Skip to main content

Christians in Pakistan

Volume 453: debated on Monday 27 November 2006

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Roy.]

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the important matter of the future of the Karims, who are constituents of mine in Pendle, and the persecution of Christians in Pakistan.

Tomorrow, the Pope travels to Turkey, and we all wish him well. We all want an open dialogue between Christianity and Islam. I want people of all faiths and none to rub along together, respecting each other’s beliefs and being tolerant of differences. I agreed with Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor when he said six months ago in a lecture to the Oxford centre for Islamic studies that Catholic-Muslim dialogue depends on religious freedom—we all agree with that. However, there are many question marks about religious freedom in Pakistan. Indeed, my constituents, the Karims, fled from Pakistan.

The Karims are asylum seekers, and asylum seekers get a really bad press. Asylum seekers are viewed with suspicion, even more so when they are failed asylum seekers, like the Karims. That is why I want to tell the story of Nigel and Pearl Karim and their two children, Calvin and Crystal. They are threatened with deportation, but I want them to be allowed to stay in the United Kingdom outside the immigration rules, for reasons that I will explain, on compassionate grounds.

The Karims are an ordinary family with an extraordinary story. They came to the United Kingdom in 2002 and sought asylum. They were turned down in November of that year. They are practising Catholics and fear persecution if they return to Pakistan. They appealed, and all the appeals were exhausted in 2003. Since then, I have been working with them. I had a long discussion with Pearl and Nigel Karim on Friday in my constituency office. Their story is long and complex, but at its heart is the relationship between the majority Muslim community in Pakistan and the Christian and other minority faiths. That provides the context.

Nigel Karim is now 53. He was born into a mixed-faith family. His father was Muslim and died when Nigel was three. Nigel was brought up in Karachi as a Catholic by his Christian mother, who still lives in Pakistan. Nigel went to church but, by his own admission, he was not a particularly regular churchgoer. All that changed when, in 1987, he joined the YMCA and met Ivan Edwin, who was a committed Christian with a very high profile. Nigel started to worship regularly after that and would help Edwin out, driving him to meetings, posting letters and helping around the office.

It was through that relationship that Nigel met Edwin’s cousin and his own future wife, Pearl, who was also a Christian. They married in 1991, and their son Calvin was born in 1994. The relatives on the father’s side, the Muslim side, were very unhappy about that, particularly the cousins, Mohammed Sharif and Mohammed Azim. They periodically made threats to the Karims which grew in intensity once Calvin was old enough to go to school. Indeed, in 2001 they threatened to kidnap the boy. They let it be known that they did not want the children to be brought up as Christians.

It was at that point that the Karims resolved to get out of Pakistan. It was just as well that they did, because Pearl’s cousin, Ivan Edwin, was murdered in May 2002. He was killed in his office. He was found strapped to his chair with a syringe sticking out of his arm that was filled with the tranquiliser Diazepam. His killers were never found. When the Karims were living in Karachi, they moved around, living in four or five different rented properties, fearing to stay in any house for too long. Nigel Karim’s mother similarly moved around, fearing that she, too, would be tracked down. I believe that the Karims will be danger if they go back. That is the difference between me and Ministers.

There are 4 million Christians in Pakistan, but the Government have no central record of the number of people from that country who come here seeking asylum because of religious persecution. There is a huge number of Christians over there. Indeed, in Karachi alone, I am told, there are 120,000 Catholics. Clearly, we cannot have 4 million Pakistani Christians applying for visitor’s visas to the United Kingdom and, as soon as they step off the plane at Heathrow, applying for asylum on the grounds of their religious beliefs. I accept that each case must be dealt with case by case, but I believe that the Karims’ case is compelling and that new information that they provided relating to their plight was not properly considered by my hon. Friend and her colleagues.

I have been involved with the Karims since June 2003 and have made a series of representations to Home Office Ministers; I forget how many. The Karims have been told that they have no basis to stay in the UK and they should leave. Most recently, the Karims received two letters on 16 October and 7 November and were told that the latest submissions

“do not amount to a fresh claim”

and that they have

“no further right of appeal”.

They could be deported at any stage.

These letters are now the subject of an application for judicial review by the Karims’ solicitors, who say that Ministers failed properly to consider new evidence, one piece of which concerned threats made to Nigel Karim’s Christian mother, to whom I referred. The other related to a poster that has gone up in the area of Karachi where they lived. It shows a photograph of Nigel Karim next to a rather ominous drawing of a gallows and a reward of 500,000 rupees for information on Nigel Karim’s whereabouts. He is referred to in this poster as “Nigel the Arrogant.”

Who would feel relaxed about going back to Pakistan in these circumstances? But the Government believe—I am putting words in my hon. Friend’s mouth, which I should not do—that Pakistan is like a giant forgery factory; that all sorts of documents are forged and fiddled and we cannot believe anything that anyone brings forward because it could be a forgery. It was up to the authorities to prove that the documentation was a forgery, and they have not done that. That is the basis for the application for judicial review.

