I beg to move,
That this House has considered freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
I am pleased to bring this debate to Parliament today. As someone who believes that equality and religious freedom are fundamental to democratic society, and that both must be promoted and protected, I have continued to work extremely hard in Parliament to promote religious freedom at home and abroad. I recognise that that freedom must extend not only to Christians and our beliefs, but to those of other faiths, and that it includes the right to freedom from religion for those who are not believers.
As hon. Members may be aware, I am Open Doors’s official representative in the House of Commons, and have been working closely with it on these issues. Its world watch list, which highlights the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian, is a vital tool in monitoring restrictions on religious freedom throughout the world. That list should be of interest to all of us, given the links between religious persecution and the rescinding of civil liberties more generally.
As the vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief, today I want to look at our report, “Article 18: an orphaned right”, which explores the restrictions on freedom of religion and belief throughout the world, including the particularly heavy price currently being paid by Christians. Article 18 of the United Nation’s declaration of human rights is a noble vision of religious freedom for all, but it is sadly not the reality for many, or even most. It is a far cry from reality, and that is a point to which I will return.
I thank the hon. Lady for bringing forward this important issue, which is increasingly gaining attention across the House. She made the point that there are Members in this House of the Christian faith, of other faiths and of no faith, but we universally share the idea of the importance of religious liberty; that is the right thing to do, not just for those of all faiths and none, but socially, economically and politically.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on the timeliness of the debate, because it was only yesterday that Pakistan’s Prime Minister visited and met our Prime Minister. At the same time, Pakistani Christians were campaigning, and making the point that a report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has said that the situation in Pakistan is the worst in the world for religious freedom. Will she comment on that?
Yes, the situation in Pakistan is extremely serious, given that people are essentially being sentenced to death for exercising one of the fundamental rights—the right to change one’s religion. That is hugely important.
As a Christian, my faith is part and parcel of who I am, and is part of the reason why I am involved in politics. I recognise the importance of faith and the constructive role that it can play in society and in our lives. However, I also recognise the damaging role that religious or any other ideological fundamentalism can have in restricting the freedoms of others. In the same way that my faith is important to me, I recognise the importance to others of their religious freedom, and that freedom, and the related right to freedom from religious belief, are hugely important and must be protected.
While working on issues of religious freedom and reading some of the harrowing cases that have been discovered, I have been struck by how lucky we are to live in a country where we enjoy relative liberty. However, we should never be complacent and should always guard against the erosions of those freedoms. In our society, there are challenges in balancing the rights of not only those of different faiths, but of those who wish to live a life free from religious interference. The question of how we balance those competing rights needs careful and thoughtful assessment.
The exclusion of all religion or faith from the public sphere is contrary to freedom of religion and belief, and so, equally, is the imposition of faith, or faith-based observances, practices or rules, on those who choose not to practise any religion. This tension has often left the right to freedom of religion without effective champions. As the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief said to the APPG when he visited Westminster, the religious are often more comfortable seeking protection for their own faith, but are wary of extending that freedom to those with whom they disagree.
Conversely, those who are liberal and usually champion human rights and freedom are often wary of religion and reluctant to see its restriction in the same terms as other forms of persecution. It is therefore hugely important that we reflect on article 18 of the UN declaration of human rights, which sets out clearly what is meant by freedom of religion and belief:
“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.”
As a co-sponsor of the debate, I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this timely debate. On the United Nations and article 18, does the hon. Lady agree that the UN needs to do more, as does its Human Rights Council, and some of the council’s members, who do not have particularly good records when it comes to religious freedom and freedom of speech in their country?
That is a hugely important point, and I hope that as we explore those issues today, we can focus on those member states that do not make their full contribution, either at home or in the international sphere.
Article 18 remains the benchmark against which the enjoyment of the freedom of religion or belief should be measured on a global scale. It protects traditional, non-traditional and new religious beliefs and practices, as well as numerous beliefs not associated with divine or transcendent powers and not of a religious nature. Everyone has the freedom to manifest their religion or belief, either alone or together with others, publicly or privately. No one should be subject to coercion that would impair their freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of someone else’s choice; nor is discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief permissible.
Unlike many other human rights, freedom of religion or belief is as yet not directly addressed in a focused United Nations convention. As a consequence, this freedom has for many years been something of a “residual” right, and in practice, it remains on the margins of the family of human rights. However, research has found that almost 75% of the world’s population live in countries with high levels of Government restrictions on freedom of religion, or in countries where those with certain religious affiliations face a high level of hostility, and that figure is rising. Across the globe, there is widespread denial of freedom of worship, and of freedom to teach, promote and publicly express one’s religion and beliefs.
The APPG’s report instances examples of state intimidation, discrimination and violence towards people on account of their religion or belief, as well as situations in which states simply do not offer adequate protection from persecution by non-state actors. That is not limited to any one region or form of religion. As I mentioned, we are only too aware of the deeply troubling scale of the violations of freedom of religion or belief worldwide. Whether it is the Baha’is in Iran, Christians in the middle east, Jewish people in Europe or atheists in Indonesia, what we are exploring today is a truly global concern that affects the full range of religious and non-religious beliefs.
I want to look briefly at why we need to protect religious freedom. It is vital to remember the importance of protecting freedom of religion or belief in a wider context. Although it is important in its own right, it is also crucial to achieving a wide range of foreign policy goals, such as the prevention of conflict. Violations of freedom of religion or belief often involve the violent persecution of both individuals and groups, and often take the form of discrimination in access to education, employment and health services; limitations in the ability of individuals to marry or retain custody of children; limitations in the right to publish literature or participate in the media; or limitations on the right to preserve cultural and religious heritage. All those are important, both from a Foreign and Commonwealth Office perspective and from an international development perspective.
It is a key dynamic of freedom of religion or belief that it is interconnected with a wide range of other political, social, economic and cultural rights, from freedom of expression and association to the prevention of poverty. That is recognised by the FCO, which stated:
“In countries around the world, religious freedom is often crucial to ensuring conflict prevention and post-conflict peacebuilding. Indeed, many conflicts have their roots in the tensions between different religious communities. Violence against a religious group can be a forewarning of wider conflict. Freedom of religion or belief is therefore important to achieving the UK's wider security agenda.”
I also want to look at the nature of persecution, which is changing. Religious persecution, particularly that of Christians, is on the rise and is becoming more intense in more countries. The nature of this persecution is incredibly varied. 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. Either kind represents a denial of article 18 and should be resisted. From November 2012 to October 2013, Open Doors recorded 2,123 killings of Christians worldwide—nearly double the number for the previous year. Nigeria and Syria were the most prolific countries, followed by Pakistan and Egypt. For obvious reasons, it could be argued that those figures are conservative, if we think about the percentage of incidents reported and how frightened people often are.
Recent trends suggest that squeeze pressure, where there is no physical violence but pressure is applied to prevent Christians and others from being able to express their beliefs freely, has increasingly become the main form of abuse. It is much harder to identify and document. However, perhaps as a result, it can be the most destructive and harmful to individuals and families. Life in the family sphere also suffers, in particular for those who exercise their right to change religion. Hostility from the state or neighbours can place not only the individual but the family under considerable pressure. That social and religious pressure can 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, but there is a fear that denials of that right are not fully pursued in considerations at Government level.
Persecution also impacts on the community sphere, manifesting itself in restrictions on employment or access to resources. There is evidence, for example, that Christian villagers are denied water from wells in northern Nigeria by reason of their faith. The social stigma involved in such cases cannot be underestimated. The creation of sectarian and ethnic conflicts over perceived differences in religion are often a linked issue, where those of a particular religious faith are ascribed traits or beliefs that are either shunned by the rest of the community or portrayed as disloyal or dishonourable to the community in which they reside. I am unsure that any Member present today could imagine having to keep their faith a secret to the point where they cannot trust anyone with that knowledge, not even family and friends—to know that to do so could mean death or injury for us or for our families. Simply being found in ownership of a bible, for example, can put someone in extreme physical danger.
I want also to examine some of the main sources of denials of article 18 rights and to give a sense of quite how wide ranging and global the problem is. The report produced by the all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief identifies two different but intrinsically linked dimensions of denials of freedom of religion or belief—direct state denial and state failures in the protection of freedom of religion.
Direct state denial includes incidents in which the state either actively persecutes individuals and communities on the basis of their beliefs or denies them the possibility freely to choose what they believe, whether they it express it alone or as a community. Under that theme, we find instances of Islamic extremism, communist oppression and, in the most extreme cases, Government policies of eradication of either one faith or belief group or of all those who seek to exercise their freedoms. Islamic extremism is arguably currently the biggest threat to freedom of religion and belief. There has been a major exodus of Christians from the middle east following the Arab spring, and atheists in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have been heavily discriminated against, with laws against blasphemy being used to stifle free speech and freedom of belief.
North Korea is a classic example of communist oppression and has been in the media of late after topping the Open Doors world watch list as the most difficult country on earth in which to be a Christian. I was honoured to host a meeting between Open Doors, Church leaders and North Korean exiles, during which we heard first hand of the persecution and abuse that Christians and other religious groups face in North Korea. It made for harrowing listening. Like others in that country, Christians have to survive under one of the most oppressive regimes in contemporary times while dealing with corruption, disease and hunger. Christianity is viewed with extreme suspicion as a western ideology, and I was deeply moved and disturbed to hear from those who have had family members disappear and be imprisoned because of their faith.
The Baha’i faith and associated activities are officially banned in Iran, and its estimated 300,000 adherents have been subjected to a state policy of extinction. I have brought before the House previously the plight of the Baha’i community in Iran. Unfortunately, the situation has not improved. Places of worship, schools, cemeteries, properties and businesses have been destroyed or confiscated by the Iranian regime. The Government-controlled mass media disseminates anti-Baha’i propaganda and has created a sense of violence with impunity for attackers. Currently, 110 Baha’is are in prison, facing charges of espionage and threatening national security that potentially carry the death sentence.
A state’s failure to protect freedom of religion or belief entails the denial of freedom to choose or reject religions. According to the Pew Research Centre’s religion and public life project, 39 state Governments hinder individuals in converting from one religion or belief to another. It is currently a particular problem in India, where several states have legislation that prevents or draws attention to religious conversions. In Indonesia, a young atheist was sentenced to two and a half years in prison after posting on a Facebook page set up for atheists. In Egypt, Coptic Christians have for decades been denied permission to open new churches.
It is important to note the link between failed states and persecution. Freedom of religion and belief is often a major casualty of civic and political breakdown, and a lack of freedom of religion and belief could be a contributing factor in that breakdown. Particularly where it happens at a sub-state or regional level, it may not be recognised or fully understood that, although the state may not be the aggressor, if it fails to intervene to protect people, it is contributing to persecution.
That is just a small glimpse of the range and degree of discrimination faced by people around the world owing to their religious or non-religious beliefs. I could have highlighted many other cases, as I am sure other hon. and right hon. Members will today. I hope that the debate will serve a number of purposes. The first is to raise public awareness of the issue’s importance. We are resigned to the fact that the nation will not be crowded around their televisions this afternoon to watch the Parliament channel, but there will be those who have an active interest in learning more about the subject and in becoming more active advocates in defence of religious freedom as a result.
