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Persecution of Christians

Volume 561: debated on Tuesday 16 April 2013

I am pleased to have secured this debate on the increasing threat to freedom of religion in certain parts of the world, which is an important issue. Due to time pressure, I apologise in advance for the fact that I may not be able to accept many interventions. These are issues, however, on which I have placed significant emphasis during my time in Parliament not only because I believe passionately in the inherent importance of protecting fundamental human rights but because the evidence demonstrates that those societies that protect and respect fundamental rights tend to fare better in their protection of other human rights.

In preparation for this debate, I have worked closely with Open Doors, an organisation focusing on freedom for persecuted Christian Churches. I also thank Christian Solidarity Worldwide, His Grace, Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK, and others who have circulated briefing materials ahead of today’s debate.

Although my focus is on the persecution of Christians, it is important to acknowledge that Christians are not unique in facing religious persecution. Indeed, I have previously hosted a debate on the persecution of Baha’is in Iran. Nor are Christians the only group affected when they are marginalised in society or excluded from public life. Rather, everyone suffers from the loss of talent and the undermining of the principles of fair treatment, the rule of law and access to justice. The defence of freedom of religious belief, as defined by article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights, is important not only for Christians but for everyone.

In Africa, as a result of the growing influence of Islamic extremism in countries not previously associated with persecution, there has been a marked increase in such activity. That has been most notable in Mali, but it is also increasingly evident in countries such as Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Niger. Persecution manifests itself in many ways, including violent attacks by Islamic extremist groups, radical Muslims infiltrating politics, business and the judiciary to gain influence to be used against other religions, and extremists filling power vacuums in countries in flux, such as Mali.

The hon. Lady has mentioned Open Doors. Does she agree that all Churches in the UK could usefully have copies of its world watchlist of the 50 countries where Christians are most persecuted? The watchlist is informative, helpful and useful for all Churches.

I absolutely agree. The watchlist is a helpful aid for those who are interested in this issue.

I have previously highlighted the persecution of Christians in countries where they are a minority, such as Sudan and Somalia, and persecution is still perpetuated at both state and community level. The current trend, however, is towards increasing civil unrest by Islamic extremists in countries where Christians are a majority, such as Kenya and Uganda. Small, local footholds have been created where radical Muslims do not tolerate anyone with a different belief system or religion. That trend has been most potent in the area of Kenya bordering Somalia. The pattern of infiltration and strategic positioning ultimately makes life impossible for Christian residents. How do the Government and the international community respond to that emerging challenge? What support can be offered to national Governments to combat that threat to freedom?

Although the Arab spring appeared to offer hope for progressive reform in many countries, it has failed to deliver on that promise in many cases. In many countries, the Arab spring has had disastrous consequences for religious freedom and has promoted a major exodus of Christians from the middle east. Already a reality in Iraq, the phenomenon is extending to other nations, most notably Egypt and Syria. Although we are all aware of the wider security and humanitarian crisis in Syria, there is a very real, but less publicly acknowledged threat to Christians. Jihadists have reportedly infiltrated the rebel movement, and tens of thousands of Christians have fled as a result. As one of the Governments involved in both Iraq and Syria, the UK Government must recognise that exodus and work with others in the international community to do all they can to protect people of whatever religion who are suffering persecution in an already desperate situation. What specific consideration have the Government given to that in their wider interventions in those countries?

Is the hon. Lady aware that in Syria there are some 300,000 Christian refugees who refuse to be associated with the Sunni opposition or the Assad regime? In other words, they are in a neutral place. Because they are neutral, as Christians, they do not receive the aid or assistance that they should receive through the Arab nations or the Red Cross. Does she feel that that is an issue for Christians in Syria? They do not get the aid or the financial assistance that they need, because they try to stay neutral because of their Christian beliefs.

I hope that the Minister will be able reflect on that in his response.

