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Freedom of Religion Is the Canary in the Coalmine - And It's Dying

18/01/2016 12:59 GMT | Updated 15/01/2017 10:12 GMT

On Wednesday the 2016 Open Doors World Watch List - which stems from a global annual survey measuring the scale and trends of Christian persecution around the world - was launched in Parliament. The list is unique in having access to grass-roots data right down to the village level in a huge number of countries, thanks to long-standing relationships and the practical work that Open Doors has been involved in, even in underground communities, over the last 60 years. The list tracks how the exercise of Christian faith gets squeezed in five areas - private life, family life, community, national and church life, as well as covering violence such as rapes, killings and church burnings. Points are allocated against each metric based on the degree of that type of persecution within a country, and countries are ranked in order of the number of points received. It's thorough, it's independently audited by the International Institute for Religious Freedom - and it's important.

Over 100 MPs heard how persecution of Christians is getting worse - in every region in which we work - and it's getting worse fast. The number of 'persecution points' that were required for a country even to get into the Open Doors World Watch List have increased by over 50% in just three years. What that means is that a number of countries have dropped down the list not because persecution there is decreasing, but simply because others are deteriorating faster.

What it also means is that there are many millions more Christians today than three years ago who are afraid to go to church, or no longer have a church to go to; who have to choose between being true to what they believe or keeping their children safe; who have been brutalised, lost their dignity or their liberty because they share the same faith as many in our own country, but do not share our freedom. And there are many, many more today who are mourning recently lost loved ones. The trend is stark, as are the consequences for real people.

In speaking up for the rights of Christians we also speak for the rights of all people from every faith and none to practice what they believe, as enshrined in Article 18 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. It's well recognised that Freedom of Religion or Belief - the fundamental ability to follow or to change your religion, or even to reject religion altogether - is the 'canary in the coalmine' of human rights. Once these rights are gone from a society, other rights quickly follow. So while much of the report relates to what is happening to Christians around the world, it is not and should not only be the concern of Christians - because what happens next will have a huge impact on the wider society in the countries we are talking about and probably even our own.

At the meeting I stressed that we are not asking for special treatment for Christians - in fact it would be unchristian to do so. But we are, absolutely, asking for equal treatment.

The 2016 World Watch List does not offer a lot of good news - but there is hope. There is hope because in many parts of the world, despite the pressure and the often terrible cost, the church is not just surviving but growing. There is hope because in countries such as Syria, Christian communities are reaching out, caring for and providing for their Muslim neighbours. And there is hope because in places such as Mandera, Kenya, ordinary Muslims stood strong against anti-Christian attackers, effectively saying, "You kill all of us or none of us."

We are at a unique time in history - with persecution of Christians more broad-spread than we have seen before. It does not respect national borders and is no longer just a problem for people a long way away. We are in unmapped territory - and we should not expect things to change for the better unless we are part of changing the situation.

The UK is a generous provider of aid in a number of countries where Christians are persecuted, and is part of the Commonwealth. We have a strong voice in the international community and hold a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. We are not helpless, destined simply to watch in dismay from the side-lines while not just Christianity but freedom of religion or belief for all people is squeezed and eroded across huge swathes of the globe. Now is the time to do everything possible within the UK's spheres of influence to affect what happens next.

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