The second purpose of the debate is to focus our attention and to encourage renewed vigour in our Government and abroad in defence of the principles. Having raised the matter with the Government before, I know that we are pushing at an open door, but we must continue to push. I have also met representatives of other Governments who have heard what has been raised in Parliament and have come to discuss matters with us, so I want to shine a light on the issue today to keep the conversation going.
Finally, this debate is also an opportunity for hon. and right hon. Members to raise with the Government specific concerns about individual countries, faiths, and regimes, so I shall draw my remarks to a close. I look forward to hearing Members’ contributions.
For those of us older Members who find it difficult to count to eight, and because the clock is not working, could you give us a one-minute warning, Mr Deputy Speaker—[Interruption.] Oh, it is working; it has only just started. ]
Those of us who were born immediately after the war—I was born in the early 1950s—grew up with an innate optimism that each year would bring further progress. After all, the Nazis had been defeated in the second world war and the forces of tolerance had prevailed. We were growing up at time of huge improvements in medicine and the introduction of mass vaccination programmes. We were conscious of countries receiving their independence in the 1960s and the freedom that that brought. We were conscious of improvements in television and radio broadcasting and of people’s ability to access education in ways that had never previously been possible. Man was reaching the moon, and there were great scientific and technological advances. There was an innate belief that each year would bring greater progress, greater freedoms and a greater improvement in standards of living for people around the world. I suppose the only thing that remained outstanding was the iron curtain and the Soviet empire, which eventually disintegrated.
It is sad, however, that as we look around the globe today—the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) expounded on this so well—we see a world that is in many ways going back to intolerance and barbarism. I recently went to Somalia, and the Foreign Office would only allow me to spend a single day there because of the threat posed by al-Shabaab, which has almost completely destroyed that country’s security. The day after I left Mogadishu, a huge car bomb killed seven people outside the palace that is the official residence of the President of Somalia. Prior to visiting Mogadishu, I had been in Juba, South Sudan, where it was almost impossible to get out of the city because of ethnic tensions between Dinka and Nuer. The country has almost completely disintegrated as a consequence of intolerance and conflict between tribes.
Christians have been almost completely driven out of the middle east. Countries that had hitherto been tolerant of religious minorities are becoming increasingly intolerant. We have seen large numbers of Christians tragically murdered in Peshawar and Pakistani blasphemy laws applied with greater rigour.
I will not give way, because many colleagues want to speak, and I am about to come to the point my hon. Friend made earlier.
The question for me is this: how do we start to return the world to some semblance of tolerance? My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) mentioned the United Nations. I think that this work has to be done at the highest international level, in the United Nations General Assembly and the Commission on Human Rights. A number of countries promote tolerance, and we have partners among Muslim states that are keen to promote tolerance, such as Jordan and Morocco.
There are many international indices of corruption. I suggest to colleagues on the Treasury Bench that we ought to start thinking about international indices of tolerance, because that would allow us to make a judgment on how tolerant some countries are and to encourage them to follow the example of more tolerant countries. I remember being set an essay at school: “To what extent should the tolerant tolerate the intolerant?” I do not think that we should tolerate the intolerance whereby people are not allowed to practise their faith as they wish or to change their faith. Those are fundamental human rights.
Much concern is expressed in this House about climate change and future resources, because we are concerned about the sort of world our children and grandchildren will inherit. I suggest that a world in which people can exchange ideas, pray without fear of being murdered and have a sense of identity is equally important for our children and grandchildren. These are not transitory concerns about what might be happening in one particular country at one particular time, for example what is happening today in Nigeria, Egypt, Iran or Iraq; they are fundamental concerns about the values of the world as a whole as we go forward through the 21st century.
The Foreign Office, and particularly my noble Friend Baroness Warsi, has been doing a lot of excellent work on this, but we need to do more. The United Kingdom has a long history of religious tolerance, because we learnt from the Reformation and the counter-Reformation, when many people were burnt at the stake and some really horrific things happened. On Sunday I was proud to attend Roman Catholic mass in my constituency, where the community was saying goodbye to their priest, who has been the priest for Banbury for the past 10 years. Five continents were represented in that one congregation worshipping together harmoniously. I think that in all our communities in this country we have a great degree of tolerance.
Therefore, I think that we should take a lead on this issue in the United Nations, both in the General Assembly and the Commission on Human Rights. It will need to be persistent work. It is just as important as climate change and many of the other issues that grip the United Nations and the major councils of the world. The ability to pray and worship as one wishes is a fundamental human right, and one that we, as elected democrats, should always seek to defend.
This is a timely debate. I have been contacted by several constituents who are concerned about the oppression of Christians and those of other religions around the world. I am sure that other Members will raise those concerns today. During the recess, I was privileged to attend a speech given by our former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, which Al-Arabiya News described as
“a call to save besieged, moderate Islam”.
I very much recommend the speech and hope that it will be read without preconceptions. It was a call to show tolerance towards those of other faiths and none, but not to tolerate those who distort religion and show no tolerance themselves.
I wanted to take part in this debate because it is a timely reminder that this year is the 30th anniversary of an act of religious intolerance that deserves greater attention. I chair the all-party group for the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. The community’s headquarters are in south London and its spiritual head, Mirza Masroor Ahmad, lives in the UK. One of the world’s biggest Ahmadiyya mosques, with a capacity of 10,000, is in Morden, so I have many Ahmadi constituents. They contribute greatly to this country and are well integrated. They live by the motto, “Love for all; hatred for none.” Indeed, their belief in peace and religious tolerance should be an inspiration to us all.
However, in 1984 they were essentially outlawed when Pakistan passed the notorious Ordinance XX, which introduced the anti-Ahmadi laws. For many Britons, this example of religious persecution is simply not on the radar. The Ahmadiyya Muslim community is little known, despite having more than 15,000 mosques and a membership of tens of millions.
Representatives of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in Coventry visited about six months ago. They do a tremendous amount of charity work. Does my hon. Friend agree that the United Nations could do a lot more to lift this matter up the agenda, because these people, along with Christians, are being persecuted in certain countries around the world?
I entirely agree.
The religion was founded in 1889. It arose out of the claim of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian that he was the long-awaited messiah whose advent was foretold by Mohammed. That puts it at odds with other Muslims who believe that Mohammed was the last prophet. However, the Ahmadiyya Muslim community believes that there are parallels between Ahmad and Jesus, as God sent both to end religious wars, condemn bloodshed and bring peace. Indeed, Ahmad taught that “jihad by the sword” has no place in Islam. Instead, he proposed a bloodless, intellectual “jihad of the pen” to defend Islam. Ahmad also warned his followers not to engage in irrational interpretations of the Koran or to misapply Islamic law.
Ahmadis claim to be the only Islamic organisation that endorses a separation of mosque and state and champions the empowerment and education of women. In today’s Britain, we might regard such attitudes as modern, tolerant and secular. However, they are not shared by fundamentalist Muslims, who regard belief in a false prophet as heresy.
Consequently, Ahmadis have long faced persecution, notably in Pakistan, where there have been repeated conflicts since the country’s creation in 1947. By 1974, riots, killings, attacks on mosques, arson and looting had become widespread, and Prime Minister Bhutto amended the constitution to declare Ahmadis non-Muslims. But it was Zia-ul-Haq’s Government in the 1980s that really sought to Islamicise Pakistan’s laws. Thirty years ago this week, his Ordinance XX was introduced to restrict Ahmadi freedom of religion. It means that Ahmadis cannot call themselves Muslim or the place in which they worship a mosque. If they do, they face up to three years in jail. Ahmadis cannot hold public meetings and are unable even to register to vote, because doing so would require them to deny their faith.
Over the last 30 years, thousands of Ahmadis have been arrested, including the entire population of Rabwah—50,000 people—which was charged with practising Islamic worship. The consequence of the persecution is there for all to see. Since 1984, more than 230 Ahmadis have been killed, and nobody has ever been prosecuted for such murders and attacks. Their graveyards are routinely attacked and there are mass rallies calling for them to be killed. Children are harassed in schools and universities, and hit lists against Ahmadis are distributed. The police erase the kalima—the Islamic declaration of faith—from Ahmadi mosques, and have torn down minarets and sealed Ahmadi mosques. These affronts culminated in the Lahore attack four years ago this month, when nearly 100 Ahmadiyya Muslim worshippers were brutally murdered while they were at prayer.
Persecution is an everyday reality for Ahmadis in Pakistan. According to Pakistan’s human rights commission, Ahmadis face the worst treatment of anyone in Pakistan. The media in Pakistan is often horribly anti-Ahmadi, broadcasting phrases like “Ahmadis deserve to die.” In particular, the Khatme Nabuwwat movement carries out regular activities to oppose Ahmadiyya Muslims, incites attacks against them in speeches and broadcasts, and coined the widely used phrase, “wajibul qatl”, which means, “those who deserve to be killed”.
I want to take this opportunity of the 30th anniversary of Ordinance XX to urge the British Government to raise with Pakistan, as a matter of priority, the issue of religious intolerance against the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. I am concerned about this because the discrimination against Ahmadis that is embedded in Pakistan’s constitution emboldens militants by giving legitimacy to their intolerance. As the former Foreign Secretary David Miliband said:
“It is when the international community has taken its eye off the ball in Pakistan that instability has increased...Internally, Pakistan has a duty to protect minority groups and needs the support of its allies to do so.”
As Tony Blair argued last week, we cannot afford to turn a blind eye to extremism, because any increase in Islamist activities elsewhere only strengthens those with a virulent strain of religious intolerance—and that affects us here in the UK. It is, therefore, in our interests for Britain to work with Pakistan’s Government to persuade them to show more tolerance to the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. There have already been reports of intimidation against British Ahmadiyya Muslims. For their sake, and for the sake of freedom of thought, conscience and religion here, we need to support the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in Pakistan. This is a timely debate. For 30 years, a legitimate religion has been targeted by one of the most populous countries in the world—one that has access to nuclear weapons. It is in none of our interests to stay silent.
Of course, Pakistan is not the only country in which the Ahmadi people are persecuted. In the short time I have available, I should like to refer to Saudi Arabia. Even though this is the most holy country for Muslims, Ahmadis are not permitted to visit Mecca. In fact, they are not allowed to practise their faith at all. I am especially concerned about the treatment of two Ahmadiyya worshippers who, for the past two years, have been held in prison there, without charge, for apostasy. In reality, they are prisoners of conscience who have committed no crime other than religious belief. There is no information about their welfare or status, and the Ahmadiyya community is obviously very concerned about their condition. It also believes that the international community, including Britain, should be doing more to apply pressure to the Saudi Government to cease such breaches of human rights.
This debate has shown that there is a widespread belief that freedom of conscience matters. I hope that Britain will want to lead the way. For the sake of everyone in this country, including the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, that is the right thing to do.
The thoughtful and very disturbing speech by the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) is a piece of a jigsaw that I hope will be assembled in the course of this debate, building up a picture in country after country, affecting religion after religion—and not always just religious groups and communities—and showing a certain common template. The word that I expect to hear over and again is “intolerance”, which was flagged up by the opening speakers, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry). I pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), who has steered this topic to the Floor of the House and introduced it so comprehensively and with such a depth of detail.
