[Mr Joe Benton in the Chair]
It is a privilege to introduce the debate under your chairmanship, Mr Benton, and I thank other hon. Members for attending. I acknowledge that this is a wide-ranging subject. The issues that it raises could not be fully incorporated in a single debate, but given where we are meeting and where we as a nation are in our collective history and given the current complexion of our national politics and some of the international happenings that surround us, it is a subject to which we would do well to turn our attention.
Today, I want to consider two issues: the violent persecution of Christians internationally and restrictions on or the denial of civil and religious liberties for Christians in some parts of the world. Let me begin by making it clear that I am not blind to the abuses or atrocities that have been perpetrated by individuals who took to themselves the name “Christian” or by the professing Christian Church down the ages. However, it is not true, as some assert, that religion has been the one great persecutor in human history, for we should never forget Lenin and his use of slavery, the war that he waged against his own poor, the famine that that created, which left 30 million people facing starvation and death, and his slaughter of people of religion. Nor should we forget Stalin and his labour camps and the culling of the disabled—his Russian holocaust with victims numbered in the tens of millions and human beings regarded only as commodities to be exploited and expended in the interests of the state. We should not forget the repression of religion, including so-called accidental assassination carried out against people of faith.
There is also Chairman Mao, with an estimated 40 million victims—a figure that combines the outcome of his policies and the many millions deliberately killed. We could consider Pol Pot and those who were responsible for the killing fields and the deaths of between 25% and 30% of the entire population of Cambodia. Could we forget the many victims in Romania, where it was forbidden even to own a simple typewriter? I could also mention the East German experience and that of Poland and Albania under the rule of atheists. To that I could add the innumerable atrocities perpetrated by atheist authorities in central and south America, Africa and the far east.
It is not true, as some try to allege, that above all other things, religion is the great persecutor and the cause, source and substance of all the world’s great woes, for when atheism has been anointed as the faith of the state, to that, too, we can trace all kinds of brutality, inhumanity, violence and death. However, although that is undoubtedly the case, no one could deny that religion has played a grim role in far too many of the world’s sorrows or that those who profess faith in Jesus Christ have been the guilty party far too often, so I am not blind to the horrors of the crusades or the fires of the Inquisition. In this week when we look back on the visit of Her Majesty the Queen to the Republic of Ireland, I am not blind to the role played by professing Christianity in the darker episodes of Irish history, from the day when Pope Adrian donated Ireland to Henry II right down to present-day scandals involving the evil of child abuse. I make that very clear at the outset.
I do believe, however, that we need to turn our attention to the troubles and tribulations faced by Christians across the world today. This is the subject of the debate. There is violent persecution of Christians across the world. There are numerous areas of great concern. In the short time available to me, I cannot go through all the individual countries or list every example. I will just draw hon. Members’ attention to some particular cases.
In parts of Africa, Christians face intense, violent persecution. Nigeria continues to witness wave upon wave of violence directed against Christians. Hundreds of Christians have been killed in the aftermath of the election. Massive simultaneous attacks against Christians were launched in almost every northern state. Mobs massacred hundreds of Christians, burned more than 300 churches and destroyed countless Christian homes. It has been estimated that in Kaduna state alone, at least 300 people were slaughtered. Nigerian Government authorities were in such a hurry to hide the extent of the massacre that they organised mass burials of the victims almost immediately after the attacks. As a result, the exact death toll remains unknown.
Just this month, Muslim attackers reportedly killed 17 Christians, including the wife and three children of a pastor in northern Nigeria. Several Christian homes were burned in the village of Kurum. Among the victims in Nigeria are indigenous missionaries, pastors and leaders. Last year, more than 2,000 Christians were killed in targeted Nigerian violence.
Thousands of Christians are fleeing violence in western parts of Ethiopia. Muslim extremists killed several Christians and burned dozens of churches. Some 55 churches and dozens of homes are reported to have been burned in recent days near the city of Jimma, in the western Oromia region.
In Somalia, the radical organisation al-Shabaab has led the way in killing Christians, especially those who have converted from Islam. In Sudan, Christians have endured long decades of violence. In a recent debate in the other place, the Bishop of Bath and Wells said the following regarding Zimbabwe:
“The Anglican Church in Zimbabwe is undergoing a sustained and brutal persecution with its origins in a dispute over church properties and the non re-election of Dr. Kunonga, the former Bishop of Harare and someone widely regarded as a plant of the Mugabe regime…This is something that I have witnessed, all too painfully, for myself in a number of places.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 10 March 2011; Vol. 725, c. 1809.]
When we turn to Asia, we find that Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws have been used as a cover to justify violent attacks. The President of India recently expressed her shock at the upsurge in violent persecution of Christians, especially in states such as Karnataka and Orissa. Christians in Karnataka have suffered serious violent attacks since 2008, including physical attacks on individuals and places of worship.
The sufferings of Christians in Orissa state are long standing and are truly horrendous. They include murder, kidnapping, forced marriage, the burning of churches and the forced removal of people from their homes, with about 18,000 people being injured, and 6,000 houses and 296 churches and smaller places of Christian worship in some 400 villages being burned. More than 56,000 people were displaced and more than 10,000 have yet to return home; and 1,000 have been warned that they can come back only if they convert to Hinduism.
To that could be added the long enduring plight of Christians in China, Burma, North Korea and Vietnam, where death is common and suffering is intense. In the middle east, there are numerous and disturbing examples that can easily be assessed.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Before he moves on from the middle east, will he join me in noting that a couple of months ago The Independent drew a dramatic picture of the demographic decline that has resulted in the almost total elimination of non-Muslim groups in many countries in the middle east? Hopefully, we will see some recognition of that with international action to stem it, and the promotion of inclusivity rather than expelling people on religious grounds.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned Pakistan. I know the Government have said that their influence is limited—we condemn all this but we are limited in what we can do—but we are extraordinarily influential. We were very influential in Iraq: we invaded it, and the plight of Christians has become much worse since. We are extremely influential in Pakistan, where we are a major donor. The Government therefore have a lot of clout, particularly with regard to the blasphemy laws, to ensure that Christians are treated fairly.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is absolutely right. Again, I shall deal with that later.
