I beg to move,
That this House has considered the persecution of Ahmadiyya Muslims and other religious minorities in Pakistan.
The cornerstone of the Ahmadiyya Muslim faith is its belief in peace and religious tolerance for everyone. Its motto is:
“Love for all, hatred for none.”
However, as we speak, that very same peaceful community continues to be persecuted on a daily basis in Pakistan and elsewhere. It is the only religious community to be targeted by the state on the grounds of faith. In Pakistan, Ahmadis cannot call themselves Muslims and are prohibited by law from voting as Muslims. That state-sponsored persecution has been enshrined in the country’s constitution since 1974. On top of that, Ahmadis are openly declared as “deserving to be killed”, with neither the state nor civic society willing to stand up for them against extremists. Perpetrators are given free rein to attack Ahmadis, safe in the knowledge that they will not be prosecuted for their actions.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. I take this opportunity to praise Mohammed Salim and other members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Association who do so much for our community in Warwick and Leamington.
Does the hon. Lady agree that if Pakistan expects to grow its economy exponentially, it needs to address these serious humanitarian concerns and, in particular, the Pakistani Government’s failure to legally recognise the Ahmadiyya Muslim community?
Although the debate is rightly focusing on the persecution of the Ahmadis in Pakistan, will my hon. Friend find a way to raise with the Minister the concerns that the Ahmadiyya community has about the way it is treated in Bulgaria and Indonesia, where similar problems exist, albeit not on the same scale as in Pakistan?
I thank my constituency neighbour for giving way for a third time. I am pleased to hear that she will come on to the subject of Indonesia, particularly given what has happened in Bangka in recent days. I want to take this opportunity to congratulate the Ahmadiyya Muslim community for its work in relation to the floods. Ahmadis have gone up in large numbers to support the communities affected.
The community activities of the Ahmadiyya community in the UK are extensive, and I am sure that every Member here will have a different example of something that it has done for their own and other communities.
In the past few years, hundreds of Ahmadis have been murdered on the grounds of their faith. Eleven were murdered in 2014 alone. This year, a vigilante mob targeted an Ahmadi family in Gujranwala, setting their home alight and killing three family members: a grandmother and her two little grandchildren. No arrests have been made, and Pakistani news channels refused to air bulletins about the incident. It is quite shocking to think that the persecution the community faces is enshrined in Pakistani law.
It is a criminal offence for an Ahmadi to call themselves Muslim, refer to their faith as Islam, call their place of worship a mosque, or say the Islamic greeting, “Peace be upon you”. That is punishable by imprisonment, a fine or even death. Those laws are a clear denial of basic human rights for Ahmadi Muslims freely to profess and practise their faith without state interference or persecution. The laws specifically against Ahmadiyya Muslims also undermine the constitutional right of Pakistani citizens to practice freedom of religion. The state’s laws have emboldened other states and extremists to harass, attack and kill Ahmadis. The persecution of Ahmadiyya Muslims operates in many complex ways, as does the persecution of other religious minorities, which I hope we will explore in this debate.
Ahmadis are denied the right to vote—they are disfranchised unless they declare themselves non-Muslims. They remain the only disfranchised group in Pakistan. Indeed, the Electoral Commission of Pakistan has further institutionalised the disenfranchisement. It has decided that Ahmadis can be permitted to vote only under a separate register, and by self-identifying as a non-Muslim minority and therefore by denying their faith. While Ahmadis are registered on a separate electoral register, all other communities—whether Muslim, Sikh, Hindu or Christian—are listed on a unified joint register. The requirement of Ahmadis to deny their faith in order to vote has caused their disfranchisement from Pakistani politics for more than 30 years. Worse still, the separate Ahmadiyya electoral register is publicly available, making it much easier for extremists to target Ahmadis.
Ahmadis are also denied the basic right to a fair trial. The vast majority of the terrible offences committed against Ahmadis go unpunished. It is crucial to note that no prosecutions have been brought for any of the killings of Ahmadiyya Muslims. On top of that, Ahmadis are increasingly being charged and tried for terrorism offences. Take the elderly Ahmadi optician from Rabwah, Mr Abdul Shakoor. Mr Shakoor has been tried and convicted, and imprisoned for five years, under Pakistan’s anti-terrorism act, on false charges alleging the sale of an Ahmadiyya commentary on the Holy Koran. Pakistan’s anti-terrorism legislation was introduced to curb the rise of extreme sectarian violence in the country. It is extremely distressing to learn that that same legislation has been used to convict a 70-year-old member of one of Pakistan’s most peaceful religious communities.
Another example is Mr Tahir Mehdi Imtiaz, who is an editor of an Ahmadiyya monthly publication. Mr Imtiaz was arrested by police in March 2015 on false charges. This time, it was under Pakistan’s infamous blasphemy laws. Although the prosecution was unable to provide evidence that Mr Imtiaz had included blasphemous materials in his publications, judges in the Supreme Court of Pakistan rejected his pleas for bail prior to trial. That was because the judiciary still fear being viewed as being lenient on Ahmadis—anti-Ahmadi sentiment pervades society. To this day, almost a year since his arrest, Mr Imtiaz is still incarcerated with no prospect of bail or a trial date in sight.
Both those Ahmadi men have been arrested and imprisoned on false grounds as a result of the discrimination that is entrenched in Pakistan’s justice system. I am sure that Members will join me in hoping that the UK Government will call on the Pakistani Government to release Mr Imtiaz and Mr Shakoor immediately. Will the Minister outline what the FCO is doing on those two cases?
My hon. Friend rightly draws attention to the immediate responsibilities of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but given that the aid budget to Pakistan from the Department for International Development is heavy, and that DFID has many opportunities for influence too, does she not agree that there needs to be a co-ordinated, cross-Government démarche to the various levels of the Pakistani Government, both at state and federal level?
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. I was having just that discussion the other day with the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), who expressed his concern that aid is being given to Pakistan but the issues of the Ahmadiyya community are not being resolved.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I am listening with interest to the point she is making. The coalition Government set up an advisory group on freedom of religion and belief in the Foreign Office, which was a welcome initiative. Does she share my disappointment that that group has not been re-established since the general election, and that it seems it is no longer a priority?
I am sure my right hon. Friend had a great input into that initiative. Perhaps the Minister will address the issue of re-forming that group under this Government in his speech.
The Ahmadiyya community is also denied the right to religious freedom and expression in Pakistan. On orders from the united religious clerics board, all works by that religious group are now banned in the region of Punjab. That includes books, CDs, periodicals and newspapers, and it means that hundreds of thousands of law-abiding Ahmadi Muslims in Punjab face police searches, criminal charges and up to five years in prison. Those texts are all religious, and their censorship is totally unjustified.
In contrast, the “Tohfa Qadianiat”, written by an anti-Ahmadi cleric, instructs readers not to leave a single Ahmadi alive on earth. That publication is freely available; it seems censorship does not apply to vehemently anti-Ahmadi texts. Sadly, Ahmadis are also the target of several religious extremist groups, the foremost of which is the Khatme Nabuwwat, whose sole purpose is to eradicate Ahmadi Muslims. Last year, it declared that
“it is Jihad to shoot Ahmadis in the open”.
I am sure hon. Members will share my shock that this organisation is a registered charity in the UK, despite the fact that its Pakistan counterpart has clear links with violence. I hope that the Minister will address that issue later this afternoon.
In addition, preachers of anti-Ahmadi hate are spreading their repellent messages within our own UK borders via satellite TV and the internet. Ofcom has already fined several TV channels, including the Ummah Channel, Takbeer TV and DM Digital, for broadcasting anti-Ahmadi hatred. Such an overspill of anti-Ahmadi sentiments is extremely concerning, because it is very difficult to police the incitement of hatred and violence against Ahmadis online and across borders. The situation needs continuous monitoring here, and the UK Government need to be mindful of anti-Ahmadi hatred pervading their own borders. We do not want vile anti-Ahmadi messages to spread within the UK.
