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Christians (Middle East)

Volume 574: debated on Tuesday 21 January 2014

Government Ministers regularly speak out against abuses of the right to freedom of religion or belief. I met minority Christian communities in Egypt in December and in Algeria during my visit there last week precisely to highlight this issue.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the plight of Christians in Iraq, which often goes unreported in the western media. The scale of the exodus of Christians owing to sectarian violence is unprecedented and those who remain often flee to Kurdish-controlled areas to escape violence in Baghdad. However, although they are physically safer in places such as Irbil, they are struggling to survive. What steps is the Department taking to encourage the Iraqi Government to protect Christians in that country and to improve their security?

My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely correct. The security situation of Iraq’s Christians, and indeed other minorities, remains precarious. We continually urge the Iraqi Government, through ministerial contacts and by all other means, to protect all communities and to deal appropriately with those who are found responsible for acts of violence and intimidation because of political, ethnic or religious affiliation.

The Geneva II peace conference for Syria is taking place tomorrow. What actions are the UK Government going to take to ensure that the voices of Christians and other religious minorities are heard during those negotiations, to ensure that freedom of religion and belief are enshrined in any new constitution?

The hon. Lady is right to raise that issue, and it has been a key concern for the Foreign Secretary and all involved on behalf of the Government. We have absolutely urged the coalition to make sure it is broad based and includes Christians who it will bring to Geneva II. Our hope is that that will be achieved.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that persecution of Christians is also continuing unabated in Iran, with reports of Christians being lashed for drinking communion wine, having their homes raided and having Bibles confiscated? Is my right hon. Friend aware of the particular case of Maryam Naghash Zargaran, who last year received a sentence of four years of imprisonment on account of her Christian beliefs and whose health is now reported as deteriorating? Will my right hon. Friend take up her case with the Iranians?

I certainly will, and my hon. Friend correctly highlights the serious position of Christians, and indeed of other minorities, in Iran. It is important to remember that despite the very welcome unfreezing that is going on in some areas, in other areas little or nothing has changed, and that will very much be part of the negotiations as we move forward.

The Minister will be aware that the last three years have proved among the most difficult for Christians right across the region. What specific steps is the Minister taking to point out consistently that tackling the persecution of Christians in the region is fundamental to the UK Government’s approach to dealing with issues of toleration?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise an issue that is often raised in correspondence that Members from across the House send into the Foreign Office. As a result of that, I have made a particular point of going to visit Christian communities in order to highlight their concerns and to ensure that the Governments in many of those countries know we care about those concerns. I had a very good visit with the Coptic community in Egypt the week before Christmas and, as I said in my answer, I have just been to see the Christian community in Algeria during my visit there. I will continue to do that and also to examine with the Churches, and in particular with people such as the Archbishop, with whom I had a conversation about this over Christmas, what more we can do to work better with them.