Although the Orthodox Church in Iran faces discrimination, Protestant Churches face severe persecution and are regarded as enemies of the state. Throughout 2010 and 2011, dozens of Protestant believers were prosecuted for no reason other than practising their faith. Protestant groups in Iran are often formed of converts, who actively seek to make more converts. That has brought down upon them a particular form of state opposition; they are targeted and tried under political charges, and are treated as politically subversive.
Since the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime, more than half of Iraq’s Christian population has, as a result of violent suppression, been forced to flee their homes or else flee the country altogether. In 1991, the professing Christian population totalled some 850,000. By 2003, that had fallen to just over 500,000. Today it is reckoned to have fallen to fewer than 250,000 individuals. That should surprise no one, given that there have been beheadings and even crucifixions. In the old Soviet bloc countries—from Russia itself through to Belarus—violence, prosecution and imprisonment are common.
I now turn to restrictions on, or the denial of, civil and religious liberties for Christians. Again, we can see this in many parts of the world. I shall cite a few examples, for I know that others want to contribute to the debate. Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws are used deliberately to settle personal disputes or disputes over land, or to carry out personal vendettas. However, they are also used to ensnare Christians into expressing any kind of criticism of Mohammed or the Koran, and thus to enable the bringing of charges. In the middle east, religious liberty is limited. In places like Kuwait, Syria, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, evangelism is prohibited and conversion is not allowed. In Saudi Arabia, expatriate Christians are supposed to be allowed to worship privately, but many are still prosecuted for doing so.
On the wider question of the denial of religious freedom, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom identifies a number of countries of particular concern. They are Burma, China, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Vietnam and a number of others. It also lists what it calls watch list countries. These include Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Laos, Turkey, Venezuela and Russia.
We must also acknowledge the inherent dangers that accompany what has come to be called the Arab spring. Right across the countries affected, groups are emerging that seek to exploit recent developments in order to establish a purist society in which the plight of other religious groups will be made worse. Indeed, Members will doubtless have read reports this week of the concerns expressed by pro-democracy elements in Tunisia and Egypt—that if the G8 fails to give financial assistance to strengthen the democratic cause in those countries, it could sound the death knell for democratic hopes in the region, thereby strengthening repressive regimes and providing a boost for radical movements that would seek to legislate away whatever minimal freedoms remain.
Although the current situation for Christians in many middle east countries is difficult, it could become increasingly dangerous in the coming months and years. What I have outlined represents a record of blood, a trail of suffering and a denial of basic humanity to many tens of thousands of people. We, as a Parliament and a nation, should not be like the priest and the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan and simply pass by on the other side. Many of these nations are important trading partners. Some are in receipt of aid. Still others are members of the Commonwealth.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. He has outlined the extent of persecution, and I understand that three quarters of all persecution across the world is directed at Christians. We must condemn that, and seek to do something about it, but what about the modern-day form of persecution? He mentioned a number of countries, particularly Pakistan. Does he agree that it is the rise of Islamist threats there, and the Islamist Governments of other countries, that are causing or contributing to that persecution? Indeed, we have particular concerns about education in Pakistan—that hate education fomented by Islamist opinion is causing many of these problems. The Government should be held to account for the financial aid that they provide for education, given where it is actually going.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The rise of Islam is strong in those areas, which is a particular problem. Indeed, as I outlined earlier, in years to come we will see more persecution of Christians in those countries. We may not even have to go to other countries to see Christian persecution, but simply look to our own back door.
I diverge slightly, but the hon. Gentleman has raised the matter. In the United Kingdom, the policy seems to be that people can do whatever they like against Christianity—criticise it or blaspheme the name of Christ—as long as they do not insult Islam. It is sad because this country is based on civil and religious liberty for all. When Queen Victoria was on the throne, the secret behind England’s greatness was its open scriptures and open bible. Today, that policy is being hammered into the ground, and that concerns me greatly for the years and months that lie ahead.
As a Parliament and as a nation, I do not believe that we should be like the Levite and pass by on the other side. There is no doubt that many of these nations are important trading partners. Some are in receipt of aid, and others are members of the Commonwealth. It is clear that silence should not be our response. I am not advocating that we intervene directly in such countries, but we can and should apply diplomatic and political pressure on Pakistan and other countries, as the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) suggested. We should use as much influence as possible and apply pressure either individually or through organisations such as NATO, the EU and the United Nations. We could be far more proactive in the whole of this regard than we have been thus far. I am not saying that we have done nothing to help out, but we could do a lot more.
Recently, the MEP Peter van Dalen urged the EU to make more rights for the Egyptian Coptic community a policy priority and to develop a strategy for religious freedom. Mr van Dalen pointed out that more concrete European action is needed as the position of Christians worsens across the world. He correctly pointed out the “new big threat” towards Christians in the middle east, drawing attention to a structural neglect of, and discrimination against, Christians in several countries.
In conclusion, I urge the Government not simply to chase the financial bottom line in our dealings with neighbours and partners. As one of the great economies of the world and one of the beacons of democratic freedom, we have a duty to use all of our influence to help those who suffer injustice around the world. There is a rising tide of affliction that is swelling around Christians across the world. This nation and this Parliament should be more to the fore in the campaign against that and for civil and religious liberty. I urge the Government and all hon. Members to rise to that challenge.
The hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) has done the House a considerable service in initiating this afternoon’s debate. It is depressing that, in the 21st century, when the world is, in some ways, getting smaller, intolerance of other faiths and beliefs is growing in all too many parts of the world.
The best means for ensuring the fair treatment of Christians internationally is through the strong advocacy of the right to freedom of religion or belief for people of all faiths, as outlined in article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights and article 18 of the international covenant on civil and political rights. Although the UDHR is non-binding on UN member states, it contains significant moral and normative force. The international covenant is legally binding on those member states that have ratified the treaty.
Freedom of religion or belief should be viewed as not some peripheral right, but a right that is central to the identity and well-being of all people. Looking around the Chamber this afternoon, I see hon. Members with views and faiths that are fundamental to their identity as individuals. The coalition Government should be complimented on raising the profile of freedom of religion and belief, as evidenced in the most recent human rights report of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, for which my hon. Friend the Minister is responsible.
The hon. Member for Upper Bann was entirely right to say that the British Government should set out clear benchmarks for progress on religious freedom issues in bilateral and multilateral dialogue with other states. Pakistan will soon be the largest recipient of UK bilateral development aid, which legitimately gives us some leverage in our dealings with it. We should continue to make representations in the strongest and most forceful way about the impact that its blasphemy law is having on its people.
