’s Speech, highlighted that the Queen’s Speech had not mentioned freedom of religion or belief and asked the Prime Minister to confirm that religious freedom would always be a key priority for his Government.
So Boris Johnson was prompted into promising that 'I can certainly give him that assurance. We will stand up for religious freedom in all our doings, and in all our foreign policy.' The following day a government minister pledged to fulfil all the recommendations of the Bishop of Truro’s report.
Then came the general election announcement. It rapidly became clear that whatever the result of the election, the new House of Commons would be very different. Some MPs who were resolute supporters of freedom of religion and belief have stood down; others may not be re-elected.
Open Doors had asked me to assist with their general election advocacy campaign. It is clearly vital. It offers a way to link voters and candidates to ensure that the new Parliament builds on the 2019 progress and not squander it.
The aim of the campaign is to make sure that every candidate knows that global persecution is a key issue for many voters, and every candidate commits to taking action, if elected, on behalf of those facing persecution.
The 2020 World Watch List launch will be only 2-3 weeks into the life of the new Parliament. One of your candidates will be then be your MP. If voters raise their voices now, that echo will still be ringing in the ears of the new intake.
Technology makes it so easy to engage with candidates. One click on the laptop keyboard, and draft emails to all the candidates appear. Personalise them as much or as little as you like, another click – and every candidate knows that someone cares about the issue of persecution. And they know what they can do to respond.
Every candidate is being urged to commit to support three key actions:
- Be equipped: If elected, attend Open Doors’ World Watch List launch in Parliament on 15 January 2020
- Support the Envoy: Encourage the government to reappoint and resource the Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief
- Take Action: Encourage the government to implement the recommendations of the FCO’s report on religious persecution.
Supporters are also being encouraged to attend local hustings events, and ask the candidates a question about their willingness to engage with these issues should they be elected.
Newly-elected MPs need to arrive at Parliament knowing that their constituents care about people facing persecution, and alerted to the need for action. In the midst of the current political uncertainty and chaos, I find some hope: ordinary voters can do something simple and positive to speak up for those facing persecution.
Stephen Rand is a member of Orchard Baptist Church, Bicester; he has worked for the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Freedom of Religion or Belief and is an advocacy consultant for Open Doors.
Full information about the Open Doors General Election campaign is at www.opendoorsuk.org/advocacy