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Volume 525: debated on Tuesday 22 March 2011

In January, a cross-party group of eight UK parliamentarians, including myself, visited Pakistan to look at the challenges facing that country. Given the close historical, economic and social ties between our two nations—over 1 million people living in the UK trace their roots to Pakistan, and that country is on the front line in the war on terror—getting the policy towards Pakistan right is crucial to the UK.

The aims of the visit were to give UK politicians a better understanding of the democratic challenges facing our parliamentary colleagues in the national and provincial assemblies, to understand the impact of amendment 18 on the constitution, to energise existing bilateral links, and to learn more about the work of the UK Foreign Office, the Department for International Development and the British Council in Pakistan.

All those in the delegation hope for a longer and broader debate on UK Government policy on Pakistan in the future, and I am sure that other hon. Members in the Chamber will wish to participate in that. Today, however, I will focus my remarks on one specific issue: the murder on 2 March of Shahbaz Bhatti in Islamabad, and the plight of Christians in Pakistan.

During our visit, our delegation met Shahbaz Bhatti in the Ministry for Minorities. We discussed a range of issues, including interfaith dialogue and the murder of the Governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, a Muslim politician who was killed by one of his bodyguards after he criticised Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Shahbaz Bhatti was the only Christian in the Pakistani Cabinet, but he stood up for all minorities in Pakistan and wanted to see the tolerant, liberal and secular country envisaged by the country’s founding father, Jinnah, who said

“let all people worship freely in churches, masjids and temples.”

I will explain a bit more about Shahbaz Bhatti and his work. From 2008 until his assassination at the age of 42, he was the first Federal Minister responsible for minorities. At the time of his appointment, he said that he had accepted that post for the sake of

“the oppressed, down-trodden and marginalised”

of Pakistan, and that he would dedicate his life to

“struggle for human equality, social justice, religious freedom, and to uplift and empower the religious minorities’ communities.”

He added that he wanted to send

“a message of hope to the people living a life of disappointment, disillusionment and despair.”

During his time as a Federal Minister, Shahbaz Bhatti took steps in support of religious minorities. Under his guidance, the Government introduced for minorities affirmative action regarding 5% of all federal employment, and designated 11 August as a holiday to celebrate minorities. The sale of properties belonging to minorities while law enforcement authorities took action against them was banned, and a national campaign was launched to promote interfaith harmony through seminars, awareness groups and workshops. Shahbaz Bhatti initiated comparative religious classes in schools and universities, introduced a prayer room for non-Muslims in the prison system, and started a 24-hour crisis hotline to report acts of violence against minorities. He began a campaign to protect religious artefacts and sites belonging to minorities.

Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic, was also a critic of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, and that was what led to his recent and untimely murder. He had been the recipient of death threats since 2009 when he spoke in support of Pakistani Christians attacked in the 2009 Gojra riots in Punjab, and those threats increased following his support for Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian who was sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate and I have some brief comments. I accompanied him to Pakistan some weeks ago, and had the pleasure of meeting Shahbaz Bhatti. From that visit, we learned that the country is more progressive than one might have initially anticipated. Some laws are very progressive, such as the 18th amendment that concerns devolving power and money to provinces and regions. This Government, and the previous Government, could learn from that.

It is not for us to tell other countries what laws to have, but the issue with the blasphemy law is not so much the law itself but rather the interpretation of that law, both formally and informally. Formally, the penalties linked to the law are far too severe, and informally—this is the problem—

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. As he pointed out, we met Shahbaz Bhatti during our visit to Pakistan and we saw different sides to the country. Some things filled us with hope for the future, and some things led to real concern. That is why I hope that we can have a longer debate in which all hon. Members may participate fully and relate their experiences of the country.

Asia Bibi is a 45-year-old mother of five from Punjab province. She has become the first Christian woman to be convicted and sentenced to death, by hanging, under Pakistan’s blasphemy law. As of today, she remains in jail despite many people acknowledging that she was falsely accused of blasphemy, and repeated international calls for her release.

