Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mark Lancaster.)
It is a pleasure to speak on this topic under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. The number of Members in the Chamber testifies to the debate’s importance.
Article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights states:
“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.”
Freedom of religion is a fundamental human right. When citizens are prevented from enjoying that right, the social, political and cultural implications can be serious, as the debate will show. The loss of other human rights can swiftly follow. The debate is therefore important not only for Christians, but for all religious groups and minorities, and indeed for everyone seeking to live out the dictates of their conscience in worship, teaching, practice and observance, respectful of others’ right to do likewise, and under the protection of a state striving to achieve that positive vision under the rule of law. That is a far cry from the reality for many Christians in the middle east.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. She is being characteristically generous in giving way. It is right that we should stand up to champion the cause of religious freedom across all religions and faiths, but is it not a stark fact of Christian persecution that 80% of all discrimination is against Christians?
My hon. Friend is quite right. Christianity is the most persecuted faith worldwide, so the problem exists not only in the middle east, but globally.
The former Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, in his outgoing interview with The Daily Telegraph, discussed the persecution of Christians in the middle east with the deepest concern of any current issue, saying that
“this is a human tragedy that is going almost unremarked… it is the religious equivalent of ethnic cleansing. We are seeing Christians in Syria in great danger; we are seeing the burning of Coptic churches in Egypt. There is a large Coptic population in Egypt, and for some years now it has been living in fear. Two years ago the last church in Afghanistan was destroyed, certainly closed. There are no churches left in Afghanistan. Between 500,000 and 1 million Christians have left Iraq. At the beginning of the 19th century, Christians represented 20% of the population of the Arab world, today 2%. This is a story that is crying out for a public voice”.
Let us be that voice today.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning two of the numerous countries where Christians are suffering. I hope that the debate will highlight many more.
The recently produced evidence-based and measured report by Aid to the Church in Need, which is available in full at www.acnuk.org/persecution, shows that Christians in the middle east are subject to widespread and intense acts of violence motivated at least in part by religious hatred, and that violence and intimidation are now much more serious than in preceding years, and certainly since ACN’s last report in 2011.
The report catalogues a preponderance of anti-Christian violence, including attacks on Christian homes, churches and businesses, and the kidnapping of Christians for reasons connected with their faith; court cases, including those involving blasphemy allegations; key political developments affecting religious freedom, including new or amended constitutions, travel permits for clergy, Government statements, policies causing Christians difficulties; planning regulations, which similarly cause difficulties for church building projects; and Government attitudes towards Christian engagement in political debate and voting rights. Many social changes have resulted in restrictions and limitations on Christians’ access to employment, education and health care, and there is pressure to change religion on pain of death.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. Many years ago, Christians in this country were burned at the stake because of their belief and their faith. It is estimated that 130 countries around the world persecute Christians. Every hour, a Christian is tortured and murdered somewhere in the world. Surely, in this day and age, something more can be done to protect people and their faith.
I absolutely agree. We should be crying out with the same abhorrence and horror that we feel about the terrible atrocities towards Jews on Kristallnacht and on other occasions in Germany during the second world war.
Analysing 30 countries, the ACN report indicated that in only four had the situation for Christians improved, and in three of those the improvement was only marginal. In six, there was no change, but that was only because the situation was so bad already. Persecution in the middle east region was the greatest concern of all.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. The report to which she refers does not cover numerous countries, including Malaysia, which is not in the middle east, but the situation there is of significant concern. Is she aware of the recent decision in Malaysia to ban Christians from using the word “Allah”, which has been used in Malay as a term for God for centuries? It has effectively outlawed the Bible, particularly in the Christian eastern states of Malaysia. Is she concerned about the wider ramifications in other parts of the world not covered by the report that she cites?
I am very concerned about that and the problem has global implications. I hope that, as a result, we will have many more debates in the House on the persecution of Christians in other regions of the world.
The ACN report discusses how, in virtually every country in and around the middle east region, Christians report suffering either high, high to extreme or extreme persecution. That includes Egypt, Yemen, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Pakistan. In virtually every one, the situation has worsened since ACN’s last report in 2011, except in Iraq, but only because the attacks in 2009-10 were so large in scale.
In this context, it is important to recognise that there is one state in the middle east with a proud record of allowing a large degree of religious freedom, irrespective of other elements of the problems that it faces within its borders: Israel. I hope that my hon. Friend will say a few words about how religious freedom, at least, is protected in Israel, not just for the 2% of its population who are Christian, but for the 16% who are Muslim.
My hon. Friend is quite right, which is why I did not include Israel in the list that I read out. The report does not include it among the areas of extreme persecution. I respect what is being done in Israel, although I must say that concerns are now being expressed in Palestine about increasing persecution there.
The report says:
“Christianity may yet remain the largest world religion, but its claims to universality—a truly global presence on all five continents—may soon be lost as it becomes the prime victim in the emergence of theocratic states where minority faith groups—most especially Christians—have no place, except perhaps as third-class citizens.”
I am sorry that I am unable to stay for the Minister’s reply. Is it not one of the most shocking features of the situation that a number of the countries on the list are ones with which our country has significant ties? Several are significant recipients of British aid, so we should have leverage in some of the heart-rending cases that my hon. Friend has mentioned.
That is absolutely right. I hope, if time permits, to come to that point, although I am most willing to take as many interventions as Members wish, because that demonstrates the interest in the subject.
The plight of Christians in Iran was highlighted by an all-party parliamentary group report on the persecution of Christians in Iran, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), who chaired that inquiry. The situation has not improved since we produced that report. In September, Christian Solidarity Worldwide wrote to the Foreign Secretary to say that Iranian civil society has experienced intense repression, including the continuing detention of journalists, human rights defenders and political activists.
With regard to freedom of religion or belief, despite Christianity being recognised in the Iranian constitution, a campaign of arrests that initially targeted the house church movement has been extended to the Government-sanctioned Assemblies of God—the AOG denomination —with hundreds of Christians detained in raids in cities across the country, forcible closures of churches and convictions for ill-defined crimes. The Church that I attend here in this country is a member of the AOG denomination.
Martin Luther King said:
“In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
In that regard, I want to put on the record my concern for Farshid Fathi, who has been in Evin prison in Tehran since December 2010. He is serving a six-year sentence simply for wanting to run a church, and he has a wife and two young children.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend has mentioned that person. It is an outrage that citizens of countries such as the United States are being detained in prisons in Iran.
In October, CSW reported that four members of a Christian Church were sentenced to 80 lashes each for drinking communion wine during a communion service, contrary to rules against the drinking of alcohol. That effectively criticises and condemns the Christian sacrament of sharing the Lord’s supper, and criminalises it.
Open Doors states that, despite promising words
“from Iran’s newly elected President, Rouhani, the situation for Christians in the country has not improved.”
An Iranian lawyer, Attieh Fard, told a recent meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council:
“It is obvious that the Islamic government of Iran has taken actions to prevent access of both Christians and the public to Christian societies, to churches, to Christian literature and religion, despite the Christians’ constitutional, national and international rights.”