That is a very good suggestion. The situation here needs continuous monitoring, and the UK Government need to be mindful of anti-Ahmadi hatred pervading our borders.
Many Ahmadi Muslim mosques across Pakistan have been sealed, and minarets have been demolished by police under pressure from extremists. Indeed, in May last year, the district court in Chakwal ordered the minarets and arch of the local Ahmadi mosque to be destroyed. Ahmadis are even denied dignity in death. Their graves are frequently vandalised, with any reference to Islam removed.
Anti-Ahmadi sentiment also pervades Pakistan’s civic society. The Pakistani Urdu press continues to publish fabricated stories that incite violence towards Ahmadis. This propagates the idea that Ahmadis are the root cause of problems in Pakistan. In 2014 alone, at least 2,000 such reports were published. I do not need to remind hon. Members how such publications and stories entrench and normalise discrimination. Meanwhile, Ahmadi students face systematic discrimination in schools and educational institutions. This discrimination even extends to the literature that students use. For instance, one Sindh textbook teaches children that Ahmadi Muslims are evil and suggests that anyone who is or becomes Ahmadi is worthy of being killed. The effect of these examples means that anti-Ahmadi discrimination is entrenched beyond generations.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and I congratulate her on securing the debate today. She mentions textbooks. The Department for International Development places great emphasis on educating children in Pakistan. Perhaps the influence of the UK Government could be brought to bear on the aid that is given specifically to education?
That is certainly something that DFID should look at. I am aware of grants being threatened because textbooks that contain difficult and discriminatory messages are used.
The situation in Pakistan overspills its borders and has resulted in many Ahmadis fleeing to seek refuge. Many have fled to countries such as Thailand, where they live in extremely difficult conditions to escape the persecution that they face in Pakistan. However, the community is being let down in Thailand, too. Just last month, the Thai Government arrested and arbitrarily detained more than 45 Ahmadis and are now seeking to deport them back to Pakistan, where they will inevitably face persecution and even violence. This group includes women and very young children, some of whom have been recognised as refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. They are being detained in terrible conditions. This is despite the fact that Thailand has responsibilities under UN conventions. But it seems that the Thai Government have forgotten the extreme dangers that Ahmadis face if they are returned to Pakistan, a country they have fled in fear of their lives. I look forward to the Minister addressing this point and outlining what the UK Government are doing to urge Thai authorities to permit Ahmadi refugees to stay until the UNHCR completes its due process.
Within our own borders, the situation is similarly bleak. Despite overwhelming evidence demonstrating the persecution and targeted violence faced by this community in Pakistan, the UK is currently in the process of deporting Ahmadi asylum seekers. This contravenes the UK’s own guidance issued just last year. I am sure hon. Members will join me in being absolutely appalled by the Home Office seemingly accepting the terrible risks faced by Ahmadis who openly practise their faith in Pakistan. I hope that the Minister will agree that this position urgently needs to change.
At the same time as the Ahmadi community flees persecution in Pakistan, it faces more and more persecution in other nations, as the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) mentioned, in places such as Bangka, Indonesia. Just last Friday, Ahmadis in this region were forcibly evicted from their homes by the police and military authorities as a result of extremists putting pressure on local authorities. Ahmadis were given an ultimatum to either renounce their faith or be forced to leave, and the objections made by the Indonesian Home Minister against the evictions were ignored. Ahmadi families were evicted while mobs who were delighted to see them go cheered. Not only is this example distressing in itself but it is likely to trigger other such forced evictions, increasingly making Indonesian Ahmadis refugees in their own countries.
So what can be done about the terrible persecution faced by this peaceful community? In Pakistan, the situation sadly remains bleak. Despite the many ongoing human rights abuses, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif stated last month,
“I am the Prime Minister of all of you...And it is my duty to help everyone. If anyone is a victim of brutality, no matter what religion or what sect he belongs to, my duty is to help him.”
Meanwhile, article 20 of Pakistan’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion. The country is also a signatory to the UN charter of human rights, which makes it obligatory for the Government to safeguard the fundamental rights of all without any discrimination, whether it is based on religion, faith or belief, but it is clear that Pakistan is systematically failing to uphold the human rights of all its citizens.
The ongoing persecution of Ahmadi citizens undermines Pakistan’s progress and its development, and stores up huge problems for the future stability of the country. Furthermore, the state’s policies allow extremism to flourish, which threatens the security of Pakistan itself, the UK, and of course the rest of the world. What is also clear is that the international community has a moral responsibility to act and apply pressure on Pakistan to abide by international conventions and treaties in order to uphold the human rights of all.
I hope that this debate will inspire the Minister to reflect on the UK’s stance on those issues. The Government must raise the issues of corruption and anti-Ahmadi laws, which allow extremists to target and murder Ahmadis. They should put pressure on Pakistan to rid itself of its discriminatory anti-Ahmadi laws, and encourage the Pakistani Government to grant the peaceful Ahmadi community the right to worship, the right to justice and a fair trial, and the right to practise their religion without fear of persecution, discrimination or violence.
My hon. Friend is rightly focusing on the difficulties relating to the Ahmadis’ human rights in Pakistan, but many other religious minorities in Pakistan are under the same pressure. Christians, Hindus and other Islamic groups also face persecution, which is clearly tolerated at the federal state level, where the Pakistani authorities also need to take action.
I completely agree, and I hope that other hon. Members will talk about the problems that other religious groups in Pakistan face.
The Government should be vocal in addressing the situation of the Ahmadi communities in Thailand and Indonesia. They should think about how to guarantee that UK taxpayers’ money will not be used to promote intolerance and extremism in Pakistan. Finally, they should look closely at the UK’s borders and the unfairness of our asylum processes, which are failing Ahmadi asylum seekers who have fled violence and persecution and forcing them back to Pakistan.
Ahmadi Muslims are peaceful and peace-loving, and they give so much to their communities. I am proud that the Borough of Merton is the UK and worldwide headquarters of the Ahmadi Muslim community, which makes an incredible contribution to the richness and diversity of our area. The Baitul Futuh mosque in Morden is the largest mosque in western Europe. The community’s impact on this country is inestimable. It has raised more than £2 million for British charities and makes regular collections for the Royal British Legion’s poppy appeal. It uses its mosques as blood donation centres and has raised 1,000 units of blood in the past year. It feeds 30,000 homeless people each year and has distributed the peaceful teachings of Islam to 5 million UK homes.
Hon. Members should be proud to represent constituencies with an Ahmadi population. We in this House have a responsibility to do all we can do to give the persecution of Ahmadi Muslims the international visibility it deserves. I hope this debate will inspire the Minister to take meaningful action to ensure that the UK plays its part in promoting freedom of religion in Pakistan and across the world.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), who made an excellent speech.
The Ahmadis have suffered greatly and have been subject to numerous attacks, even during Friday prayers. The vicious brutality of those attacks is magnified by the Ahmadis’ belief in love for all and hatred for none. How can we ensure that Pakistan’s beleaguered minorities receive the help they desperately need? One way is for Members to read and send to those in authority the report that the all-party group on international religious freedom or belief will publish shortly.
Just a few weeks ago, the APPG took evidence in a number of hearings that revealed the systematic and widespread persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan. It heard harrowing personal accounts from Christians, Ahmadis and others who have watched loved ones murdered in a culture of impunity. It heard the story of Pakistan’s last remaining Jew and was moved by the bravery and courage of so many in the minority communities. Lord Alton of Liverpool, who chaired those hearings, said:
“We hope that the Report which will emerge from this evidence will force our policy makers, along with those of other Governments, to reassess the way in which we engage with Pakistan.”