The nature of persecution is incredibly variable. In some situations, it will take the form of a “squeeze”, with pressure being applied, while in others it is in the form of “smash”, with recourse to violence. However, either kind represents a denial of article 18 and should be resisted. Recent trends suggest that squeeze pressure, where there is no physical violence, but pressure is applied to prevent Christians from being able to freely express their beliefs, has increasingly become the main form of abuse. It is much harder to identify and document. However, and perhaps as a result, it can be the most pernicious and damaging to individuals and families.

Life in the family sphere suffers, particularly for those who exercise their right to change religion. Hostility from the state or neighbours can place not only the individual but their family under considerable pressure. That social and religious pressure can occasionally lead to pressure from within the family, with divorce and death threats common after conversion. The right to change religion is specifically protected by the wording of article 18. Reports that within the UN there is a reluctance to promote the freedom to change one’s religion as a vital component of freedom of religious belief for fear of a backlash from the Organisation of the Islamic Conference nations are a concern, and I would be interested to hear the Minister’s view on that specific matter.

Persecution also impacts on the community sphere, manifesting itself as restrictions on employment or access to resources. There is evidence that Christian villagers have been denied access to water wells in northern Nigeria, for example, purely by reason of their faith. In Kenya, covert persecution of Christians has increased. Speaking of his own experience, one Christian states:

“The area is already very hostile, but now we are also suffering hidden persecution at our work places. Many of our jobs are in danger because of fabricated negative reports from our superiors; our colleagues at work discriminate against and isolate us—just because of our faith.”

Such persecution has affected teachers, who have been placed on forced leave or transferred from the region, while other professionals have lost their job, all on fabricated charges of incompetence. Those newly posted to the area are monitored, and if perceived to be Christians, are then targeted. It is very difficult for the aggrieved party in such circumstances to seek redress, because of the concealed nature of the persecution. Those who do report unfair treatment encounter a marked lack of corroboration for their reports from colleagues, often as a result of fear, leading to the dismissal of their complaints.

I would welcome reassurances from the Minister that, in the face of that more covert and insidious form of persecution, the Foreign Office has engaged with religious groups and national Governments to identify such trends and address their impact. It is important that international pressure focuses on the right to access justice for those who are affected.

Some Governments actively restrict the freedom of Christians to participate in the national sphere through the limitation of access to civil society and public life. As hon. Members will be aware, I have previously highlighted the fact that the state is the primary persecutor of religious minorities in Iran. Article 18 specifically protects the freedom collectively to express faith without interference, but as I have also previously highlighted, it has proved all but impossible to register church buildings and legalise church meetings in Algeria, so that despite the appearance of facilitating religious minorities, the effect in reality is to the contrary.

Such persecution aims not overtly to ban particular beliefs, but to restrict freedom of religion to a person’s private life. Worryingly, President Morsi of Egypt recently said:

“As long as the apostate keeps it to himself...he should not be punished...However, someone who proclaims his apostasy in public, and calls for others to follow suit, is a danger to society...the law and the shari’a intervene.

He gave open expression and Government endorsement to this restrictive practice.

Although the rise of radical Islamist groups has posed a particular threat to Christians, it is not the only threat. The Government in Eritrea, for example, have banned all religious groups other than Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran and Islamic groups, and other Christian believers are persecuted, often with the active co-operation of state- recognised Churches. It is estimated that up to 2,000 Christians in the country are imprisoned for their faith, 31 of whom died in 2012.

Despite the growing prevalence of squeeze persecution in the region, many people still suffer acts of violence and aggression. Between November 2011 and October 2012, Open Doors recorded 1,201 killings of Christians worldwide, of which 791 happened in Nigeria and 161 in Iraq; 2,121 attacks on Christians, mainly in Nigeria, India, Syria, Kenya, Indonesia and Egypt; and, during the same period, 280 churches or other Christian buildings were burned or destroyed. In that context, I want to focus briefly on the plight of Christians in Egypt.