Many of us were present at St Margaret’s, Westminster, for the memorial service for Shahbaz Bhatti, who was assassinated in Pakistan for being a Christian. Sadly, his death is symptomatic of the growing divisions in Pakistan as well as symbolic of the silence of those in Pakistan seeking to confront forces of extremism.
There are many ways in which the UK Government can exert pressure on countries in which religious tolerance and religious freedom are being ignored. Perhaps the most strategically concerning issue at the moment is the situation facing religious minorities in north Africa and the middle east, given the current phase of various uprisings and revolutions. Egypt is particularly crucial because a significant minority are Christians—Copts and Catholics.
There have been an increasing number of attacks on religious minorities in Egypt, particularly on the Coptic community. The most recent incident to gain widespread attention was the attack on 7 May on two churches in Cairo. One was gutted following false allegations that it was forcibly detaining a female convert to Islam.
What is rather sad is that such events took place after the events in Egypt and the Arab spring when so many people were full of hope and optimism. The President-Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East, the Most Reverend Mouneer Anis, observed:
“The fear now is that the revolution is being kidnapped by these extremist groups, and there is a lot of effort being made by more democratically minded Muslims and Christians to rescue the revolution.”
That is absolutely correct. What has also been impressive is the extent to which many Christians and Muslims are still trying to protect minorities in Egypt. Despite the recent violence, efforts to promote sectarian tolerance continue. Indeed, several thousand Copts and Muslims recently held a joint march through Imbaba in Cairo to denounce the burning of the churches.
Nevertheless, the scenes that one has witnessed or read about are horrific. I was particularly struck by reports that a guard—I suppose that here we would describe him as a sexton—at St Mary’s church in Cairo had refused to denounce Jesus Christ and his own Christianity and that, as a consequence, his throat was cut. He was a man who was just doing his job but he was confronted and attacked. That is intolerable.
Only last weekend, up to 80 people were injured in Cairo when a group of Copts demonstrated outside the state television building. They were simply calling for more effective police protection for Christians and their property in the aftermath of the clashes in the Imbaba district, in which 15 people were killed and two churches were set on fire.
In the coming days of the Whitsun recess for Parliament, I am going to Cairo. I will meet Christian friends—both Catholics and Copts. Not only are they going through the turmoil of what is happening with inter-faith challenges in Egypt, but they are going through the political turmoil in the country. They wonder where they fit into that situation.
As the hon. Member for Upper Bann said, it is not only Egypt that is affected. The tragedy is that Christianity in the middle east is on the slide. Indeed, it is not just sliding into obscurity; it is almost in danger of being extinguished in many countries, such as Iran and Iraq. About 50 years ago, this was a part of the world where Jews, Muslims and Christians lived side by side. Now, for various reasons, it is extremely difficult for Christians to profess their faith in many middle east countries.
As the hon. Gentleman said, part of that process is about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, which is also on the rise in Nigeria and other parts of Africa. Some of the stories—indeed, some of the facts—about what is happening in northern Nigeria, a leading Commonwealth country and another significant recipient of UK development assistance, are frightening. A system of religious repression is developing in parts of northern and central Nigeria and effectively there has been imposition of sharia law in those areas.
For example, there are parts of northern Nigeria where non-Muslim subsistence farmers are being subjected to an extreme form of usury that is known locally as bada kaka. Under that system, those non-Muslim farmers are obliged to pay for every bag of fertiliser that they buy from Muslim traders with two bags of goods that have been harvested and that fee doubles if they default on repayments. Ultimately, those who are unable to pay off such loans risk being deprived of their land, their possessions and, in a few extreme cases, their children, following a sharia court ruling. Those are things that we do not tend to hear about when we are debating international development and other related matters in this House, but they should have a far higher profile.
There are other parts of the world where Christians seem to be under considerable pressure. In countries such as India, there is an increase in nationalism. As a result, the position of Christians in India is being made increasingly difficult. In a number of communist or quasi-communist states, such as China or North Korea, life is incredibly difficult for Christians.
All the rights set out in the universal declaration of human rights are very important. However, I am concerned that the world is allowing there to be a creeping acceptance that religious intolerance is to be tolerated, or at least not challenged. There comes a time when we all have to ask ourselves, “To what extent can the tolerant tolerate the intolerant?” There comes a point where increasingly we have to challenge some countries in the world about what they are doing to defend their minorities and people who may have belief systems that are different from those of most of their citizens.
The hon. Gentleman is touching on a very important point. It is not only in other countries but here in the United Kingdom that these types of things are happening. Does he agree that some of the issues that the far right in the United Kingdom thrive on are exactly the issues that we are talking about today? The far right in the United Kingdom feed on the paranoia of some communities that anyone coming into the United Kingdom from any of the nations that we have discussed today is to be abhorred and treated with contempt and disdain. We will see in our society the seed bed of problems for the future if we do not deal with these issues internally in the United Kingdom as well as in other countries.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. I go back to what I said at the beginning of my speech, that it is generally depressing that here we are at the start of the 21st century and we are actually going backwards in this regard. I hope that all of us—in our family lives, in our communities and in the constituencies that we represent—will seek to inculcate an atmosphere in which there is a built-in mutual tolerance and mutual respect of other people’s beliefs. I am more than willing to walk hand in hand with people of other faiths or people of no faith at all in the journey of life, provided that I tolerate their views and beliefs and they tolerate mine. That is fundamentally important.
I think that what we are saying this afternoon is nothing more than that. I do not think that it can be said in any of the countries where Christians are under pressure that Christians are seeking to challenge or overthrow the existing norms or established customs of those countries. They are being persecuted simply because they are Christians and in the 21st century that is wholly unacceptable.
May I apologise to everyone for not being in Westminster Hall at the very beginning of this debate, as I was attending the debate on financial assistance for the eurozone in the main Chamber? I thank Mr Deputy Speaker for allowing me to exit that debate early before going back later—I think that that was the way in which he put it to me.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) on securing this debate on a topic in which I am particularly interested and which needs to be highlighted. My hon. Friend and indeed other contributors have spoken eloquently. The Palace of Westminster, where laws are made, is certainly the right venue for this type of discussion and the importance of this subject cannot be denied.