The report, which will collate the evidence gathered in those hearings, will be launched in Parliament shortly and sent to the relevant Government bodies, parliamentarians and members of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief, which now operates in nearly 60 countries. Recommendations will be sent to the Home Office officials in charge of setting country guidance—I am glad to say that they attended the hearings—and those who look at options for asylum seekers. We hope the report will bring about tangible change in the UNHCR and to the Home Office’s approach to the minorities that face persecution in Pakistan and seek asylum. The report will show that, in today’s Pakistan, minorities—including Ahmadis, Sikhs, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims from the Shi’a tradition—face relentless violence, profound discrimination and, in some cases, outright persecution.
Hon. Members may be interested, and I hope touched, to know that the brother of Shahbaz Bhatti—Pakistan’s outstanding Minister for minorities, who was murdered four years ago—spoke in this very room on this subject, only a few weeks ago. Dr Paul Bhatti, a medical doctor, said,
“Since almost the last two decades Pakistan has been facing a series of challenges with religious discrimination and persecution, sectarian violence, economic crisis, political instability and terrorism. Despite anti-terrorism reforms, promotion of religious freedom, support of the international community, and precious sacrifices that have been made”—
not least by his brother, who spent 28 years of his life promoting interfaith community relations—
“we still face the cruel and harsh realities of violence against the weak and voiceless people of our community…We want this Pakistan, without any discrimination among people of diverse faiths, where weak and oppressed feel safe and respected: as the father of our nation Muhammad Ali Jinnah said, we are all citizens and equal citizens of one state. This is the path we are following indicated by Shahbaz to see our beloved country where there’s no discrimination between Majority and religious minorities (Shiites, Sufi Muslims, Isma’ili, Ahmadis, Christians, Sikhs, Hindus, Zoroastrians, Baha’i). Each of us is on a road, a religious path to a spiritual destination, a place of consequences and accountability for our choices and actions.”
He is committed, as are many in this place and across the world, to ensuring that Pakistan enjoys peace and stability. He stated in this room:
“I am convinced that religious freedom and education together can be the solution in the actualization of world peace.”
Dr Bhatti’s brother, a Minister in the Pakistani Government, was gunned down. In the hearings that were held a few weeks ago in this place, Members of Parliament heard of the burning alive of a Christian couple in an industrial kiln by a mob in Pakistan. The mob allegedly broke their legs. Rumours had circulated that they had burned verses from the Koran. An NBC News report states:
“Their legs were also broken so they couldn’t run away. ‘They picked them up by their arms and legs and held them over the brick furnace until their clothes caught fire… And then they threw them inside the furnace.’ Bibi, a mother…was four months pregnant”.
Their children were forced to watch. If almost five years after the death of Shahbaz Bhatti the perpetrators have still not been brought to justice, what chance is there that the killers of those two loving parents will be brought to justice? It is right that we cry out in this place today on their behalf and on the behalf of so many others who have suffered.
I turn now to the particular suffering of women of minority faith groups. Much of the rest of my speech will dwell on this topic, because it is important that we, as a Parliament, take note of the issue when the Government proclaim as a priority the promotion of the welfare and wellbeing of women and girls across the globe. It is a genuine priority of the Secretary of State for International Development, and I pay tribute to her personal work in leading the charge to increase support for women and girls in so many countries around the world. Following this debate, I hope that the UK Government and those responsible for disseminating aid in Pakistan will pay particular attention to the plight of women and girls in religious minorities, because they are doubly at risk of discrimination, regardless of the faith they adhere to. They risk systematic abduction, extortion, hijacking, being held for ransom, trafficking, rape, forced marriage, forced conversions, and allegations of blasphemy.
Women and girls face discrimination and marginalisation as it is, but they are subject to further targeting if they are from a minority group. Women are treated as second class, but if they come from a minority group, they are third class citizens. For example, Hindu girls in Sindh and Christian girls in Punjab are abducted, raped, or forced to convert to Islam in the face of extreme pressure, including threats to them and their families. The majority of Christian women in Pakistan are illiterate and hold menial jobs, working in factories or as domestic servants, and face a constant risk of sexual harassment, physical abuse, forced conversion or even death. The Asian Human Rights Commission stated in its report of December 2012 that
“on average some 700 Christian and 300 Hindu girls are forcibly converted to Islam each year…notably in Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh provinces.”
It is interesting that an independent survey in Pakistan cited religious extremism as the greatest threat to the country. District minority committees have failed to review matters, such as personal laws and rules, for minority women’s rights.
While the police are at times complicit in fulfilling the wishes of the local elite, who may be in collusion with extremists, organisations that submitted evidence to the report stated that police in all provinces are gender-blind in cases of forced conversion and marriage. They can often effectively be complicit in such activities, nullifying women’s previous non-Islamic marriages and recognising their forced marriages instead. In cases of sexual assault, rape, and sexual violence, they do not conduct proper investigations and minority women can be re-victimised because police take bribes and do not adequately protect minority women. All of that has been reported to us.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide reports that Christians do not feel safe going to police stations when they have problems relating to unjust blasphemy charges. In October 2015, three Muslim men broke into a deaf Christian woman’s home in Kasur in Pakistan, taking her turns to rape her while the men of the family were at work. Despite such a crime, the lawyer who is defending the woman admits the difficulty of getting the case to court to punish the perpetrators.
The implementation of the Hudood ordinances, laws enacted in 1979 as part of the Islamisation process, has had seriously damaging consequences for all sections of Pakistani society, but women in religious minorities have been particularly targeted and victimised as a result. Notwithstanding the state’s commitment to the non-imposition of an exclusively Islamic code on non-Muslims, the ordinances for the most part control the activities of non-Muslims. Religious minorities remain liable to suffer punishments as gross as physical amputations and whipping for various offences such as theft, and whipping or even death for accusations of adultery.
Christian women, like other minorities, face persecution and discrimination simply because of their faith. The real and present dangers faced by women of non-Muslim faith are much direct and substantial. Hindu women also face difficulties, with key concerns being conversion to Islam, sexual abuse and forced marriage. Problems have increased in recent years, and the volunteer group REAL found that between 20 and 25 Hindu girls were forcibly converted every month. The greatest victims are the Dalits who are kidnapped or lured into conversion, sexually exploited and then abandoned. There is no legal mechanism for the Government to register the marriages of Hindus and Sikhs, causing women difficulties with inheritances, accessing health services, voting, obtaining a passport, and buying or selling property. It is even reported that Sikh families will marry off their daughters at extremely young ages simply to avoid them being abducted, raped or forced to convert.
Considering the risks women and girls from religious minorities face in Pakistan, we must ask what is being done to support them. As I said, they are not just second-class; they are third-class citizens. Taking into account the fact that Pakistan is one of the largest recipients of our bilateral aid, receiving some £1.17 billion in support from the UK between 2011 and 2015, and while recognising that the Secretary of State has given clear priority to support for women and girls across all countries to which the UK provides aid, we must ask whether our aid is being adequately used to support the women and girls who are being persecuted due to their faith. I urge Ministers to review how our aid is distributed in Pakistan to ensure that it does not facilitate further persecution of minority women, and in fact helps to foster an environment of respect, plurality and freedom for women and men of all religious denominations.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I offer my sincere appreciation to the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) for securing this important debate. In welcoming the debate, I must also highlight the welcome that I received from the Ahmadi community; I felt truly humbled at their hospitable and genial reception. In stark contrast, the treatment of Ahmadi Muslims in some other countries is reprehensible.
