As a man of faith, the persecution of individuals based on their religion or belief is of profound concern and a priority for me and our Government. The picture the world over is a grave one. On a daily basis we see appalling abuses committed against people of faith – ironically often by those erroneously claiming to be acting in the name of faith. We have witnessed sickening acts of persecution against Christians and other minority communities in the Middle East and other regions.
The UK will not stay silent in the face of these abhorrent acts. Recently I spoke out against the Russian Supreme Court’s decision to uphold a ruling that recognises Jehovah’s Witnesses as ‘extremists’. In the Sudan, our lobbying on behalf of four imprisoned Christian pastors led to them being released. In response to the terrible crimes committed by Daesh around the world, together with the Government of Iraq and other international partners, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson launched the ‘Bring Daesh to Justice’ campaign at the United Nations last year
I am also conscious that, despite the increasing intolerance for religious minority communities in some parts of the world, there are real beacons of light in others.
I recently travelled to Ghana in West Africa – in my role as Minister of State with responsibility for the Commonwealth – to learn lessons about how a multi-faith democracy can thrive in a fragile neighbourhood. One of Ghana’s defining characteristics is that it is one of the most religious countries in the world. Approximately 70 percent of Ghanaians are Christian, 25 percent are Muslim, while the remaining 5 percent largely follow traditional beliefs.
I wanted to find out why Ghana – despite being afflicted by issues of poverty and unemployment that contribute to radicalisation elsewhere – has not suffered the same challenges we see in neighbouring Nigeria or other parts of West Africa. Remarkably, Ghana has instead found unity and strength in its diversity.
I met and spoke to Ghanaians from all walks of life. The high level of tolerance – including between Muslims and Christians, as well as intra-faith relations – was striking. This starts at school, where children learn about each other’s faiths and different interpretation of faiths. Respect for diversity is threaded through the fabric of Ghanaian society – be it through national recognition of both Christian and Muslim festivals, interfaith prayers at all national and local events, or through interfaith marriages.
These cultural practices are reinforced by Government-led efforts that prohibit all discrimination on religious grounds, and work to proactively sustain peaceful religious co-existence. Alongside the example set by political and religious leaders, there are other institutions that support this, notably Ghana’s groundbreaking National Peace Council (NPC). The NPC is a representative body of faith and ethnic groups that works to prevent and adjudicate on tensions between different ethnic and religious groups. Its power is enshrined in law, and its respected status means that when there is the occasional flare-up of tensions, the NPC is able to quickly nip them in the bud, working with other elders and tribal leaders to resolve disputes.
During my visit, I hosted a round table for religious leaders, including members of the NPC, to hear firsthand about Ghana’s experience of building a tolerant and inclusive society. It was clear that the NPC is no talking shop. Alongside the regional branches, core members tour the country to meet communities and increase engagement, fostering strong grass-roots links that allow them to have a good understanding of what is happening on the ground. The high standing of many as religious leaders also gives them the credibility to challenge the misinterpretation of religious teachings that drives radicalisation.
There are, of course, other factors that contribute to Ghana’s success, such as the strength of family ties and role of tribal chiefs. But, as Minister for the Commonwealth, I was struck by the potential for other Commonwealth states to learn from Ghana and its NPC.
As a global community, we are all increasingly threatened by the scourge of extremism and its violent manifestations. I believe there are lessons to be learned from Ghana’s whole-of-society approach, as we look to forge partnerships across the Commonwealth and beyond to tackle shared challenges.
It is often said that faith is a force for good, and Ghana is a living example.