I am very conscious of a particular verse from the Bible:
“In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”
That is from John, chapter 16, verse 33. It gives many Christians in this world the strength to face daily something that we cannot imagine for one second—persecution. Hon. Members have spoken about that persecution very clearly today.
The horror stories are numerous. There is a tendency almost to become desensitised to the plight of others, but that must not happen. It is important for us all to remember those people who are persecuted and to help them, both practically and prayerfully. We must listen, be stirred by what we have heard, then do all we can to help.
The website, Persecution.com, says:
“Around the world, and especially in Africa and Asia, Christian populations are suffering severe discrimination and brutal attacks. Thousands are being killed. Systematic campaigns are being waged against Christians simply because of their faith, and it is not too dramatic to suggest that these are forms of ethnic cleansing and genocide.”
I believe that that is exactly what they are. The website continues:
“Yet there is little awareness of these continuing atrocities in the West, and even less response.
Christianity is no longer a predominantly Western religion. Since 1900, there has been a startling growth of Christianity in Latin America, Africa and Asia, to the point that now, 65 percent of the world’s 2 billion Christians live on one of those three continents. Christians now constitute the largest single religious group in Africa. Close to 350 million Christians live in Asia.”
Clearly, the Church is growing, but as it does, persecution grows with it.
If we go over a map of the world, we see that persecution is rife in many countries. It has been said that the blood of the martyrs is the seat of the Church, and that certainly applies to the Church in China, where churches have flourished despite opposition and years of underground worship. Although the Chinese Government now allow churches in homes, they are strictly regulated, and I recently read that the Chinese Government had enacted new regulations in a further attempt to control the growing Christian population.
According to some sources, pastors at some of China’s house churches face new reporting regulations. They must provide police with weekly reports detailing their whereabouts and how many people attend church meetings. If pastors leave a city, they must report their travel plans, and they are restricted to short trips. Clearly, persecution continues. The Chinese Government do not want the Church to grow any more than it has done, because they know that it has been growing in great leaps and bounds, and from the Chinese point of view, it is important that it is controlled.
If pastors fail to report, they are arrested. Churches must also organise under a specific name and advertise and meet publicly. That is hard to deal with, but the Church in China grows every week. The question is what we can do, and perhaps the Minister can enlighten us about what the Government are doing. We must ensure that our foreign ambassadors continue to exert pressure so that the Chinese Church has true religious freedom. We should raise the issue of religious persecution in all the churches we help with our aid across the world.
Christians in India continue to face systematic persecution at the hands of radical Hindus. Indeed, a couple of years ago, my hon. Friends the Members for Upper Bann and for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) and I spoke in a Northern Ireland Assembly debate about Christians in Orissa. Some Christians in India were doing some films outdoors, when extremists beat up the pastor and his son. The police arrested them and kept them in custody until the early hours of the morning. No police complaint was filed.
As the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) said, extremists seem to be very active in other parts of India, and they are not averse to dealing out physical abuse to Christians. A Christian professor’s hands were cut off after he was accused of blasphemy. In some countries, people do not actually have to commit blasphemy; they just have to be accused of it, and the story grows legs. Retribution then takes place.
In Nigeria, as the hon. Member for Banbury made clear, deadly religious violence occurs with regularity, with the result that hundreds of people are killed at a time. In the early hours of 7 March 2010, 500 Christians, most of whom were women and children, were murdered in their beds. That was not the end of it, however, and the village raids continued. On 17 March, another 12 Christians were massacred, including a pregnant woman, in a village in Plateau state. Other atrocities were also carried out against Christians. Thirteen Christians were murdered by a Muslim mob in Bei on 13 April and seven were murdered in Rikwe Chengu on 2 December.
Little information escapes North Korea’s borders, but the information that does indicates that Christians suffer harsher penalties than most criminals. An estimated 100,000 Christians are thought to be in labour camps, where they are being worked to death.
Our Government give substantial aid each and every year to Pakistan, where religious violence and anti-blasphemy laws are used to suppress Christians, and prominent Christian politicians and their defenders are clearly assassinated. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws authorise Government and societal persecution of Christians. Indeed, Pakistan absolutely refuses to progress towards being a religiously free society. According to Pakistani law, blasphemy against the name of Mohammed is a crime punishable by death, and desecrating the Koran warrants life imprisonment. Again, Christians do not actually have to do those things; they just have to be accused, and the retribution comes right away. Several Christians were killed in 2010 as a direct consequence of such laws, and many more people been imprisoned.
I am conscious of the time, so I will conclude shortly. I subscribe to a number of organisations that deal with these issues, as I am sure other Members here do, and Open Doors and Release International are two examples. Persecution is rife in many countries, and we should be grateful for our religious freedom in this country, but it cannot be taken for granted. Let me leave Members with an example of something that happened in our free, democratic and open country. A doctor who discussed with a patient the fact that Jesus helped him was reported to the General Medical Council. That is an indication of the fact that we in the United Kingdom must also make every effort to protect our freedom.
Again, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann on introducing the debate. The call that now goes out to everyone inside and outside this Room, as well as to everyone who reads the report of our proceedings, is this: what will we do about this?
It is an honour to take part in the debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson). Although we are on opposite sides of the Chamber, I agreed with much of what he said on numerous policy areas. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), who is an outstanding representative of the Church in the House of Commons and who has been of enormous help to me in my constituency over a Church issue. Equally, I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on his excellent speech.
Wherever there is tyranny and oppression in the world, the persecution of religious groups is never far behind. That is why this debate is important. We are always focused on persecution, but because Christianity is a mainstream western religion, its members do not always get the same attention as other minorities, as the hon. Member for Upper Bann highlighted. Outside the western world, however, Christians face a constant barrage of murder, imprisonment and persecution.
I have heard the Secretary of State for Education say that we can judge a country by how it treats its Jews, and the more democratic a country, the more equally the Jewish people are treated. The same goes for Christians in the developing world. I am here, not as a Christian, but as a Jewish person. However, because of what happened to many members of the Jewish people, it is my duty as a politician to help other peoples who suffer genocide and persecution. It gives me enormous pleasure to be standing next to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), who is a former school friend. He attended many Friday nights at my house, just as I attended many Church services with him and learned about Christianity as we grew up.