In Pakistan, the Ahmadi population are not simply treated with disdain; they are systematically subjected to discrimination that is deeply ingrained in Pakistan’s laws and culture. When a Pakistani Muslim applies for a passport or other identification, they are asked to sign an oath denouncing the Ahmadi faith. In 2010 Mohammed Hanif, a BBC journalist, reported on that injustice:
“Like millions of other Pakistanis, I have signed this oath several times without giving much thought to exactly what Mr Ahmad stands for…I want my passport, and if I have to sign up to a fatwa to get it, so be it.”
The policy also leads to the disfranchisement of the Ahmadi population. There is an entirely separate electoral register for Ahmadis, and if they wish to vote they must deny their beliefs. Our own history has taught us that the principle of universal adult suffrage is an ideal to be upheld. In Pakistan Ahmadis are subjugated and treated unequally, just as women were in the UK in the past century. We must take care not to impose our values on others, but we cannot stand idly by and watch others denied their right to vote, as set out in article 21 of the universal declaration of human rights.
Although Pakistan has made strides towards ensuring parity of esteem for other religions and denominations, the Ahmadis continue to be singled out and marginalised. They are also endangered by such policies. The separate electoral register not only stigmatises but identifies them. Many Ahmadis have been murdered for their beliefs, so government policies that jeopardise their security are tantamount to the authorities being complicit in those barbarous acts.
To put the situation into perspective, about 250 Ahmadis have been murdered since 1984, yet not a single perpetrator has been prosecuted. What are we doing to address that situation with the Pakistani authorities? What, too, are we doing to address the other persecutions to which Ahmadis are subjected? In Pakistan, Ahmadi Muslims can spend up to three years in prison simply for calling their place of worship a mosque. If their alleged offence is considered blasphemy, they can even face the death penalty.
The law is truly designed to suppress beliefs and to designate Ahmadis as non-Muslims. That flies in the face of Pakistan’s obligations as a signatory state of the international covenant on civil and political rights. It committed to freedom of religion for all, but places incomprehensible restrictions on Ahmadis. An example of such repression is that of the publisher of the Ahmadiyya Ansarullah magazine, who was arrested on the false allegation of producing blasphemous material. Tahir was refused bail and has now been imprisoned without charge for the past 10 months.
The shock that we might feel about such cases could be attributed to cultural difference, but it is important to point out that such laws appear to contravene even the constitution of Pakistan, which includes an article that affords the “Freedom to profess religion and to manage religious institutions” to citizens. Yet that freedom continues to be denied. There have been reports of graves being desecrated and burial rights being denied. There have been horrendous massacres at two mosques in Lahore leaving 86 dead. There are reports of arson and other attacks by people riled up by extremist rallies. Ahmadis are denied the right to peaceful assembly, but such hate rallies unfortunately do not seem to be subject to the same restrictions.
We cannot stand by and allow that to go on. As the Minister knows, I am a fierce advocate of global human rights, and I wish to see a firm stance taken by the UK Government. The Ahmadi community in the UK makes an enormous contribution to our society. We owe it not only to them but to ourselves to make an effort to right those wrongs.
In summary, will the Minister inform us in his response whether the UK Government have raised the issue of the voting rights of Ahmadi Muslims with the Pakistani authorities? If not, will he undertake to do so and to promote the principles of universal suffrage against discriminatory policies? Will he call on Pakistan to uphold its obligations as a signatory state of the international covenant on civil and political rights, in particular that on freedom of religion for all?
Finally, what assessment have the Government made of the extent of the persecution in Pakistan? How have the UK Government pushed the Pakistani authorities on the matter of religious persecution? How will the Government use their influence to push the Pakistani authorities further? Will the Government call for an end to the destruction of Ahmadi minarets? Furthermore, will the UK Government push the Pakistani Government to provide protection once and for all to the Ahmadi community, whose banner reads:
“Love for all, hatred for none”?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on securing the debate. It a pleasure to serve as vice-chair of the all-party group for the Ahmadiyya Muslim community under her chairmanship. It is good that we have been able to raise these issues in the Chamber today.
My constituency abuts Mitcham and Morden, and our shared border is close to the Baitul Futuh mosque, which it has been a pleasure and privilege to visit on a number of occasions. Some of the people I have met are in the Public Gallery today. Everyone there spoke with composure and in a measured way, despite the extreme circumstances of their fellow believers in Pakistan and, as we have heard, around the world. They have suffered and seen adversity closer to home as well. It was terrible to see the recent fire at the Baitul Futuh mosque, but the Ahmadis bounced back fantastically well as a community. They only look forward. My next visit to the mosque was shortly after the Paris atrocities, and it was wonderful and a real privilege to stand shoulder to shoulder with them to demonstrate exactly what they mean by “Love for all, hatred for none”.
The hon. Gentleman is outlining the role of the Ahmadi community here in the UK. Will he join me in condemning those who have been trying to bring persecution of and discrimination against the Ahmadis to the UK? There have been boycotts of some of their shops and harassment of Ahmadis. Should we in this Parliament make it clear that such activity has no place in this country?
I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Hatred and persecution certainly have no place here in the UK. That is why we need to lead from the front and make that case to the Government and other organisations in Pakistan, as well as around the world. The point is well made.
In a spirit of north and south London solidarity, does the hon. Gentleman agree that another thing that the Foreign Office could do is to raise with Bulgaria the discrimination that takes place against Ahmadis there? Bulgaria is a key European Union ally and one with which we ought to have good contacts, so we could discuss the issue repeatedly until progress happens and the discrimination ends.
Bulgaria is an important issue, which has also been raised with me and, I am sure, with the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden when we have visited the mosque in Morden. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) for drawing it to our attention, because it is important to put on record our concern about persecution around the world, especially when it is somewhere quite so close to home.
In addition to visiting the mosque and meeting members of the Ahmadiyya community, I am looking forward to the Jalsa Salana in Alton, which is coming up, as is the peace symposium organised by the UK community. I can join them and say, “Salaam alaikum”, to show respect and knowing that people will be able to respond in kind, freely, because what the UK does particularly well is religious tolerance. We always need to work at it and to ensure that we tackle intolerance wherever it arises in this country, but, on the whole, if we compare ourselves to many other countries, we lead the way. That is to be welcomed.
In Pakistan, as we have heard from hon. Members, the blasphemy laws are poorly designed, being very general and wide. That leads to a broad interpretation, which is used to persecute and oppress the Ahmadiyya community. How can it be that in the 21st century we hear examples of people who want to wipe out the Ahmadiyya community in Pakistan?
We have heard about how members of the Ahmadiyya community in Pakistan are unable to vote. They have to declare themselves as non-Muslims and the founder of their religion, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, as an apostate and a liar. How can we stand by and let that happen? We have heard numerous terrible examples of violence and arrests as recently as November 2015, when a factory and several homes were burnt down, and January this year, when a man was killed in Rabwah. That is the centre of the Ahmadiyya community in Pakistan, so there is no hiding place when there is such wide acceptance of oppression and persecution.
As we have heard, Pakistan is a signatory to the international covenant on civil and political rights, which it ratified in 2010. Two weeks ago, with a number of colleagues, I spent a week in Strasbourg at the Council of Europe, where we talked about human rights closer to home. If discussions about agreements are ever to mean something and it is not to be just a talking shop, it is important that we take a lead and ensure that people who ratify documents adhere to them in everything they do.
We cannot stand by in the 21st century and allow a situation where a simplistic, oppressive set of laws, and the interpretation of those laws, is allowed to affect a community in such a way. I ask the Minister and the Government what the UK can do, alongside the signatories of the ICCPR, to push further on that. What can we do with UK aid to further transparency, and what can we do to use aid for education as leverage to ensure that religion is taught as widely as possible and that we do not have the current situation of textbooks skewed against the Ahmadiyya community, which was mentioned earlier? What can we do to urge Pakistan to restore the right to vote and to repeal blasphemy laws? Finally, can we urge Pakistan to prosecute incitement and hate speech against Ahmadis and religious minorities?
