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Freedom of Religion and Belief

Volume 584: debated on Tuesday 22 July 2014

3. What recent discussions he has had with his overseas counterparts on upholding freedom of religion and belief. (904985)

4. What recent discussions he has had with his overseas counterparts on upholding freedom of religion and belief. (904986)

We remain deeply concerned about a disturbing and unwelcome trend of persecution on the basis of religion or belief. Regrettably, this is not confined to a single region nor to a single faith, but we counteract it wherever we can. This has included recent work from Sudan to Nigeria, from Iraq to Burma, and from Pakistan to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but in Egypt Coptic and Orthodox churches are being attacked, in Mosul in Iraq Christians have been driven out by ISIS, Muslims in Burma are facing violence from mobs and Christians in Pakistan face persecution from the state. Is it not time that the international community, led by this UK Government, took more action on this growing crisis?

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight these terrible things. Some hon. Members will have seen the reports in The Times this morning about ISIS in Iraq, and they are truly troubling. We continue to work through the United Nations to ensure that states implement Human Rights Council resolution 16/18, which focuses on combating religious intolerance, protecting the human rights of minorities and promoting pluralism in society. The hon. Gentleman will have to agree, however, that ensuring freedom of religion and freedom of speech in some of these countries, which face the most horrific internal disruptions, is extremely difficult.

Ayatollah Tehrani’s gift of illuminated calligraphy to the Baha’i is an act in the spirit of the UN declaration of human rights, which states that everyone has a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Notwithstanding what the Minister has just said, which I welcome, what more can Britain do to celebrate such acts and challenge religious intolerance, wherever it occurs in the world?

I think that it would be appropriate for me to pay tribute to my noble Friend Baroness Warsi, who has been doing some excellent work in this area, not least by convening a high-level international grouping on the subject during the UN General Assembly ministerial week in New York. She will reconvene that group. We have also set up an advisory group on the freedom of religion or belief in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and we will continue to do what we can through our embassies around the world. It is extremely difficult work at this time, when religions of all types, not just Christians, are facing the most horrific oppression in all four corners of the world.

Will the Government continue to make representations to the Government of Pakistan to reform their blasphemy laws, which are often used to persecute and prosecute minority communities, including the Christian community? In particular, will the Government take up the case of Aisha Bibi, a mother of five children and a Christian who has been convicted under these laws and has been imprisoned for four years awaiting an appeal?

We raise these issues consistently at senior ministerial levels in Pakistan. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the then Foreign Secretary lobbied Prime Minister Sharif during his visit in May. We made it clear that Pakistan must guarantee the rights of all its citizens, regardless of their ethnicity.

Given our historic ties with and moral responsibility for the people of Hong Kong, will the Minister make it clear that our growing friendship with China requires its leaders to keep their promise at the time of the handover to allow free and fair elections in Hong Kong by 2017?

Indeed. I met Martin Lee and Anson Chan when they were over here last week. We stand by our early commitments. We want to see a transition towards universal suffrage, but ultimately that must be decided by the Government in the Hong Kong special administrative region, by the people of Hong Kong and by the Government in Beijing.

Will the Minister update the House on the violence in Mandalay in Burma earlier this month, and on the fact that the religious affairs Minister is now in custody?

The hon. Lady probably knows better than almost anyone in the House that the situation in Burma remains extremely difficult. Given our meetings and exchanges across the Floor of the House, I think that she recognises the extraordinary work and support that we are putting in to ensure a transition from one form of government to a democracy in Burma, with all its religious and ethnic divides. We continue to lobby. I had the Burmese ambassador in recently to raise my concerns about the consensus but also about religious tolerance, with the Rohingya. If the hon. Lady wishes to come and see me, I am always happy to discuss the situation in Burma, as she knows. We are the first Government to have produced a cross-Burma strategy showing all the work that we are doing there.

Will the Minister of State speak with the Secretary of State for International Development to ensure that UK taxpayers’ money does not go directly to states that persecute the Christian Church worldwide?

I think we have got better at ensuring that our aid goes to the right places, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise it. Of course, there is an issue. As we have reached 0.7% of GDP going to our aid budget, and as the GDP of this country increases due to the success of the Government’s long-term economic plan, there is more money around to help alleviate poverty around the world. It is up to us to ensure that that money reaches the right target.

The world will have been shocked by the recent attacks on and violent expulsion of Christians in Mosul, but this is only the latest outrage in a rising tide of religious intolerance around the world, largely but by no means exclusively targeted at Christians. The United Nations declaration of human rights states that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. In this country, we enjoy that right, but too many around the world are persecuted for their faith. What, if any, substantial initiatives has the FCO taken to advance and protect those rights?

If I might say so, I think that the right hon. Gentleman might have written his question before I answered the first question, because I addressed the issue that he raises. I talked about the work being done by my noble Friend Baroness Warsi in convening high-level groupings at the UN General Assembly in ministerial week in New York, which she will be doing again. I have talked about the FCO’s new advisory group on freedom of religious belief. I have talked about our work with ambassadors and journalists around the world to encourage religious tolerance, which we will continue to do. We continue to take this issue, which is one of the FCO’s six human rights priorities, extraordinarily seriously. In a way, the issue is being addressed today in the girl summit, which follows the preventing sexual violence initiative summit. The Government cannot be accused of not doing our best.

In Sri Lanka, mosques and churches are subject to attacks by radical Buddhists. Will my right hon. Friend take the matter up with the Sri Lankan Government so that religious minorities are protected in this traditional land in Sri Lanka?

We remain concerned by the significant surge in attacks on minority groups in Sri Lanka—not least the recent anti-Muslim violence. I met representatives of the Sri Lankan Muslim community to listen to their concerns, which we have raised with the Sri Lankan Government. The March UN Human Rights Council resolution, which was driven by the UK, urges the Sri Lankan Government to investigate all alleged attacks on members of religious minority groups and temples, mosques and churches.

Given the track record of President Rajapaksa on accountability and reconciliation, is the Minister satisfied that he has the will and the capacity to act?

The hon. Lady will know that I went to the UNHRC to speak in favour of a resolution, which has brought about the inquiry. We still say that the Sri Lankan Government should listen to what is being suggested and should abide by the UN ruling. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady says from a sedentary position, “Will they?” Well, that remains to be seen. The answer is that they should. The UN has spoken. It wants an international inquiry, and Sri Lanka should respond.

Given the rise of religious intolerance, the violence in the middle east region and the ghastly widespread human suffering in Gaza, does my right hon. Friend agree that one notable exception to religious intolerance is the role of Christians and Christianity in Gaza?

I pay tribute to Christians who are suffering oppression all over the middle east and the rest of the world. It must be extraordinarily difficult to be a Christian in Gaza at the present time.