As the coronavirus pandemic broke out around the world earlier this year, Scot Bower – the new CEO of UK-based religious freedom advocacy organisation CSW - was watching carefully to see how it would impact people's religious freedom. And what he saw was troubling.

“We saw it right from the outset,” says Bower, who took up his the new role in August. “Vulnerable faith communities who were already at risk are now facing far greater risk and that’s manifesting in different ways in different places.”

In nations where religious minorities are already “very much the bottom of the pile” - like Rohingya Muslims and Christians in Myanmar, access to healthcare was an immediate concern, he says. In some authoritarian states, such as in China, authorities have used some anti-coronavirus measures to further persecute religious groups. And then in other nations, like India, narratives were being built around the coronavirus that fuel "hate speech and distrust and misunderstanding" between religious group "so you have Hindus blaming Muslims for the coronavirus – ‘This is where that came from’ - [and] all of a sudden mob violence occurs".

"So yeah…these are troubling times.”

Scot Bower CSW

Scot Bower, CEO of religious freedom advocacy CSW. PICTURE: Supplied.

Bower, who spoke to Sight from his home in Guildford, Surrey, took over the post of CEO from Mervyn Thomas, now founder president and a person Bower describes as one of the “handful of people” around the world who is an expert on religious freedom (often more formally designated as "freedom of religion or belief" or "FoRB"). Bower joined CSW about five years ago, initially as communications and fundraising director, and later as chief operating officer. 

His journey to the organisation came via a somewhat roundabout route which included time working in missions in Eastern Europe as well as serving in roles with Christian organisations 24-7 Prayer and the Sailors' Society. But the origins of his Christian journey go back to when he was just a teenager in Devon.

“We saw it right from the outset [of the coronavirus]. Vulnerable faith communities who were already at risk are now facing far greater risk and that’s manifesting in different ways in different places.”

- Scot Bower

“I become a Christian when I was 16 [through] an encounter with God,” Bower recalls. “My local church were running a tent ministry thing...I came down as a teenage trouble-maker, causing trouble all week and then gave my life to Jesus on the Sunday so I was, I think, their success story of the week….”

He and his wife Misty later took on leadership roles in a church plant in Devon but, he says, “we felt God calling us into overseas mission”.

“We ended up selling our house and living in a caravan and travelling around Eastern Europe working with churches, small Christian charities, doing all kinds of fun stuff there,” Bower says, recalling fondly time spent during that period working with a church of young people in what is now North Macedonia – all first generation Christians – and watching them “discovering what Christianity is, what faith is”.

“It was just kind of mind-blowing, I loved that time. And as part of that season we were [also] working with a big Roma settlement on the outskirts of Skopje – it was the largest Roma settlement in Europe where people had come across the border from Kosovo during the conflict and established themselves in Macedonia. I remember being in a family’s home – when I say home, it was half a shipping container and there were three generations living in that home, just side-by-side. I’d go there and we’d drink tea and eat tomatoes and I’d try and better my Macedonian."

It was during those visits, when sitting cross-legged on the floor with them, that Bower decided that, as a Christian, a group called to "spend your lives on the poor and the broken and the needy" he had to do what he could to change the situation. 

As a result, when the couple did return to the UK, Bower says working in the Christian charity sector was the obvious next step and he spent several years working as communications and marketing director for 24-7 Prayer – “I think they taught me the marriage of prayer and justice and mission” – before moving to work for the Sailors' Society, a 200-year-old maritime welfare charity that supports chaplains in ports all around the world and addresses poverty in the areas where crew members come from. His wife Misty, meanwhile, now runs a Christian youthwork charity in Guildford.

Asked what attracted him to work for CSW, Bower cites the organisation’s “heart for justice…and reconciling all things to God through Jesus”. But he also mentions the “unique place” CSW holds as a Christian human rights organisation that “speaks up for all people who are facing injustice because of what they believe” regardless of which faith they follow.

“We do speak up for Christians, obviously, but we fundamentally believe that the freedom to choose a religion of your choice - to believe or not to believe - is God-given and should be protected. So that’s what got me...” he says. 

“Fundamentally that’s what…I see Jesus doing. That’s what I read in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, that crucial story where Jesus redefines the neighbour saying ‘This is your neighbour’…And as an organisation we’ve been on a journey over the last few years to really understand theologically and intellectually why it’s important that we speak up for all people...And I think that’s so rooted in our identity. That’s what I love about CSW.”

Scot Bower Indonesia

Scot Bower (right) on assignment in Indonesia. PICTURE: CSW

The work of CSW includes on-the-ground research as well as advocacy in policy-making arenas including the United Nations (CSW's recognition by the UN is “fairly unique” in the religious freedom arena, Bower notes). The organisation is also involved in training human rights defenders and religious leaders on such issues as human rights and collecting evidence of violations in nations where these violations occur. And

Its work which Bower believes is “all about the Gospel”. 

“The right to choose is fundamental so if we can create a space where people are free to choose the religion of their choice, those that have grown up as Buddhist, Muslim or whatever, are free to choose to believe in Jesus and come to faith in Christ, that’s wonderful...” he says. 