This evening I am travelling to Burma, where I will meet a couple of Rohingya activists. As with any aspect of religion, the Muslim world is complex. When different denominations, sects and groups disagree on fundamental matters such as who was the last prophet and who is the true leader of their faith, it will always be complicated, but that is not to say that we cannot demand and push for greater tolerance so that we can live alongside each other, wherever we are in the world.
It is a pleasure to speak on this issue, and I thank the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) for bringing it to Westminster Hall. She has given us an opportunity to participate in a debate on a matter that is close to our hearts and that we wish to express our opinions on. I declare an interest as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief, and of the APPG on Pakistan minorities. Both groups were started last year and, as an indication of the need for them, the APPG on international freedom of religion or belief has almost 70 members and the APPG on Pakistan minorities has about 20 to 25 members. That indicates the importance of the debate.
We have heard many representations recently. The APPG on international freedom of religion or belief held an inquiry on Pakistan, which illustrated clearly the discrimination against some of the people who are here in the Public Gallery and others whom we represent. The level of discrimination against religious organisations and individuals in Pakistan, such as Ahmadis, Christians, Shi’as, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs and Jews, is immense. That was clear to me and to everyone involved in the inquiry. We hope that the final statement on that inquiry will be made by the end of February or the beginning of March.
The state of religious freedom in Pakistan has clearly become completely inconsistent with Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s founding vision to make Pakistan a home for all religions and all religious minorities. It is probably pertinent and helpful to hear a few words from his address to the Constituent Assembly in August 1947, when he said:
“You are free; you are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in the state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed”.
What a difference between his speech in August 1947 and the realities of February 2016. The wording of the motion tabled by the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden asks us to consider the Ahmadiyyas, and other Members have illustrated the issues for them well.
The clear discrimination against the Ahmadiyyas and Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have fostered a climate of religiously motivated violence and persecution focused on those people, who we know well and who the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) referred to as a gentle people, which they are. They reach out to all religions, as we from all religions should all be doing.
Attacks have taken place on the Ahmadiyyas in recent times. On 27 July 2014 a mob of more than 100 people attacked them, setting fire to their homes, and as a result a woman and her two granddaughters died of smoke inhalation and another women suffered a miscarriage. Police said that they had the names of 420 people, as the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden said, and that charges would be brought against them. Twenty were named, but since then nothing has happened. Therefore people can understand the frustration we feel on behalf of those in Pakistan. The Minister will know that I believe that sometimes we have to be the voice of the voiceless, who need us to speak on their behalf.
From my encounters of what Christians and other minorities experience in Pakistan, we know that the freedoms that Muhammad Ali Jinnah spoke of are not the reality today. There are many cases of church bombings, mob attacks on Christian communities and rape against women and girls, which the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) illustrated clearly. Can we begin to imagine the horror for those people? There have even been attempts at forced conversion and marriage at ages as early as 12 to 14, when it is impossible to take it in.
I am privileged to be the Member for Strangford, where we have good relationships between those of all religious views. We always have had that, even through the worst times of the troubles. We have a mosque in Newtownards, and whenever there has been a focus on the people there in in my constituency, I have made it my business to go and speak to them to reassure them. I met them on a Friday when they were having their service to ensure that they knew their Member of Parliament was going to speak for them, as he should do.
In Pakistan, regardless of which minority faith an individual belongs to, all are subject to similar practices of discrimination or persecution. That is a fact in Pakistan today. The much maligned blasphemy laws have been used as a vehicle for egregious violations of religious freedom against all minorities. The United States commission on international religious freedom says of those laws:
“They inappropriately position governments as arbiters of truth or religious rightness, empowering officials to enforce particular views”.
The Government in Pakistan clearly use that for their own ends. The laws also embolden extremists to commit violent acts against perceived blasphemers. We have seen illustrations in films of people in high positions in some religions violently and aggressively speaking out against other religions. That cannot be allowed to continue. False accusations of blasphemy have served as a pretext to incite violence and permit lynch mobs.
The Shi’a community has experienced a number of attacks as well, one of which left 20 people dead and dozens injured on 13 February 2015. Its mosques have been attacked by militant groups, with a disregard for human life that is of serious concern. More recently, the killing of some 40 Shi’a Muslims in Karachi in May 2015 marked a new low in sectarian violence that has left Pakistan’s religious minorities fearing for their lives. There have been many other attacks on churches and mosques across Pakistan, one of which left 60 people dead. The Pakistani authorities must bring to justice the perpetrators of violence committed in the name of religion in those and many previous attacks through fair trials and without recourse to the death penalty—in other words, they must make the perpetrators accountable under the law, which they unfortunately have not been up to now.
The British Pakistani Christian Association estimates that about 50% of blasphemy charges are against religious minorities. Given the population size, that means minorities are 10 times more likely to be targeted with blasphemy charges. That is the reality. Pakistan’s National Commission for Justice and Peace estimates that out of 1,060 blasphemy cases over the past 25 years, 450 have been against Muslims, 457 against Ahmadis, 132 against Christians and 21 against Hindus. That clearly illustrates the focus of persecution against religious minorities in Pakistan through blasphemy laws.
Although Pakistan is yet to execute anyone charged with blasphemy, mob violence often ensues against the accused. Their families, local communities and lawyers are also targeted. All too often, the blasphemy laws have been used as an instrument for revenge in personal vendettas, property disputes, political rivalries, marital disputes and religious differences. Religion is often used in personal vendettas—“We’ll get them because it suits our circumstances.” It is used for people’s own ends; how can we ever let that happen?
As the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan highlights, other state bodies such as the police are fearful, prejudiced and often—I say this with real respect—incompetent in cases of blasphemy. The police fail to investigate cases properly or follow correct procedures. Incidents have occurred where those accused of blasphemy have been killed by the police or prison guards. Where can we be safe if we are not safe from our attackers in prison, and if we are not safe from the police? That is the reality of life in Pakistan today. That is why this Westminster Hall debate is so important, and why we are so grateful to the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden for securing it and giving us the chance to speak on this issue.
I would like to make some comments about the persecution of Christians in Pakistan. The hon. Member for Congleton outlined some examples, and I would like to add to them. There was the case of the Christian road sweeper from Lahore who was sentenced to death by hanging after accusations of blasphemy following an argument among friends. He has not been hanged but has been fined 200,000 rupees. There was the case of the woman sentenced to death on 8 November 2010 under section 295C of Pakistan’s penal code for allegedly insulting the Prophet Mohammed during an argument with a Muslim lady. A price was put on her head.
There was the case of attacks on churches in Lahore that left 14 people killed and another 70 injured. There was the attack on a church in Peshawar, where some 80 people were killed. All those things are added to our other concerns, such as the fact that young Christian and Hindu girls are forced into marriage at the earliest age. There was also the case of the late Punjab governor, Salmaan Taseer, who was killed by his own official police guard for criticising blasphemy laws. The killer was revered by thousands around Pakistan. What is wrong when that can happen?
With the rise of mobile communication technology, individuals’ photographs can be easily obtained and shared with affiliate extremist groups where perceived blasphemers are suspected to have fled, so there is often no safe haven whatever within Pakistan. Pakistan’s continuing refusal to reform or repeal the blasphemy laws creates an environment of persistent vulnerability for minority communities, placing all members of such communities in real risk.