During the Mubarak regime, the differences between Christians and Muslims were often used as part of a divide and conquer strategy. However, since that regime ended, there has been a resurgence of more radical Islamist groups and an increase in their representation in high-ranking Government positions from which they persecute not only Christians, who are the largest religious minority in Egypt, but other minority faith groups such as Baha’is and Jews, as well as Muslim minorities such as Sufis and Shi’ites.

Christian communities face bureaucratic hurdles when trying to build churches; there is no mechanism to allow citizens to change their religion to anything other than Islam; and representation of Christians in state institutions and Government bodies is negligible, and, at the highest levels, absent. Since the uprising and the subsequent political and social unrest, Christians have increasingly witnessed the violation of their freedoms and face intensified threats to their peace and security. These incidents include the burning and attacking of churches, the kidnapping of Christian girls, and attacks on peaceful marches, resulting in the loss of innocent lives.

In one of the most significant incidents, 28 peaceful demonstrators at Maspero were killed in October 2011. Most recently, the Coptic Orthodox patriarchate and the main Christian cathedral in Cairo were attacked by mobs and, disturbingly, the police were seen to do little, if anything, either to stop the violence or to bring those responsible to justice. That incident is disturbing, not only because it is indicative of the rise in violent attacks on Christians, but because it demonstrates the continuing lack of will shown by the authorities to deliver fair and equal treatment under the law, not only to Egypt’s Christians, but to other minority faith groups. If the main cathedral can be attacked with apparent impunity, it prompts the question: what Church or individual is safe?

Having a Coptic church in my constituency, I support absolutely the case that the hon. Lady is making for better protection for Coptic Christians in Egypt. Does she agree that, following the Arab spring, we must urge the Government to do all that they can to urge the new constitutions of those states to respect religious freedom?

I absolutely agree and concur with all that has been said. It is hugely important that those countries are restructured in a way that will increase progressive democracy in those nations.

I am afraid not. I have very little time and I want to make another point.

Attacks on churches are an assault not on an individual faith tradition, but on the rule of law, and, if a line is not held by the Government in addressing that, confidence in the state and its ability to uphold the rule of law in the face of pressure for all Egyptians will eventually be diminished. Statements confirming that the state takes responsibility for safeguarding freedom and security for all of its citizens and that it will investigate incidents are welcome, but what would be more welcome would be action by the security forces and police to intervene during such attacks and ensure that those responsible are brought to justice. The Egyptian state must employ its security apparatus and judiciary in a non-discriminatory manner to protect all Egyptian citizens—Muslims and Christians alike—and preserve their equal rights.

Finally, I would like briefly to reference the 2012 edition of the annual human rights and democracy report recently published by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I welcome the open acknowledgement in the report of the growth of violence against religious communities and the affirmation of the right to freedom of belief, including the right to share, change and teach others about one’s faith. I also think that the restatement by the Foreign Secretary that such rights are not merely western constructs but are universal is important and bears repeating.

There is concern, however, that the sections on Somalia and Yemen make no mention of religious freedom, implying that this is not a major human rights concern in those countries, yet in both there is considerable evidence of the persecution of Christians and, in particular, of converts to Christianity. Similarly, the entries on religious freedom for Sudan and Eritrea appear to be weak. Perhaps the Minister will be able to reflect on those matters in his remarks.

In closing, the right to have a faith and to practise that faith, both in private and in community with others, and to change one’s faith and not be disadvantaged or endangered for reason of one’s beliefs, are basic and fundamental human rights that should apply universally. These are also rights that, although established in international law, remain under threat at national or local level. Where religious freedom is diminished, it is often accompanied by a generally unfavourable approach to the protection of other human rights and a lack of adherence to the rule of law and equal access to justice for all citizens, with wider implications for society.