According to the BBC, on the day he was murdered, Shahbaz Bhatti was travelling to work through a residential district having just left his mother’s home, when his vehicle was sprayed with bullets. At the time of the attack he was alone and without any security. The group Tehrik-i-Taliban—the Pakistani Taliban—told the BBC that it carried out the attack, and it left pamphlets at the scene stating that it had done so because Shahbaz Bhatti was a “known blasphemer.”

The assassination was condemned by the Pakistani Government, whose spokesman stated:

“This is a concerted campaign to slaughter every liberal, progressive and humanist voice in Pakistan.”

President Zardari vowed to combat the forces of obscurantism and said,

“we will not be intimidated nor will we retreat.”

The Government declared three days of mourning and Prime Minister Gillani led a two-minute silence in Parliament.

The hon. Gentleman will be well aware of Release International and Open Doors, two organisations that work on behalf of Christians in Pakistan, highlighting and cataloguing brutality against them by radical groups. Does he feel it is important for our Government to convey to Pakistan in strong terms that something must be done on behalf of Christians in Pakistan, to ensure that they are not subjected to authoritarian and critical blasphemy laws?

I agree. There are growing calls across the country from people of all faiths saying that we must engage more effectively with the Pakistani Government, and that the rights of all citizens must be respected, whether they are Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Christian or of no faith at all. The rights of all Pakistanis must be respected.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. He will know that as vice-chairman of the all-party group on Pakistan, I was due to host an event with Shahbaz Bhatti in this House, just a few weeks before he was assassinated. Unfortunately, he had to return to Pakistan because of the instability of the Government. My hon. Friend will also know that I visited Islamabad recently. I am sure that, like me, he has received a huge number of e-mails and letters from the Pakistani diaspora in Britain, where people are equally outraged about the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti. Does he agree that we have a responsibility to ensure that the voice of those people is heard, and that their condemnation is relayed to the Pakistani Government, urging them to take action?

I thank my hon. Friend for that point. I agree that we must work across faiths. I think that all people recognise that Shahbaz Bhatti was not just a Christian, but one of Pakistan’s most progressive politicians. His death is a blow not just to the Pakistani Christian community, but to all Pakistanis and to the nation of Pakistan.

Following Shahbaz Bhatti’s death, I tabled early-day motion 1518 not just to condemn his murder, but to recognise the work that he had done in Pakistan and to urge the Government of Pakistan to consider reviewing section 295 of the Pakistani penal code, commonly referred to as the blasphemy laws. I am pleased to see that as of this morning my early-day motion has gained the support of 82 other Members of Parliament.

The blasphemy laws were first introduced by the British in 1860 in a mild form that gave equal protection to all faiths and provided for a maximum sentence of two years in jail. Unfortunately, they were given their present form by General Zia ul-Haq in 1986. There is now a mandatory life sentence for desecrating the Koran and a death sentence for blaspheming Mohammed. Unlike the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 in the UK, which prohibits people from stirring up hatred against religious groups or individuals on religious grounds, the Pakistani blasphemy laws protect the Islamic scriptures and the person of Mohammed from criticism or insult.

Although all of Pakistan’s population of 170 million people are subject to the blasphemy laws, it is worth remembering that religious minorities make up only about 4% of that number.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on initiating the debate and on his work as chairman of the all-party group on Pakistan. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on his moving words last Thursday at the memorial service for Shahbaz Bhatti. Like other colleagues, I had met him; in fact, I met him two weeks before his untimely death and was extremely impressed by him. The practical point that I want to make is that it needs to be pointed out continually—I think that the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) was coming to this point—that the majority of people affected by the blasphemy laws are Muslims. People use the laws quite often in vexatious business disputes to get rid of the person with whom they are arguing on a trumped-up charge, while they carry through the business deal that they wanted. If we are to win the hearts and minds of the Pakistanis, who are the only ones who can alter those laws, we need continually to be pointing out that yes, the treatment of Christians is appalling, but equally many Muslims in Pakistan suffer from the abuse of the laws by their fellow co-religionists.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Leigh. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate, which is about Government policy on Pakistan. I have visited Islamabad myself. I visited the Nowshera region, the flood-hit region to the north of Islamabad, in November and I went on to Kashmir—to Mirpur and Dadyal. I would therefore like to take this opportunity to hear my hon. Friend the Minister reaffirm the Government’s position—their stated thoughts—on the situation in Kashmir, because if we are to have security and peace and an end to the violent murder in Pakistan that we are hearing about, it would be a great asset—a great positive move forward—if there were peace and stability in Kashmir as well. That is a real cause of instability in the region.

