Interview: British Foreign Office and Religion

Sue Breeze, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Sue Breeze, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Religion has often been an ignored topic in British diplomacy. Some of this has been due to complexities and sensitivities of the topic and fear of getting it wrong and offending religious people, some due to a lack of recognition and appreciation that religion is one of the most powerful forces in today's world thus cannot be ignored in both how we understand and engage with other countries where religion plays a major role. However, things have changed slowly but surely over the last few years. As persecution on the basis of religion and belief emerged to be a major human rights concern in today's world, freedom of religion and belief was included in key areas of focus in promotion of human rights by the FCO. Religious literacy was increased through seminars, study days and workshops for diplomats. We talked to Sue Breeze, a career British diplomat that played a central role in FCO's improvement on engagement with the topic on where things are and why it matters for British diplomacy to take religion seriously. 

Why does it matter that the FCO take religion seriously?

In a world where over 80% of the population say that religion is important to them, if British diplomats fail to take into account the influence of religion in seeking to understand the perspectives of their international contacts, then we are missing a significant part of the picture.

In what ways have the FCO been doing so?

We have put together a short basic religious literacy course, which is part of our online Diplomatic Academy Foundation Level. This is training which every member of staff, including the locally engaged staff at our Embassies around the world, is expected to take. It has recently been made mandatory for promotion for our junior staff. We also run a regular two-day course for staff who need more in-depth knowledge. This examines in more detail at some of the world’s major religions and the way that they shape their followers’ understanding of the world. It considers contemporary controversies, looks at some case studies drawn from real world examples and concludes by considering what all this means for a diplomat in his/her day to day work.

What are the challenges of this?

The risk in running these courses is that we are “preaching to the converted”. Those who voluntarily sign up to attend a course on religion and diplomacy probably already appreciate that the two are linked and that understanding religion is important. It is probably those who really need the training who do not sign up to attend. The answer would clearly be to make the training compulsory, but then this risks a room full of unwilling participants who may pay very little attention to what is being taught.

Is religion a missing element in practice of diplomacy?

The picture is variable. Some diplomatic missions have an excellent understanding of the way that religion influences the thinking of the population of their host countries. Others miss the link completely. Clearly if you are operating in a country that is profoundly religious then the risk of not considering the religious influence is that you make faulty judgements. There is a tendency to assume that others think as we do and so, for example, to assume that they are driven by a desire to see, above all, a more materially comfortable life for their families; or to believe that those in a host country want peace and may be willing to negotiate and compromise to achieve it. Or for us to believe that if only they implemented a Western style democracy then all would be well. My advice to my colleagues is always that if a position taken by your host government doesn’t seem to make sense, then you should consider whether there might be a religious perspective driving it.

Can you tell us about the recent conference on religious freedom and religious extremism?

The conference, which was entitled: ‘Preventing Violent Extremism by building inclusive and plural societies: How Freedom of Religion or Belief can help’, drew its inspiration from the following statement by the UN Secretary General:

Violent extremism undermines peace and security, human rights and sustainable development... I am convinced that the creation of open, equitable, inclusive and pluralist societies, based on the full respect of human rights...represents the most tangible and meaningful alternative to violent extremism and the most promising strategy for rendering it unattractive” UN Secretary General, 24 December 2015

It examined the idea that a key part of the answer to preventing extremism is to build open, equitable, inclusive and plural societies in which fundamental rights are respected, including freedom of religion or belief, freedom of expression and freedom of association. Where people are free to follow their chosen religion or belief, to share it with others and to worship in the company of others, then extremist ideologies are seen in sharp relief as dangerous, anti-social counter-currents to the public good. Conversely, where governments and societies promote or condone discrimination on the basis of religion or belief they create fertile ground which violent extremists can exploit. This can include the development of deep-seated prejudice within society which sets individuals and groups against each other. This mindset leads to individuals abusing the human rights of others on the basis of their religion or belief, and is threatening the extinction of Christians in the Middle East in particular.

The conference was groundbreaking in that it brought together experts on FoRB with those working on preventing violent extremism, and it sought to promote dialogue between these two previously separate worlds. We had over 190 participants from at least 38 different countries. We are now working to turn some of the conference recommendations into action, both in the UK government policy and action, but also through working with civil society and the international community.

How does the FCO work on freedom of religion and religious persecution?

We work in four main areas – multilateral work, bilateral contacts, project work and religious literacy. Through both our multilateral and bilateral work, we seek to work with other states to promote and protect the right to freedom of religion or belief. On a multilateral level, we are working through the UN to ensure that states implement Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18, which focuses the international community on combating religious intolerance, protecting the human rights of minorities and promoting pluralism in society.  We work to ensure this resolution, along with the EU’s more comprehensive resolution on the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), are adopted by consensus each year as it gives us some agreed language to use when raising FoRB with other governments.

Through our bilateral engagements, we lobby for changes in laws and practices that discriminate against individuals on the basis of their religion or belief. We also raise individual cases of persecution at Ministerial and official level. We also carry out project work in a range of countries, working with non-governmental organisations on issues such as promoting education about freedom of religion or belief, supporting civil society and youth networks, bridging sectarian divides, promoting dialogue between faith groups and government and offering technical advice on laws that need amendment.  We also meet regularly with leaders of different religious groups from around the world, UK faith groups and civil society organisations, to understand their current concerns, and to examine how we can better work together to promote a universal commitment to religious freedom.