One of the most brutal spates of violence, to which the hon. Member for Congleton referred, was against a Pakistani couple on 14 November 2014. Shama Bibi and Shahzad Masih were lynched and burned to death in a brick kiln by a crowd of some 1,200, who were incited to violence by a false rumour—and it was false—that they had committed blasphemy by burning pages of the Koran. Although there were some arrests, most of the mob got away, and there is a strong suspicion that those who were arrested and charged will be acquitted free of charge, as is usually the case. The couple’s children were left orphans and watched the butchery and horror of what happened to their parents.
That is the reality for Christians and other minorities in Pakistan. Discrimination and persecution are at times facilitated by the inaction of police and are sometimes even instigated by them. There is discrimination in education, in employment, in health, in politics and at every level of society. As a Christian, I find it particularly worrying that Pakistan is currently ranked sixth on Open Doors’ world watch list of the worst persecutors of Christians. Its score of 79 out of 100 gives it a classification of “extreme persecution”. That is not a score we would want to have.
The USCIRF has consistently deemed Pakistan a country of particular concern, which again underlines this issue. According to Aid to the Church in Need, Christians in Pakistan find themselves at the centre of a “crisis”, suffering
“some of the bloodiest persecution in the country’s history”
and facing ever more calls to abandon their faith, discrimination at work and at home and attacks on their livelihood. In practice, without the right to freely express their religion in words or actions, some Christians feel the Government are failing to provide Christians with the right to be Pakistani.
I conclude by asking the Minister three questions. What support are the UK Government providing Pakistani authorities to ensure the protection of religious minorities across Pakistan? Will the UK Government put pressure on the Pakistani authorities to reform the blasphemy laws as a matter of urgency, to provide effective safeguards against their abuse, and to investigate and prosecute for attacks on religious minorities in a thorough and transparent manner?
We in this House are charged with being the voice for the voiceless. We must speak out for those who have no voice and cannot speak for themselves. Today, this House has done that, and we look forward to the Minister’s response.
As we have heard, Ahmadis are peace-loving Muslims and yet, like other peace-loving people in our own history of Christianity and even today, they are persecuted in many parts of the world—especially in Pakistan—for no other reason than their beliefs.
Almost 40 years ago, the constitution of Pakistan was amended to declare Ahmadis as non-Muslims—to denounce them, effectively, as heretics not allowed to refer to their places of worship as mosques or quote publicly from the Koran. In this country, we rightly celebrate the courage of a young woman from Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai, for standing up to gunmen determined to persecute her and other young women for seeking an education. However, in the town of Rabwah, to which the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) referred, young Ahmadi women are forced to suffer in silence as they are often denied opportunities to pursue their studies and even prevented from living in local dormitories.
Unsurprisingly, as we have heard, in the face of that persecution many Ahmadis choose to flee to other countries. Many of them have settled in Thailand, where, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) said, a large number have found themselves subject to arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. In Indonesia, a similar pattern of persecution is developing against a community that has lived there peacefully since 1925. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) pointed out, even in Bulgaria, which is a member of the EU and the Council of Europe, and is therefore required to respect religious freedom and human rights, we see Ahmadis being prevented from registering as a religious organisation.
If anyone wants to know more about the positive contribution of the Ahmadiyya faith, I recommend that they look at the international charitable trust, Humanity First, which works across the globe alongside bodies such as the Red Cross, Oxfam and Save the Children, offering disaster relief, emergency medical services, water for life projects in west Africa and orphan care in places such as Indonesia and Burkina Faso. While some Governments tolerate terrorists and persecute Ahmadis, the Ahmadiyya community offers love and help to people across the globe.
I have seen the effort and dedication of this community in this country. In Birmingham several years ago, my good friend, Dr Mubashar Saleem, took me to an old, derelict school building in Tilton road. The Ahmadis lovingly restored it and converted it into the Darul Barakaat mosque, a place where all faiths are welcome and members of the local community are regularly invited to events. From there they organise charity fundraising events such as Ride4Peace, joint faith seminars and sessions for people to donate blood, as well as pursuing their religious worship.
However, even in Birmingham, the standing advisory council on religious education permits Ahmadis to participate in the council, providing that they do not refer to themselves as Muslims lest they offend other Muslim groups, thus perpetuating the religious intolerance that forms the basis of the persecution that we have been hearing about in Pakistan. We need to do more to respect the rights of this religious minority and make it clear that both in this country and in our relations with countries abroad, and especially in Pakistan, we are going to stand up to those who persecute this group.
As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on securing this debate, the importance of which is demonstrated by the number of people here to take part on both sides of the Chamber.
As hon. Friends from across the House have said, the Ahmadis are a faith group that makes a huge contribution in this country and internationally. I am very blessed to have an Ahmadi community in Scunthorpe. Although it is relatively small, it has been involved in a lot of good work on various things in the community, to the benefit of everybody. I take the opportunity to thank them for that today. I also had the privilege and pleasure of joining the Jalsa Salana in 2014. Everybody could see and feel the way in which the Ahmadiyya people live, with the “Love for all, hatred for none” belief that is central to their way of life.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) just pointed out, the international work done through Humanity First is an example of the way in which Ahmadis are not only working locally and nationally, but internationally on behalf of all of us. They should be commended for that, and the fact that they suffer in the way they do, in Pakistan in particular, is to be condemned.
Mr Muzaffar Ahmad, from the local Ahmadiyya community in my constituency, said to me recently that the
“persecution of any religious group should be taken seriously and dealt with. If this is not addressed at the source it can proliferate and reach our country as well.”
He went on to say that, sadly, there have been examples of discrimination closer to home. In a democratic, tolerant society such as the United Kingdom, we address those examples of discrimination and worse, and deal with them effectively in our own way. Sadly however, in Pakistan, the Ahmadi Muslim community is the only religious community to be targeted by the Pakistan state on grounds of faith. Ahmadis have been denied basic rights—the rights to life, to vote, to freedom of faith and to dignity after death.
On paper, the constitution of Pakistan does not permit discrimination for school admissions on the sole basis of religion, and as many colleagues have indicated, the Pakistani Government has signed the international covenant on civil and political rights, which—as hon. Members know—guarantees a variety of religious freedoms. However, I want to focus particularly on access to education.
To attend school in Pakistan, students must disclose their faith when applying to schools. That is a hindrance to the ability of Ahmadi Muslims to gain access to education. As I hope everyone in this Chamber and beyond knows, education can absolutely transform young people’s lives, and to be given a lesser education based on religion is nothing less than appalling.
As the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) pointed out, women and girls have been particularly discriminated against by the Pakistan state. They are particularly affected by discrimination because the style of their hijab is distinctive, which prevents them from participating fully in educational and professional settings, potentially furthering gender inequality in Pakistan.
Furthermore, Ahmadi children can be bullied in schools because of their faith. There is evidence that schools with a large number of Ahmadi students are generally assigned teachers who are less effective. All those things affect the quality of education received by Ahmadi students.
I will give a couple of examples to illustrate that discrimination in action. The case of the students in District Layyah serves as a worrisome reminder of how unfounded allegations can result in children being arrested and held in jail for months with no regard for their right to education or welfare. On 28 January 2009, in Kot Sultan, four children and one adult were accused of blasphemy and arrested under section 295-C of Pakistan’s penal code which carries the death penalty. The police arrested the accused without establishing a credible prima facie case, charging them without evidence and before conducting any investigation. The children were accused of graffiti which defiled the name of the Prophet Mohammed on the toilet walls of a local non-Ahmadi mosque.
The inspector of the case admitted that
“the police do not know of any substantial evidence that links the four students with the crime”
and there was no evidence that anything had even been written in the first place. The accused children were later moved to the DG Khan prison, which is located a long distance from their home town, making visiting difficult for relatives.