Anti-Christian repression in Saudi Arabia is more severe than anywhere in the region, although we hear precious little about it. Non-Muslim places of worship are forbidden, conversion from Islam is punishable by death and the small number of indigenous Christians who practise their faith in extreme secrecy risk raids and arrests.
I will discuss what is happening in Syria in a moment, and also what happened to the Christians in Iraq following the US-led invasion of 2003, when hundreds of thousands were forced to flee their homes following targeted attacks, many by Islamist militants.
I will indeed, time permitting. The suffering of the Copts in Egypt is a critical issue.
Christians in the middle east have suffered from a domino effect of violence that began in Iraq, spread to Syria and overshadows Egypt, leaving the survival of the Church in jeopardy. According to reports, Christians are leaving in droves, ending the presence of the Church in its ancient heartlands. We must remember that Paul’s conversion was on the road to Damascus. That is a key part of the Christian story and heritage. Such countries formerly had large Christian communities—Syria had more than 1.5 million, and a similar number in Iraq is now down to about 300,000—so those are tragic reductions in countries where there are large numbers of the faithful. Persecution is also happening in countries such as Yemen, where the faithful are few in number.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. On the situation in Syria, one of the greatest tragedies is that it was that country that offered a haven to refugees, Christian and of other faiths, during the civil war in Lebanon from 1975 to 1990, and indeed during the war and civil war in Iraq, and yet, in Syria now, Christians and others are being persecuted.
That is absolutely right. Barnabas Aid reports that until 2011, Syria was one of the freest places to be a Christian in the middle east. It was a place of sanctuary for Christians escaping persecution in Iraq. Suddenly, all of that has changed. Christians made up a sizable minority—around 10% of the population—and were allowed to live out their faith without much hostility from Muslims around them. The Patriarch of Antioch, Gregorios III, said that it was often Christians who provided a bridge between disparate Muslim groups in the region. They had a collegiate approach towards living there. However, as clashes between Government forces and opposition fighters escalated into the brutal civil war that the country has experienced, Christians emerged as particular targets for rebels who assumed at times that Christians were Government supporters.
As Islamist bands have become some of the most prominent groups among rebel fighters, Christians are increasingly being targeted. We hear, for example, of one village where the parish priest has to collect $35,000 a month to pay rebel groups to protect the Christians from armed attacks. That is outrageous, but that is what is happening now.
Recent estimates put the number of Christians who have fled Syria at between 450,000 and 600,000—about a third of the Christian population before the atrocities began. Barnabas Aid estimates that about 600 have been martyred for their faith. For those who stay, the picture is bleak. The report that I mentioned states that entire populations of predominantly Christian villagers around Homs fled for their lives in 2012. In February this year, rebel fighters invaded al-Thawrah, seized Christian homes, confiscated possessions and threatened people with death because they did not comply with sharia law. On 27 May this year, rebel fighters massacred almost 40 men, women and children in the Christian village of Dweir on the outskirts of Homs. Some victims were tortured before being murdered.
The report’s authors told of meeting Syrian Christian refugees in Jordan, who had been told while they were in Syria:
“Don’t celebrate Easter or you will be killed like your Christ.”
On 17 August this year, the Christian area of Wadi al-Nasara, called the valley of the Christians, was attacked. Church buildings were targets. In January this year, church attacks were condemned as war crimes by Human Rights Watch. On 4 September, the historic Christian village of Maaloula—one of the few places in the world where Aramaic, the language of Jesus, is still spoken—was attacked. Rebels linked to al-Qaeda went into every Christian home and destroyed evidence of the inhabitants’ faith. At least seven were killed, and most of the village’s residents were forced to flee. Christians who fled said:
“Let history record that Maaloula is crying today.”
A growing trend is the use of rape as a weapon. In early 2013, a fatwa was issued, via YouTube, that called for the rape of women who were not Sunni Muslims. A tragic example is the horrendous ill-treatment of Mariam, a young Christian woman from al-Qusayr. She was forcibly married to a man who raped her on the same day. Later that day, he repudiated the marriage. The next day, another Islamist man did exactly the same. It continued day after day. For 15 days, 15 different men abused her in this way. Finally, when she was showing signs—unsurprisingly—of mental instability, they killed her. She was just 15 years old.
Christian Church leaders are being kidnapped and disappearing, including two senior bishops, Yohanna Ibrahim and Boulous Yazigi. I am informed that they are of the same seniority as the Bishops of Liverpool and of Manchester; if they had been kidnapped and had disappeared, and were possibly dead, there would be an international outcry. We should exhibit the same response.
For many years, Christians in Syria have formed a cohesive part of the community. At the launch of the report that I have referred to, the Patriarch of Antioch, head of one of the largest Christian Churches in the country, said movingly in this place:
“All Syrians are our brothers and sisters—we have no enemies—yet we are victims. We have not asked for weapons and I have told my parishioners, ‘don’t seek arms.’ We are a church of reconciliation and we are seen by many Muslims as the only one—let the rest of Europe hear that. Persecution is not in our history and we have a long history of collegiality in the region. Let us understand our role and mission—both the historic one and one going forward. But you cannot have a role if you are not present.”
In Egypt, we hear that despite the persecution they engender, Egyptian Christians have forgiven their persecutors and are not retaliating. Although it has experienced enormous hardship, the response of the Coptic community has been one of unprecedented non-retaliation. In some areas, they stand hand in hand with Muslims—I pay tribute to the Muslims standing with them—to protect their churches from further damage. Muslim families in lower Egypt have given blankets to Copts who have lost their homes.
Since the fall of the Islamist Government in Egypt, Christians have seen no improvement in their condition. On the contrary, they are suffering one of the worst periods of targeted violence against them in modern history. More than 140 attacks have been documented since the middle of August—a “reign of terror”, as it has been called by Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
As I have said, we bemoan to this day the persecution of the Jews in Germany, but in August 2013, The Times reported ransackings of homes, hospitals and schools similar to those that took place in 1938, when Jewish synagogues and buildings were ransacked and pillaged. It stated:
“Dozens of churches, homes and businesses have been set alight and looted in Egypt, forcing millions of Christians into hiding amid the worst bout of sectarian violence in the country’s modern history. Some Coptic Christian communities are being made to pay bribes as local Islamists exploit the turmoil by seeking to revive a seventh-century tax, called jizya, levied on non-Muslims.”
The morning after the terrible attacks in mid-August, Bishop Kyrillos William Samaan of Assuit told staff of Aid to the Church in Need that, during a spate of violence against Christians, nearly 80 churches and other centres were attacked in less than 48 hours. Fear of attack means that thousands of Christians are now too afraid to leave their homes. He said that in some villages, people were heard crying:
“Save us. We cannot go out of our houses.”
Joe Stork, the acting middle east director of Human Rights Watch, has reported that dozens of churches are in ruins, and that
“Christians throughout the country are hiding in their homes, afraid for their very lives.”
