There are parts of the world today where to be a Christian is to put your life in danger. From continent to continent, Christians are facing discrimination, ostracism, torture, even murder, simply for the faith they follow. The pages of this newspaper regularly chart the plight of the persecuted, from the scores of worshippers killed recently by bombers at All Saints Church in Pakistan to the Coptic congregation sprayed with bullets by gunmen in Egypt.
Christian populations are plummeting and the religion is being driven out of some of its historic heartlands. There is even talk of Christianity becoming extinct in places where it has existed for generations – where the faith was born. In Iraq, the Christian community has fallen from 1.2 million in 1990 to 200,000 today. In Syria, the horrific bloodshed has masked the haemorrhaging of its Christian population.
Perpetrators range from states to terrorists to people's neighbours. And victimhood is not exclusive to Christians; Hazara Shias in Pakistan, Baha'is in Iran, Rohingya Muslims in Burma – all have long been singled out and hounded out because of the faith they follow.
While religious persecution may not be a new concept, today the fault lines between faiths and within faiths are ever more volatile. Collective punishment is becoming more common, with people being attacked for the alleged crimes, connections or connotations of their coreligionists, often in response to events taking place thousands of miles away.
This has become a global crisis, and in Washington D.C. today I will be making the case for an international response. Speaking at Georgetown University and the Council on Foreign Relations, I want to call for cross-faith, cross-continent unity on this issue – for a response which isn't itself sectarian. Because a bomb going off in a Pakistani church shouldn't just reverberate through Christian communities; it should stir the world.
The spirit of unity is out there: in the compassion of the Muslims who donated blood to help those Christians injured at All Saints Church; in the solidarity of the Christians who encircled Muslims as they prayed in Egypt's Tahrir Square during the 2011 uprising; in the camaraderie between religions in Nigeria and Indonesia, where the faithful regularly protect one another's places of worship.
We need to harness that unity. For, from Apartheid to gay rights, intolerance and inequality have only been defeated when the mainstream has got behind the cause.
Laws are not enough. You may be reassured by the fact that 83 per cent of countries with populations over two million guarantee religious freedom in their constitutions. But when you learn that these include some of the most oppressive states in the world – like North Korea, which protects 'freedom of religious belief' by law while banishing Christians and other believers to labour camps – these legal guarantees become laughable.
I do not buy the argument that faiths are on a violent collision course, that division and sectarianism are inevitable. Yes, the battle lines have been drawn on religious divisions in the past. People are exploiting them today, finding a convenient ‘other’ – a scapegoat – in their minorities. But history shows this is not inevitable; communities can and do co-exist.
Not only can they co-exist, they can flourish. Pluralism is not only a good in itself; it is good for society. It enables people to play a full part in society, which boosts economies. It is thought that of the 30 wealthiest nations in the world, 26 are ones which respect religious freedom. Religious freedom guards against violence, extremism and social strife, all of which hold back the development of a society.
These are some of the arguments we need to make. As Foreign Office Ministers, we promote religious freedom in our respective countries, working with partners all over the world to crack down on persecution and equipping diplomats with the training to understand these issues. To build on this I want try to build an international consensus, bringing together law enforcers, politicians, charities, journalists, the judiciary and more to develop a strategy for putting this vision for universal religious freedom into practice, and to start making an impact on people’s everyday lives.