I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) and for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) for their contributions to the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood is exactly right to say that the majority of people affected by the blasphemy laws are Muslims. However, we have seen a disproportionate effect on some of the minority communities. Also, even simple allegations made under the blasphemy laws have quite often led to mob violence that has killed many hundreds in Pakistan before cases have ever come to court.

There was an interesting article by the daughter of Salmaan Taseer in The Guardian recently. Shehrbano Taseer wrote that

“more than 500 Muslims, 340 Ahmadis, 119 Christians, 14 Hindus and 10 others have been charged under the laws.

Thirty-two of those accused—and two Muslim judges—have been mowed down by Islamist vigilantes.”

That was before the trials were heard. It is worrying that religious zealots in Pakistan have now deemed man-made laws non-negotiable, with a very real threat of death hanging over anyone who disagrees.

I would therefore welcome the Minister’s comments on the blasphemy laws in Pakistan and, more importantly, as other hon. Members have pointed out, their abuse and misuse in the settling of scores and other disputes against Christians and other minorities in the country. I hope that he will agree that we should stand shoulder to shoulder with those of all faiths who want to see a debate about reform of the laws, so that they can no longer be used as a tool of oppression against Christians and other minority groups.

I met a group of Pakistani Christians on Sunday 13 March at Woodlands Road Baptist chapel in Nelson in my constituency. In addition to many Pakistani Christians who live in Pendle, such as David Dean, who organised the event, we were joined by others, including Canon Yacub Masih and Wilson Chowdhry from the British Pakistani Christian Association. I know that the Minister is aware that a number of Pakistani Christians live in Pendle, as some time ago, before the election, he attended an event at which some of them were present. I know that he will remember talking to them.

At the meeting, I heard from many about their shock at the murder of Shahbaz Bhatti, but also about their desire that his death should be a wake-up call not just for the Pakistani Government, but for the international community. Those at the meeting felt that there was no better illustration of the rising problems of anti-Christian discrimination in Pakistan than the murders of Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti over reform of the blasphemy laws.

Concerns were also expressed about whether the UK could not do more, given the amount of money that we give Pakistan in foreign aid. As the Minister will be aware, that issue was picked up by Cardinal Keith O’Brien last week, when he criticised the Government for increasing overseas aid to Pakistan to more than £445 million without demanding religious freedom for Christians and other minorities, such as Shi’a Muslims. Cardinal O’Brien was quoted in the press as saying:

“I urge William Hague to obtain guarantees from foreign governments before they are given aid. To increase aid to the Pakistan government when religious freedom is not upheld and those who speak up for religious freedom are gunned down is tantamount to an anti-Christian foreign policy.”

Although I share the cardinal’s concern about the plight of Christians in Pakistan, I am not sure whether withdrawing or cutting aid in response to Shahbaz Bhatti’s death would be the most productive thing to do right now. I would, however, welcome the Minister’s comments on what the cardinal said, because many people would agree with them.

To date, no one has been arrested and brought to justice over Shahbaz Bhatti’s murder, which makes matters even more painful for the religious minorities that hold him in such high regard. It is of course possible that the security services in Pakistan and the Government do not know who the killers are or where they are. However, with no one being arrested and held accountable for so many other incidents of violence against minorities, such as in Sangla Hill in 2005—

Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern and the concern of many that it seems that the gentleman who was murdered had requested a bullet-proof car and bodyguards just a few days beforehand? None of those requests was agreed to, and shortly after that he was murdered. Is there not concern about that as well?

Many have raised those concerns. Having visited Pakistan and seen the security available not just to Ministers but to all politicians in the country, at provincial level as well as national level, it strikes me as somewhat unusual, shall I say, that on the day when Shahbaz Bhatti was murdered, he had no security and no armoured car to use on the way to work.