Only last week, a young Christian minister was kidnapped, tortured and killed when his family could not pay a ransom. How long can we remain apparently indifferent to regular reports of the abduction, forced conversion and marriage of Christian girls, and to the accompanying violence, rape, discrimination, beatings and abuse?
I accept that growing militant Islamism is not the only reason why Christians are being attacked—there is also political instability, poverty and desperation resulting from the displacement of refugees—but that issue nevertheless poses a real threat to other societies. As Barnabas Aid reported in mid-September,
“Western Muslims are going to fight alongside jihadists in Syria…returning home to become potential jihadists themselves. Western countries are not fully grappling with this problem.”
I, too, congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate and highlighting the issues so eloquently and powerfully. She has mentioned several middle east countries, but may I raise the issue of Lebanon? The Syrian refugee crisis is affecting Jordan, Turkey, and particularly Lebanon, where there was a delicate balance between Shi’as, Sunnis and Christian groups. There is great concern that the mainly Sunni influx will result in a very big change in Lebanon’s demographics, with big effects for the Christian community in particular. Does she share my concern?
I share the right hon. Gentleman’s concern. He is absolutely right that the massive influx into Lebanon is putting enormous pressure on medical services and institutions. One problem is that Christian refugees in many places in Syria are frightened to use official UN camps, because of fear of persecution and attacks even within the camps, and therefore have to seek aid elsewhere. In this debate, I want to call on the UN to look at what can be done to ensure that official places of refuge, such as UN camps, are secure and safe for Christians and, indeed, any other religious minorities suffering in the same way.
I turn to my requests to the Minister, who I am sure would not want me to conclude without making some. I appreciate the utter complexity of challenging the situation in the middle east, and that deep-seated sensitivities can be engendered by addressing the issue of religious persecution in general, and the persecution of Christians in particular. More than one person has commented to me that addressing the issue could be seen as promoting colonial or neo-colonial attitudes. I respectfully say that we really must get over that and find a way round it. It must not inhibit us from acting; millions of people’s lives and livelihoods are at stake here. Others have rightly remarked on the sheer complexity of such a daunting task, but I again say that we cannot leave the lives of those millions of people in the “too hard to do” box.
I recognise that substantial endeavours have already been made by Foreign Office Ministers and officials to address the challenges, for which I thank them. Those endeavours include the Foreign Office toolkit on freedom of religion or belief, the new conferences on equality taking place at Wilton Park, and the new equality and non-discrimination team in the Foreign Office human rights and democracy department.
I want to ask the following questions. What steps can the British Government take to help translate into positive action and support the grave concerns of millions of Christians around the world about the plight of their fellow believers in the middle east? What actions are the Government taking to call to account the Governments responsible, either directly or indirectly, for the persecution of Christians and, indeed, other religious minorities in the middle east? For example, what calls have been made on the Iranian authorities to ensure that President Rouhani fulfils his promise to release all political prisoners, including prisoners of conscience, and to ensure that the nation’s new constitutional procedures do not contradict its international obligations, under the international covenant on civil and political rights, to guarantee the full enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief for all religious communities?
What action can be taken to urge protection of the Coptic community in Egypt, to help address the culture of hate speech and impunity in which attacks occur, and to ensure the emergence of a society in which all Egyptians can flourish, regardless of their religious or political affiliation? What actions are the Government taking to assist Governments who are grappling with an upsurge in violence by those responsible for atrocities against Christians and other minority religious groups in the middle east?
What action are the Government taking to assist the growing numbers of internally displaced people and refugees forced from their homes directly as a result of persecution? I recognise that the Department for International Development has allocated the generous sum of £500 million to support Syria—I believe that is one of the largest donations in the world—but as I said earlier, the particular problem of Christians who are struggling to get aid support because of their faith needs to be addressed.
What action are the Government taking to assist other Governments in rooting out religious discrimination against Christians in educational institutions, and where there is institutionalised anti-Christian bias in curriculums and cultural practices? Some fundamental organisations appear to be able to tap into significant financial resources. How can strategies be developed to reduce such access? Although I accept that the Minister is from the Foreign Office and not from DFID, many of the issues relate to the work of both Departments. I ask DFID to identify freedom of religion or belief as a new priority in its work, and to recognise that where article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights is breached, the impact on women, which is a priority for DFID and in the current review of the millennium development goals, can be particularly acute.
I call on DFID to recognise the contribution that promoting freedom of religion or belief can make in achieving other societal goals such as gender equality, a reduction in discrimination and social exclusion, the prevention of conflict and the promotion of regional stability; and the contribution that healthy civil society bodies, including faith groups, make in many cultures to help promote security and prosperity. It should also recognise that while religious freedom concerns are predominantly issues within individual states, they can and will escalate into larger national and international problems with significant global implications if they are not addressed, as we are seeing in the impact on Lebanon.
Countries with high levels of religious restrictions can be breeding grounds for terrorism and political instability, and that can result in large numbers of refugees fleeing violence. Will the Minister accept that religious freedom should be seen as a human rights concern and be prioritised in our foreign policy? I call on DFID to renew its “Faith Partnership Principles” document, which was referred to just last week in a meeting of the Select Committee on International Development, in a reply to a question that I raised with the Secretary of State for International Development. I have the utmost respect for the Secretary of State, and I genuinely mean that. She is doing a remarkable job with a very wide brief. On reading the document, I saw that it was written some years ago, and that it focuses more on the impact that faith groups have on delivering aid, and working with the Government to do that, than on addressing the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities as a human rights issue. As this debate shows, the time has come for that priority to be stated and defined.
Will the Minister consider all the recommendations in the recent report, “Article 18: An Orphaned Right”, published by the all-party parliamentary group on international religious freedom, of which I and several other Members in the Chamber are members? Will he also provide us with a written response to that report, which makes too many recommendations for me to enumerate here?
Order. Seven Members have said that they wish to speak. I intend to call the Front-Bench speakers at 10.40 am, so I appeal to Members to keep their remarks brief and to the point, and to restrain themselves in interventions, if they can.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on bringing this important matter to the Chamber and on allowing us all to have a chance to have a say in the debate. Christian persecution is an important issue. Although I always have my constituency in my heart, I believe that I must stand up for those who are persecuted throughout the world—in this case, Christians in the middle east. In the debate pack for this debate, it says that
“the global war on Christians remains the greatest story never told of the early 21st century.”
I, too, believe that to be the truth. Just as one did not have to be Jewish in the 1970s to care about dissident Jews in the Soviet Union, or to be black to be outraged by the apartheid regime in South Africa, one does not have to be a Christian today to see that the defence of persecuted Christians should be a towering priority.