Before I come on to questions of religious intolerance, I should like hon. Members to cast their minds back to 1978, when the great director Michael Crichton brought a terrifying film to the cinema screen. The name of the film was “Coma”; I do not know whether that rings a bell with any hon. Members. It was a fictional story about how people would be placed in a hospital for minor operations, reduced to the state of a living vegetable, and then have their organs taken from them and sold for huge profits in an extremely sinister way. I found that film immensely unsettling, but I was able to comfort myself with the thought that, well, it was only fiction and nothing like that could really happen.
Unfortunately, something like that has happened and is happening, apparently, to this day. In this connection, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), who sadly cannot be with us today, for putting into the schedules of Parliament a meeting at which I learned about the persecution of Falun Gong in China. We are talking about not just religious intolerance, but the intolerance of atheistic regimes such as the communist regimes of China and North Korea towards groups such as Falun Gong that are spiritual but not really religions. North Korea has been identified in report after report as the most dangerous place, or at least one of the most dangerous places, in which to be a Christian in the present day.
I find the phrase “organ harvesting” in relation to China and Falun Gong rather inappropriate. I would call it murder and butchery for money, which is what appears to be going on. It is a profitable business for the Chinese: I understand that a kidney can raise $62,000 and a heart more than $130,000. Interestingly, there has been an enormous increase in the number of transplantation centres in China in recent years, yet there is no national scheme for organ donation that could possibly account for the very large numbers of organs being made available for money by the Chinese.
It is not, I believe, denied that the organs of executed prisoners are used by the Chinese Government for that purpose. Many studies, including by special rapporteurs for the United Nations, have drawn attention to that terrible trade. As somebody from a Jewish background who read rather more than was good for my mental health at too early an age about what had happened in the medical block at the Buchenwald concentration camp, I think that the idea that that sort of atrocity could be going on in this day and age is absolutely unbelievable and abhorrent.
I thank my hon. Friend referring on the Floor of the House to Falun Gong, which does not always get the attention it deserves. I have some constituents who practise Falun Gong and it is the most peaceful of groups. When it campaigns here and in China, it does so peacefully. It is not a physical threat to the Chinese Government, but it may well be a cultural threat because of its different views. It is standing up for its beliefs and views, and if we are going to stand up for Christians and others, we need to stand up for Falun Gong as well.
My hon. Friend, who stands up for Christians and other groups remarkably well—as I have had occasion to observe over years in this place—is absolutely right. In fact, my understanding is that, originally, the Chinese authorities were quite well disposed to Falun Gong. It was only when it became hugely popular that they felt that any mass popular movement, even one as harmless as that, posed a threat to their totalitarian control.
I fully expect my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), should she catch your eye, Mr Deputy Speaker, as I hope she will, to give us chapter and horrible verse about what is happening to Christians in North Korea. I want to flag up the fact that the splendid report that the United Nations arranged to be compiled describes what is going on in North Korea as analogous to the crimes committed by the Nazis. It states:
“In many instances, the violations of human rights found by the commission constitute crimes against humanity. These are not mere excesses of the State; they are essential components of a political system that has moved far from the ideals on which it claimed to be founded”.
Pakistan has been mentioned in one context today and I am now going to mention it in another. In June 2009, a Roman Catholic woman, Asia Bibi, got into an argument with some Muslim neighbours over whether she should be allowed to drink from the same water supply as them. As a result, she was accused of blasphemy. I have to say that the blasphemy laws of Pakistan are a very handy weapon for those who have an enemy anywhere in society, because all they have to do is to say that someone has defamed or insulted the Prophet or the religion and that person may, like Asia Bibi, find herself under sentence of death.
My hon. Friend is speaking about Pakistan. Earlier, hon. Members agreed that the United Nations should do more. Does he agree that the Commonwealth should also do more, particularly for Christians and other religious minorities that are being persecuted in Pakistan, India and other parts of the Commonwealth, and that the Commonwealth human rights working group needs to be far more proactive?
That is absolutely central to the whole question. If the Commonwealth is good for anything at all, it is good for asserting the moral authority and best values that have bound our countries together. If we in this free Parliament do not speak out for oppressed minorities, nobody else will do so effectively.
To revert to the case of Asia Bibi, who remains under sentence of death, what is even more tragic is that the Governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, who visited her in prison, was murdered as a result of supporting her and opposing the blasphemy laws, as was the only Christian member of Pakistan’s Cabinet, the Minority Affairs Minister, Shahbaz Bhatti. The prevailing circumstances in Pakistan really are atrocious.
I have previously raised the issue of the blasphemy laws in this place. Does my hon. Friend agree that the real concern about the Asia Bibi case is that her appeal has been delayed and delayed for four years, and that such an indefinite delay is wrong for her and her family?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend knows far more about this subject than I do, and I hope that he will contribute to the debate.
In the less than a minute that I have remaining, I want to end on a slightly more optimistic point. Although the persecution of the Baha’i community in Iran remains severe, a very recent development is that Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani has rather bravely reached out to the Baha’i community by making a presentation to them and other faith communities. A lot depends on what happens to this ayatollah, but if change is to come, it will come slowly and it will involve such gestures. Let us keep our eye on what happens to this particular cleric in Iran, and let us hope that the reaction to his welcome gesture is positive and encouraging.
The decision of the Backbench Business Committee to hold such a debate is of real interest to my constituents. I want to mention two of them, Ms Odutola and Ms Ofori, who contacted me to request me to speak in the debate. They asked me to attend and to raise their concerns about the increasing persecution of Christians around the world. They wrote passionately about the lack of religious freedom worldwide, which has been clearly reflected in the news lately. They pointed to the alleged targeting of Christians in areas in Syria, and to the increasing anti-Christian violence in Nigeria.
Preparing for this debate gave me the opportunity to reflect on the excellent report by the all-party group on international religious freedom. I was particularly shocked to learn that 75%—I repeat, 75%—of the world’s population live in countries where their religious freedom is severely curtailed. The report reflects on the weakness of international actors in protecting article 18 freedoms and suggests there is a role for the UK to play. It serves to remind us that religious persecution is not the preserve of one religious minority community alone. The report is a highly commendable piece of work that deserves greater attention.
In the Central African Republic, the terrible scenes of violence have had a religious dimension, with both Muslims and Christians suffering attacks. The Muslim minority community is at particular risk, and Human Rights Watch has reported that entire Muslims communities have fled in real fear of their lives.
In Nigeria, the militant Islamist group, Boko Haram, terrorises the local population, especially Christians, and has left more than 2,000 people dead. I know that the schoolgirls who were kidnapped and are being held by that group, as well as their families, will be in the thoughts and prayers of those in this House.
On Europe’s doorstep, in Belarus, a Government with little respect for human rights regularly attack religious freedoms. Members of unregistered religious groups can be subjected to up to three years in prison. Religious groups are often targeted by the security services through raids of their meetings and the destruction of their literature.
I was pleased that the report highlighted the fact that the repression of religious freedom by a state often coincides with the infringement or diminution of other human rights. Experience tells us that any Government who reduce religious freedom must also curtail the rights of free assembly and free speech. Countries that have laws that restrict religious freedom also tend to have repressive laws on reproductive rights and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.
I am reminded of a visit that I made to Uganda with the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard). We saw a state that was considering removing reference to the use of a condom from its successful HIV/AIDS campaign. Members of the community told us that the decision was based on a fundamental mistake about Christian doctrine. Instead of the ABC that was being used to prevent AIDS—abstinence, be faithful and use a condom—the state wanted to present the population with a single message: abstinence alone is the way to prevent the spread of AIDS. That religious intervention, which we saw in 2005, seems to have taken root and to be affecting other policy areas. I am sure that the House would again like to condemn the obscene attacks on LGBT rights in Uganda and the new Anti-Homosexuality Act that has broadened the criminalisation of same-sex relations, with the threat of life in prison for those who are convicted.
For those of us living in the UK, it would be easy to think that international religious freedom is a distant concern and that the repression is happening way beyond our borders. That would be a mistake, because what happens abroad impacts on community cohesion here at home. International religious oppression can fuel tensions with and between communities in Britain. We must stand up for religious freedom and build more cohesive communities in this country, as well as supporting religious freedom abroad.
Community cohesion is sometimes seen as a concept that clashes with religious freedom, but that analysis is incorrect. A cohesive community is one that accepts or, in fact, embraces diversity, and one where those of different religions or of no religion are included in the life of the community and do not fear persecution. A mutually tolerant, pluralistic community is the one kind of community that can be truly cohesive.
I was glad recently to see the Government take a strong line in challenging behaviours and views that run counter to liberal democratic values, including the right of all people to be free from persecution. However, at a time when the number of religious schools is increasing, I regret that the Government have diluted the role of schools in promoting community cohesion. We must do more to strengthen the bonds between people in Britain and work through schools, community groups and charities to show that what unites us is far greater than anything that can divide us.
Although we must champion and respect the right of all people to follow the religion of their choice or, indeed, no religion, that does not mean that we should ignore practices that breach basic human rights because of the usually bogus claim that they are fundamental to a particular religious belief. Too often, liberal societies such as ours have failed to challenge certain abuses because of the mistaken belief that it would offend religious sensibilities. We have an overriding duty as law-makers to ensure that girls have the same educational opportunities as boys, that they are protected from abuse and from female genital mutilation, and that no one should be forced to marry anyone they do not wish to.
The issues that we are discussing today are of global importance, but also of local importance. We must always be mindful of the impact that international forces, including the repression of religious freedoms, can have on domestic community cohesion. Rather than allow communities to be divided, we must work to ensure that they are strong, confident and united both internationally and here at home.
It is a privilege to speak on this subject in the House. Since I last spoke about atrocities in North Korea, the devastating 400-page report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has been published. I pay tribute to Mr Justice Kirby, who chaired the commission. More than 80 first-hand testimonies were taken from witnesses and victims at public hearings in Seoul, Tokyo, London and Washington DC, and there were more than 240 confidential interviews and written representations. The commission found a gravity and scale of violation of the freedoms of thought, conscience and religion that have no parallel in the contemporary world. Indeed, they are almost completely denied, as are the rights of freedom of opinion, expression, information and association.
The North Korean state considers the spread of Christianity a particularly serious threat, since it challenges ideologically the official personality cult of the leadership. Christians are prohibited from practising their religion and persecuted in particularly severe ways.
I wish to focus largely on the fact that the freedom of thought of every individual in the North Korean state is minimised. Indeed, there is an attempt to virtually eliminate it from childhood. I will quote some of the examples in the commission’s report:
“The State operates an indoctrination machine that takes root from childhood”,
which is intended to
“manufacture absolute obedience to the Supreme Leader…effectively to the exclusion of”
any independent thought whatever. One witness said:
“You are brainwashed…don’t know the life outside. You are brainwashed from the time you know how to talk, about 4 years of age, from nursery school, brainwashing through education, this happens everywhere in life…even at home.”
