Bishop Steven speaks during the House of Lords debate on support for persecuted Christians around the world.

My Lords, may I too add my congratulations and appreciation to Baroness Foster for securing this important debate and for her comprehensive and moving survey and speech. It is also a pleasure to follow the noble Lord Lord Carey and pay tribute to his considerable expertise in this area. I’m grateful to my colleague the Bishop of Winchester, formerly the Bishop of Truro, for a briefing in advance of this debate which I know he will follow closely.

As Baroness Foster set out so eloquently, the beginning of Holy Week is a fitting time to remember the persecution of Christians across the world and the costs of faith. This persecution been evident since the very  beginning of the Church. Even so it is sobering to reflect that according to Open Doors 365 million Christians face some sort of persecution worldwide, about one in seven of the global Christian population. I also note with other noble Lords the disproportionate consequences for women and girls.

We pay tribute today to the courage and perseverance for persecuted Christians faith and in turn appreciate the freedom of belief which is a feature of our own democracy. As the historian Tom Holland has argued recently in his powerful book Dominion, many of the core values of our society can be traced directly to our Christian heritage.

However this debate has a broader significance because freedom of religion or belief [FoRB] violations against anyone can be an important indicator of the state of human rights in any context globally. As the former UN Special Rapporteur on FoRB Heiner Bielefeldt says:

“Freedom of religion or belief has rightly been termed a “gateway” to other freedoms, including freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly and association.”

An approach that guarantees (FoRB) for all, as advocated by the Truro Review, is the best way of addressing Christian persecution for two important reasons. First, singling out Christians inevitably ‘others’ them, increasing their vulnerability. It is also antithetical to the Christian faith itself to favour Christians over other faiths: Christianity puts no limit to its definition of who our neighbour is. So, it is wrong to argue for special treatment of persecuted Christians theologically. But secondly, it is also impossible to support persecuted Christians effectively without supporting the freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) of all persons. That is because freedom of religion and belief is intertwined with other human rights and a matter of legally-binding international human rights obligations.

My Lords we need to note in this debate that we have seen a regrettable increase in islamophobia and antisemitism in the United Kingdom since the terrible October 7th attacks and the devastating conflict in Gaza. The work of faith leaders building bridges and strong relationships and understanding locally has been a vital part of the local response to event in Israel and Gaza in my own city and county and across the country. Religious freedom and tolerance needs to be nurtured and guarded nationally and locally.

The library briefing provides some estimates on the numbers of Christians persecuted globally. Estimating persecution is problematic and contentious for obvious reasons. A comment former UN Special Rapporteur on FoRB Asma Jahangir makes in relation to all FoRB statistics is very helpful here: “When I am asked which community is persecuted most, I always reply ‘human beings’”. Our responsibility is always to stand up for the world’s most vulnerable people wherever they may be found. Freedom of religion and belief is a foundation of human rights.

The Truro Review argued that FoRB should be front and centre in Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) policy. However, religious literacy in policy and diplomacy remains a significant challenge even though only religiously literate responses will be effective in addressing some of the world’s most serious instances of persecution in countries like Nigeria, India, Iran, Russia and China. What steps are the FCDO taking to build religious literacy across its work?

Fiona Bruce is sponsoring a private member’s bill in the other place the ‘International Freedom of Religion or Belief Bill 2023–24’ – which would establish an ‘office of the special envoy’ and require the prime minister to appoint someone to the role by law.

I very much hope this House will play its part by supporting the Private Member’s Bill to establish the Special Envoy post in law when my colleague the Bishop of Winchester brings it to the House in due course.

Finally, can I invite both the Minister and the opposition leads to tell this house what future strategies they intend to have in place to continue or enhance the role of the Special Envoy for FoRB and support for persecuted Christians globally?