I was pleased to meet Baroness Warsi and other Members last week and to read the interesting report prepared by the APPG on international religious freedom. Of great interest was the fact that 75% of the world’s population live in countries with high levels of Government restriction on freedom of belief, and that became evident during the so-called Arab spring. Some 100,000 Christians will be killed in a year—one every hour—and 2 million will be persecuted. Such statistics put the matter into perspective. With our current economic issues, it is clear that many people are concerned with their own difficulties. None the less, I have been overwhelmed by the amount of people who regularly contact my offices to ask me to do all I can to use my position to bring about an end to Christian persecution. The stories that are relayed to me are shocking in their intensity.
A century ago, about 20% of the population in north Africa and the middle east were Christian, according to Open Doors, but that figure has now dropped to just 4% of the population, which is due to persecution. The percentage drop does not indicate how many of those people were murdered or forcibly or even voluntarily displaced, but it does indicate that there may be no Christian presence left in the middle east in my son’s lifetime—or even in my own lifetime. To those who might question what role we have to play in that international story, I say that it is a very important one. It is my role and that of the House to support Christians who are persecuted and targeted merely because of their choice of worship. The hon. Member for Congleton has given evidence of other parts of the world where persecution is rife. As the debate is specifically on the middle east, I will keep my comments entirely on that region.
A quick glance online at Christian Persecution Info will reveal many headlines and stories. In Iran, we learn that 80 lashes were given for the taking of communion wine. It is unbelievable that such a small thing in reality—it is important to Christians because of the importance of holy communion—can bring about such persecution. We also learn that the violations of the rights of Christians, most notably converts from Islam to evangelical Protestant groups, continue unabated. A UN report in October said:
“Authorities continue to compel licensed Protestant churches to restrict Persian-speaking and Muslim-born Iranians from participating in services and raids and forced closures of house churches are ongoing. More than 300 Christians have been arrested since 2010 and dozens of church leaders and active community members have reportedly been convicted of national security crimes in connection with church activities, such as organizing prayer groups…and attending Christian seminars abroad.”
In Egypt, a man, woman and young children who were all Christian were killed at a drive-by shooting at a wedding. In Saudi Arabia, there has been a call for the destruction of all churches on the Arabian peninsula. According to Jihad Watch, a Kuwaiti parliamentarian presented a Bill that would ban the construction of any new non-Islamic religious buildings in the emirate. However, the call in Saudi Arabia went further than that. It insisted that all existing churches be demolished, as Islam is the only religion permitted on the peninsula. The ruling is based on the hadith of Mohammed, who said:
“There shall not be two religions on the peninsula of the Arabs.”
Again, that is a very insidious and very specific persecution of Christians.
The village of Maaloula, a symbol of Syrian Christian tradition where Aramaic is still spoken, is now a ghost town. The bodies of Christians lie along the roads of that small village north of Damascus after it was invaded by Islamist insurgents last month.
The list goes on and on. There will be no Christians left in the middle east if we continue at such a rate. That fear is based not on percentages, but on the fact that there are literally millions of people who live in fear every day.
I will conclude now, because I am conscious that other Members want to contribute to the debate. I plead with the Minister, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development to do all they can to help stop the persecution in the middle east and to ensure that support filters down to the downtrodden Christian families who suffer every day to enjoy the freedom that we take for granted in this place. I stand with my friend and colleague, the hon. Member for Congleton, and ask the Minister to take action today and use the influence of this House, democratically and politically, to stop ethnic cleansing from taking place in the middle east. We cannot allow it to go on simply because it is a difficult area with intense problems.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing this debate.
Why are we particularly focusing on Christian persecution? The reason has already been given, but it is worth emphasising. I am sure, Mr Williams, that you would like me to focus particularly on the middle east, but the reality is that in a disturbing total of 139 nations Christians face persecution, which is extraordinary.
We have already heard various statistics, but it is worth reminding ourselves of one statistic from the Centre for the Study of Global Christianity, which has worked out that 11 Christians are killed around the world every hour, seven days a week, 365 days a year, for reasons related to their faith. And increasing numbers of Christians are being killed in the middle east, which is why it is right to focus on the region.
Is this a debate just for Christians? There are a number of Christians here, including members of Christians in Parliament, the all-party group, but there are other Members who are here who are not Christians, and quite rightly so. It is right that we should recently have heard the words of Pope Francis when addressing the general audience. He said:
“When I hear that so many Christians in the world are suffering, am I indifferent, or is it as if a member of my own family is suffering?”
Christians very much feel that members of their family—brothers and sisters—are suffering and they need to speak up about it, but they are members of all our family who are suffering, and anyone who is concerned about freedom of religion feels that; it is not the exclusive preserve of Christians but is felt by anyone who cares about a good society and wants to stand up for common freedoms, and the desire for freedom of religion is very much a common concern. We will hear today from other Members who do not share the Christian faith with us but very much share that same passion and desire for freedom of religion. It is quite right that we are all united across the House and across the faiths on this issue.
The term “Christian persecution” is sometimes bandied about carelessly. In this country, we can talk about Christian persecution, but let us just remind ourselves that if there is Christian persecution in this country then at worst its victim is likely to be sued, but in the middle east the victim will be killed. That is the stark reality that we are facing and that is why we are focusing today on Christian persecution in the middle east.
As I say, Christian persecution is a reality in the middle east, but I will particularly focus on Iran. As has been mentioned, Christians in Parliament, the all-party group, produced a report last year on the persecution of Christians in Iran, but now sadly we need to produce an update on how such persecution has been extended. Hassan Rouhani has been elected and religious freedom in Iran formed part of his campaign pledges. He said in his election campaign:
“All ethnicities, all religions, even religious minorities, must feel justice”.
We have to challenge that and ask how there has been justice for Christians in Iran, even in the time that he has been President. What he was doing in making that remark was effectively referring to the Iranian constitution, article 23 of which states:
“The investigation of individuals’ beliefs is forbidden, and no one may be molested or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief.”
That principle has been overridden by sharia law, which has taken precedence on this issue. However, the basic constitutional work in Iran, and indeed the pre-revolution heritage of Iran, was about having sympathy with religious minorities and the Iranian people here in Britain hang their head in shame at what is happening in their country now in the name of Iran and its current regime, and that has continued under the watch of Rouhani; the situation in Iran for all religious minorities, but particularly for Christians, has continued to deteriorate.
Just at the end of last month, two Christians in Iran were lashed for drinking communion wine; they were punished simply for partaking in a sacrament that has obviously been practised for centuries, since the time of Jesus. Two other Christians in Iran are now awaiting the same punishment for drinking communion wine. In Iran, Christians continue to be arrested, detained and interrogated, before harsh sentences are handed down on erroneous, trumped-up and political charges, on the basis of protecting security, and those sentences are upheld on appeal.
Our all-party group’s report on Iran particularly highlighted the concerns that exist for the house church movement, the members of which have suffered appalling persecution. In addition, there is now visible persecution of people in churches, including of people in Orthodox churches. Also, the Catholic Church in Tehran has been pressured by the Iranian authorities into barring Persian-speaking Iranians. Why is that? No doubt, it is because the regime presumes that such people are from a Muslim background and it wants to suppress any profession of Christian faith by them. Previously, such treatment has been limited to Protestant Churches, but now it is being extended across the board.