Children are taught even before they can read that the only drawings that they should make are those of the supreme leader or those that would give him pleasure.
It is crucial that the hon. Lady’s points are ventilated internationally, because we simply must expose this horror. Does she agree that, although there is no hierarchy of horror, one of the most terrifying aspects of the North Korean society is family guilt by association? Children who are born of mothers in concentration camps will live their entire lives there. Is that not taking the horror to a new, nightmarish level that is almost unprecedented?
I absolutely agree. Guilt by association, whereby if one member of the family offends the regime three generations can be incarcerated, is absolutely heinous.
For children, participation in mass games is required, to instil a high degree of organisation, discipline and collectivism. Schoolchildren, conscious that a single slip in their action might spoil the mass gymnastic performance, make every effort to subordinate their thoughts and actions to the collective. One student described in her testimony to the commission how she had missed an entire semester of university education because her class was required to practise for six months, 10 hours a day, for a parade. Participants fainted from exhaustion, and many suffered injuries. Those who repeated mistakes were made to remain on the training ground until midnight as a punishment. She told of a seven-year-old boy who had practised through the intense pain of appendicitis and then died.
Children in the DPRK are introduced at an early stage to confession and criticism sessions resonant of the Nazi period. They gather in groups weekly to describe how they have grieved the leadership’s teaching during the previous week, and they are encouraged to identify the failings of at least one of their peers in the same group. The number of indoctrination sessions across the country appears to be increasing.
All citizens have to become members of workers’ parties, and from seven onwards children are made members of the children’s union—no doubt so that the indoctrination that happens in school can continue outside as well. Membership of the association serves several basic functions. One is to organise and monitor the daily activities of individuals. The foremost duty is to worship the Kim family, and another is to secure the nation through the monitoring and assessment of loyalty. In other words, any independent thought or belief, and certainly any independent faith, is to be eliminated. The possibility of holding such thoughts is to be extracted from individuals before they can think independently for themselves, from the earliest stage of their life.
The propaganda continues in local administrations, place of work and at various other levels. Pictures of the leader are promoted everywhere, and any offence against the leadership will be punished severely. One witness described how his father had unintentionally soiled an image of Kim Jong-il, the leader, which was printed in a used newspaper that he had used to mop up spilt drink. He was sent to a political prison camp. The rest of the family were spared his fate, but suffered years of harsh official discrimination.
In another testimony, a journalist who made a typographical error and misspelt the leader’s name in a report was sent to a camp for six months as a punishment. The central propaganda unit ensures that all content prepared by journalists goes through several layers of review and censorship to ensure that it is completely in line with state ideology.
There is some hope. CDs and other forms of new media are getting into North Korea, so that not only is information getting out and telling us what is happening, but information about the world outside is also going in, albeit at great risk to those who take it in. One witness in China informed the commission that a relative of hers had watched a CD-ROM and given it friends. He was arrested by the local authorities, publicly tried and executed. Another person who had imported “capitalist goods” such as CD-ROMs from South Korea was told that they would be shot or imprisoned for 10 to 15 years, depending on the severity of the crime and level of involvement. People living along the border with China have started to use mobile phones. It means that information is going into North Korea through that route, but again, those who are discovered are subject to interrogation, often under torture.
One man tell of how, in detention, agents took turns beating him with pieces of wood; he lost his teeth and his lower jaw. Another was interrogated and severely tortured for using a mobile phone, and this resulted in head injuries and fractured bones. Writers talk about the fact that to write in protest is equivalent to death. Someone can slip just once in their writing and disappear over night. Their family can be gone over night—three generations wiped out.
It is a privilege to speak about this in the House, and I know that people in Korea take note. When I first spoke in this House of the sufferings of the people in North Korea, I was deeply moved to receive a letter from their compatriots in South Korea which said, “Carry on.” Today I say to the people of North Korea: “Be encouraged. We are not unaware of your sufferings. In a global age, testimony of your plight is increasingly reaching the world, not least in the form of Mr Justice Kirby’s authoritative and powerful report. The world now knows and we must not stand by without acting. Hold fast. Change must come. Your plight cannot last for ever. History has shown that kingdoms rise and fall; chains can be loosed and tyrants pulled down. Know that MPs across this House are deeply concerned about your suffering, and will continue to speak out about it until change comes.”
I do not have a faith, but I represent the constituency of Slough which, according to a recent survey, is the most religiously observant place in the country. I respect faith because when I am campaigning for human rights and justice, I am often standing beside people who are there because they are motivated by their religious belief. Because I am motivated by human rights, I am glad that this debate uses the language of international human rights instruments that connects freedom of religion with freedom of conscience.
In the United Kingdom, we believe that we are a human rights society, and we talk a lot about the responsibilities that human rights bring with them. In my view, one of those responsibilities is ensuring that other people enjoy the same rights that we do. That is at the heart of this debate. In her excellent introduction to the debate, the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) pointed out that one of the most difficult things about human rights is the point at which people’s human rights conflict. That is a challenge for all of us, and our debate about human rights in Britain has been insufficiently aware of the need to think through issues of conflicts of rights. Unless we do that, we will fail to guarantee everyone’s human rights effectively.
We think of the UK as a country of religious freedoms, but I have been concerned about the way in which people who seek to exercise their freedom of religion have sometimes suggested that that gives them the right to deny other people’s rights—most obviously when people seeking to run a bed and breakfast have felt that their Christian faith gives them the right to refuse to let a room to people who are homosexual. Many people who think they support the right to freedom of religion too often want that right to be a privilege for their religion, rather than someone else’s. That happens around the world. In some countries, it is manifested in the dress laws. In Saudi Arabia, people like me have to cover up. In France, my Sikh constituents are not expected to wear their turbans in public places and my Muslim constituents would not be allowed to wear the niqab or the hijab. I find both those approaches equally unacceptable.
We have heard in this debate that the issue is much more serious than matters of dress. My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) talked about the Ahmadi massacre. The hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) talked about the evil organ harvesting of Falun Gong. The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) talked about the complete failure of freedom of conscience and belief in North Korea, and my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) talked about the issues facing Christians and Muslims in Africa. All these forms of discrimination are ones that I have taken up on behalf of constituents.
At the moment, I am particularly concerned by the elections in India. Narendra Modi is likely to be elected, but in 2002 he did nothing to prevent a pogrom of Muslims in Gujarat. But in 1984 his opposition, the Congress party, was equally responsible for the Delhi massacre of Sikhs. That is why I make the point about the importance of not privileging one religion, and the need to recognise the human right to freedom of conscience and belief. It is also why I was glad to join the Ahmadi Muslims in Slough last week at their 10th peace conference. I was equally glad to parade with the Sikhs in Slough during their Vaisakhi celebrations at the weekend. Those are all expressions of the beliefs and joys of faith. As British politicians, we do not have the right to tell other countries how they are run, but we have an absolute responsibility to ensure that countries that claim to be democratic uphold basic standards of international human rights. I believe we have a duty to point out where countries fail to do that.
Our country does not always get it right. I was very pleased to support Hardeep Singh, someone living very close to my constituency, in his libel case against a so-called Sikh saint. In the judgment on the case, the judge quoted the decision of Munby:
“Religion … is not the business of government or of the secular courts. So the starting point of the law is an essentially agnostic view of religious beliefs and a tolerant indulgence to religious and cultural diversity.”
I believe we should engender that
“tolerant indulgence to religious and cultural diversity”
all around the world.
I hope the hon. Lady is not arguing that it is impossible to have complete religious freedom in states in which a particular religion has a kind of legal status that it has built up historically. That was the case in, for example, Lutheran Scandinavian countries, which are exemplars of practising freedom of religion and supporting it throughout the world.
The right hon. Gentleman is in many ways right. We have a state religion in this country, too. Our Queen is the defender of the faith in the Church of England. We have a model that shows it is possible. Pakistan would claim to be a Muslim country, but it should be able to tolerate those who call themselves Muslims but whom mainstream Muslims do not accept are Muslims, and it should be able to tolerate Christians who want the right to practise their belief. It seems to me that this debate is fundamentally a debate about human rights. It is fundamentally a debate about our responsibility to protect the rights of others, including those with whom we fundamentally disagree. That is the message we should be giving to such states to which the right hon. Gentleman refers.
We have failed to educate people in Britain about the nature of a human right. We have failed to tell people that the responsibilities that come with human rights are the responsibilities to protect the rights of others. We have allowed our red top newspapers to lie about there being a human right to pornography in prison or a human right to Kentucky Fried Chicken for a burglar stuck on a roof. All those are lies. The truth is that after the second world war, the world came together and devised instruments, such as the United Nations declaration, the European convention on human rights and the asylum convention, which all relate to our duty to protect the human rights of other people. One of the fundamental rights is the right to respect for one’s beliefs, even when they are wrong.
That is the message that should come from this debate. We should take the responsibility ourselves, after this debate, to challenge the ignorance about all human rights that I am afraid too many Members have winked at for too long. Unless we challenge that, we are making space for the kind of evil denial of the human right to freedom of thought and religion that we are debating today.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) on initiating the debate. I am very happy to be one of its sponsors. We have heard thoughtful contributions from all hon. Members who have taken part. I will not repeat the important points that have been made, but it is worth restating the universality of the freedom of conscience and belief. It is important that Britain, as a significant player in many international institutions, stands up consistently and vocally for that freedom. We should not be tempted, in the context of foreign or other policy, to put such action into the category of things that are too difficult to do, or too inconvenient when balancing other interests. It is a fundamental part of our commitment as a democracy.
My hon. Friend has mentioned our international obligations. In that connection, may I draw attention to the persecution of the Baha’is in Iran? The international community is currently attempting to bring Iran into the fold in the context of the nuclear issue, but does my hon. Friend agree that we should also stress that human rights must be a key priority for the country if it is to become part of that community?
There is no doubt that we must move very carefully, and must ensure that Iran is genuinely complying with all the international obligations with which an accepted state should comply. Although—as we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis)—there has been an occasional act of generosity towards Christian and other faith communities in Iran, it remains a matter of concern that since the election of President Rohani many Christians have been arrested, and more than 50 remain in prison. I think that the new regime is very much on probation, and that Britain, together with our allies, must be vigilant in ensuring that not too easy a ride is given to those who may wish to push it back in a reactionary direction.
Iran is indeed an important factor, but I want to say a little about two other issues which, although well known, are worth referring to again. What is happening in Syria is a horror story by any account. It is a horror story for all Syrians, regardless of their faith and regardless of where they find themselves in that country. There is particular concern about what is increasingly being shown to be the targeted persecution of the Christian community in Syria. The Christians are not alone: Alawites and Shi’a and Sunni Muslims have also been targeted in some cases. However, there is a real fear that the Christian community—which, after all, is one of the oldest communities in the middle east: we all remember the Damascene conversion, which is one of the roots of Christianity and dates back to its very earliest days—is under unacceptable and very frightening pressure.
