Securing religious freedom

Think tank: The Henry Jackson Society

Author(s): Marc Sidwell

October 17, 2023

This report from UK think tank the Henry Jackson Society looks at why British leadership on FoRB should be written into law.

In the last five years, the promotion of international religious freedom has become a new priority, and a notable success story, for British diplomacy. But this vitally important policy now faces both political change and Foreign Office inertia. To build on all that has been achieved, the Government should act decisively, follow the recommendation of the Truro Report and make championing international religious freedom an official duty of Whitehall, embedded in legislation.

The law which brought similar reforms to the US Government, the International Religious Freedom Act, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and shows the enduring value of such a commitment. Britain took up the mantle of defending international religious freedom in recognition of a rising tide of persecution worldwide. This disproportionately affects Christians, but counts its victims across all faith groups – and atheists as well. In this new role, Britain has found itself uniquely well placed, providing a complementary vision to the longstanding commitment of the United States. Yet despite early successes, Britain’s policy on international religious freedom now stands at a crossroads. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) has many other priorities, and the initiatives set in motion by Theresa May and Jeremy Hunt are at risk of losing momentum.

A looming general election could allow a new government, with no statutory obligation to prioritise the issue, to push it down the agenda or even dismiss the initiative wholesale. That would be a grave mistake. As America learned during the Cold War, the defence of religious freedom abroad is not just a humanitarian priority but a key component of standing up for the values of the free and democratic world. An increasing body of research shows that the price of religious repression is measured not just in human suffering, vast and appalling as that toll remains, but in the growth of intolerant, dangerous ideologies, as well as economic immiseration.

The global decline in religious freedom is both a humanitarian and a strategic crisis. By taking religious freedom seriously, we can see emerging threats more clearly, and understand better how to act against them. Religious restrictions in Russia were an early signal of what would become the aggressive religio-nationalism which underpins Putin’s regime. Increasingly repressive blasphemy laws in Pakistan and concerns about India’s commitment to religious freedom both deserve prioritisation. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s contempt for religious freedom, most visible in Tibet and its genocide of the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs, as well as its intensifying persecution of Christians and longstanding repression of Falun Gong, cannot be set aside in pursuit of economic advantage. China’s oppression must be challenged, as the US stood up for the Soviet Union’s Jewish citizens even while pursuing détente.

This report recommends:

  • Following the Truro Report’s recommendation, the recently-created role of the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) should now be established “permanently, and in perpetuity […] with appropriate resources and authority”.
  • Legislation should be brought forward, inspired by the United States’ International Religious Freedom Act, to establish an Office of International Religious Freedom within the FCDO.
  • Religious freedom should be understood not only in terms of human rights but also as a strategic issue. It should be used to help judge security risks and, where necessary, be prioritised, even if it conflicts with other short-term goals. An international religious freedom adviser should be appointed to the National Security Council.
  • Protecting religious freedom for all must also be treated with greater urgency within the UK. Domestic policymaking should be coordinated with our international religious freedom strategy.