In May this year, the immigration authorities and the police removed Mr. and Mrs. Karim and their children to Yarl’s Wood detention centre, pending their removal from the country. It provoked a huge outcry in my constituency, and my office contacted Yarl’s Wood. We were all relieved that the case was to be given further consideration, but we are now back to where we started.

Many people in this country will find it strange that people in some countries overseas are terrified of being a member of a minority faith. Certainly in Pakistan there are probably hundreds of thousands of people terrified to worship their own god in their own way. I asked the Library for information on this and there is a huge amount from Amnesty International and others.

I was drawn to the International Religious Freedom report that has just been published for 2006. It charts a series of abuses and states that in Pakistan

“Police torture and mistreatment of those in custody remained a serious and common problem throughout the country and at times resulted in extrajudicial killings.”

Christian communities claim their members are more likely to be abused. For example:

“The policeman charged in the May 2004 death-in-custody of Samuel Masih, a Christian, remained in detention pending trial.”

Masih had been charged under the blasphemy laws; he died after police torture. The operation of the blasphemy laws continues to be a cause of great concern. We are told that they are routinely used to harass religious minorities and liberal Muslims and to settle personal scores or business rivalries. The punishment for blasphemy is death, which is chilling. For example: in April this year, an appellate court acquitted Christian school teacher Pervez Masih of blasphemy charges and released him after five years in detention.

In April this year, two prison staff at the central prison in Sahiwal, Punjab joined Muslim inmates in attacking four Christian prisoners who had gathered for prayer and bible study. The prison staff stripped the Christians of their clothing and physically tortured them. The four were locked up in solitary confinement, and no action was taken against the prison officials.

On the evening and night of 12 November last year, a mob of 2,500 people, urged on by local clergy, attacked and destroyed Christian churches, religious properties and houses in the town of Sangla Hill. According to witnesses, the police took no action to control or disperse the mob or to protect Christian property. And so it goes on.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate and on his hard work on behalf of the Karim family—I wish him well in his future representations. Turning to the issue of Sangla Hill, the National Commission for Justice and Peace organised a national consultation meeting on ending religious intolerance on 4 November. The joint resolution arising from the consultation described the violence in Sangla Hill as

“merely one manifestation of the alarming level of religious intolerance prevailing in the country, being fuelled by hate speech and discriminatory laws.”

Of course I agree with that. The example is, perhaps, extreme, but it is symptomatic of what can happen in a country when religious intolerance is given free rein.

Last month, I asked the Foreign Office what representations the Government were making to Pakistan concerning the position of Christians. The Minister of State told me that he had raised the issue with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Shaukat Aziz, in March, asking him to take action to protect religious minorities. Only last month, I had the opportunity to have a word here at Westminster with the Pakistan Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Senator Tariq Aziz Khan, when I specifically mentioned the case of the Karims.

The Karims are well-educated people, and they put a thousand times more into the community than they take out. One of the many letters to me describes the two children as polite, extremely well behaved and always eager to learn. Both children are in the top streams for all subjects at their school.

The Karims have told their story to the local press in Pendle; they have told it to the BBC “Today” programme; and their story can be accessed on the web. I have received literally hundreds of e-mails from the classmates of Crystal and Calvin. A petition signed by between 3,000 and 4,000 people was presented to me at a packed meeting at Christ church, Nelson, on 9 November. I have been contacted by a delegation from the local clergy, which is led by Father Chris Gorman, and by one from Catholic schools, which is led by Brendan Conboy, headteacher of Fisher More Catholic high school. The school chaplain has also been in touch with me.

I have a file on the Karims that is inches thick. I have a motion from my local authority, Pendle borough council, supporting the Karims, and it notes the widespread support across the area.

I have received letters of support from respected local journalists such as Sue Ritchie from the Nelson Leader, who tells me that the family have worked so hard to integrate into the local community that they are a real asset and that they should stay.

I have received letters from Ann Kerrigan, a local Liberal Democrat councillor who is fighting the family’s corner, from community campaigners Sue and David Penney, from Sheila Samuels and from others too numerous to mention.

I have received a letter from the Rev. Richard Adams, who says:

“Christians of any church face threats to safety and life in Pakistan. False charges of blasphemy against Islam are common and the police offer no protection.”

Like several other hon. Members, I have followed some of these cases in the courts in Pakistan. The case that my hon. Friend is making is absolutely justified. People who end up in court can often expect not only to get no justice but to get the worst kind of treatment outside, where there may be mob rule. I would not send anyone back to that. I hope that he takes that on board in the case that he is pursuing.

I am grateful to my friend, who speaks for many thousands of people who see the injustice of sending the Karims back to Pakistan.

In his letter, the Rev. Richard Adams concludes that in many cases

“the police offer no protection. In some instances they have been proven to side with the accusers.”

I also have a letter from the Bishop of Blackburn, the Right Rev. Nicholas Reade, who says that the Karims are

“keen to contribute to the life and economy of our nation”.