We have had the September session at the UN General Assembly, and perhaps we are seeing a thawing of relations with Iran. Eighty prisoners of conscience were released from Iranian prisons. So can we sit down and say, “All is good now in Iran”? We have to recognise that two of the Christian women released were near the end of their sentence. Also, when Iran says that it is trying to be good and says, “Yes, we are going to release all prisoners of conscience,” we must look at the individuals concerned. Mr Williams, I hope that you and the Hansard writers will forgive me, but I need to put on the record the names of the 16 Christians who are serving time in jail in Iran whom we know of and who can be named. They are Maryam Zagaran, Farshid Fathi, who has already been mentioned, Farhad Sabokrooh, Shahnaz Jaynaz, Nasser Zamen-Dezfuli, Davoud Alijani, Mostafa Bordbar, Mojtaba Hossein, Mohammad-Beza Partoei, Homayoun Shokouhi, Vahid Hakkani, Ebrahim Firouzi, Saeed Abedini, Shahin Lahooti, Alireza Seyyedian and Behnam Irani. Forgive my pronunciation of their names, but the point is that these people need to be released if Rouhani is to make good on the promises that he made.
I wish to give others an opportunity to speak, Mr Williams, but we must recognise that despite the suffering that these Christians experience, they deal with it with incredible grace, humility and fortitude. Farshid Fathi recently wrote:
“How can I complain about my suffering when my brothers and sisters are paying a high price for their faith all over the world? How can I complain?”
Today, we can complain on their behalf. In fact, we can properly take the words of the Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, and I will finish by quoting him. We have already heard that Israel is very much set apart from concerns about freedom of religion, by contrast to the countries that neighbour it. In 2011, Fouad Twal said:
“Does anybody hear our cry? How many atrocities must we endure before somebody, somewhere, comes to our aid?”
The opportunity for the Minister today is to respond to this debate and to show that the Government take these atrocities seriously and will complain and ensure that the relations between Iran and the UK are thawed. Human rights and the freedom of religion are central to restoring diplomatic relations with Iran, and Iran must respond to our recommendations. We must ensure that we use all the channels that we can to stand up for persecuted Christians in Iran.
I also welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate and congratulate the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing it and on her consistent attention to this pressing and important topic.
We have already heard the statistic, which I think comes from the International Society for Human Rights, that 80% of all acts of religious discrimination in the world today are directed at Christians. Like others, I shall use my brief contribution to refer to the persecution of Christians in Iran, drawing on a visit that I made last year to Turkey, with my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Mr Benton). While we were there we briefly met the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), who was in the country. My hon. Friend and I were guests of Elam Ministries, a UK-based charity that supports Iranian Christians. Our visit contributed evidence to the Christians in Parliament report, which has been referred to and was published last October, and which was put together by the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate.
Iran has a population of 74 million. We do not know how many of those people are Christians, but it seems clear that the number of Christians in Iran is increasing, perhaps quite quickly. Some estimates put the number as high as 1.5 million, or 2% of the population. The regime in Iran has certainly retaliated against the growth of Christianity with a concerted propaganda campaign. It is strictly forbidden for Christians to talk with others about what they believe in, and Churches that reach out to non-members have had leaders executed and members imprisoned and tortured. Congregations live under the constant threat of arrest and violent interrogation.
The situation has not always been like that, though. We were told that, after the Islamic revolution in 1979, the regime was, on the whole, tolerant of Christianity and of other minority religions—those religions are protected under the Iranian constitution—but things changed rapidly for the worse, as the evidence gathered for last year’s Christians in Parliament report showed. Christian Solidarity Worldwide has also noted since the beginning of 2012 an increase of harassment, arrest, trial and imprisonment of converts to Christianity in cities across Iran.
The renewed wave of repression has affected both the house church movement and approved denominations. There are tight restrictions on officially recognised Churches. We were told that, with few exceptions, churches can no longer hold services in Farsi—the first language—and that services are not allowed on Friday, which is the official day off. That means that going to church is likely to involve taking time off work and possibly giving up half a day’s pay. Those who attend services are closely monitored. Churches must submit lists of members, with their identity card numbers, so that churchgoers can be easily traced. Recognised Churches find it increasingly hard to obtain permission for maintenance work on their buildings.
While in Turkey, my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle and I were told that the harshness of the Iranian regime contrasts starkly to the warmth and tolerance of the Iranian people. Iranians are proud of their rich history of poetry and literature. Despite the persecution, the Church in Iran is growing rapidly. The Iranian Christians whom we met in Turkey made the point to us that the regime’s propaganda against Christians is widely disbelieved. That was demonstrated dramatically when we spoke to some remarkable Christians we met, who had gone to Turkey for safety.
One of our destinations was Kayseri—a big, modern Turkish city of about 1 million people, with an ancient fortress at its centre. We visited an Iranian church there, one of quite a large number of churches made up of Iranian exiles that meet in Turkey. This one meets in a modest flat at the top of a low-rise block above shops. We met there a man who, with his wife, was imprisoned on a charge of
“action against the security of the nation”,
which can carry a six-year sentence. He was in prison for three months, which included a month in solitary confinement. It was a grim experience. For a while, he was in a cell with 10 others, including a journalist, an academic and other professionals. They shared minimal facilities between them.
Many of the Christians we met knew Pastor Farshid Fathi, whom we have heard about in the debate. I, too, pay tribute to him. A critic of the Iranian Government—a political critic—Mehdi Khazali, who shared a cell with Farshid last year, spoke of him in an interview:
“Farshid was a polite young man with a warm smile always on his face. All prisoners in ward 350 remember nothing but kindness from him. He had an exemplary behaviour. We never saw him lose his temper. He was a kind person.”
He is serving a six-year sentence, which began in December 2010.
We met many people who had suffered in Iran for their faith. Some had suffered terribly, but had not given up. Instead, they appeared to be even more determined to tell their fellow countrymen what they believed. One church in Istanbul, which offers copies of the New Testament to visiting Iranians—admittedly, it is quite a small church—told us that it had recently had to stop its evangelism because it could not fit any more people into the building.
I welcome the high priority that has been assigned by the Government, among their foreign policy concerns, to freedom of religion or belief. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for the work that he did as a Foreign Office Minister, and I hope that this Minister can reassure us that that priority will be maintained.
I hope that Ministers making overseas visits will continue to make a point of meeting religious minorities, like some of those I met in Turkey. A Minister visiting a country such as Iran or the others that we have heard about is in a privileged position, and such visits to religious minorities in those countries are a source of huge encouragement for groups that are being persecuted. At the same time, they can help to draw much-needed attention to the injustice that so many people are suffering.
There are perhaps grounds for optimism in Iran: we have not yet seen much change, but at least some of the right words have been said. I hope that the Minister might be able to encourage us with the prospect that some of those words will indeed be fulfilled and that in the months ahead there will be change for the better for Christians in Iran.
And when the wise men were departed,
“behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.
