In 2014, conflict and instability in the Middle East and North Africa threatened human rights in the region, including the freedom of individuals to practise their religion or belief. In addition, violence committed in the name of religion increased, and the plight of religious minorities remained deeply worrying.
Some communities which had existed peacefully for centuries fled for safety. In particular, Christians were obliged to desert parts of the region, and Yezidis were forced to leave places where they had lived for years. But not only Christians and Yezidis suffered. People of many beliefs – Sunni, Shia, Druze, Alawite, Jewish, Baha'i and other groups – were all affected.
The UK government attaches great importance to ensuring that people of all faiths or none can participate fully in society and live without fear of abuse or discrimination. We regularly press governments in the Middle East and North Africa to ensure the protection of all, regardless of their religion or belief, and encourage them to develop inclusive political systems which represent all of their citizens.
As part of this, in July, FCO Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, Tobias Ellwood, met Archbishop Athanasius Dawod, Head of the Syria Orthodox Church in the UK, to demonstrate our support for the church and to discuss the difficulties faced by religious groups in Iraq and the region. Mr Ellwood heard first-hand about atrocities committed by ISIL, and their intimidation of all who do not subscribe to their violent ideology. During his visit in August, Mr Ellwood pressed the government of Iraq to ensure the protection of all minorities, promote human rights, and reassert the rule of law. In October, our Ambassador to Iraq discussed the need to include and protect all communities with newly-appointed Prime Minister al-Abadi. We acted in other countries too – for instance, in July, our Ambassador to Lebanon met the Lebanese Foreign Minister with senior Christian leaders to discuss the situation in Lebanon and show support for the Christian leaders.
At a global level, the government worked through multilateral bodies, including the UN, to strengthen international acceptance of the importance of freedom of religion or belief. And we backed our words with actions. In Iraq and Syria, a number of UK-funded projects brought together religious leaders (from a variety of religions) to foster greater understanding between faiths and to support reconciliation. We helped the Iraqi government with their humanitarian situation and with internally displaced persons – pledging £39.5 million and urging them to do more in terms of humanitarian support, regardless of people's religious or ethnic affiliation. And in Tunisia, as part of a project run by the Centre for the Study of Islam and Democracy, we funded an event on the protection of religious minorities under the new Tunisian constitution. In December, Baroness Anelay, accompanied by Baroness Elizabeth Berridge, Chair of the All Party Group on International Freedom or Belief, met senior officials at the Holy See to explore how the UK and Holy See could work together to help ensure the survival of religious pluralism and support religious diversity across the Middle East.