“Our MPs are right: it’s time our civil service ‘did religion’” says Open Doors CEO

Unless our civil servants and diplomats become religiously literate, they won’t be properly prepared to do their work on the world stage. That’s the plea from the CEO of Christian persecution charity Henrietta Blyth.

It follows debates in the Houses of Commons and the House of Lords on Thursday (6th January) on the persecution of Christians around the world. The issue of full training in religious literacy was repeatedly raised, with the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Mrs Heather Wheeler MP, promising new and expanded training for civil servants.

“This is fantastic news and vital for Britain’s dealings overseas,” says Henrietta. “Over 80 percent of the world believes in God and it’s central to the way people live their lives – from the way they do business, to the reason they fight wars.

“It is vital that civil servants and teams across the Foreign and Commonwealth Office understand the role faith plays in so many cultures – for good and ill. You can’t properly understand or engage with the world without understanding the role it plays in billions of lives.”

The move follows the recommendations contained in a major report for the Foreign Secretary last year commissioned by the Bishop of Truro. The report noted “an overwhelming amount of evidence… pointed to the lack of religious literacy of civil servants” in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). It said that training “should be an integral and in-depth element of all initial induction training”.

In one instance in 2018 the Head of the Diplomatic Service was forced to apologise after referring to the Sikh holy site, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, as the “Golden Mosque”.

However, MPs from Labour and Conservative benches said the Government should go further and make the training compulsory for relevant officials.

“I would like to think that we have learned from such tragedies,” says Jim Shannon DUP Strangford, referring to the mass persecution of Uighur Muslims in Myanmar.  “But I fear that that is not the case. How else can one explain the fact that training … is an optional extra for staff in DfID and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office? … It should be mandatory.”

The discussion follows a pledge from Boris Johnson at Christmas to “stand with Christians everywhere”. And it comes at a time that the reach and intensity of religious persecution for Christians is increasing.

Research sponsored by Open Doors suggests the persecution of Christians is getting worse, with over 300 million people facing high to extreme levels of persecution for their faith. It found North Korea was the country with the worst record on persecution, followed by Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya and Pakistan.

“The Government is promising to take religious persecution seriously in its international dealings,” says Open Doors’ CEO Henrietta. “It couldn’t come at a better time. Great Britain is a major player on the world stage. When we offer aid or negotiate trade we have the chance to speak out to governments about the treatment of their religious minorities. But to be taken seriously when we talk about religious issues, we need to understand them first. The MPs who spoke up about this are right – understanding the central role of faith in lives around the world can’t just be an optional add-on to our diplomatic work – it’s central.”

Ben Cohen

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