“[W]e create the atmosphere that happens in. And I think there’s something wonderful that just gets demonstrated in this - the generosity...as we say that you are valued and your choices matter, that you are loved by God and therefore you have this freedom to choose. That’s seen by others who don’t share that faith and that’s where they find an access point into the Gospel.”

As with other charities working in the sector, the coronavirus pandemic has thrown up additional challenges for CSW, not the least of which have been the difficulty in continuing to raise finances at a time when money is tight for many and competiion for what funds are available has increased. And the fact that countries and communities all over the world have increasingly looked inward as they address the crisis within their own borders has also proved a challenge for an organisation with a global focus.

“We were globalising like crazy over the last 50 years and now all of a sudden everyone is turning around inwardly and saying, ‘Let’s fix our thing here and stop looking internationally’,” Bower says. “So that’s presenting a really interesting challenge for us - …as an international charity, how do we go local? And our teams have picked up that challenge and they’re innovating like crazy….[W]e’re really investing in our partners on the ground in different countries and relying on them so much more and looking to establish offices and hubs in different parts of the world. So increasingly going local and that’s for supporter mobilisation as much as it is for research and advocacy work. So we get to became more sustainable. I do love the opportunities that it’s bringing for us but…it’s somewhat difficult…”

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And all of that is taking place against a backdrop of a rising trend of persecution in many nations - Bower points to countries like Nigeria, China and Cuba among those nations of concern with regard to Christian persecution at the moment.

“We work in 26 countries around the world and in each of those Christians are facing persecution,” he says. “If I’m honest, I don’t think there’s a country where it’s getting better.”

And then there’s the persecution of other religious minorities including Muslim groups such as the Uighurs in China, Rohingya in Myanmar, and the Ahmadi in countries like Pakistan. Bower also points to the ongoing persecution of the Yazidi in the Middle East as being of ongoing concern.

While religious freedom violations have long taken the forms including discrimination, harassment and bans on access to healthcare or utilities as well as arbitrary arrests, imprisonment or even death, CSW is also monitoring the rise of new trends such as the use of social media to spread hate speech and even incite mob violence.

Yet, despite what they're seeing, Bower says there is some cause for optimism – work done in recent years to raise the profile of the issue of religious freedom has meant more people are now talking about it than ever before.

“[Y]ou’re seeing more countries with special envoys or representatives for religious freedom internationally…So hopefully that pressure working on one side will diminish the effect of that increased trend on the other.”

(On a side note, Bower is hopeful that, following the recent US election, international religious freedom will remain a priority of the US Government, noting that much will come down to President-elect Biden’s choice of Secretary of State and as Ambassador for International Religious Freedom. “[W]e have been blessed with two exceptional ambassadors in recent times with Rabbi David Saperstein and Sam Brownback taking the issue to new levels, not just in terms of foreign policy but also engagement with civil society and building global allies around the world,” he notes. “So, we will be watching the process of appointment carefully, engaging where we can and encouraging whoever is appointed to build on the legacy of [Mike] Pompeo and Brownback, just as they built on the work of [John] Kerry and Sapperstein.”)

Scot Bower Faith and a Future campaign launch

Scot Bower (right) at the launch of CSW's Faith and a Future campaign. PICTURE: CSW

As for claims that Christians in Western nations are facing persecution due to COVID-related church closures, Bower says that “I think when you sit in an organisation as we do and you see what persecution looks like - when you really see what persecution looks like - you can’t describe what’s happening in the West as persecution in the slightest". 

“I’m really sorry, you just can’t do it…” he says. “My church has been closed since March but I don’t think that’s persecution in any way, we’re just being very sensible about not letting this virus spread. So I think we just need to be really careful about the language we use…”

Asked what success looks like for CSW, Bower says the organisation talks about its work in two different ways – “big picture stuff” like the persecution of Uighurs in China where at least a million at being held in detention centres and, at a much smaller scale, the stories of individuals.

Its in these stories, he says, that they see some positive results. He mentions a number of success stories including that of South Sudanese pastors, Rev Michael Yap and Rev Peter Reith, who had been imprisoned in Sudan and facing a possible death sentence before, after a concerted campaign and prayer effort, they were released in 2015, and that of Cuban Pentecostal pastor Omar Gude Perez who served almost four years in prison before, following an ongoing campaign, he and his family were finally able to seek asylum in the US in 2013.  

“We’ve got to celebrate the small wins," says Bower.

So how can Christians help support CSW’s work? While Bower says that prayer is “number one”, the organisation also welcomes financial support. Advocacy is another key way people can get involved.

“One of the great lines of our generation is that your voice doesn’t matter – ‘What difference would my voice make or what difference can I make?’” notes Bower. “And the reality is that if you live in a democratic society, your voice holds unimaginable power. You have an elected representative that is there to listen to you and represent your views, your concerns…Take action. Look at our website, we’ve got all kinds of actions that are available there…Just don’t underestimate the power of your voice. Speak up. Speak up for those who don’t have a voice.”