We have talked a little about China. Six weeks ago, 100 peaceful members of the Shouwang Catholic church were arrested by the People’s Republic just for holding an outdoor service. In Uzbekistan, armed officers from the Government’s national security service raided the home of a Christian pastor and confiscated 250 Bibles. A few days later, he was convicted of illegally owning Bibles, organising Christian worship and preaching the gospel. He was fined more than 80 times the minimum monthly wage. We have also heard about Nigeria, where a church was burned to the ground. I could mention other nations, such as Sri Lanka, which has a particularly evil Government; indeed, I attended a memorial service for the Tamils last week in Trafalgar square. Sri Lanka has a tough anti-conversion law, and people there are not allowed to convert others to Christianity.
The tragedy of such stories is not how isolated they are, but how common they are. Nowhere is that truer than in the middle east. I am a senior officer of the all-party group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq. Earlier in the year, I went to Kurdistan, and I am going back there for three days next week. The all-party group’s latest report on Kurdistan, which I helped to publish in March, states:
“Iraq’s Christians once numbered about 1.5 million. There are now just 850,000. Many families have fled to Kurdistan from Baghdad, Mosul and other areas, according to the United Nations refugee agency. The Kurds know much themselves about being a persecuted minority and have opened Kurdistan to Christians fleeing from the rest of Iraq. For example, their universities have offered free places to Christians fleeing Mosul.”
I met many Christians in Kurdistan. It has become a progressive Muslim nation that has provided sanctuary for Christians in Iraq who are being treated brutally. That was confirmed to me by the Archbishop of Erbil and the other Christians I met, and I hope to meet some more next week.
Kurdistan is one of the beacons of hope in a troubled region, but it is doing what it can with limited resources. I urge the Government to do more to support Kurdistan because of how it has offered sanctuary to Christians from Iraq.
I appreciate my hon. Friend’s contribution to this important debate. Is it not a tragedy that Christians are fleeing for sanctuary from an area where they have historically had a presence? They do not simply want an enclave to practise their religion, but want to express it freely, which has historically involved being part of a community, for example, in Pakistan where Christian schools have Jewish, Hindu and Muslim pupils. There are shafts of light, for example, in Baghdad, where fantastic vicars such as Andrew White do what they can to open their church to all communities and to support them, despite war, repression and fear.
My hon. Friend is right. Why should Christians have to flee from one part of Iraq to another for safe haven, when they should be able to practise their religion wherever they are?
In Gaza, there were lots of reports of Christians disappearing or being shot dead if they were caught trying to preach the gospel. Although Hamas officially condemns the attacks, it very rarely makes arrests. During the elections a few years ago, Hamas forces were linked with an attack on the Catholic Rosary Sisters’ school and church, which were assaulted with rocket-propelled grenades and then burnt down. The ancient seafront of Gaza once had a thriving Christian community, but that community has now shrunk to 2,500 people.
Britain has a stake not only in the economic wealth of our neighbours, but in their freedom and self-determination. The question before us is, what role will Britain play before this story unfolds? Psalm 102 encourages us to
“hear the groaning of the prisoner, and set free those who are condemned to death.”
I am sure that hon. Members present will not mind me quoting the Old Testament as opposed to the New. I accept that the Prime Minister confronted human rights issues with the Chinese authorities during the trade mission to China last year and I am glad that the Foreign Secretary has continued to uphold the export restrictions that prevent lethal weapons being sold to China, but the problem is not just about selling guns. Britain and its NATO allies have an array of soft powers that they could use to bargain with states that are dependent on western imports. One key factor in the fall of Soviet communism was not the atom bomb or the space race, but the fact that Ronald Reagan refused to export wheat to Russia. That is a lesson for us today, as we confront the persecution of Christians and religious minorities around the world.
Intolerance towards religious minorities does not happen by itself, but is propagated by vested interests and evil regimes. In the middle east, the worst examples of that are Iran and Saudi Arabia. In the face of rising commodity prices and recession, many despotic Governments have tried to deflect their country’s grievances. That lies behind much of the extremist propaganda against the Christian west and the antagonism towards Israel in Arab League countries, but we have an opportunity to demand change. Saudi Arabia is apparently our ally and it depends on western imports, but it is also a despotism in which honour killing is legal, homosexuality is punishable by death and Wahhabist textbooks in state schools preach hatred of Christians, Jews and other religious minorities. As was recently reported in the papers, women are not even allowed to drive cars.
From Ethiopia to Indonesia, Saudi Arabia’s oil money is fuelling the persecution of Christians and other minorities, and the destruction of their property. Only last Wednesday, Christians protested outside the US Saudi embassy, demanding that Saudi Arabia stop financing radical Islamists, including the Salafis, who have been largely responsible for attacks on Christians in Egypt. Surely we can do more to ask the Saudis to give their people the freedom and security for which they are crying out? In the 1970s, Saudi Arabia produced more than 4 megatonnes of wheat a year—more than enough to be self-sufficient—but now it has exhausted its water supply and by 2016 it could produce no wheat at all. Nearly 50% of all Saudi Arabia’s imports—primarily, machines, cars, textiles, chemicals and foodstuffs—now come from the US, the EU and close allies, such as Japan and South Korea. In short, it cannot live without us.
If we believe that ethics is as important as economics, we must demand a higher price for trade with the western world, and that price must be free speech, democratic reforms, property rights, freedom of association, freedom of movement, respect for women and, most importantly, religious tolerance. Those are the foundations of a free society on which our hopes for peace in the middle east depend.
In conclusion, intervention—and I am an interventionist—does not have to mean war. I accept that military action is sometimes unavoidable, but I urge the Government towards a policy of fair trade. If a regime kills its citizens for their faith, Britain should not do business with it. We already refuse to sell most of those countries guns, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, but we should not sell those countries butter either. If a state imprisons minority groups without charge or trial, it should become a pariah state and be excluded from the world economy.
In the middle east, 10,000 children are born every single day. Unless the Arab spring leads to lasting economic and social reforms and protection for minority groups—including minority Muslim groups, such as those in Kurdistan—then the 10,000 children born today are more likely than ever to grow up in a barren region, which has no jobs, no bread and no security. We have to act now with fair trade to pressure those countries into change. That would transform the treatment of Christians and religious minorities around the world and it would be in our national interest as well.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) on securing the debate and I congratulate those who have spoken, including the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). That was the second speech of his I have heard today, because like him I was torn between this and the debate on the eurozone. Even though that debate is about billions of pounds, this debate is actually more important, although it is in Westminster Hall and the other debate is in the main Chamber. Why? Because lives are at risk and people all over the world are dying.