The Christian charity Open Doors has been doing valuable work in screening many international media sources to find examples of persecutions of Christians. Its global researches have established that some 2,123 Christians have been killed because of their faith, and that 1,213 of them have been killed in Syria. We have also seen the systemic targeting of Christian churches, 83 in Syria and 492 in Egypt. Mass graves were discovered in the ancient Christian town of Sadad, which had been overrun by rebel extremists.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he is as informative as he is generous. Does he agree that one of the most extraordinary aspects of his speech so far is the fact that it has featured no examples of the mass conversions from Christianity that occurred in the Ottoman empire? Should we not be remembering, in our thoughts and in our prayers, the Christians who keep their faith even in the most horrendous circumstances? Is that not truly the most remarkable fact that has emerged from this afternoon’s debate?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Those of us who are not afraid to regard ourselves and publicly label ourselves as Christians should consider that to be an important and integral part of the faith that binds him and me, and many others in the Chamber, to the Christians who are suffering outside. That strength is the great value that Christianity brings not only to this country, but to the world as a whole. As we know, there have been examples of mass conversion elsewhere in the world. Reference has been made to Nigeria, and heaven knows what has befallen some of the young girls who were abducted recently in the north of that country.
It is important that the western powers, in seeking to bring peace to Syria and to deal with a vile regime in the form of the Assads, do not allow that regime to be replaced by one of the many others that are dominated by foreign jihadis who are determined to destroy a vulnerable community in one of its ancient heartlands.
Although we of course welcome the opportunity for democracy that the Arab spring has brought, we must accept that there is a real concern that it has also brought something of a winter of persecution for Christians throughout the wider middle east. Open Doors and Christian Solidarity Worldwide have done a lot of work in this area. They have discovered, for example, that some 200,000 Christians are thought to have fled Egypt—a country where I have personal connections and which I have visited—since the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak. He was not perfect, but I am afraid that the situation for Christians has deteriorated greatly since then. At the end of March, a Christian woman, Mary Sameh George, was beaten, stabbed and shot to death in Cairo, apparently because in her car—a car she used to deliver food and medicine to the elderly—there was a crucifix. As Bishop Kyrillos of the Coptic Church has said, when such things occur, there is no sense that even the present regime has a full commitment to tackling those issues. It is very important that Britain and our western allies use every available means of pressure to ensure that, if the new regimes in Egypt and elsewhere want to be accepted in the world community, religiously motivated sectarianism is bore down on wherever it comes from.
We have sought to do our bit. Many parliamentarians from this place and the other place are part of the UK delegation to the Council of Europe, where we have the opportunity to debate these issues at length. However, we need that consistent approach from Her Majesty’s Government. Support for religious minorities is not tradeable against any other interest in the conduct of foreign policy.
The examples overseas are important, but I want to finish by saying a word or two about the situation at home. I am not afraid to define my political activity as influenced in part by my faith, as is that of many others, and we should not therefore allow a degree, which we sometimes see, of surprisingly illiberal secularism to drown out the mention of faith in our public space. I was genuinely saddened that the Prime Minister—indeed, it could have been the leader of any other major political party—was criticised for having raised the importance of faith in the public debate. That letter from a number of no doubt eminent intellectuals was the most illiberal exposition of liberalism that I have seen in many a long day, and we ought to say that clearly.
On the miscasting of those who have a motivating faith in so much of what they do, does the hon. Gentleman welcome the fact that this Government have removed the barrier to access to DFID match-funding schemes for faith-related groups such as Christian Aid, the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development and Trócaire? Those organisations are not proselytising when they are working in the developing world; they are supporting people of all faiths and of none in key development, motivated by their faith but not pushing it on anyone or threatening anyone.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Like doubtless virtually every other hon. Member, I have seen constituency examples of the work done by faith-based charities from a range of faiths. I am thinking of the work of the Alawi community, for example, which has been mentioned, and of the work of an evangelical church—not my tradition within the Church—in St. Paul’s Cray, in my community. It is doing great work to change lives, deal with drug addiction and improve access to education. My constituent Shekhor Tarat, who is a trustee of a Hindu temple, is doing valuable work for the vulnerable members of a small community in east London. All those faiths are important, and it is critical that we recognise the integral part they play in our civic society.
This debate is timely, and it is time to stand up for the importance of faith and tolerance within these universal values. It is important that we recognise that we must always be vigilant about that, not only abroad but—albeit, happily, in a less stark context—at home.
I welcome the fact that the Backbench Business Committee has found time for us to debate this important issue today. Many of us have had constituents contacting us with concerns about the many examples of persecution in all too many countries of people simply because of their faith, beliefs or philosophical views. Most of the correspondence I have received has come from those concerned about the situation faced by Christians in all too many countries of the world: persecution that can range from people being unable to practise their faith or at least to hold services in public, to individual Christians and whole Christian communities facing injury, the destruction of their homes and livelihoods, and, all too often, torture and death.
Among the cases raised with me have been the terrible situation in North Korea, and not just for Christians, although Christians in that country have perhaps suffered worse than those anywhere in the world; the increasing attacks on Christians in parts of Nigeria; and violence affecting Christians in Pakistan. The Church of Scotland has written to all Scottish MPs highlighting its concerns about the way in which blasphemy laws in Pakistan disproportionately affect Christians and non-Muslim minority faiths in that country, a subject about which many Members have already spoken. Many of those who have contacted me feel that the plight of Christians in many parts of the world has not, at least until recently, obtained the publicity it ought to obtain. I hope that today’s debate will help to reassure those who are concerned that these issues should be raised in Parliament and that our Government should be acting on them.
As many Members have already emphasised, it is not just the situation of Christians about which we should be concerned, so let me give a few more examples. Constituents have raised concerns with me about the incredibly terrible situation of the Muslim Rohingya in Burma. Members of the Shi’a community in Edinburgh have highlighted the killings and attacks on Shi’a, not just in Pakistan, where many members of that community have links, but elsewhere. I have also been contacted by the Edinburgh Baha’i community about the situation that members of their faith face in Iran. I pick out those examples simply because they have been raised with me by constituents, but of course I could have given many other examples and spoken about many other faiths.
In that context, it is worth highlighting just how extensive is the harassment, discrimination and persecution of people throughout the world because of their faith. I am sure many Members will be aware of the recent report published by the Pew Research Centre, which discovered that in the six years from 2006 to 2012 across the world harassment had been faced by Christians in 151 countries; Muslims in 135 countries; Jews in 96 countries; followers of traditional religions in 52 countries; Hindus in 33 countries; Buddhists in 28 countries; and other faiths in 77 countries. That is an incredible number of countries across the world and that needs to be emphasised and highlighted.
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point about the number of countries where persecution is taking place. Going back to what the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) said, does he agree that there is a real concern that, given what the BJP has done in Gujarat and the association with extremist parties, if we get a BJP Government in India there is likely to be more persecution and division than unity in India?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and we are talking about values and principles that need to apply universally, across faiths, countries and political parties. He brings me to my next point, which is that although in some of the cases of harassment I have spoken about the authorities do what they can to prevent such discrimination and persecution, in others the state actually explicitly promotes such persecution, and where it does not do so explicitly still turns a blind eye, tacitly promoting, supporting and allowing that persecution and discrimination to take place.
It is not just those who profess or are identified with a particular faith who suffer discrimination and persecution; as we know all too well, in many parts of the world agnostics, humanists, free thinkers and atheists would not be able to express their views in public without facing dire consequences.
Today’s debate is also about freedom of thought as well as freedom of conscience and of religion. It would take many hours to list all the examples in the world where freedom of thought and the ability to express those thoughts are dangerous, and the consequences of doing so can range from social ostracism and loss of employment rights right through to imprisonment and death. That is why it is so important to emphasise and assert, as my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) did, the importance of putting our discussion today in the context of the promotion, defence and championing of universal human rights, which apply to all peoples in all countries and in all contexts.
Today’s debate has highlighted cases from around the world and allowed Members of this House to give witness to the suffering and persecution of so many people because of their faith, conscience or belief. What we need now is more action. I look forward to hearing from the Minister at the end of today’s debate as to how the Government intend to reflect Members’ concerns in their bilateral relations and foreign policy and in the actions they take in the many multinational agencies and forums in which they participate and have an influence.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) on securing this timely debate and bringing it before the House. I also thank Members for their tolerance, in this debate about tolerance, for my earlier interventions. I had not intended to speak, but I will, if I may, contribute towards a little.
On the United Nations, I completely agree that article 18 needs far more definition of what fundamental human rights and freedom of speech mean, and far more elaboration of where freedom of religion sits within freedom of speech and fundamental human rights. Much is done by the UN around the world on freedom of speech, but greater focus is needed on freedom of religion. Although Members have highlighted persecution of people of all faiths, we are undoubtedly seeing unprecedented persecution against the Christian church. That can include Catholics, Protestants, evangelicals within the Protestant tradition and others as well.
I mentioned the Commonwealth earlier, and I will do so again, because I believe that it should be doing far more to ensure that its members abide by its founding and fundamental principles: both freedom of speech and freedom of religion. In particular, I think of Pakistan. The Department for International Development’s aid budget to Pakistan has increased significantly, and I support that. However, the Government should be pushing more than they already are—although they are pushing more than the previous Government—on ensuring that people are able to express their faith in the way that they see fit.
On Pakistan, does my hon. Friend agree that in politics, as in life, there is always a window of opportunity when one can push for change? In Pakistan at the moment, there is a new Government with a clear majority. Unlike the previous Government, which was a five-party coalition, they can do things. Prime Minister Sharif was a Minister under General Zia when many of these blasphemy laws were introduced. Therefore, with his close links to the clerics, changes can be brought about if the right pressures are applied by the international community.
My hon. Friend is probably the most knowledgeable on Pakistan in this House, so I defer to his wisdom. However, I am talking about leveraging—not having conditional DFID aid—UK taxpayers’ money so that we maximise the return on that money through aid and development. That can include, for example, ensuring that those people who want to have no faith or who want to convert from a particular faith—let us say from Islam to Christianity—can do so without fear of persecution. As my hon. Friend will know, that persecution can range from denial of access to public services, health care and education through to death, rape and torture. That is going on today in different parts of the world as we speak, and it is completely unacceptable.
I think also of India, another member of the Commonwealth. I joined Members from across the House last year in writing to the Indian Government about the changes to the laws in Orissa. Other states are changing their laws to say that people cannot choose which god, gods or faith they follow. Again, the Commonwealth must consider that issue.
Nigeria is another Commonwealth member and, of course, UK aid funding to it has increased considerably. Again, I support that. A lot of the budget is going to counter terrorism and I support that, too, but far more of the money ought to be going into interfaith dialogue and reconciliation between communities. The President, Goodluck Jonathan, needs to do far more to protect both the Muslim and Christian populations. At the moment, the status quo is not acceptable; let us hope that those young girls will soon be released. I support what the British Government are doing in Nigeria, but the Nigerian Government need to do far more to crack down on corruption so that British taxpayers’ money goes into interfaith dialogue and reducing religious tensions in that community.
