Winston Churchill, whom Boris Johnson admires, admitted he was not a pillar of the church but instead, like a flying buttress, supported it from the outside. So perhaps the newly elected prime minister was in Churchillian mode when in his Christmas Message he remembered Christians under persecution. Johnson mused, “For them, Christmas Day will be marked in private, in secret, perhaps even in a prison cell. As Prime Minister, that’s something I want to change. We stand with Christians everywhere, in solidarity, and will defend your right to practice your faith.” 

It’s a bold promise. What would this policy look like if the UK government managed to put it into effect? Johnson already hinted at what he proposes. Months previously he tweeted that he welcomed a Foreign Office report into the persecution of Christians abroad. He added, “If I am fortunate enough to become PM, I will always prioritise protecting religious freedoms and stand up for those facing persecution.” The report referred to is the Mountstephen Report, which the then foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, commissioned to examine where and how Christians were persecuted, and assess the UK government’s response.

Many of the recommendations are internal, challenging the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to rethink its entire approach toward freedom of religion in general, and toward persecution of Christians in particular. One recommendation says all staff should receive mandatory training in religious literacy. It’s a sign of the times that basic religious knowledge can no longer be assumed in an institution that traditionally recruits some of the nation’s brightest graduates.

British diplomats are now encouraged to “name the phenomenon of Christian discrimination and persecution” and identify its particular character, alongside similar definitions for other religions. Britain should also appoint special envoys for freedom of religious belief in cooperation with organizations such as the UN Human Rights Council, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the Council for Europe, and respond immediately to atrocities.

When working multilaterally, the FCO should ensure minorities like Christians are visible and given help. This reflects evidence the inquiry heard about aid to Iraq. The report said British diplomats visited the Nineveh Plains, “showing concern,” but little concrete assistance seemed to result. UK aid there was channeled through a United Nations program that refused to rebuild Christian and Yazidi villages destroyed by ISIS, on the grounds that aid had to be religiously neutral. The foreign secretary is urged specifically to reject this mantra of “need not creed,” which effectively benefited majority communities and stymied help to Christians.

The report is all good. But something is missing. Although there is a vague mention of sanctions, there is no reference to the UK’s substantial overseas aid. This could be a useful means of influencing governments where Christians are victimized. Since 2015 Britain has committed itself to spend 0.7 percent of GNP on overseas aid. Each year the amount has risen. The most recent figures show that in 2018 the UK spent £14.6 billion on development aid. Receiving £331 million, the top recipient was Pakistan, a nation where Christian communities have experienced terrible persecution.

The report does provide evidence of Britain’s failure to engage with Pakistan in this respect. UK representatives in Pakistan are said to be reluctant “to acknowledge the extent of persecution against Christians or to leverage their political influence with the Pakistan government in support of Christians.” The UK aid budget could even be funding Pakistani textbooks that propagate the teaching of hate against Christians.

The report’s general recommendations highlight kidnapping, forced conversion, and forced marriage as a critical area for UK concern. Recent reports about an underage Christian girl kidnapped for these reasons show that this is an ongoing problem in Pakistan. In short, there seems to be a clear case for making aid to Pakistan dependent on its progress in protecting its religious minorities, not only Christians but also Hindu, Shia, and Ahmadiyya communities, all of whom have been victimized.

Why the reluctance to use aid in this way? As the former imperial power, Britain is sensitive to the accusation of neo-colonialism. There is the influence, too, of the Zeitgeist in Britain’s academies, generally negative toward Christianity and its role in history. In addition, diplomats may fear that drawing attention to Christian minorities might make things worse for them. However, new governmental thinking about overseas aid seems to be underway at the behest of Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s most influential special adviser, a contrarian who challenges convention. There may be an end to the practice of giving vast sums of money to nations that will not protect their own citizens.

When Boris Johnson made his Christmas promise about persecuted Christians, was he also contemplating a radical shakeup of overseas aid? This money is funneled through the Department for International Development (DFID), which was separated from the FCO in 1997 and has since enjoyed high visibility with the prestige of a seat at the Cabinet table. At one point Johnson seemed to contemplate merging DFID back into the FCO. Most recent reports indicate he has backed away from this. Around 100 charities involved in overseas aid (many of them depending on DFID for their budgets) drew headlines when they united to issue a statement criticizing a merger. They claimed that in doing so the UK would risk abandoning some of the poorest people in the world.

But a radical review of how Britain uses its overseas aid still seems to be on the cards. This could happen as early as this week, with a Cabinet reshuffle that is already dubbed the Valentine’s Day Massacre. A year ago Boris Johnson said aid should be channeled toward promoting British foreign policy objectives. It will be interesting to see if overseas aid continues in its ideological purity, or if it is increasingly offered with conditions. Without the latter, it is difficult to see how Johnson can make good his promise that the UK will be the champion of Christians under persecution.

Terry Tastard is a Catholic priest in London and a contributor to Providence.