That no one has been brought to justice for Shahbaz Bhatti’s death is a real concern for many. As I was saying, there have been so many incidents in the country— not just against individuals but much larger incidents, such as in Sangla Hill in 2005 and in Gojra in 2009, and no arrests have been made for those incidents.

In the time allowed, I have tried my best to describe the situation in Pakistan. I could have added numerous other incidents of persecution. Many were detailed to me by Pakistani Christians now living in this country. I believe that the only way in which we will see Pakistan become a liberal and tolerant nation, which values and treats all its citizens fairly, is through increasing rates of education in the country. I was therefore pleased to see an increasing focus on education in DFID’s recent aid review. The Minister may like to touch on that in his reply. The Government of Pakistan also need to do more to reverse the gun culture, to promote tolerance and to ensure that no part of the Government, the military or the security services appeases or supports extremists.

I pay tribute to organisations such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide, the British Pakistani Christian Association and many others, which do so much good work in promoting interfaith harmony and raising the profile of issues such as those I have outlined, which would rarely make it into the British press without their help.

By focusing only on Christian and minority rights, I fear I have painted a fairly bleak picture of Pakistan and its future, but that was not my intention. With the right leaders, things can and will change for the better. The country has so much potential, and we need to work with it to ensure that issues such as those I have outlined are resolved. In doing so, we will ensure that Shahbaz Bhatti did not die in vain, but gave his life to make Pakistan a greater and more tolerant nation.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Leigh. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) for securing the debate. Many colleagues in the Chamber also went on the visit to Pakistan and share our communal passion for Pakistan, and I thank them, too, for their contributions.

Time is desperately short, and colleagues will understand if I am not able to answer all the questions that have been raised, but I do want to make some remarks. I also want to put on record my appreciation for my hon. Friend’s work as chair of the all-party group on Pakistan and for the fact that he raised this subject during the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association’s visit earlier this year.

Time is tight, so let me say just a couple of things about the relationship between our two countries before turning to the meat of my hon. Friend’s remarks. The United Kingdom and Pakistan are close and historic friends and partners, and that partnership is set to continue. Nearly 1 million British citizens claim Pakistani heritage. More than £1 billion of trade flows between our two countries each year. There are 1.4 million journeys between Pakistan and the UK each year. We are building on the many strong ties we share.

At the end of his remarks, my hon. Friend said that he had focused on one area of our relationship and that he feared he had given a negative impression of Pakistan, but I can assure him that those of us who are friends of Pakistan recognise that there are many parts to our relationship, and we will continue to build on our history, our extensive cultural and business links and all the deep family connections. My hon. Friend need have no fear that his remarks will be misinterpreted.

The Pakistani diaspora in the UK makes a huge contribution to our national life, including our Parliament, our schools, our legal system and our universities. Its members make a remarkable contribution in the media, business, sports, entertainment and many other areas. It is clear that the British Pakistani community has offered, and will continue to offer, much to this country.

Pakistan faces many challenges. Last year’s flooding prompted a huge outpouring of support from this country. That support came not only from the Government but from churches, mosques and every community in the UK. The Government provided £134 million, giving a very strong sense of support.

Our bilateral aid review indicates that UK aid to Pakistan is likely to more than double to an average of £350 million a year until 2015. That will help to tackle poverty and, with the Pakistani Government, build a stable, prosperous and democratic Pakistan. The country faces economic challenges, and we are working with its Government to tackle them. We support the difficult reforms that Pakistan seeks to introduce. We also have strong links in terms of combating terrorism, which afflicts us both and which has echoes in some of the issues that my hon. Friend raised.

My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney), in particular, discussed the situation in Kashmir. The Government’s long-standing position is that it is very much a matter for the Indian and Pakistani Governments to deal with, although we understand the wish for self-determination among the people of Kashmir. We continue to encourage the parties to do as much as they can to deal with the situation—it is clearly difficult, and that has been the case for a long time—so that Kashmiri people have the opportunities they seek. We will encourage that dialogue wherever we can, but it is not the UK’s position to mediate in that situation.