It is a bit depressing for me, because I have taken part in so many of these debates over the past 28 years and have written scores of letters to Ministers. I claim no credit for that because I, like other hon. Members, have been supported by campaign groups, particularly the Jubilee Campaign. I pay tribute to Mr Wilfred Wong, who for 20 years has helped MPs to raise the plight of persecuted Christians in numerous letters to the Foreign Office, but it is, frankly, a bit of a depressing exercise.
I do not blame the Minister—he has his brief, which he must read out—but so often the answer is much the same. Of course, there are soothing words and of course the Government condemn brutality in any shape or form and believe in freedom of expression and freedom of religion. However, over the years, as the problem has got so much worse, I am not convinced, frankly, that the Government have spoken up enough—I am sorry to have to say that to the Minister. We have real influence in the world. I was very moved by what my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) said as a Jewish person. There is no real comparison, I suppose, between what was happening in the 1930s and what is happening now, and if I am overstating my case, I apologise, but there was the famous case of some Foreign Office diplomat who, when evidence was coming out of Nazi Germany of the persecution of Jews, wrote in the margin of one of the papers, “Save us from wailing Jews.” That was an outrageous comment.
I know that the Foreign Office is not like that now; it is not quite the same. Sometimes, however, when one reads replies from our Foreign Office, one gets the impression that there is rather a light touch, and that it does not really want to get heavily involved. I noticed that recently, when speaking to a very senior diplomat who had served at the top level in Iraq and is now an ambassador in Europe. I mentioned the figures that my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow has cited, that the Iraqi Christian population has declined from 1.5 million to 800,000. He immediately said, “No, no, that’s not right. It hasn’t declined by that much. It’s declined from 1.5 million to 1 million, or something.” In other words, he was not fully engaged, and I did not get the impression that that had been a priority for him as a top diplomat in Iraq.
I know that the situation in Iraq was appalling; I have been there. I went to northern Iraq and wandered around the Christian villages, something so few of our top people who instituted the invasion have done. I went twice; the first time was to Kurdistan during Saddam Hussein’s time. That was a brutal, horrible regime, and I make no apology for it, but at least the Christians had some degree of safety; they were protected. I also went after the end of the regime, and had to listen to harrowing stories. Women, with tears streaming down their faces, sat in a room and recounted how their son and their husband, a church warden in the suburbs of Baghdad, had left home one day to go to church and had been killed in a brutal, senseless, sectarian attack, just because of their religion. What was even more horrific, and absolutely traumatising to listen to, was that some mothers’ children had simply disappeared. Can Members imagine that—a child, an 18-year-old daughter, going off to church and never being seen again? That is why I am passionate about the issue, and I make no apology for being so. We should be doing so much more, and our Government should be speaking much more forcefully.
Pakistan has been mentioned. It is our largest recipient of aid. It is a nuclear state and has an elite that massively evades paying taxes. The Pakistani military establishment was probably complicit in harbouring Osama bin Laden, a terrorist who was targeting our people. We are now giving hundreds of millions of pounds to Pakistan’s education service. The country has an appalling human rights record, and a dreadful system of blasphemy laws. I just wonder, in all the hours of discussion that will go on between President Obama and our Prime Minister during the two-day visit, in all the hours that will be spent talking about Iraq and Libya, how many minutes will be devoted to the brutal persecution of Christians around the world. None at all, I suspect. Through their aid programmes and their moral force, these people—our Prime Minister, the President of France, the President of the United States of America—have enormous influence.
I believe that there should have been zero tolerance of the persecution of the Jewish people before the second world war, and that now, in the 21st century, there should be zero tolerance of the persecution of anyone. It is not just outright persecution that we are talking about, not just the appalling genocidal attacks that have taken place in Iraq and Nigeria. Nigeria is—as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) has pointed out—a Commonwealth country and a large recipient of aid, both now and in the past. It is not just these horrific physical attacks; in so many countries there is the absurd situation of a kind of quiet persecution, and I am afraid that that applies to Egypt. I have been involved in numerous campaigns to support the Copts. No one can go out—has ever been able to go out—in Egypt and build a new church. There are all sorts of planning restrictions. The Copts are at the bottom of the economic heap and it is very difficult for them to rise up from there. Mention has been made of Saudi Arabia, which is a so-called key ally, but that country is back where we were in the 18th century, when people were allowed to engage in a minority religion but only in private. Frankly, the situation in Saudi Arabia is scandalous.
In conclusion, I congratulate Members on what they have said today, and I urge the Minister, when he goes back to his Department, to really get a grip of his diplomats around the globe and to use our powerful voice to speak out for the oppressed of the world.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I join other Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) on securing this timely and very important debate, and extend support from the Labour Benches for the principles that he set out so powerfully and eloquently in his opening speech.
The hon. Gentleman spoke about the impact, throughout history, of various forms of fundamentalism, the horrors of which have been touched upon in the debate. The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) reminded us of the articles on religious freedom in the United Nations declaration of human rights, and that issue lies at the heart of the debate. We are still learning lessons from events of the past four or five months in north Africa and the middle east, but a lesson for our own policy surely must be that we need a clear consistency of approach to the defence of human rights, including religious freedom, and that favouritism towards certain regimes has undermined our moral credibility on some of these issues, in ways that Members have set out today.
A depressingly large number of countries have been mentioned, and it is difficult in 10 minutes to do justice to all the different horrors that we have heard about. All I can really do is echo some of the things that Members have said about Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, China, North Korea and Sri Lanka, for example, and say a bit more.
Regarding Iraq, I think that we are all deeply alarmed at the incidents of sectarian violence that have been described today. As a country, we need to use the influence that for obvious reasons we have in Iraq, to promote tolerance and interfaith dialogue. I would like to take this opportunity to echo what the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) said about the Kurdish regional government. The Kurdish part of Iraq provides us with some important human rights lessons, and we should especially pay tribute to it for providing a refuge for Christians escaping from other parts of Iraq. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) rightly said that those people should not be displaced but be able to stay in their family homes and practise their religion freely, and we should seek to achieve that. I echo what he said about Andrew White—“the vicar of Baghdad” at St George’s Anglican church—who has done such amazing, heroic, courageous work in standing up for the principle of religious freedom for people of all faiths in that city. I also draw Members’ attention to the work of the House of Love run by Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity in Baghdad. The house was initially set up to serve orphans left disabled by Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime, and the sisters, who typically come from India and Bangladesh, provide their services to acutely vulnerable children. That is a moving example of the very positive role that religion can play in conflict situations.