I very much hope that the Minister will listen to the chorus of voices—this is the last chance, I suppose—and let my constituents, the Karims, stay in the United Kingdom.

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) on securing the debate. As he knows, other Home Office Ministers and I have taken the time to respond in some detail on this case on numerous occasions over the past three years. As a matter of principle, it would not be right for me to discuss on the Floor of the House, or in any other public forum, the precise circumstances of this family’s case, because their legal representatives have lodged an application for permission to appeal for their case to be considered before the High Court under judicial review. That application remains outstanding. However, I am happy to discuss in more general terms the asylum and appeals determination process in relation to the family’s case.

As my hon. Friend is aware, asylum and human rights applications are considered by the Home Office on their individual merits in accordance with our obligations under the 1951 United Nations convention relating to the status of refugees and the 1950 European convention on human rights and fundamental freedoms. Each application is considered against the background of the latest available information about the situation in the country of origin. Full account is taken of the ability of the individual concerned to reside safely in other parts of their country when it is not safe to return to their home area. I assure my hon. Friend that full account was indeed taken in the Karim family’s case.

Where an application is unsuccessful, individuals are able to appeal to the asylum and immigration tribunal. If the appeal is unsuccessful, an applicant may seek permission for the decision of the immigration judge to be reviewed. The Karim family have been through the appeal process, and their case was considered at length by the adjudicator. However, the appeal was dismissed in a very detailed and carefully reasoned determination that was by no means unsympathetic. The adjudicator also had the benefit of hearing oral evidence from Mr. and Mrs. Karim. After the appeal was unsuccessful, the family submitted extensive grounds when seeking permission to appeal to the tribunal. The tribunal carefully considered those grounds but decided that they did not undermine the conclusions of the adjudicator, and permission to appeal was refused. The asylum and immigration tribunal is an independent body established by Parliament to adjudicate on such matters, and except in the most compelling circumstances Ministers would not normally intervene where an appeal has been dismissed by the tribunal.

Although I have said that I will not enter into detailed discussion with regard to the individual circumstances of this case on the Floor of the House, I consider it important to point out that since the family exhausted all avenues of appeal the case has been reviewed on numerous occasions by the immigration and nationality directorate and by various Home Office Ministers as a result of written representations from my hon. Friend, from the family’s legal representatives and from the Bishops of Lancaster and Blackburn.

I recognise that the family have contributed to the local community, which is of course to be commended, and that as a result they have the strong support of that community, as evidenced by the campaign on their behalf. However, that alone does not give them a basis to remain in the United Kingdom.

The United Kingdom has a long tradition of providing refuge to those in genuine need of surrogate international protection of the 1951 refugee convention, but it is only right and proper that those who are not found to be genuinely in need of such protection should return home, regardless of the degree to which they have integrated themselves into this country’s society during their temporary residence here.

In relation to other points raised by my hon. Friend and by the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes), it is accepted that, in some areas of Pakistan, the situation for Christians is still contentious and that, as a minority group, they might suffer some discrimination. Discrimination in employment is particularly common, and Christian parents have had difficulty gaining admission to Government schools for their children. Christians also find themselves disproportionately over-represented in Pakistan’s most oppressed social group—bonded labourers. The Pakistani authorities have shown that they are willing and able to provide protection for minority religious groups against harassment, violence and intimidation. The religious constitution guarantees the rights of religious minorities, and the President has called for religious tolerance.

My hon. Friend made a further intervention on behalf of the Karim family when they were detained on 10 May in advance of their removal, which was planned for 13 May 2006. As he is aware, the removal was deferred following his representations, and the family were subsequently released from detention while further consideration was given to their case. I do not know whether my hon. Friend is aware that the Karim family were recorded as absconders earlier this month, having failed to comply with the residence restrictions that pertained to their being granted temporary release. On 16 November, their solicitors lodged an application for permission to apply for a judicial review with the High Court, and it was only on that date, when the application was lodged, that the family presented themselves to the authorities.

The Minister has told the House that the Karims were temporary absconders. I must tell her that at no stage did they ever seek to evade the authorities or to go to ground. They were absolutely determined to carry on with their normal day-to-day lives.

I assure my hon. Friend that the information that I give him is correct. It is the case that the Karim family were recorded as absconders earlier this month. I am happy to discuss that with him following the debate.

While the application is still outstanding, no action will be taken to remove the family from the United Kingdom. I ask my hon. Friend to advise the family that it would be in their best interests to comply with the conditions attached to their temporary release and to report any change of address immediately. I know that he appreciates that while the application remains outstanding, it would be inappropriate to discuss the case in any but the broader terms in which I have done today, and that it would not be appropriate to intervene while the case is before the court. Should the court decide that the removal of the family is lawful and proportionate, I hope that he will accept that returning them to Pakistan is the correct, fair and just course of action.

Although I have only discussed the family’s case in broader terms, I hope that that has been of use to my hon. Friend. I understand that he wrote on 10 November to my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality about the family’s case, and that a detailed written response will be sent to him shortly.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes past Eleven o’clock.