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Britain's Got Religion: Major Party Manifestos all Voice Support for Religious Freedom

05/05/2015 15:21 BST | Updated 01/05/2016 10:12 BST

By Judd Birdsall, Jane Lindsay, and Emma Tomalin

In the midst of a divisive election campaign there is a remarkable agreement among all three major parties on at least one issue: international religious freedom. The Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, and Labour all include in their manifestos some variation of a promise to bolster the global fight against religious persecution.

This cross-party convergence is politically opportunistic, of course, but is praiseworthy nonetheless. Freedom of religion or belief is a universal human right and its protection contributes to social harmony, political stability, economic development, and other core British interests. With its distinct model of combining religious establishment with religious tolerance, the UK has much to add to the advancement of religious freedom.

Indeed, the manifestos demonstrate the UK's growing attention to religious freedom. Although it has long been a part of core human rights legislation, and while the New Labour Government developed a 'religious freedom toolkit', it was only under the Coalition government that its profile in the UK was raised to that of an explicit foreign policy priority. This has been supported by a small hub team in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) that drives policy on this and other human rights.

If actualised, the manifesto pledges would further elevate religious freedom promotion, though it is not clear whether the commitments will be backed up with the resources needed to deliver them. The Conservative Party promises to "stand up for the freedom of people of all religions---and non-religious people---to practice their beliefs in peace and safety, for example by supporting persecuted Christians in the Middle East." Not to be outdone, Labour promises to appoint a Global Envoy for Religious Freedom and establish a multi-faith advisory council on religious freedom within the FCO. The Liberal Democrats echo Labour in stating a commitment to appointing an "Ambassador-Level Champion for freedom of belief to drive British diplomatic efforts in this field."

These promises are reminiscent of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's 2011 re-election pledge to create an Office of Religious Freedom within the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Harper kept his word, but faced a great deal of criticism from sceptics of all kinds as he established the office and appointed its ambassador.

The work of the Canadian office parallels that of its sister to the south, the U.S. State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom, which has a comparatively sizeable staff led by an ambassador at large. Created by an act of Congress in 1998, the office was reluctantly embraced by the Clinton Administration, and has faced an uphill battle for legitimacy within its own bureaucracy ever since.

An analogous office and ambassadorship within the Foreign Office could be a positive step, but it would likely face similar bureaucratic resistance---and international suspicion.

Among British and other Western diplomats there's a widespread feeling that religious freedom is a marginal issue, and something that is perhaps pursued to placate a certain domestic constituency. Implementing the manifesto pledges in their current form could reinforce this perception.

There's also an external perception problem. Despite their advocacy on behalf of Muslims and all other faith communities, Christian-majority countries will always be perceived by many observers, particularly in the Muslim world, as using religious freedom as a tool to promote Christianity. The Conservative Party's decision to single out Christians in their manifesto is problematic.

There may be a better way. By incorporating enhanced religious freedom capacity within a broader religious engagement strategy, the British government can mitigate both internal and external concerns. Religious freedom is a human right, but religion is more than a human rights issue. In a world where the vast majority of people are religious, and religious ideas and institutions are increasingly salient factors---for good and ill---in international politics, diplomats must "do God" whether or not they believe in one.

That does not mean the Foreign Office should be in the business of promoting religion or privileging religious factors over others in their analysis. Rather, diplomats must appreciate the complex ways religion interacts with a range of factors, and they must engage with influential religious actors.

The challenge posed by ISIS is a case in point. The gruesome spectacle of Christian beheadings has undoubtedly inspired increased British attention to the plight of Middle Eastern minorities, but the barbarism of the Islamic State cannot be countered with traditional religious freedom advocacy alone. The British and international response to ISIS must take due account of the religious dimension--and religious appeal--of ISIS and effectively engage religious voices who can credibly counter the group's twisted theological message.

This is one of the key lessons from a series of recent transatlantic conferences on religion and global affairs sponsored by the British Council. Scholars and policymakers on both sides of the pond are increasingly arguing for a religion-attentive diplomacy that builds on--and beyond--religious freedom advocacy.

To this end, in 2013 the U.S. State Department established an Office of Religion and Global Affairs, led by a senior official and guided by a national strategy on religious engagement. The FCO needs a similarly strategic approach, supported by mandatory religious literacy and engagement training for all diplomats. The religious freedom envoy promised in the manifestos could be given a broader "religion and global affairs" remit.

The convergence of the UK party manifestos on religious freedom is a positive development for sure. But to translate this domestic political pressure into effective foreign policy, the government should fold religious freedom promotion into a broader strategy of understanding and engaging religion in international affairs.

Judd Birdsall is a former U.S. diplomat now serving as the managing director of the Cambridge Institute on Religion & International Studies.

Jane Lindsay was a senior policy adviser in the Cabinet Office before taking a career break from the Civil Service in to complete her PhD at the University of Leeds.

Emma Tomalin is a senior lecturer in religious studies and director of the Centre on Religion and Public Life at the University of Leeds.