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Freedom of Religion

Volume 579: debated on Tuesday 8 April 2014

5. What recent assessment he has made of respect for freedom of religion or belief worldwide and how it can be improved. (903579)

The Foreign Office addresses freedom of religion or belief across the world through our bilateral relationships, through multilateral organisations, such as the United Nations, and through the Foreign Secretary’s human rights advisory group.

Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state face discrimination and a protracted humanitarian crisis, compounded by the failure of the Burmese Government to recognise their right to citizenship. What action is the Minister taking to prevent the Burmese Government from using their census, which receives some £10 million of UK assistance, to discriminate against Rohingya Muslims by refusing to recognise their religious and ethnic identity?

The hon. Lady’s point is well made. The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), expressed our strong concerns about conditions there during his visit to Burma in January. He called the Minister, Khin Yi, on 26 March, and summoned the Burmese ambassador only yesterday to make these representations.

In the middle east, with the exception of Israel where there is a lot of freedom of religion and the Christian community has increased by 1,000% since the state of Israel came into being, there is a lack of freedom of religion. What are the Government attempting to do to resolve that?

Not least in response to concerns expressed across the House through the Foreign Office’s mail bag and at Question Time, we have made a priority of visiting religious leaders throughout the middle east during visits. Recently, I have seen the Copts in Egypt and the Catholic community in Jordan, and called in at the Holy See when I was in Rome for the Libya conference, to speak to them about their concerns.

18. I am sure the Minister is aware that the erosion of freedom of religious practice is an issue in a number of Commonwealth countries, including Malaysia, where the Malay word for God has effectively been banned, making the Bible illegal, and Brunei, where the introduction of sharia law has caused huge anxiety among the sizeable Filipino Catholic community there. Will the Minister ensure that these issues are raised not only in the forums to which he referred but through the Commonwealth forums, to ensure that there is real freedom of religion in Commonwealth countries? (903593)

I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. The Minister of State responsible for the Commonwealth, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), has got that message clearly. When I mentioned the multilateral institutions, I could not list them all, but clearly the Commonwealth is key among them.

Over the past 50 years the Jewish population in Arab countries has shrunk by 836,000 people, who are all refugees. At the same time there are some 836,000 Palestinian refugees. What is my right hon. Friend’s reaction to the fact that more than $2 billion has been spent supporting the Palestinian refugees, but zero on Israeli refugees?

Our allocations in this area are driven by need. I thank my hon. Friend for the various pieces of literature that he has provided to me, which I will follow up separately. There is a straightforward assessment of need. The situation of refugees, not only Jewish, not only Palestinian, across the middle east, particularly in Jordan and Lebanon—it is worth reminding the House that we have these questions at a time when the millionth Syrian refugee has arrived in Beirut—is a matter that we are addressing as a priority.

As we approach Easter, we know that millions of Christians across the world will be prevented from celebrating or will risk persecution for doing so. New research by the Pew research centre suggests that persecution of people who practise their religion increased in almost every major region of the world in recent years. In the light of such concerning reports, what specific steps are the UK Government taking as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council to ensure that tackling the persecution of Christians and promoting freedom of religion is a key priority?

That is a good question. As I said in my original answer, the Foreign Office picks up the issue through bilateral relationships with the countries concerned, through the multilateral institutions and through the Foreign Secretary’s human rights advisory group. This is an issue that we will concentrate on over the period. The reaction that we have had across the House and from those with whom we have had contact indicates that this is a serious issue and it is one that we will take seriously.