Despite the arrests, many speeches and protests were made to boycott the Ahmadis. Looting and threats of violence took place, to the extent that Ahmadi Muslims feared for their lives and were forced to move their families out of the area. All that took place despite the fact that the two men who were the prime movers in the accusation did not bring forward anything of any quality. The children remained unlawfully detained for six months before finally being granted bail. This is just one example of the sort of thing that has been and is going on, and that we should condemn.
The second example is the removal of Ahmadi Muslim public figures from educational syllabuses. Obviously, the people who are included in syllabuses become role models for achievement and so on. No educational syllabuses include major Ahmadi Muslim public figures who shaped the history of the country. Ahmadi Muslims contributed to the establishment of Pakistan in 1947 and, prior to the anti-Ahmadi laws, served the country with distinction in every sphere of life. A number of such leading figures are also known internationally for their distinctive service and contribution, including two prominent Pakistani Ahmadi Muslims. Sir Muhammad Zafarullah Khan was instrumental in deciding the Pakistani boundary before partition. He was also Pakistan’s first Foreign Minister, representative at the UN and President of the International Court of Justice at The Hague—a significant figure. Another prominent and yet easily erased figure in history is Professor Abdus Salam, a ground-breaking scientist, famous for his work in the field of physics, who was awarded the first Nobel prize in Pakistani history. People of all faiths in Pakistan can be proud of them and they should be included in the literature, syllabuses and curriculum followed in that country.
I could detail many more examples of discrimination and prevention of access to education, but I will not because I want to be brief. It is important to use our leadership role to encourage Pakistan and ensure that it allows fair access for people of all faiths to education in their country. To be denied that is to be denied a central human right.
Some hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden and the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), have pointed out the importance of the Department for International Development’s budget and the significant amount that goes to Pakistan. We should ensure that it does not go without a commitment by that state to tackle these deep-seated issues, to allow all young people, wherever they are from, to have proper access to education and to ensure that the Ahmadis are no longer restricted in that access as they are currently.
Will the Minister indicate what steps the Government are taking to ensure that aid is not being misused by the Pakistani Government to promote religious intolerance and discrimination, and how the aid is being used as encouragement and a lever to ensure that the sort of practices that have too often come to our attention cease and that proper access is given? Will he also say what steps the Government are taking to ensure universities in the United Kingdom do not become partners with universities in Pakistan that promote religious hatred and discrimination in their educational material and their recruitment and admissions procedures?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I reiterate what my colleagues have said in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on securing the debate.
[Mr Graham Brady in the Chair]
Let me start with the words of Muhammed Ali Jinnah, the founding father of the nation, in his first presidential address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on 11 August 1947:
“You are free; you are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed”.
He then spoke about the history of religious sectarianism, relating it to Catholicism and what had gone on in England. He said:
“Thank God, we are not starting in those days. We are starting in the days where there is no discrimination, no distinction between one community and another, no discrimination between one caste or creed and another. We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State.”
I want to ask the people in this Chamber, the nation and the people of Pakistan a question: 68 years have passed since Pakistan’s independence and since Muhammad Ali Jinnah made that speech, but where have those freedoms for all the people of Pakistan gone? Where did we start, and where we have we gone? A nation consisting of 191 million people, according to the latest UN estimate, is seeing huge human rights violations and abhorrent discrimination targeting 4% of its minority community.
I have spoken in the House against the rise of Islamophobia in Europe and the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, I stand here today as someone from a minority community, as a proud Member of Parliament and as a Muslim. I can easily go to my mosque, and in fact to any mosque belonging to any sectarian denomination, with no threat to my life or religious freedom. I am deeply saddened that while I, a member of a minority community, have all these freedoms, minorities in Pakistan, such as Ahmadis, Christians, Sikhs, Hindus and others, do not have the religious freedom that Muhammad Ali Jinnah once advocated, but instead face religious persecution.
That religious persecution has led over the years to thousands of vile crimes being committed against minority communities. According to a report by the United States commission on international religious freedom, between January and June 2013—just six months—there were 108 attacks on minorities, leading to 82 deaths. Of those killed, 22 were Ahmadis, 11 were Christians, two were Hindus, one was a Sikh and 16 were from other minority groups. It must be made clear that the fight against the war on terror in Pakistan, the rise in extremism and the questionable implications of outside actors funding that extremism through the teaching systems in some madrassahs have intensified the persecution against minority communities.
The Shi’a community is a Muslim minority community recognised by the Pakistan state, yet sectarianism and extremism have led to heinous crimes being committed against it. The south Asian terrorism portal found that between 2002 and 2013, 2,086 Shia’s were killed. What is more worrying is the fact that in 2002 and 2003, six and two Shia’s respectively were killed in sectarian hate crimes, whereas 399 Shia’s were killed in 2012 and 410 in 2013.
The rising level of hate is clear, but one of the biggest concerns is that the rising level of extremism is leading to further extremist groups declaring the Shi’a community as non-Muslim and heretics—they are recognised by the state as Muslims—thus validating them for “wajibul kattal”: deserving to be killed. If that is the level of persecution of a community recognised by the state, one can only imagine the fear and terror that other minority communities in Pakistan are living in today.
This week, there have been many events throughout Parliament and across the country involving my Pakistani brothers and sisters, following an official holiday in Pakistan in solidarity with the Kashmiris. I have spoken at many of those events, and I reiterate that if we are to stand against persecution and for the freedom of the Kashmiris, we must also stand against the persecution of any minority. Everyone who is on the side of justice, whether they are religious or of no religion, and of whatever colour, gender, race, caste or creed, must speak against persecution.
The state of Pakistan has faced challenges, especially in tackling terrorism and extremism, which the armed forces and the people of Pakistan have sacrificed thousands of lives in fighting. Nevertheless, we must all stand together against all forms of hate and persecution. I would welcome and encourage Pakistan holding a religious minority conference with hundreds of world scholars, similar to the one that took place in Marrakech a few weeks ago.
Finally, as a member of a minority community who is benefiting from all the religious freedoms in my homeland, I cannot stand by and watch minorities have their freedoms discriminated against in my motherland. Pakistan is an Islamic state, so for the second time in this Chamber I will use my religion and quote verse or ayah 256 of Surat Al-Baqarah of the Koran:
“There is no compulsion in religion”.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady, and to welcome you to the Chair, with Mr Turner having departed.
It is a pleasure to be able to speak in this debate, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) for securing it. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah), who spoke passionately and knowledgeably about this issue.
I am delighted to have an Ahmadiyya community in my constituency at the Baitur Rahman mosque in Yorkhill. The community there are a model in the work that they do in reaching out to the wider community. They do regular community clean-ups, and they hold events to raise funds for Yorkhill Children’s Charity. Indeed, one of my first invitations as an MP was to start, and run in, the 5 km race that they held in Kelvingrove park. It was an absolute pleasure to run alongside them and to help at that event. They also hold dinners to celebrate and to invite in their neighbours, of all faiths and none, for discussions and to talk about peace. They even once provided pakora for my campaign team when we had set up our stall nearby, so they definitely have a place in my heart. They could not be more welcoming. I was also pleased and honoured to be asked to visit their Jalsa Salana event at Alton over the summer, at which I found out a good deal more about the Ahmadiyya community around the world and the humanitarian and education work in which they are involved. That very impressive event reflected the way they reach out to other faiths and bring other people in to find out more about what they do.
What I have also found out about, on that visit and in my continued dealings with the Ahmadiyya community, is the severe persecution that it faces. Despite adhering to many of the core tenets of the Islamic faith, including the five pillars of Islam and the six articles of belief, Ahmadiyya Muslims have been subject to persecution across the globe. I am particularly disturbed by the scale of that in Pakistan, a country with which the UK and Scotland have many close links. In Pakistan, as has been said, Ahmadiyya Muslims are not recognised as Muslims by the country’s constitution and are therefore denied their fundamental rights, such as the right to vote and freedom of religion. They have been persecuted, but the state has also enabled that persecution by not protecting Ahmadi Muslims under the law, in clear violation of international human rights obligations.