On interfaith dialogue, does my hon. Friend agree that when Islam or other faiths are misapplied, the Muslim community or the communities involved must ensure that they address that? An 18-year-old named Mr Deghayes went to Syria and fought as a terrorist, but he was described as a martyr by his father. There is no way he can be described as a martyr. He took part in a civil war, he was a terrorist and it is wrong for his father to say that. The wider Muslim community says, as I do, that he is a terrorist. When the faith is misapplied, those in the wider community must address that and that can only be good for interfaith dialogue.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The misapplication of faith around the world is a problem. The problem is not true religion, but false religion and the misinterpretation of faith. The majority of people of true faith want to make the world a better place.
On the issue of speaking out, I think it would be helpful to those of different faiths around the world to hear a little more from people in this country of differing faiths who stand up for freedom of religion and freedom of speech in the countries in which people of different faiths are being persecuted. We should speak out and say that we think they should enjoy the same freedoms as we do in the United Kingdom. Specifically—let me make this clear in terms—some of the Muslim leaders in this country should speak up from the cities of the United Kingdom for freedom of religion and speech in places such as Pakistan and India.
On Iran, many Members will know the history of Persia better than I do, but it was, of course, King Cyrus who inspired the charter on fundamental rights, with the so-called Cyrus cylinder. If one goes to the United Nations building in New York, one can see a copy of it there on the wall. Interestingly, that king helped the Jews to return and paid for the building of the temple. On the persecution of the Christians, the one or two remaining people of the Jewish tradition, and the Baha’i in Iran, I would say to the leadership that Persia has a proud tradition of standing up for freedom of speech and freedom of religion and of co-existing with people of other faiths.
My view is that if leaders of countries, religious leaders and the people are self-confident in their faith and in their god and/or gods, they do not need to go around persecuting people. They do not need to live in insecurity if they are secure in their own faith and their own tradition. Those who would persecute using the leverage of leadership and seniority are doing their own faith and tradition a disservice by suggesting that there is an insecurity inherent within it.
I want also to mention Egypt. I had the privilege some years ago of visiting Egypt four or five times—for the benefit of those in the Lobby, I hasten to add that I did so privately and funded out of my own purse, or rather wallet. The Coptic tradition has had a huge and positive impact on the culture of Egypt. I know that the Minister knows the country well. I know the Government are doing a huge amount to ensure that the new constitution in Egypt is not only implemented, but implemented in spirit. It is important that the buildings and even more so the people of the Coptic Church are given full protection in Egypt.
With reference to China and in particular the Xinjiang region and Uighur Muslims, it is right that those Muslims should be able to practise their religion without fear of persecution, but it is also in the Chinese national interest and the Chinese national security interest not to put in place measures that help breed the radicalisation of young people in that part of China. If the Chinese Government want to sow persecution, they may in the future reap a radicalised element within their own borders and their own community. I hope they will look again at their policy on Uighur Muslims and the Xinjiang region and other parts of China.
I pay tribute to Open Doors, Christian Solidarity Worldwide and other faith groups that do so much to promote religious tolerance, as well as to those churches in my constituency—in the diocese of Hereford, my home diocese some years ago, the diocese of Lichfield, and others within the Catholic faith and other parts of the Protestant Church.
This has been a timely debate. We need to keep a watching brief on these issues. As more Members visit Burma—I know that members of the International Development Committee recently visited—I hope they will speak out for religious freedom.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) on bringing this matter to the Floor of the House for consideration. It is a privilege and a pleasure to make a contribution. I support the motion as a whole, but I will focus my remarks on the persecuted Church throughout the world. I pay tribute to the organisations Open Doors, Barnardo’s, Christian Solidarity and Release International as four bodies that do great work on behalf of the Christian Church.
My heart was broken recently listening to a lady from North Korea. My right hon. Friends the Members for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) and for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) were at the same event, which was an opportunity to hear the story of a person who was a Christian in North Korea and who had escaped to South Korea. Her story was horrendous. A few days later I was telling my parliamentary aide about it, but I could not bring myself to retell the whole story of what happened to that lady. It hit my parliamentary aide hard as well. Those are our Christian brothers and Christian sisters, on whose behalf, I believe, we in this House have a responsibility to work. In our own parts of the country, people complain about what version of scripture is to be read, how hard the pews are, or which hymn is sung too often, yet in North Korea people are tortured and their lives are threatened because they happen to be Christians living and dying for their faith. They treasure single pages of scripture and holding fast to the truths contained therein. These are the issues that we bring to the attention of the House today.
What can the House do to help the families of the 150 people in Nigeria who Release International says were killed in attacks on three Christian villages on 14 March this year? What help can the House offer Martha from Torkula village, who watched her three adult sons being slaughtered and chopped up with machetes and who now has to take care of three daughters-in-law and their children in her old age? What comfort can this House give to people whose pastor’s wife and three children were burned alive along with 200 homes and churches in raids on other villages in Nigeria? What can we do for the children who have been ripped from their homes? This issue has been raised by other Members. On Monday 14 April, at around 10 pm, suspected members of Boko Haram swooped into Chibok, northern Nigeria, in seven Toyota pick-ups. Some of the attackers set government and other buildings ablaze, but others went to the senior secondary school, where they overpowered the security guards before herding 230 female students, all between the ages of 16 and 20, into trucks. That is an absolute disgrace.
I endorse what my hon. Friend says about the impact of this event. A number of constituents have been in touch with me to express utter horror and outrage, and to raise the seeming failure of the authorities to take what happened seriously enough. If anything comes out of this debate, it should be that a very clear message is sent by Parliament that we expect the Nigerian Government to do more to get these children back.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that contribution. That is exactly the message coming from my constituents. They are asking me, “What are the Nigerian Government doing?” The mothers and fathers of the children concerned are asking the same question in Nigeria. Either there is disbelief on the Nigerian Government’s part, or they just do not know what is going on.
The attackers drove the girls into the nearby Sambisa forest. Fortunately, some 40 girls escaped. Open Doors says:
“Almost every house has a child in this school…Cries of parents could be heard all over the town…Christians in Chibok spoke to Open Doors following the abduction. ‘I am not sure of what our daughters are passing through,’ said Elder Emma, a church leader in the town. ‘Please help us to pray and seek the face of the Lord on this situation and that the good Lord will reunite us with our beloved children.’”
Those are the issues for those parents and children in Nigeria. Perhaps the Minister can say whether he has had any discussion with the Nigerian authorities on this subject, because it is important to have such discussions.
I tabled an early-day motion today to highlight the persecution of Christians in Nigeria. I urge Members who have not seen it to sign it today and show their support. We have a duty to stand up for those throughout the world who are dying for their faith. We have a duty in this House to help the widows and orphans, and to do the right thing in whatever way we can.
Given that we are supplying so much aid to Nigeria, does the hon. Gentleman agree that perhaps we might incentivise its Government a little by suggesting that the aid will not be forthcoming in such great quantity unless that Government take prompt action in this terrible situation?
I could not have put it better. That is exactly how I feel, and how many of us feel in the House. We want action from the Nigerian Government instead of this hands-off approach. We want those 230 children sent back to their parents, in the same condition and health that they were in when they were kidnapped. If the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion is a way of ensuring that, then let us do it. The secretary of the Kaduna state chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria, Rev. Sunday Ibrahim, has said:
“The killing is barbaric and unjustifiable...We…condemn in strong terms these serial killings. As Christians we are not preaching violence, but urging the government and security agencies to rise up and face the reality of things.”
Can we do anything different in this place, having read of the happenings in Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Kenya, Iran and China?
My hon. Friend may be aware of a report prepared by the all-party parliamentary group, Christians in Parliament, on persecution in Iran. I should like to highlight the case of Pastor Farshid Fathi, who is in prison in Tehran and was recently the subject of a violent attack in which his foot was crushed. We hope to travel to Tehran to raise the case directly with the Iranian Government. That is the kind of action that we need to take.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that contribution. I am aware of that case, because just yesterday in the House, I met some of the people organising the trip to Iran to highlight the case; my right hon. Friend is part of that deputation. Those are the sorts of things we need to do. I know that the Government have given a commitment, and Baroness Warsi has been very effective in highlighting the situation of Christians across the world, but what I would like to hear from the Minister today is that every opportunity is taken—I am sure that it is—to highlight the persecution of Christians across the world. The deputation’s visit to Iran is a good opportunity to highlight what is happening there. Pastor Farshid Fathi is just one of many people in prison and many families are under severe pressure. Those of us who received this month’s magazine from Release International will note that the prayer list and cases outlined refer specifically to Iran, and we need to keep an eye on them.
Can we do anything differently in this place? Can we shake our heads while there is a possibility that we can use our influence, as one of the most respected countries in the world, to make a difference? The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland holds a privileged position in the world. We have opportunities to interact with many Governments and to suggest, coax and persuade them to help. Other Members outlined the issues in Egypt, Syria and South Sudan, and we pray every day for them and for our Christian brothers and sisters, who are under tremendous pressure because of their beliefs. How can we even begin to understand the issues facing those who could be killed for being a Christian? We are privileged in this country and have a job to do across the world.
In conclusion, the stories highlight that there are evil people in this world who are intent on seeing that evil spread. I have said it before in the House and it bears repeating—all Members will know this statement—that evil triumphs when good people do nothing. We must not sit in the greatest seat of democracy and do nothing. I sincerely plead with the Minister—I know that I will get a positive response—to use our influence, our diplomats, aid and support to help stop this taking place. Let the Nigerian Government know that there must be changes. Support those who cannot speak for themselves. Let us be known throughout the world as good people who stood against evil and helped to stop it triumphing. On behalf of the persecuted Church throughout the world, let us do whatever we possibly can, with courage and conviction.
It is a great honour to follow the speech of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and the most powerful speech of my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), who is not in his place. I also thank the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) for initiating the debate.
Alongside extreme poverty, growing income inequality and climate change, I rate extremism in relation to freedom of thought, conscience and religion as one of the four most powerful threats to the world in the 21st century. In fact, it could be said that, in some places, extremism is the cause of one or two of the other threats. In the UK, as many speakers have said, we have a responsibility. We can see in our history the suffering caused by religious strife and persecution, as well as the benefits that freedom of speech and of religion can bring. I welcome the Foreign and Commonwealth Office making the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of religion or belief a key priority. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, to Baroness Warsi, to my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), to the Minister and to Foreign Office staff for beginning to implement that critical priority.
The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and to change one’s religion, which is important, and the freedom to manifest it in teaching, practice, worship and observance, all of which are in article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights, are not options. They are a fundamental requirement of belonging to the family of nations. The universal declaration of human rights was put together following the horrors of the second world war. It is not some kind of optional extra. It is a foundation stone of a civilised and just world. Any state that does not uphold it or pretends to do so must be challenged and challenged again by the international community.
Pakistan has been referred to several times in the debate, and rightly so, but we should also refer to other countries. There is a measure of freedom of religion in Pakistan, because we do see churches and worshippers there, but there are countries where we do not see a single church or a single building of a faith other than the authorised one. We do not hear so much about those countries—Saudi Arabia, for example—simply because there is no freedom at all. Sometimes a little bit of freedom results in persecution, because there is a measure of a presence of one particular faith. We should bear that in mind as we highlight countries in this debate.