Let me turn now to freedom of religion, which was at the heart of the remarks by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle. The many links between the UK and Pakistan mean that we engage with each other on many subjects, such as counter-terrorism, security policy, trade, development and the rule of law. A theme that underlies all that is human rights, which is critical to the conduct of UK foreign policy. It is as relevant to our relationship with Pakistan as it is to our relationship with many other countries. We do not shirk our responsibilities to highlight our concerns about human rights to our friends. We will raise our concerns about human rights wherever and whenever they occur, without compromise. We are improving and strengthening the work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on human rights. That will be underpinned by British values and by our support for democratic freedoms, universal human rights and the rule of law.

My hon. Friend has set out compelling reasons why freedom of religion and the rights of minority groups are issues on which we need to speak out. It is vital that the Government of Pakistan uphold the fundamental rights of all Pakistani citizens, regardless of their faiths or belief. Pakistan can benefit only if all its citizens can play a central role in society. All Pakistani citizens should be able to live their lives without fear of discrimination or persecution, regardless of their religious beliefs or their ethnic group. I can assure my hon. Friend and all hon. Members present that we regularly reinforce the importance of upholding those fundamental rights to colleagues at all levels in the Government of Pakistan.

The Government of Pakistan have taken some positive actions on the rights of minority groups. They have reserved quotas for minorities in the public sector and Parliament. They have set up a complaints procedure for those encountering discrimination or abuse. Through our lobbying and project work, we will continue to support those who wish to see reform in Pakistan. Worryingly, however, allegations continue that the blasphemy legislation is being misused against Muslims and non-Muslims. That abuse often results in prison sentences for those accused of blasphemy, and we continue to hear of cases in which those accused of blasphemy offences have died in custody.

As well as raising the wider issues of freedom of religion and minority rights, we continue to engage directly with the authorities in Pakistan in relation to Asia Bibi. She was found guilty under the blasphemy laws and is the first woman in Pakistan to be sentenced to death. We oppose the death penalty in all circumstances. In December 2010, I raised Asia Bibi’s case with the former Pakistani Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti. I have also discussed the blasphemy laws with the Pakistan high commissioner in London. Baroness Warsi highlighted our position to the Speaker of the National Assembly in Pakistan when they met on 17 January.

Those who champion such values in Pakistan are now under threat. The assassination of Governor Salmaan Taseer in Islamabad on 4 January was shocking. He was a strong advocate of religious tolerance and of the importance of reforming the blasphemy legislation to prevent its misuse. The scenes of congratulation following his murder and the behaviour of the lawyers who strewed rose petals in the path of his killer outside the courts were sickening, and those involved are a lasting disgrace to their profession.

Shahbaz Bhatti spoke out courageously on the issue before us, and his assassination marked a new low point in Pakistan’s struggle against violent religious extremism. He was a powerful voice against extremism and a fearless voice for tolerance and respect for minorities. His death is a tragic loss for Pakistan and for us all. I met him on a number of occasions as a fellow Minister, and also as a believer in the rights of minorities and a Christian. I did all I could to support my friend in his difficult role and in his attempts to revise his country’s blasphemy laws. It is deeply saddening that his courage in urging peaceful, moderate change was met with such violence. This was an attack not only on a dedicated Government Minister but on the people of Pakistan and their future. I was proud to speak at his memorial service last week. Following his murder, the Prime Minister wrote to express his condolences to President Zardari. The Foreign Secretary, Baroness Warsi and I all made statements condemning his killing.

The Christian community in the UK is correctly very active in supporting the persecuted Church wherever it is under pressure. I commend the work of the Barnabas Fund, Open Doors and others in this field. As a member of the board of patrons of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, I understand these issues very well. The Government will take up cases and we will do more work, including, I hope, a Wilton Park conference.

I wish the solution was as simple as a declaration of freedom of religion that was instantly acceptable and enforceable in any society with which we have contact. However, the sad truth is that that is not the case, and nor will it be, no matter how loudly we shout about it. We are talking about conservative societies that are fearful of change. We are sensitive and patient in addressing their fears, and we recognise that our overt intervention may be harmful or dangerous. However, we wish to make sure that we continue to raise these issues and work with people in these countries in the way they think best, so that we can free people from religious persecution and fear. In that way, we can get to the position we all want. I commend my hon. Friend for raising this issue.