The UK’s most senior Catholic has hit out at the British Foreign Secretary for operating an “anti-Christian foreign policy”. Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s comments come as the UK Government announced plans to double overseas aid to Pakistan to more than £445 million, without requiring any commitment to religious freedom for Christians.
Earlier this month the only Christian in the Pakistani government’s cabinet, Shahbaz Bhatti, was shot dead by gunmen in Islamabad. He had previously spoken out against Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Noting the various attacks on Christians, the Cardinal said that conditions should be attached to any aid payments, requiring a definite commitment to protection for Christians and other religious minorities – including Shia Muslims.
Cardinal O’Brien’s comments come on the day a new audit of human rights reveals that; 75% of all religious persecution around the world is now directed against Christians. 100 million Christians around the world are now facing persecution The Christian population in some countries is collapsing. For example, in the past 25 years the Christian population of Iraq has gone from an estimated 1.4million to as low as 150,000 now.
Speaking at the Glasgow launch of the report into Christian persecution today, Cardinal O’Brien said: “I urge William Hague to obtain guarantees from foreign governments before they are given aid. To increase aid to the Pakistan government when religious freedom is not upheld and those who speak up for religious freedom are gunned down is tantamount to an anti-Christian foreign policy.”
“Pressure should now be put on the Government of Pakistan - and the governments of the Arab world as well - to ensure that religious freedom is upheld , the provision of aid must require a commitment to human rights.”
Cardinal O’Brien continued: "This report highlights the huge surge in Christians fleeing persecution. It reveals that 75% of all religious persecution around the world today is anti-Christian, this reality is both shocking and saddening. In countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, Christians face violence, intolerance and even death because of their beliefs."
"This is intolerable and unacceptable. Here in Scotland we value our freedoms, particularly the freedom of religion and the right to practice our faith free of persecution. Yet this detailed and at times harrowing report reminds us that not all of our fellow Christians enjoy such freedom to worship.
I hope the evidence presented by “Aid to the Church in Need” will encourage us all to speak out for religious freedom at every opportunity and motivate us to support those who campaign for it. We ask that the religious freedoms we enjoy to practice our faith, will soon be extended to every part of the world and that the tolerance we show to other faiths in our midst will be reciprocated everywhere.”
The report has been produced by Aid to the Church in Need, the Vatican-approved agency that has responsibility for persecuted Christians.
Report author John Pontifex of Aid to the Church in Need said: "This report today reveals that persecution of Christians around the world is dramatically on the rise. So much so that it's estimated that 75% of all religious persecution globally is now directed against Christians. So we now have a choice. We can do nothing or we can pray and we can act. Aid to the Church in Need chooses to do that latter. And that's why more and more people - including politicians - are beginning to realise that this issue is perhaps the biggest human rights scandal of our generation and that something had to be done".
Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil said: “The ‘Persecuted and Forgotten’ report and the work of Aid to Church in Need are critical to us as members of the worldwide Christian community. This information will significantly contribute to building international support and solidarity for Christians around the world where our human rights and our religious freedom have been stripped away.
"As the report states, in many countries, like Iraq, the situation for Christians seems to be worsening, sometimes to the point were we wonder if we will survive as a people in our own country. There is no doubt that the political turmoil and growing nationalist struggles in Iraq are contributing to the loss of our religious freedoms.”
Commenting on the report Foreign Office Minister, Alistair Burt, said: “We share the Cardinal’s concern about the plight of Christians facing persecution. Freedom of religion is a fundamental human right and we condemn and deplore religious persecution in any form.
“The effective promotion of human rights, including freedom of religion, is at the heart of our foreign policy. The Foreign Secretary has set up a new Advisory Group on Human Rights which identified religious freedom as a key human rights issue at its very first meeting in December.
“Britain raises concerns about religious freedom wherever they arise, including in Pakistan, through the intervention of Ministers or our Embassies and High Commissions. We lobby governments about individual cases where persecution or discrimination occurs, and call for changes in discriminatory practices and laws in countries where freedom of religion is curtailed.
“British aid helps the world's poorest people, who would lose out twice over were we to withdraw it. The Development Secretary has made clear the pivotal role of the Christian church in tackling world poverty and last month launched a renewed drive to work more closely with faith communities.
“It is vital that Pakistan guarantees the rights of all its citizens, regardless of their faith or ethnicity. We will continue to press for religious freedoms to be upheld in Pakistan and around the world.”