Cardinal Keith O’Brien today launches an attack on Foreign Secretary William Hague following the announcement that the UK plans to double overseas aid to Pakistan to more than £445 million.
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Cardinal O’Brien, the Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, says the aid package should be conditional on a commitment to religious freedom and a pledge to protect Christians and other religious minorities.
His comments follow the recent murder in Islamabad of Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian in the Pakistani Cabinet and an outspoken critic of the country’s blasphemy laws.
Cardinal O’Brien, speaking in Glasgow today, is expected to urge Mr Hague to obtain guarantees from foreign governments before they are given aid.
At the launch of a report into the persecution of Christians, he is due to say: “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 Pakistan Government, and the governments of the Arab world as well, to ensure religious freedom is upheld. The provision of aid must require a commitment to human rights.”
The report, revealed in The Herald yesterday, estimates that 75% of all religious persecution around the world is directed at Christians.
Cardinal O’Brien says there has been a surge in Christians fleeing persecution that is shocking and saddening.
“In countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, Christians face violence, intolerance and even death because of their beliefs,” he says. “This is intolerable and unacceptable. Here in Scotland we value our freedoms, particularly the freedom of religion and the right to practise our faith free from persecution. Yet this detailed and at times harrowing report reminds us that not all Christians enjoy such freedom.”
The report was produced by the Catholic Church agency Aid to the Church in Need. It says 100 million Christians around the world are now facing persecution and the Christian population in some countries is collapsing. It gives the example of Iraq, where it says that over the last 25 years the Christian population has gone from an estimated 1.4 million to about 150,000.
The report’s author, John Pontifex, said the choice was to do nothing or “we can pray and we can act”.
He added: “Aid to the Church in Need chooses to do the latter. And that’s why more and more people 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, in Iraq, said: “This information will significantly contribute to building 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 the situation for Christians seems to be getting worse, sometimes to the point where we wonder if we will survive as a people in our own country.”
At Westminster, Alistair Burt, the Foreign Office Minister, said the UK Government shared the Cardinal’s concern about the plight of Christians.
“Freedom of religion is a fundamental human right and we condemn and deplore religious persecution in any form,” Mr Burt said. “The promotion of human rights, including freedom of religion, is at the heart of our foreign policy.”
Mr Burt pointed to how Mr Hague had set up a new Advisory Group on Human Rights, which identified religious freedom as a key human rights issue at its 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 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 churches in tackling world poverty and last month launched a renewed drive to work more closely with faith communities.”
He added: “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.”