When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt:
And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.”
Joseph would not be very wise today to move from the west bank of Palestine to Egypt, because in August this year, there were targeted attacks on at least 100 Coptic Christian churches in Egypt, as well as Christian homes and businesses; and in September, large mobs carrying machetes and guns attacked properties, including the Virgin Mary and Priest Ibram monastery. It was forced to close for prayers in August for the first time in 1,600 years.
I do not intend to repeat anything that my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) excellently said in opening the debate. The freedom of religion is an important human right set out in article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights. In the few moments available to me, I want to say some of the things that I think that Ministers should be doing.
The Foreign Office should consider appointing a special envoy for freedom of religion and belief to co-ordinate the UK’s diplomatic efforts in this field, in partnership with the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief and the US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. Today’s debate has highlighted that this is now an issue of such seriousness that it needs to rise up the list of Government priorities. I hope that we can see a re-establishment of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office freedom of religion panel, to bring together on a regular basis human rights and religious freedom organisations and representatives of religious communities. That panel could inform and advise the Foreign Office on violations of, and methods of promoting, religious freedom, and on ensuring that freedom of religion and belief was part of bilateral and multilateral discussions with relevant Governments on a regular basis.
I appreciate that the Foreign Office often has a difficult task. It wants to promote trade with countries such as Malaysia, but what we heard earlier about the prejudice and discrimination against Christians in Malaysia is appalling for a Commonwealth country that has regular trade with the UK. We want to be reassured by Ministers that these issues are raised regularly.
It is also important to continue to exert diplomatic pressure on Governments of nations in which religious freedom is violated, and to consider imposing targeted sanctions on key individuals or Governments responsible for serious widespread and systematic violations of religious freedom. I very much agree with the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier): many of the countries that we are talking about are countries to which the UK gives significant amounts of bilateral aid. Pakistan is the largest recipient of UK bilateral aid. I do not think it unreasonable that, in discussions about what bilateral aid we give to countries, we consider this issue and ensure that those countries will give religious freedom to everyone, including Christians.
Lastly, it is important to continue to oppose robustly efforts at the UN to introduce religious defamation measures; we must work to build a coalition of support for the campaign to reject religious defamation laws, and work generally to promote religious freedom.
In January 1945, my mother, who was too young even to attend school, joined millions of other ethnic Germans who were fleeing westwards from Breslau as the red army advanced. My forefathers had lived in that region for at least nine generations, as far as I am aware. That forced repatriation—a process that might now be called ethnic cleansing—of my mother’s family and millions of other civilian groups would in future be inextricably linked with their ethnicity, which was largely overlooked at the time in the euphoria that swept across Europe at the end of the second world war. Of course, my mother’s generation never returned.
We are now witnessing another wave of largely unnoticed civilian displacement in the middle east, with hundreds of thousands of Christians being forced to flee as they are banished from their often 2,000-year-old homelands in today’s remarkable surge in Arabian people power.
Others have talked about Iran and Egypt, so I hope that I will be forgiven for saying a few words on the Syrian situation. Global media attention has moved from Egypt and Libya to Syria, and is focusing on the crimes of the Assad Government and the mission to neutralise his chemical weapons, but innocent people on all sides are enduring awful hardship, death and torture. Civil war does not discriminate between young and old.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) said in her superb contribution, there are more than 2 million Syrian followers of Christ whose lineage goes back literally 2,000 years to St Paul’s proselytising in the first century AD. For those people, these are incredibly desperate times. The unspeakable truth is that a sizeable Christian community in war-torn Syria is now at a greater threat of being ethnically cleansed from its ancestral home than it has been for generations. That threat is often posed by self-styled freedom fighters who have been fêted by the western press. Those fighters—increasingly rent-a-mob jihadists with no real stake in the affairs of Damascus—do not see those in the enclaves of Christians as genial neighbours whom they have lived beside for centuries. I am afraid that the sad truth is that religious minorities often find their most assured protection under dictatorships, and often it pays not to rock the status quo, but that should not be a convenient excuse for destroying ancient churches and holding populations to ransom.
I know others also want to speak, so I will end my comments, but we should all recognise that there are major issues. The plight of Christians across the world is all too often overlooked. We have rightly focused today on the middle east. The problems are going on, hour by hour, before our very eyes, and I am interested to hear what the Government will do, in practical terms.
We are thinking this morning about those people in the middle east and across the world who will wake up today to the reality of the persecution of their faith. It may be that their children are barred from school, or that they have no hope of securing a job for which they are eminently qualified, simply because they have a faith that they refuse to renounce—which may mean unlawful imprisonment, torture or even death. We have experienced that in this country in the past—the trials were conducted just a few yards from here—but we have learned that that is no way to run a country or build a society.
Some think democracy is the answer. As we have seen in Egypt, democracy may be a necessary condition for the long-term maintenance of human rights, but it is in no way a sufficient condition. Democracy without the rule of law becomes but the tyranny of the majority, and democracy without the rule of law based on universal human rights can be even worse. When we urge countries to embrace democracy and then question why it all goes wrong and many minorities find themselves in a worse position than under an autocrat, let us remember that the rule of law, underpinned by the universal rights and responsibilities of individuals and their enforcement, is a precondition for democracy. We must never forget that in the rush for universal suffrage and majority rule.
The Governments of middle-eastern countries that deliberately persecute Christians and those of other non-Islamic faiths are, by keeping down or driving out Christians, doing their countries a great disservice. Just look at the example of the UK. When my Huguenot ancestors were driven out of France after the revocation of the edict of Nantes, they fled to the low countries, to Germany and to England, and they took their skills with them. Courtauld brought textile manufacturing to this country, and hence, eventually, the industrial revolution. Some estimate that the expulsion of the Protestant Huguenots from France set that country back 100 years, and advanced those countries that welcomed them by a generation or two.
Each wave of immigrants welcomed by our country has brought enterprise and skills as they integrated. Where Christian citizens are driven away or kept down, it is a huge loss to that country, its people and its future, and the same is true for the UK. Let us recognise one of the reasons why Christians are persecuted. They are seen as representative of something alien—a western culture based on individualism and materialism, rather than the collective good of love for one’s neighbour. That, of course, is a travesty of the gospel, but it is understandable that outsiders think that when they see some of the products of western so-called civilisation.
Finally, we must show that religious and political freedom does not necessarily mean a descent into materialism, loss of family and spiritual poverty, which is a challenge to us. It is something we can do as a society, and as Christians, while at all times supporting our persecuted brothers and sisters and urging their countries to change heart.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who called for a public voice on this issue. She has been the instigator of that public voice this morning, and we are grateful to her for securing this opportunity.
Like other hon. Members, I want to talk about Iran. According to Open Doors, a charity that supports Christians living under some of the most repressive regimes in the world, Iran is ranked eighth on the world watch list, and there are 450,000 Christians there. I hope that that figure is wrong, and that what the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) said is true—that the figure is growing, despite the huge challenges of living in a country in which Christians are routinely detained for no reason other than the fact that they hold different beliefs from those of the country’s leaders. Christians are not allowed to express their faith openly, whether through the written or spoken word. Indeed, it is illegal to publish the Bible in Farsi, which means that Christians are forbidden from worshipping in their own language.