A number of Members have talked about Pakistan. I absolutely share their anger at the blasphemy laws and at how they are used and abused, and I pay tribute, as have other Members, to Shahbaz Bhatti, who was the only Christian serving in the Pakistani Government. As such a major donor to Pakistan, we clearly have a responsibility to do more to stand up for human rights in general in that country, and in particular to use our aid and our political and diplomatic relationships to put pressure on Pakistan to defend religious freedom.
The same applies to India. We heard again today about the appalling catalogue of horrors in Orissa. Several hon. Members referred to Iran, a country that we know abuses the human rights of large sections of its population, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people, women and minority ethnic communities, including Kurds. The treatment of the Baha’i community in that country is also appalling. Iran targets Christians in the same way that it targets other minorities.
I mentioned the Arab spring. Several hon. Members have expressed concern that one consequence of an opening up in some north African and middle eastern countries is that it is easier for extremists to target Christian minorities. I agree with those who have said that the situation in Egypt is of particular concern, as is the role of Salafists and others in attacking Coptic Christians and other Christian communities in that country. I ask the Minister to update the House on the situation in Egypt. What are the UK Government doing to assist the promotion and consolidation of human rights in that country, including the right to religious freedom?
Tunisia might offer a more positive example. I was in Tunisia relatively recently, and it seemed to have a strong commitment to protecting minority rights, including religious freedom, as the country moves towards writing a new constitution and elections to the Constituent Assembly in July. However, it is vital that we maintain a clear watching brief on the Tunisian situation as it develops.
I take this opportunity to draw the House’s attention to some organisations doing positive work in the field, both here in the UK and internationally. I am pleased to be acting as a mentor to three students who are part of an interfaith dialogue programme being run by the Three Faiths Forum. Talia, Philip and Sultana are Jewish, Christian and Muslim respectively, and they recently organised a thought-provoking photographic exhibition at University college London on the awful practice and prevalence of human trafficking. I hope that we can showcase the exhibition in the Upper Waiting Hall of the House later this year. It demonstrates that interfaith dialogue can promote the positive values associated with religion and a commitment to universal human rights.
Last week, I returned from a visit, with Christian Aid and the all-party group on the great lakes region of Africa, to Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I put on record the positive role played by the Churches and Christian charities such as Christian Aid and CAFOD in those countries, where such horrors have been committed over the past decade or so.
The hon. Member for Harlow asked what role the United Kingdom would play. We must use every lever to promote religious freedom and protect Christians from the increasing violence that we have heard described in this debate. Will the Minister inform us what progress the human rights advisory group established by the Foreign Secretary last year has made on addressing the human rights of Christians and other religious minority and majority groups around the world?
Will the Minister also update the House on the work that the British Government are doing through a range of multilateral institutions to voice the concerns raised in this debate? It strikes me, given that north Africa is part of the Mediterranean region, that Europe has a responsibility to fulfil the values for which it stands by protecting minority rights. The United Nations clearly has a role to play, and we must address the Commonwealth’s potential to be much more proactive in promoting the rights of Christians and other religious groups. Many of the countries whose appalling records have been highlighted today, such as Nigeria and Pakistan, are Commonwealth members, and the Commonwealth could do more. The Department for International Development also has an increasingly influential role in many such countries as British aid increases, at a time when many other countries’ aid programmes are being cut. What more can DFID do to use its influence to ensure that human rights and religious freedom are protected?
I think that all of us in the House, across parties, have a responsibility to use the institutions of Parliament—the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Select Committees, all-party parliamentary groups—to promote religious freedom. This debate has been an excellent opportunity to demonstrate our strong cross-party commitment to religious freedom. As the hon. Member for Upper Bann said, we must not pass by on the other side. I congratulate him on securing this debate, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
Thank you, Mr Benton, for calling me to conclude this debate. It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) on securing this debate on an extremely important and regrettably topical subject. I thank the hon. Members for Banbury (Tony Baldry), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for their speeches, the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) for a typically impassioned and powerful speech and the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), for a typically thorough and thoughtful contribution. The treatment of Christians worldwide and, more broadly, individuals’ freedom to worship or practise their own religion or belief without discrimination or persecution is an important topic and of increasing concern given the problems faced by religious minorities, including Christians, in many parts of the world in recent years.
I will start by setting out the Government’s policy in this area, for the avoidance of doubt. The Government strongly support the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief and the right to freedom of opinion and expression as set out in those key international human rights instruments the universal declaration of human rights, the international covenant on civil and political rights and the relevant 1981 United Nations declaration. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has made clear on many occasions, the effective promotion of human rights, including religious freedom, is at the heart and core of our foreign policy. All Foreign and Commonwealth Office embassies and high commissions have a responsibility, which is made clear to the heads of mission in every post, to monitor and raise human rights in their host countries. We continue to raise freedom of religion or belief with other Governments whenever necessary. I reassure the hon. Member for Upper Bann and other Members that we are aware of the difficulties faced by Christian minorities around the world, and particularly in middle eastern and western Asian countries. I will deal with those countries with the greatest attention.
The Opposition spokesman mentioned Egypt in particular. In Egypt, where tensions between Christians and Muslims eased initially during the revolution in February, a number of extremely alarming incidents have recently occurred. Violent clashes between Muslims and Coptic Christians in Cairo on 7 and 9 May left 15 people dead and more than 250 injured. Peaceful demonstrations about those events on 15 May were attacked by unidentified gunmen. The Foreign Secretary condemned the violence in a statement to Parliament on 16 May and called on both sides to resolve their differences peacefully. He welcomed the fact that many in Egypt were appalled by the violence. The EU High Representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Baroness Ashton, also issued a statement on behalf of the European Union on 7 May condemning the clashes.
The UK remains in close contact with the Egyptian Government on the issue and has made absolutely clear the importance that we place on religious tolerance. The Foreign Secretary was in Egypt on 1 and 2 May, raising our concerns about the dangers of extremism and sectarianism in Egypt directly with the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the Prime Minister.
