The UK government has committed £12 million ($15.5 million) to championing freedom of religion of belief worldwide.
The UK’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, Lord Tariq Ahmad, said the money “will go a long way in bolstering the work of civil society and NGOs to promote respect, and the value of religious diversity and tolerance … I will ensure that the UK stands up for everyone’s right to practise or not practise a religion that is in line with their conscience, wherever they are in the world”.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, the BBC’s religion editor Martin Bashir said the money “can’t come soon enough”.
Asked by his BBC colleague John Humphrys, “Is there much persecution?” Bashir highlighted the Pakistan park bombing of Easter 2016, the Palm Sunday bombing of two churches in Egypt last year, and the massacre of over 200 Christians in Nigeria’s Plateau state in June this year.
“Two years, three continents, hundreds murdered solely because of their Christian faith,” he summarised.
Asked what he’d do with the £12 million, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK, Archbishop Angaelos, said Bashir had been “right about the extent and quantity” of the persecution and that the “exciting thing about the programme” was that it brought together, for the first time, government, development and advocacy organisations, academics and religious leaders.
He said this would bring a lot of expertise on the ground that could “help change hearts and minds” and “take away the tools of those who want to persecute by speaking to the heart of individuals who are used by them when they’re vulnerable”.
The archbishop added that he believed the persecution of Christians, while it was “a phenomenon in many countries”, was not very widely publicised in mainstream media in the West because it is “seen as a Western development, although we know it started in the Middle East”.
He added: “It is just as deplorable as anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and anything else that targets people precisely for their faith and so therefore must be addressed at the same level.”
Humphrys asked whether part of the problem may be that “there isn’t a word for it … We have a word for Islamophobia; we don’t have a word for not liking Christians!”
The archbishop agreed and said that “it’s more than a word; there isn’t a concept for it and therefore there’s a greater sensitivity to speak about it. But then there isn’t a way of collaborating or coordinating a coalition of people who speak against it, and I think that’s why – when there is a concept, a word, an ethos, it’s much easier to bring people around it.”
When challenged to find a word for it, the archbishop said he was “all for it” and had been speaking to many others about creating one, but that he hadn’t found the solution yet and wished to collaborate with others – of all faiths and none – to find it.