But even this approach has limitations, which are highlighted in this week’s criticism by the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Religious Freedom of the United Nations’ poor performance in defence of religious freedom. The group’s report points out that, although Article 18 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights protects religious freedom, it is treated as a “residual” right that only comes into play if it does not obstruct other goals. A current example is provided by the civil war in Syria. Some of the most effective fighters against the Government have been anti-Western jihadists associated with al-Qaeda. Organisations such as Cafod have urged the West not to supply arms to the rebels precisely because of the growing signs of intolerance towards minorities, especially Christians. This was emphasised recently by the murder of a Syrian monk during a rebel raid on a religious house in a predominantly Christian village near the Turkish border. But the case for arming the rebels has been discussed by Western governments with scant reference to human-rights violations by either side. Realpolitik prevails: an amoral world where nation states do not have values, only interests.
A longer-standing example is Saudi Arabia, which denies religious freedom to the thousands of its immigrant workers, many of whom are Christians. The West needs to keep Saudi Arabia on side not least because it is one of the world’s major oil suppliers and offers a huge market for British, French and American armaments, as well as being a valuable source of counter-terrorist intelligence. The idea that Britain might refuse to sell Typhoon jets to Saudi Arabia because it fails to respect religious freedom is unrealistic in the present climate.
It is ironic that most instances of religious intolerance now relate to countries where the predominant ethos is Islamic. For centuries Muslim countries were far more tolerant of Christian and Jewish minorities than the other way round. This suggests that it is often political upheaval that drives religious intolerance rather than the other way round.
The state of turmoil in the Arab world may indicate that the issues left unresolved at the break-up of the Ottoman Empire nearly a century ago, including the arbitrary and arrogant subdivision of the Middle East into newly invented French and British client states, are chickens that are only now coming home to roost. That does not mean relaxing the pressure over religious freedom and human rights. It means the West has to be patient, understanding and generous, even penitent, as it watches its own geopolitical creations come unstitched, with all the human catastrophes that may follow.