We should challenge countries not only on the basis of their people’s fundamental human rights, but because in the long term persecution will severely damage the countries themselves. In order to succeed in today’s world, countries need people who are encouraged to innovate, challenge, inquire and take risks. If they expect that but say that people must believe in God, or cannot believe in God, or can only follow a certain lifestyle, making them into criminals if they do not conform, they should not be surprised if those people take their talents elsewhere, if they have not already imprisoned or executed them.
Take my family origins as an example. I come from a Huguenot background. We were expelled from France more than 400 years ago because of our Protestant faith. Yet the Huguenots brought to Britain the seeds of the industrial revolution, which changed the face of this country for ever—the Courtauld family was perhaps the most prominent—and France lost several decades of economic development as a result. It would be simplistic to correlate the lack of human rights, including freedom of religion, with economic progress. The presence of abundant natural resources can give Governments the ability to buy such progress, but that approach is unsustainable in the long term. The best way to build a state that can stand the test of time is to build one that enables all its people to flourish, that includes and does not exclude, and that celebrates its diversity, rather than being afraid of it.
Of course, there is another side. Freedom of religion and belief also involves exercising that freedom, as with any freedom, with great responsibility. Incitement to violence or any other crime can never be excused by being covered in the cloak of religion. I reiterate the point my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin made about the importance of people of all faiths in this country standing up for such freedoms in countries from which their families might have originally come.
I visited Saudi Arabia two years ago with the all-party group. As someone from a Muslim faith, I made it quite clear to its parliamentary Shura Council that it should allow people from the Christian community to build churches there, just as people from the Muslim community who come here from other countries can build mosques. It is only fair that people of other faiths in Saudi Arabia should be able to build their places of worship.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful statement, and I absolutely agree.
As has already been pointed out, there is a global trend of increasing persecution of people of all religions and none. I want to make a few remarks about Tanzania, whose all-party group I chair. I also had the privilege of living there for 11 years. Tanzania has a secular constitution and has been noted for its religious freedom since independence in 1961. It has been a model of harmony, instituted by its first President, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere. Yet recently we have seen a disturbing rise in the incidence of religious attacks, particularly on Christians. That reflects the rise in extremist Islamist action in both the Sahel and further south in sub-Saharan Africa. We need to support Tanzania and other countries, such as Kenya, and indeed Nigeria, in their work to maintain freedom, peace and stability against all those who wish to destroy it.
In my constituency we have an organisation called the Dalit Freedom Network. We must also not forget those peoples who find their rights at risk because of the families and societies into which they were born. I commend all those who, sometimes at the cost of their freedom or their life, stand up for groups around the world who are persecuted not just because of their faith or their political views but simply because of who they were born to.
Queen Elizabeth I is believed to have said that she did not wish to make windows into men’s souls. A country that follows that maxim—that works for and protects all its people, whatever their beliefs, background or lifestyle—rather than waging war on minorities is much more likely to flourish than one that does not.
It is a real pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), who made an excellent speech in which he referred to the maxim of Queen Elizabeth I about windows and souls and that is powerful to this day.
We owe a great debt of gratitude to the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) for bringing us here today to participate in this very powerful debate, which has been wide ranging because this is a worldwide issue. It is important that we express the very strong views that are coming into my constituency office and, as we have heard, into constituency offices right across the country about the importance of freedom of religion, conscience and speech.
I would like to raise one specific issue with the Minister and make one request. We have heard a number of references to the abductions of the children in Chibok in Nigeria. I have sensed a strong feeling across the House that we would like to have more information on this issue and the opportunity of meeting the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds), who is Minister for Africa, to hear about precisely what is happening and about what discussions are taking place between him and the Nigerian authorities to try to assist in taking it forward. This is a matter of profound concern. I would be grateful if the Minister took that request back to the Foreign Office and we could have an urgent meeting about it.
The right hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) made a fascinating speech to which I listened very closely, particularly when he talked about his perception of the universal declaration on human rights and the optimism that existed after the second world war. That is something that we have too little of in our political thought nowadays. At a dreadful time—a period of reconstruction—our predecessors made a profound commitment. Many of the countries we have mentioned, including Saudi Arabia and China, committed to the universal declaration on human rights. We need to remind them that they did so voluntarily and that progress can be made.
Pessimism sometimes prevails on this issue, but we have also heard some references to the Arab uprising—the Arab spring—and the middle east, which is my particular focus. I want to share with the House a positive story about the middle east. It relates to Tunisia, where the Arab spring started when a man called Mohamed Bouazizi burnt himself to death. That led to the deposing of the then president, Ben Ali, and the beginnings of the Arab spring. The past three years in Tunisia have been difficult. Prime Ministers have come and gone, Presidents have moved on, and individuals and parliamentarians have been killed because of the political views they have expressed. However, I am pleased to report to the House that the leader of our sister party, Mustapha Ben Jafar, whom I was pleased to meet recently, has been able to put together a constitution that is broadly welcomed on a cross-party basis and has been approved by parliamentarians and parties right across the piece. It is an Islamic country, but the constitution respects freedom of conscience and religion and that has been achieved against a very difficult backcloth at a very difficult time.
I pay tribute to the United Kingdom Government for the support they have given to the Tunisian Government. I have visited the embassy there, so I know that a great deal of work has been put in and that it has been a very difficult process. The investment in the Arab Partnership and the work undertaken by the Foreign Office and the Government have been very positive indeed. Although we have heard some dreadful accounts of what is happening across the world, that positive picture shows that progress can be made. We need to retain such resilience—that much underrated political quality—and ensure that we carry it forward. We should remember that our revolution between 1649 and 1660 took 11 years and that it went backwards and forwards and then back again. These things take time.
Although the Tunisian constitution enables people to practise Christianity, there are examples of persecution whereby some people in positions of power have been unwilling to let that happen. Will the shadow Minister use his influence with his contacts there to ensure that that point is addressed?
Absolutely. A written constitution is a wonderful thing, but applying it and embedding its principles are even more important. I will certainly do what the hon. Gentleman asks.
We have heard some excellent contributions, including by my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), who discussed the Ahmadiyya Muslims, about whom I learned a great deal today.
I have seen the film, “Coma”, starring Geneviève Bujold. We need to hear more about the dreadful, horrific picture of North Korea described by the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis). The name of that country recurred throughout the debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) made, as ever, a passionate contribution. We heard so much about the current situation in the Central African Republic, which is of major concern.
The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) also told us about North Korea, and her commitment on the issues under discussion is widely known. I was moved to hear of the communication she received from South Korea: we are, indeed, listened to.
My hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) made an excellent speech about human rights and how this is a rights issue. That takes us back to the central importance of the universal declaration of human rights in 1948. The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) made an important point about how it is not negotiable. It must run through this country’s entire political policy, if we are to maintain our position in the world. We need, therefore, to be consistent in our application of it and to have some tough conversations with friends as well as opponents. Such difficult things sometimes need to be considered.
My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) told us of concerns north of the border and the contribution of the Church of Scotland, which, like Churches across the United Kingdom, is very concerned about the issues. The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), who is not in his place, also has a long-standing interest in the matter and he paid tribute, as we all should, to Open Doors, which provides such important information.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) referred to Nigeria. I hope we can work together to try to resolve the dreadful situation there, which must be so bad for the parents of those children who are missing.
The hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) drew the Back-Bench contributions to a close with his deep knowledge of Tanzania. It is always interesting to hear about his Huguenot background. Perhaps it is down to the Huguenots that we invented the industrial revolution and the French did not, which is a very good thing.
For all such reasons, this debate has been very valuable. It is wonderful that there has not been much disagreement across the House. However, a great range of views has been expressed, and we need to realise that we are not divided on these issues. I am afraid that the hard conversations are for Governments. We can debate the issues in this Chamber, but those difficult conversations take place between one Government and another, when a Government do not live up to the standards that we want to see.
I have already paid tribute to the UK Government’s excellent work in Tunisia. There is a very difficult situation in Egypt, where a great deal of work has also been carried out. It will be very good if the same principles can be applied in Egypt that were applied in Tunisia. I look forward to hearing from the Minister about the steps that will be taken to carry forward the principles of Government policy with which so many of us agree.
I thank right hon. and hon. Members for securing this timely debate on freedom of thought, conscience and religion around the world, and for their valuable and very non-partisan speeches in the Chamber this afternoon. I particularly thank the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), who was instrumental in obtaining the debate.
Allow me, Madam Deputy Speaker, to restate that protecting freedom of religion or belief is a priority for this Government. The right to have a faith, to manifest it alone or in company with others, to change religion, to live without any religion at all or to follow a secular or humanistic belief are of course fundamental principles.
We back up our commitment to those principles in words and deeds. We constantly raise religious pluralism and tolerance in our discussions with other Governments. I was therefore intrigued by the paradox that my right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) was set to write about at school, and I agree that the idea that we should tolerate intolerance is intolerable. We devote Foreign and Commonwealth Office resources to overseas programmes designed to overcome prejudice, discrimination and sectarianism. We work in multilateral forums to ensure that the right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief is afforded the international legal protection that it deserves, and to bring forward the day when it will no longer be considered an orphaned right.
Alarmingly, there are now many examples of faith groups feeling that they are persecuted—from the treatment of Christians in North Korea, about which I will say more in a minute, to the blasphemy laws in Pakistan.
Let me make some progress, please.
The examples extend from the restrictions on the Rohingya Muslims in Burma to reports of raids on house churches in China, from the persecution of both Christians and Jews across the middle east to the plight of the Baha’i in Iran and Shias in Bahrain. Indeed, official restrictions on religion are at their highest for six years. That is why we actively intend to do more, not least as a result of the recommendations of the all-party group on international religious freedom and of the Government’s expert advisory group on freedom of religion or belief, which is chaired by my right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Warsi, who has responsibilities for those matters in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
The Minister said that the Government work with other Governments to address these issues. I raised the issue of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan with the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s questions. I said that there is a need for urgent reform of those laws, which are often used to persecute the Christian community and other minority communities in Pakistan. The Prime Minister agreed to raise such points with Prime Minister Sharif when he visited London. Prime Minister Sharif visited London yesterday, so will the Minister clarify whether those points were raised with him and what his response was?
My hon. Friend has pre-empted me. During Nawaz Sharif’s visit earlier this week, he and the Prime Minister discussed the recent blasphemy laws cases in Pakistan and the prospects for reforming those laws.
As was the intention of the hon. Members who secured it, this debate has quite rightly not focused exclusively on one country, region or, indeed, faith. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) said, the Pew Research Centre has found that Christians are now the most persecuted faith group in the world. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister noted that during his Easter reception, and hon. Members have highlighted it again today. Christians, like the followers of any other faith or those of no faith, are entitled to protection. We must do more to raise the awareness of their plight.
My right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Warsi gave a speech in Washington last November in which she spoke of a “global crisis” that is fuelled by a militant sectarianism that is forcibly removing minority Christian populations from areas where they have co-existed peacefully with the majority for generations. That is intolerable and we will continue to stand up against such persecution wherever and whenever it occurs. However, Christians seldom stand alone. Often, it is the Judaeo-Christian bloc, with its common heritage, that is threatened.