A couple of weeks ago, my church celebrated Bible Sunday; in Wales, we were celebrating the translation of the Bible into Welsh. I find it difficult to imagine what it must be like to have to practise religion in a foreign language. That brings home the Bible verse in which the apostle Peter calls on his readers to
“live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear.”
That is particularly apposite. Christian men and women in Iran are treated as foreigners in their own land, particularly converts from Islam, who are considered more than simply foreigners or second-class citizens; they are considered traitors and are routinely sentenced to death or face trumped-up charges for converting. It is no small wonder that so many have been forced to flee Iran. One of the greatest exoduses of people across the modern world has been people fleeing Iran.
The Iranian regime has long sought viciously to repress anyone who espouses views different from its own, whether those views come from political opponents or the Baha’i community, which has been ferociously persecuted. Mr Ataollah Rezvani was shot in the back of the head, and his body was abandoned by a railway near Bandar Abbas, in August simply for being a member of the Baha’i community. Such persecution has led our Government to condemn Iran’s human rights reputation as “appalling” and to note that Iran’s treatment of religious minorities is “shocking.” We have heard that 80% of acts of religious discrimination across the world are directed at Christians. This has been a thorough debate, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Congleton for securing it.
Finally, I dedicate my brief remarks to Maryam Zargaran, who was arrested on 15 July and is still languishing in Evin prison for activities and propaganda against the Iranian regime, for creating unrest and for establishing church houses.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on her superb speech. I associate myself with her remarks, and particularly her questions to the Minister.
I will keep my comments to two specific issues. First, we have heard a lot about the persecution of Christians in Syria. On Friday three Syrians, who have been given leave to remain in the United Kingdom, visited my surgery. It was moving to see three Syrians—a Christian, a Druze and a Sunni—sitting together and expressing bafflement about the way in which the religiously tolerant country they had known now posed a risk to their families. The three of them were grateful for the way in which the British Government dealt with their applications for leave to remain, but their key concern was for their families. Two of them still have significant close family members in Syria, and the third has seen family members killed in attacks. The question that they asked, which I am asking the Minister today, is whether we can have clarity on the Government’s willingness or otherwise to support Syrians who have moved to this country and whose families are still at great risk in Syria. We need an acknowledgement of that issue. The investment and contribution we are making, in terms of humanitarian aid, is most welcome, but it is important that we remain an open door for people fleeing for their lives.
The other issue I want to touch on was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), who shares a Huguenot ancestry with me. He said that it was to a country’s detriment to persecute its religious minorities. The example I would give, which numerous Members have mentioned, is Israel—a country in the middle east that is often vilified, not least in this place. When it comes to religious freedom, however, it is important to highlight the difference between the way in which Israel and neighbouring countries behave towards their religious minorities.
The key point is that the Christian population in Israel has increased a thousandfold since the country was established. Christians serve in the Supreme Court, the Knesset and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and they are contributing to a stronger country. The situation of Christians in Israel can be contrasted with that of Christians in the west bank, where the Christian population has fallen quite dramatically. In 1948, about 15% of Palestinians identified themselves as Christian; today, that figure has fallen to about 2%. In many ways, the strongest, most economically prosperous country in the middle east is also the most welcoming of religious minorities. When we discuss this issue, it is important to place on record the fact that there is, in the middle east, a country that shows us how things can be done differently, and that is leading to a more prosperous situation for all the citizens of that country, regardless of their religion.
It is a pleasure to take part in the debate and to speak before you, Mr Williams. We have the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) to thank for the fact that we are having this hugely important debate. I am sorry hon. Members’ speeches were truncated, but everyone made valuable contributions, and if I am quick enough, I hope to highlight particular points from them.
As we all know, this is an extraordinary time in the middle east. The persecution of Christians there has moved up the political agenda; as the hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) said, it has, if anything, become even more important. That is because of the extraordinary state of flux that exists in the political world of the middle east as we speak.
In the past three years, since the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia, the Arab uprisings have occurred. The stability that existed—in a sense, it was the stability of the graveyard or the stability of oppression—under the various dictators in the region has ended. That has led to an extraordinary period of uncertainty, with many in the middle east pursuing the noble and difficult cause of establishing constitutions. In Tunisia, President Marzouki is involved in the process, in alliance with an Islamic party, which is in government. Fundamental constitutions are being put together right across the region. We must not, in any sense, underestimate the scale of that political task.
We have heard reference to the universal declaration of human rights, which is central to our debate. This discussion is not just about Christianity—that is one aspect—but we are also talking about individual rights and freedom of religion. The irony is that many of the countries that we have referred to—Egypt, Iran and Syria—were signatories to the universal declaration of human rights in 1948. I would like the Minister to confirm that he will remind the Governments of those countries that they voluntarily undertook to commit to the obligations under the declaration, and we want them to adhere to them at this important time.
The Government have done much positive work in the past two to three years in the febrile, complex political situation that has followed the Arab uprising. We commend them on the work they have done on the Arab Partnership, and I have visited countries across the region—from Egypt to Tunisia to Iraq—where difficult political situations are being helped by DFID’s excellent work on the ground to build support for the difficult process of constitution and politics building. That is a long-term process, and I can tell the Minister that the Labour party are certainly committed to it over a long period. This country has a long constitutional history, and we know from what happened in 17th-century England that the process following a revolution and a change of Government is difficult. In the historical context, it is early days indeed in the middle east.
We know from our postbags, and I certainly know from faith groups and churches in Wrexham, that there is profound concern about the position of Christians in the middle east. We have heard from a number of speakers about the position of Christians across the world generally, but the difficult political situation in the middle east means that Christians’ position as a minority, albeit a long-standing and long-established minority, is a particular threat. At this time, we must hold fast to the principles that underpin the United Nations and democracy.
The hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) mentioned Israel, and it is no coincidence that that country, with its tolerance for religious minorities, is a democracy. For that reason, we need to commit to supporting the progress of democracy in the region, even though, as recent events in Egypt, for example, have shown, that is a difficult course, which often leads us to take one step forward and two steps back, making the political situation difficult to manage.
In Egypt, the situation of Coptic Christians has been extremely difficult in the past few months. There have been dreadful individual events, with masked gunmen attacking Coptic Christian churches. In one particularly dreadful instance, four people, including an eight-year-old girl, were killed at a wedding. Those are the circumstances Christians face in the middle east.