I trust that continued focus on such matters in Parliament, whether through debates like this or through the work of the all-party group, will send out a clear message that religious persecution will not go unseen or unchallenged by the international community and that the cause of religious freedom and freedom of conscience will have a strong international advocate in the UK Government.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) on securing the debate. The large attendance by Members from all parts of the House for a half-hour Adjournment debate shows that her subject not only is objectively important and significant in how we conduct our international policy in this country, but arouses powerful and continuing concern in all the political parties represented in the House. I am grateful to her for the way in which she presented her case and in particular for her generous comments about the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s recently published human rights report.

As the hon. Lady said, an increase in persecution is threatening the existence of Christianity in the very region of its birth, with many people feeling that they have no choice but to flee to safe havens elsewhere. As the excellent report from Open Doors made clear, violence, discrimination and systematic persecution threaten Christian communities in Africa, the middle east and certain other countries around the world. The Government share many of the concerns expressed by the hon. Lady and in the Open Doors report. We condemn all instances of violence and discrimination against individuals or groups on the grounds of their religion, regardless of the country or faith concerned. As the report rightly emphasised, our condemnation should extend not solely to the more extreme forms of suffering inflicted upon people because of their religion or belief, but to any and all forms of such discrimination.

I assure hon. Members that we are fully committed to promoting and protecting freedom of religion or belief in its broadest sense, as defined in article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights, which was alluded to by the hon. Lady. It is worth reminding ourselves of that central passage:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

I assure the hon. Lady and the House that we take those words seriously.

I want to respond directly and clearly to two of the central points in the hon. Lady’s speech. The Government’s position is to condemn laws against so-called apostasy and any Government policies anywhere in the world that punish people for changing their religion or belief voluntarily and freely, because that is at odds with the words of the universal declaration. Also, we accept completely that, when we talk about religious persecution and the human right to the free expression of religion and belief, we are talking about not only the private or domestic sphere but, in our understanding, the freedom to practice that religion openly and to make manifest one’s religious or other belief in the way that one conducts one’s life.

I welcome the Minister’s commitment. He and the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) rightly referred to the universal declaration, but encouraging co-operation and respect for religious rights is also right there as a purpose of the United Nations in article 1 of its charter. Can he tell us what specific steps the Government will be taking at the UN to raise the issue up the international agenda in the way that needs to happen?

We raise the subject repeatedly in the UN, at the Human Rights Council and in opportunities that we get in the General Assembly and from time to time in the Security Council. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have resisted occasional attempts in the UN to return to language about defamation of religions, which used to characterise some of the debate. With the agreement of the March 2011 resolution of the Human Rights Council, we have been able to move on to more productive discussions of the issue; resolution 16/18 is not perfect, because it was a compromise to achieve consensus in the UN council, but it included not only a focus on combating religious intolerance, but key statements about protecting the human rights of minorities and promoting pluralism in society. We also continue to support strongly the work of the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, and we attach great importance to seeing his mandate renewed during the year.

I thank the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) for securing this important debate. The Minister talked about the Government looking to the UN and the Human Rights Council to take certain measures, but the United States has set up the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, which looks to set policy by having research done around the world. Will the United Kingdom be setting up a similar body?

When the Government came to office, we set up a committee on human rights to advise the Foreign Secretary. It brings together experts, including people who are committed to various religious faiths. It provides a coherent and not unwieldy system for giving such advice. It has had an impact on the thinking of the Foreign Secretary and of my ministerial colleagues in the FCO, so we are seeking to attain the same goal as the United States but have chosen a slightly different means to go about it.

In my intervention on the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), I referred to the specific case of the 300,000 Christians in Syria. Will the Minister consider contacting the UN refugee agency to put forward our case that those Christians are not receiving the aid that they should receive through the UN or the Red Cross because they are Christians? They want to be neutral in the Syrian conflict and are persecuted as a result.