The Egyptian Government have shown their intention to punish those who incite sectarianism by announcing on 8 May plans for new laws to criminalise attempts to jeopardise the freedom of faith and attacks on places of worship. We will make sure that we are vigilant in seeking to hold them to account for those commitments.
In Iraq, we remain concerned about the treatment of Christian minorities, and were appalled by the attack on Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad on 31 October 2010, which killed more than 50 people, and the further attacks on 10 November 2010, which targeted mainly Christian areas across Baghdad. The United Kingdom remains in close contact with the Iraqi Government on this issue and is committed to doing all that it can to protect the rights and freedoms of all minorities in Iraq. On 10 November 2010, the Foreign Secretary met the visiting Iraqi Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Zebari, and raised with him directly the issue of Iraqi Christians. Mr Zebari acknowledged that the protection of Christians was the Iraqi Government’s responsibility.
More recently, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who has responsibility for the middle east, visited Iraq from 22 to 25 November. He met a number of senior Christian figures and raised the plight of the Christian community with the Foreign Minister, the new Speaker of the Council of Representatives, and the President and the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan regional government.
Pakistan has, regrettably, featured prominently in this afternoon’s debate. I pay tribute to the only Christian Minister in Pakistan, who was assassinated recently, and join everyone who has expressed regret about that.
I share my hon. Friend’s despair about some of the abuses of individual freedom and the right to expression, including religious expression, and, specifically, freedom of Christian expression in Pakistan. The Government, however, need to tread carefully, because the reason why the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was separated from the Department for International Development in the late 1990s was to try to decouple considerations about the alleviation of poverty from the Government’s overall foreign policy goals. I appreciate that those two may overlap at times, but we need to be cautious about judging the suitability of a desperately needy person to receive aid based on their Government’s behaviour in relation to religious subjects.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Before we broke for a Division in the main Chamber, hon. Members will recall that I was talking about the appalling murder of Shahbaz Bhatti in Pakistan on 2 March. Over recent months, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire, who covers Pakistan, had engaged regularly with the former Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, on the importance of religious tolerance and freedom of speech in Pakistan. Mr Bhatti was a tireless and vocal proponent of those beliefs, and his appalling murder is a blow to those in Pakistan who share his beliefs and to all of us who believe in religious freedom and tolerance.
Following Mr Bhatti’s untimely and violent death, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has written to express his condolences to President Zardari, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, my noble Friend Baroness Warsi and the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire, have all made statements condemning his killing. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who deals with Pakistan, is regularly in touch with his counterparts in the Pakistani Government on human rights issues. He will continue to engage with the authorities in Pakistan on these important issues and will raise them with the new Minister for Minorities.
My hon. Friend recently visited Pakistan, where he was able to engage on the issue of religious tolerance with Shahbaz Bhatti’s brother, Paul Bhatti, who has been appointed as the Pakistani Prime Minister’s adviser on inter-faith harmony and minority affairs. He also had the opportunity to meet religious leaders from across Pakistan as part of the Ministry’s inter-faith council. That highlighted how leading political and religious figures in Pakistan feel about religious tolerance, and the need to ensure that all of Pakistan’s citizens are accorded their rights under the Pakistani constitution. We will continue to support the Pakistani Government on this subject.
Will the Minister cast his mind back to the time of the floods in Pakistan, when the people of Great Britain, through their Churches and through aid, gave a lot of money to help overcome the difficulties in Pakistan? At that time, Christians sent word out of Pakistan back to the United Kingdom to indicate that they were not receiving some of that aid. Will the Minister pursue that matter? It is very clear to me as an elected representative, and to many others, that there is deep-rooted discrimination against Christians in Pakistan, which reaches as far as the UK aid that was given to help them as well.
There were a number of points in that intervention. I pay tribute to all the British people who were extremely generous in their contributions to the victims of the natural disaster in Pakistan. Many of them were Christians or were involved with Christian groups that co-ordinated and led that charitable activity. I share the hon. Gentleman’s deep alarm—perhaps the word “alarm” is not strong enough—and profound anxiety about the circumstances of some Christians in Pakistan, and the fact that they cannot worship as freely as they would wish. I will certainly convey to the Minister with geographical responsibility for Pakistan, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire, the points that the hon. Gentleman has made. As I was explaining to the Chamber, my hon. Friend is extremely committed, on a personal basis, to the issue of religious freedom of practice for Christians and others. I know that he will, with great sincerity, want to take forward the exact agenda advised by the hon. Member for Strangford.
Also in Pakistan, Governor Salman Taseer was shot dead for raising the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian caught up in these draconian laws. Will the Minister urge the Government of Pakistan to release Asia Bibi and all the others imprisoned under those laws, so that they can practise their faith?
I cannot give my hon. Friend that commitment, not because I necessarily disapprove of the view that he expressed, but because that is not a commitment that I am in a position to give this afternoon. All I can undertake to do is ensure that his views are heard clearly in the Foreign Office, and that they are taken seriously by those who are in a position to make the relevant decision.
Other countries have been brought to our attention this afternoon. Nigeria continues to experience significant inter-communal violence, particularly following the presidential elections last month. Both Christian and Muslim communities have suffered terrible loss of life in recent years as a result of violence driven by underlying social, political, economic and religious factors. We have made it clear to the Nigerian Government at ministerial level that the perpetrators of those crimes must be brought to justice. The Minister with responsibility for sub-Saharan Africa, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham), has raised this issue directly with the vice-president. Our high commissioner has raised it and related subjects on several occasions.
Iran has come up as a subject, rightly and understandably. There is significant cause for concern about the treatment of Christians and other minority religious groups in Iran. That continues to be a country of high concern to the Foreign Office. We express that view whenever and wherever we can.
Briefly, before I draw my remarks to a conclusion, I was asked by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby to talk about the Foreign Secretary’s advisory group on human rights, which identified religious freedom as a key human rights issue at its first meeting in December. Following on from that, a programme of work based on freedom of religion has been agreed, including a Wilton Park conference in July, to discuss promoting religious freedom around the world. That will be attended by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire, along with a range of senior religious leaders. The conference will identify how the international community can strengthen its ability to protect religious freedom. It will also seek to build new partnerships between Governments, NGOs and faith groups.