The fundamental right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion is constantly threatened by sectarianism and by religious and ethnic division. We speak up for those facing persecution not because of their religion but regardless of their religion or belief, to defend the right, which should be undeniable, to practise the region or belief of one’s choice or, as I have said before, to follow no religion at all. To do that, we are working with civil society to build a united front to combat what can be seen as a rising tide of religious persecution and working to build acceptance across all faiths that, just as they are entitled to their beliefs, so others are entitled to theirs. Christians defending Christians, Jews defending Jews and Muslims defending Muslims is not enough.
Time and again, the voices of those who are persecuted for their faith call on us not to take pity on their plight but to strengthen the rule of law and defend human rights for all. More open and inclusive societies are the best route towards regional stability and security, and the protection of freedom of religion or belief, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) said so eloquently. In the middle east and north Africa, for example, the UK is supporting long-term political and economic reform through the work of the Arab Partnership initiative by strengthening crucial institutions such as the judiciary, a free press and civil society across the region.
There are reasons to be optimistic. I do not seek to claim that this is a direct result of our intervention, but I was tremendously heartened by the image during the violent street protests in Egypt three years ago of Christians holding hands to protect Muslims at prayer in the streets, of Muslims guarding Coptic churches while Christians prayed, and of Christians, on a Friday, reciprocating outside mosques.
Nevertheless, it is clear that a stronger political will is needed to ensure that there is universal implementation of United Nations Human Rights Council resolution 16/18, which calls on member states
“to foster religious freedom and pluralism, to ensure religious minorities are properly represented, and to consider adopting measures to criminalize incitement to imminent violence based on religion or belief.”
The United Kingdom has been taking the lead on that. During the United Nations General Assembly ministerial week last September, my right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Warsi, who has a particular interest in this issue given her dual role as Foreign Office Minister and Minister for faith, convened a meeting of international leaders to generate practical steps to promote freedom of religion or belief and to fight religious intolerance within our societies.
We are sharing some of our best practice with other countries and funding practical projects in a range of countries to reduce intra-community tensions, improve dialogue and promote minority rights. In Iraq, for example, we are funding a series of grass-roots meetings led by Canon Andrew White—the so-called vicar of Baghdad—to bring together people from different faiths to combat violence. In Syria, we have given more than £500,000 to promote dialogue and reduce tensions between the Sunni, Alawite, Christian, Druze, Armenian and Kurdish communities. We have been giving Foreign and Commonwealth Office diplomats a better understanding of the role of faith in society and foreign policy. That includes training them to spot violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief and to take action when abuses occur.
The Minister has covered many of the abuses that have been mentioned, but he has not made reference to China and the harvesting of organs, to which I referred. I note from the reading that I have done for this debate that whereas there have been pronouncements on the subject by the United Nations, the United States and even the European Parliament, I have not come across anything much from the British Government. I wonder what their attitude to the subject is.
If my hon. Friend will bear with me, I hope to get to that in the time left.
We know that we do not have all the answers, and the Government alone cannot be the solution. The Foreign Office’s whole ministerial team, and particularly my right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Warsi, are always keen to hear views from parliamentarians and civil society groups on what more we might do or what we might do differently. In particular, we welcome the increased focus on these fundamental rights by parliamentarians, including members of the all-party group on international freedom of religion or belief. I know, for example, that the all-party group recommended that we establish a new expert advisory group, which we did. We are looking to implement other recommendations, including by extending the funding period for our programme of activity and exploring the steps towards an international convention on freedom of religion or belief, although careful thought will have to be given to how that would be negotiated.
Hon. Members have raised a number of specific issues. The hon. Member for Belfast East, who secured the debate, spoke about Open Doors, to which we pay tribute for its work and its valuable world watch list, which describes the worst countries for Christians. We agree that the UN Human Rights Council could do more on the right to freedom of religion or belief, which is why, with our EU partners, we table a resolution on the topic every six months. We consistently aim to strengthen the text and ensure that individual UN member states implement those resolutions in their own countries.
My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) and others raised the issue of freedom of religion in Pakistan. It is vital that Pakistan guarantee the rights of all its citizens, regardless of their faith or ethnicity. We regularly raise the issue of religious freedom with the authorities in Pakistan at a senior level, including on the Foreign Secretary’s visit to Pakistan in July 2013 and my right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Warsi’s visit in September 2013. I answered the question earlier about the Prime Minister’s meeting in the past few days.
My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) raised the issue of Falun Gong. We continue to have serious concerns about reports of torture and mistreatment of detainees in China. We are aware that organs removed from executed prisoners are used for human transplantation purposes in China, and that Chinese law requires that prisoners give prior consent that their organs be used in that way. Criminal justice reform and the rule of law, including torture prevention and the treatment of detainees, has been a consistent focus of our human rights engagement with the Chinese authorities both at ministerial level and through project work on the ground. We welcome steps taken by the Chinese Government in recent years to improve the regulation of organ transplantation, and we will continue to encourage China to make further progress in that respect, including by engaging to share best practice.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) spoke with some feeling about the Baha’i community. The Baha’i faith in Iran is subject to mounting persecution, as he is aware, and we are concerned by state efforts to identify, monitor and arbitrarily detain Baha’is. According to the Baha’i International Community, more than 100 Baha’is remain in detention in Iran. We have consistently and repeatedly expressed concern at the ongoing incarceration, and at the shocking sentencing of seven Baha’i leaders in Iran to 20 years’ imprisonment each on charges of espionage, propaganda against the regime, collusion and collaboration for the purposes of endangering national security, and spreading corruption on earth. We have made it clear in public statements that it is appalling that Iran reinstated that original sentence after acquitting the leaders of several of their charges.
The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) and other Members raised the issue of the Ahmadis. We fully share her concern about the persecution of the Ahmadis and engage with the Pakistani Government about it at a senior level. My right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Warsi praised the Ahmadis’ strong contribution to British society at their conference of world religions in February.
A number of Members mentioned Egypt, which continues to dominate the news. Sectarian violence increased under President Morsi and has continued since. Amnesty reports that 200 Christian-owned properties have been attacked and 43 churches burned down or damaged since July 2013. In September, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made a statement in Parliament condemning the violence against Christian churches. Article 64 of the 2014 constitution states that freedom of belief is absolute, but the key test will be how the constitution is implemented, as many articles require additional legislation.
We are also concerned by the ongoing crackdown in Iran on religious minorities, which a number of Members mentioned, including the house church movement among Iranian Christians. The call by the supreme leader in October 2011 to prevent the spread of Christianity in Iran reveals a disturbing trend to stop freedom of religion. I call on Iran to cease harassment of religious minorities, and to fulfil its international and domestic obligations to allow freedom of religion to all Iranians. We are concerned for the welfare of the imprisoned pastors, Saeed Abedini, Farshid Fathi and Behnam Irani, whom we believe have no case to answer. We call on Iran to release them.
The hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) asked about the horrific story of the abduction of 180 schoolgirls in northern Nigeria. The whole House will want to join in the utter condemnation of those responsible for the abduction and what is a hideous and despicable crime. In his statement on 16 April, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary offered our assistance and help to the Nigerians to ensure that the children can be returned to their families safely. He also spoke to Nigerian Foreign Minister Wali on 18 April. We are talking to the Nigerian authorities about how best to assist in their efforts to secure the girls’ release and bring those responsible to justice. The hon. Member for Wrexham asked for a meeting with the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds), who has responsibility for Africa, and I am sure he would be happy to brief him if we had anything significant to add.
I indicated in my contribution, as did others, that there seems to be an unwillingness in the Nigerian Government security forces to move on this matter. The hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) made a suggestion that would gain some support in the Chamber, which was that if there is such an unwillingness, perhaps we should look at other ways of persuading the Nigerian Government to act. That is the direction or focus that some of us in this House—including me—might be willing to consider.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. Our first concern must be for the abducted schoolgirls, and we will do nothing that would in any way prevent their return or endanger their lives further. At this stage we need to encourage, rather than talk about conditions and sanctions and so forth. We will, of course, try to keep the House as updated as possible.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) spoke about North Korea. She and I have discussed that country on a number of occasions, and I continue to pay tribute to her hard work. What she says is absolutely right. I have said it in this House and I will say it again: once the curtain is lifted on what has gone on over the past decade plus in the DPRK, we shall see that the systemic and systematic human rights abuses are on a level not exceeded anywhere in the contemporary world. She spoke extraordinarily movingly, and we will do everything we can to bring to bear what pressure we can on the DPRK. Of course, the countries that can really do that are those that are part of the six-party talks, which we encourage to reassemble at the earliest opportunity.
May I express my appreciation to the Minister for the interest he has taken in the concerns of the North Korea all-party group? We all welcomed the report by Mr Justice Kirby, but we must ensure that it does not just lie there but is acted on. Will the UK Government urge the UN Security Council to take action on that report, perhaps by referral to the International Criminal Court or some other appropriate body, so that we can see the difference made as a result?
First, as my hon. Friend knows, I met Mr Justice Kirby when he was in London, and I pay tribute to his work and that of his inquiry team. Secondly, I perceive a mood change at the UN and elsewhere that finally something has to be done to address what is going on in the DPRK.
There will be no let-up in the Government’s work to promote and protect the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion around the world. The issue is serious, and is only getting worse. We remain committed to tackling it using all the resources at our disposal, whether through our ongoing bilateral diplomatic engagement, our activity at the international institutional level or our programme funding. We will continue to press partners, allies and others to deliver real change.
The freedom to practise, change or share one’s faith or belief without discrimination or violent opposition is a fundamental human right that all people should enjoy. We are convinced that societies that aspire to guarantee this freedom are stronger, fairer and more confident. Perhaps more importantly, it is a litmus test for other human rights and can be a catalyst towards securing other fundamental freedoms. I assure the House that we will continue to use our diplomatic network to promote this freedom around the world and to combat prejudice, discrimination and violence in the name of religion or belief wherever and whenever they occur.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for the thoughtful and informed contributions that they have made today, which have highlighted the scale and scope of the issue before us. I especially thank those who co-sponsored the application to the Backbench Business Committee and the Committee itself for facilitating this important debate this afternoon.
With the right to freedom of religion or belief goes the important right to live one’s life free of religion if one so chooses. That issue is often overlooked, but I remind the House of the persecution of atheists in countries such as Indonesia. Rights are not a fixed quantity: their extension to others does not diminish our own. On the contrary, the extension of rights strengthens and secures access to them for each of us. As many hon. Members have reflected, the challenge of freedom of religion and belief is often accompanied by a challenge to other civil liberties and by failing, corrupt and unstable states. It is therefore not only morally and ethically right that we should defend religious liberty, but it is in our national interest to do so.
I thank the shadow Minister and the Minister for their responses to the debate. I am very encouraged that the Minister has read the report by the all-party group and the recommendations, which I commend to him and his colleagues as a means of practical action on this matter. Many Members mentioned that the debate was timely and talked of recent developments in this area. Sadly, the same could be said whenever this debate was scheduled because the abuse of freedom of thought, conscience and belief is relentless. I encourage hon. Members to ensure that those of us who enjoy the freedom to speak do so relentlessly in this House and elsewhere on behalf of those whose rights are denied.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered freedom of thought, conscience and religion.