If I understand the hon. Gentleman rightly, he is saying that the non-governmental organisations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, are not providing aid as they ought to be on account of the Christian faith of some of the refugees. He is certainly levelling a serious charge. I will look into it and write to him—with copies to the hon. Member for Belfast East and the Library—because I do not want to talk off the top of my head.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) on securing the debate. We have discussed the charter of the United Nations, but will the Minister join me in celebrating the fact that the Commonwealth charter published last year enshrined religious tolerance in articles II and IV? Given the number of Commonwealth countries mentioned by the hon. Lady where issues with religious persecution continue, however, does he agree that there is more to do to ensure that the Commonwealth respects the spirit and the letter of the charter?

I agree completely that there is more to do. As I hope to have time to explain, we seek to do things multilaterally and in our bilateral relationships with various countries.

The hon. Member for Belfast East asked what the FCO was doing in practical terms and how we monitor the trends in religious discrimination. We require our embassies and high commissions around the world to monitor violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief. We are clear that that freedom involves not only the right to hold personal thoughts, but to manifest them individually and collectively. We provide our missions overseas with what in the jargon we call a toolkit—a set of detailed monitoring criteria—to help staff at our embassies and high commissions to analyse in detail the many potential manifestations of discrimination on the grounds of freedom of religion or belief, including discrimination in access to education and employment, or other administrative or legal restrictions on groups, buildings or individuals.

I shall move on from that general point to some of the countries to which the hon. Lady alluded. I apologise to hon. Members that I will not have time to go through them all, but I will write to her about the other countries that she mentioned and will place a copy of the letter in the Library.

The hon. Lady spoke particularly about Egypt for much of her speech. We have been clear that we need to speak up in public comments and private conversations with the Egyptian Government about the importance of religious toleration and mutual respect. When my noble Friend Baroness Warsi visited Cairo in February, she met both Pope Tawadros II, leader of the Coptic Church, and the Sheikh Al-Azhar, Dr Ahmed el-Tayeb, to discuss minorities in Egypt.

The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), spoke out strongly condemning the violent clashes that took place outside St Mark’s Coptic cathedral on 7 April. He also commented that freedom of religion and belief is a vital component of a democratic society and that the security forces should act effectively to uphold those freedoms to express and practise religious belief. My hon. Friend went to Egypt in January and discussed our concerns about the protection of minorities, including Christians and women, when he met the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party, the Freedom and Justice party. When he went to Egypt again in March, he met the Anglican bishop and representatives of both local and international human rights groups there to hear their concerns and to ask what more the UK could do to support their activities.

Most of our aid is directed not Government to Government, but through non-governmental organisations and charities. The Department for International Development, as I am sure my hon. Friend knows, has published a set of principles about the partnership that exists between DFID and faith groups both in the United Kingdom and worldwide. That sets out a number of principles for co-operation in delivering aid, sometimes through faith groups that are really close to the people in greatest need in developing countries, and to ensure that aid is distributed in a way that takes no account of religious belief and is not affected by discrimination of the sort the House would condemn.

The hon. Member for Belfast East mentioned Kenya. We recognise that there has been an increase in attacks against churches, but I caution the House that although the conflict in Somalia has of course a religious dimension, it might be argued that what we saw in Kenya was an attack prompted by political concern at the intervention of Kenyan troops in Somalia rather than purely sectarian terrorist attacks. It is not only churches that have been attacked, but many secular locations from bus stations to bars. There has been a spate of grenade and armed attacks in Nairobi suburbs, Mombasa and the north-east province of Garissa. We are working with the Kenyan authorities to respond effectively to those security challenges and the threat of terrorism from extremist groups in Somalia.

In Syria, we are increasing our support to the Syrian National Coalition and other opposition groups that are opposed to extremism. We want to support moderate opposition groups to boost their appeal and effectiveness over extremists. We have encouraged opposition groups, especially the National Coalition, to ensure that their policies for a future Syria are genuinely inclusive and cover the interests of all Syrian minorities, including Christians. John Wilkes, the UK special representative to the Syrian opposition, is in regular touch with the Syrian Churches and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s office here.