At this time, through our contact with the middle east, we need to provide a consistent voice against the oppression of minorities. I stress that it should be consistent, because it is easy in some respects to criticise countries with which we do not have strong political relations—for example, Iran. The criticism of Iran that we have heard in the debate is fully justified, because individual rights there must be respected—it one of the signatories to the UN declaration. However, we must also criticise countries in the region with which we have good relations and strong commercial bonds. We need to ensure that our voice is heard loud and clear on individual rights and the oppression of Christian minorities in those countries. If we are not consistent in our approach with Governments, our voice is diminished. One criticism that I hear in the middle east is that our Government—I do not particularly mean this Government, because this approach has been consistent across Governments over many years—are quick to criticise our enemies, but slow to criticise our friends when they misbehave.
We need a consistent and principled approach, working from the principles set out in the declaration of human rights, which so many of the countries in question have signed. I assure the Minister that the Opposition will support the Government position, if they speak candidly with a clear voice to countries that oppress religious or political minorities in the middle east. We see our role as supporting the Government when they speak candidly for the idea that Governments should respect human rights. For as long as that is their approach, that is what we will do.
I thank—and we should all thank—my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for bringing such an important issue to the House in such a timely manner. In her three and a half years in the House, she has consistently worked hard to champion oppressed Christians. Many members of the all-party group on religious freedom or belief are present, and I pay tribute to all those who speak up against such oppression. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) said that not everyone present in the Chamber is a Christian, and I looked around for humanists or others, but I think probably most of those here are Christian in one way or another; certainly they support religious freedom.
The Government believe that people of all religious faiths or none should be deeply concerned about this issue, which touches on the fundamental human right of the freedom to choose what to believe, how to practise one’s faith and whether to change one’s belief. Such a right should be a precious part of any society. That is why the Government utterly condemn all instances of violence and discrimination against individuals or groups because of their faith or belief. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton asked me to ask the Department for International Development to recognise freedom of religion as a priority, and I shall pass her request on to the Secretary of State, about whom she rightly made some extremely nice points.
I should mention the work done by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister as a member of the high-level panel advising on the post-2015 millennium development goals. An excellent report has been produced, recognising rights and freedoms as a crucial part of the development debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton will also recognise the work done by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, on the initiative on the prevention of sexual violence, which more than 134 countries have now signed up to and which addresses some of the issues my hon. Friend discussed in relation to rape.
I shall certainly take my hon. Friend’s point on board.
The Government base their position on article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights, which states:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his or her religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his or her religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
Promoting human rights, including religious freedom, is an important part of British foreign policy. Ministers and officials at our embassies and high commissions regularly raise concerns with host Governments about violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief. I shall ensure that our ambassador to the Vatican does that. For example, when they met at the UN General Assembly on 23 September, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary urged his Egyptian counterpart to ensure that Egypt’s new constitution would include a protection for the rights of minorities. We also regularly meet leaders of religious communities and civil society organisations from around the world, with a view to understanding their concerns better. We actively work with them to promote a universal commitment to religious freedom and to promote tolerance and understanding for, between and within all faiths, in line with article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights.
I hope that the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), who urged Ministers to engage, will support the Prime Minister’s trip to Sri Lanka for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in the next few weeks. He will be the first western leader to go to the north of the country to engage with the minority Tamil community. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman agrees that that is the right way to proceed, despite the alternative view taken by the Front Bench in his party, that the UK should not attend.
We continue to work with the international community to combat religious intolerance and protect human rights. In September, at the UN General Assembly, my noble Friend Baroness Warsi convened a group of Foreign Ministers and officials from international organisations for the second in a series of meetings to discuss international efforts to fight violence in the name of religion and to promote freedom of religion and belief for all. We intend that to be a continuing initiative to build up greater political will to tackle the issue in the countries where it matters most.
Some right hon. and hon. Members who spoke were tempted to go slightly further afield than the middle east in their remarks, but I shall confine my remarks to the middle east. Some interesting points were made about the middle east as the birthplace of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, which makes the religious persecution there all the more poignant. My hon. Friends the Members for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) and for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) mentioned Israel and Palestine. It is true that less than 2% of the population of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories is Christian today, compared with 22% at the end of the British mandate in 1948. I heard what my hon. Friends said, but we continue to be concerned about access to holy sites for all, including Christians and Muslims. On the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy raised about the Syrians who came to his constituency surgery, if he would like to write to me, I shall respond and lay out our policy on asylum seekers.
The period since 2011 has indeed been a difficult one for various religious communities across the region. Many are suffering and, tragically, there is a risk in some countries of the disappearance of religious communities that have existed there peacefully for centuries. As right hon. and hon. Members—in particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate—have said, the great majority of communities that are suffering are Christian. It is right to continue to highlight that, but also to be concerned with all persecuted minorities. We want freedom of religion or belief for all: a universal human right.
The effects of the crisis in Syria are particularly on our minds. Life in Syria for Christians and other minorities continues to be extremely difficult. We have serious concerns about rising sectarian tension and believe that President Assad is deliberately attempting to stir up such tensions in his efforts to hold on to power. Non-Alawite minorities, including Christian communities, are in a vulnerable position, not only because of the relatively small size of their communities and their geographic dispersal, but because they are neither Sunni, like the majority of the opposition, nor Alawite, like the core of the regime. The largest Christian communities in the country were in Aleppo and Homs, where some of the most intense clashes between the regime and the opposition have happened. We are working hard, with the moderate Syrian National Coalition, to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict and to support the building of a Syria that respects the rights of all its citizens, whatever their race, religion or lack of religion.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton is right to point out that we have provided more than £500 million of humanitarian aid—the largest ever UK response to a single crisis. Last week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development announced that her Department would support UNICEF’s Syrian children appeal by matching public donations pound for pound. We also support a number of projects designed to increase dialogue and reduce tensions between different communities to promote minority rights, including almost £520,000 to train Sunni, Alawite, Christian, Druze, Armenian and Kurdish community and religious leaders. We have also provided support to create a network of peace-building committees in Syria by training and providing guidance and mentorship to nearly 500 activists.
On 16 October, the Foreign Office Minister with responsibility for human rights policy, Baroness Warsi, met Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorius III, and they discussed the Geneva II process to establish peace negotiations, the plight of Christians in Syria and the humanitarian crisis affecting Syria and the region. The Minister underlined our commitment to speaking up on behalf of all those who are targeted for their religion or belief. We have made it clear that those responsible for human rights violations and abuses should be held to account. We believe that the International Criminal Court will have a role to play, and I confirm that we have condemned the kidnapping of the bishops and called for their release, as my hon. Friend asked.
In Egypt, the Coptic Church continues to experience many challenges. For example, we have just marked the second anniversary of the Maspero massacre, in which 28 Christians taking part in a demonstration were killed. Following the military intervention to remove Mohammad Morsi on 3 July this year, there has also been a rise in the number of violent sectarian attacks. Churches, homes, businesses and individuals have been attacked. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has publicly condemned the attacks and urged that there should be inclusive political dialogue. The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Hugh Robertson), condemned the killing of four guests at a Coptic Christian wedding as recently as 20 October.
We are also concerned about the situation for religious minorities in other countries of the region. In Iran, the Baha’i are subject to mounting pressure. We are concerned by state efforts—