I want to discuss access to justice in particular. In Pakistan, since 1974, Ahmadi Muslims have not been recognised by the constitution, and since 1984 the penal code has made it a crime for Ahmadis to self-identify as Muslims. That means in practice that should an Ahmadi Muslim face a religiously motivated attack, they would be incriminating themselves even by reporting it. Specifically, section 298-C of the Pakistan penal code states that any
“person of the Quadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves ‘Ahmadis’ or by any other name), who directly or indirectly, poses…as a Muslim”
can face up to three years’ imprisonment and a fine. For most such offences, bail is granted only at the discretion of the court, and they can be pursued by the police without the need for an arrest warrant.
In its November 2015 report, entitled “On Trial: The Implementation of Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws”, the International Commission of Jurists challenged the vague and unfair nature of those laws, picking up on the impact that they have on various religious communities, including the Ahmadiyya community. I will quote directly from the report:
“The vague wording of section 295-C has particularly affected members of the Ahmadiyya community. In some cases, judges have interpreted the expression of religious beliefs by Ahmadis, as understood by the court, as a form of blasphemy.”
The report mentions several cases, but most disturbingly of all it states:
“Justice (r) Mian Nazir Akhtar, who is reported to have made public statements calling for the killing of ‘blasphemers’, was a member of the Bench.”
He was dispensing justice while having those beliefs, and having encouraged people to kill those found to be “blaspheming”. Those views are absolutely appalling and should have no place in any justice system in the world.
According to a campaign website that the Ahmadiyya community have set up, stopthepersecution.org, Ahmadi Muslims have been attacked and buildings and monuments have been desecrated and destroyed since the criminalisation of the faith in 1984. That includes several hundred people being killed or assaulted, 65 Ahmadi Muslims being denied burial in a Muslim cemetery, 83 mosques being destroyed, sealed or forcibly occupied, the banning of the construction of 52 mosques and, distressingly, 39 Ahmadi bodies being exhumed after burial. Such incidents go largely unpunished in Pakistan’s legal system. It is clear that those who perpetrate such acts can do so with the tacit agreement of the state.
The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden mentioned the family whose home was burnt down while they were inside it and the lady, Mubashara Jarra, who survived the attack but lost the baby she was carrying and her two nieces, and whose mother died of smoke inhalation. The incident that triggered that is claimed to have been a blasphemous Facebook post by an Ahmadi youth. It seems absolutely incredible that someone making a comment on social media could result in the burning down of people’s homes and the attacking of a community, but that is just a picture of the discrimination that this community faces in Pakistan. It is said that during the attack the police did very little to intervene, and there has not been much justice since then, either. It is a desperately worrying situation.
Several hon. Members mentioned Mr Tahir Mehdi Imtiaz, who has been detained for almost a year without charge for allegedly publishing blasphemous material. Again, that is a violation of article 9 of the universal declaration of human rights, which sets out that there should not be arbitrary detention or arrest without charge. My understanding from what I have read is that he has not yet been bailed or a trial date set.
The anti-blasphemy laws in Pakistan allow for wide-ranging complaints against persons, and it is reported that they are often used against the Ahmadiyya community as well as other religious minorities in the country. The UK Government, I hope, would agree with me that that is unacceptable. I would like them to use the influence that we have from our long-standing relationship with Pakistan in many different ways to challenge the Government of Pakistan to change their position and scrap that unfair, unjust and discriminatory law. Pakistan ostensibly supports the universal declaration of human rights, so it must remove the anti-Ahmadi laws from its constitution.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. May I take this opportunity to welcome the members of the Ahmadiyya community who are here for the debate? You are most welcome. I thank the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) for securing the debate. I declare an interest, along with my friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), as a member of the APPG on international freedom of religion or belief.
I was going to start with a quote from Muhammad Ali Jinnah, but as usual the hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) has stolen my thunder before I have even begun. I will make reference to her speech later in my remarks.
The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden talked about a number of specific cases that are of great interest in relation to human rights issues in Pakistan—voting, the blasphemy laws and the right to religious freedom—and called on the UK Government to seek the immediate release of Mr Imtiaz and Mr Shakoor. We are hoping to hear from the Minister in that respect.
An excellent point was made in relation to the use of the DFID budget in Pakistan. I was in Pakistan just last year and attended a number of meetings with Ministers there. I can assure all those here today and beyond that issues to do with the persecution of people of minority faith and minority religions and communities were brought up at every single meeting. It is important—I look forward to hearing from the Minister about this—to ensure that the DFID budget can be used to greater effect in that respect. The hon. Lady mentioned Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s remarks about being the Prime Minister for all of Pakistan. Again, I look forward to hearing from the Minister about how those words can be brought more to bear in a practical sense.
We then heard from the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who spoke about the brother of the Minister for minorities in Pakistan¸ who was here recently and spoke about his brother and also quoted Muhammad Ali Jinnah—a much quoted person. The hon. Lady also spoke of the plight of minority women. As always, women are disproportionately affected by such issues.
We then heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier), who thanked the Ahmadi community, with which she has been engaging in her constituency. She, too, spoke about issues to do with the electoral register that are resulting in the disfranchisement of people, which we should be working hard to guard against.
The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) made a number of excellent points. I pay tribute to his pronunciation of “As-salaam alaikum”, which was one of the best that I have heard. He spoke of the wide interpretation of blasphemy laws, which always contributes to persecution. He also referred to being a member of the UK delegation to the Council of Europe, which I enjoy with him. It is an important forum for raising issues of human rights. I speak on behalf of the whole delegation in assuring all those here and beyond that we will ensure that human rights are central to all that we do.
We heard from the hon. Member for Strangford, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief. I have spoken in a number of the same debates as him. He is a passionate advocate of religious freedom and spoke of the importance of all of us reaching out to all religions. An important term he used was “the voice of the voiceless”.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) spoke of the persecution of the Ahmadiyya community beyond Pakistan in Indonesia and Bulgaria, about which we look forward to hearing from the Minister. The hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) referred to women and young girls facing discrimination due to the style of hijab they wear, which distinguishes them and leaves them open to further opportunities for persecution.
The hon. Member for Bradford West quoted Muhammad Ali Jinnah. There is one more quote about women that is important as we speak of the father of the nation of Pakistan. He said that
“no nation can ever be worthy of its existence that cannot take its women along with the men. No struggle can ever succeed without women participating side by side with men. There are two powers in the world; one is the sword and the other is the pen. There is a great competition and rivalry between the two. There is a third power stronger than both, that of the women.”
I implore the Government of Pakistan to remember the words of the founding father of the nation and to put them into practice in relation to women and minority communities across Pakistan. The hon. Member for Bradford West said that if we believe in justice, we must speak for all who face injustice. That is an excellent point, to which I would add that no one equality is more important or more virtuous than another, and that should be at the forefront of our thinking.
Finally we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), who is engaging very actively with members of the Ahmadiyya community by running races and the like, which is very impressive indeed. It is a demonstration that when we engage with our minority communities, we get back so much more than we give, and we must continue to do so.
A number of questions on the promotion of religious tolerance have been asked of the Department for International Development. An answer from the Minister of State, Department for International Development, the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne), is welcome because it states:
“DFID supports the rights of all groups to follow their religious faith and to live safe lives”,
and that wherever possible our programmes in Pakistan seek to ensure that that is the case.
I welcome the fact that the head of DFID Pakistan raised the issue in October as part of the bilateral assistance talks. I am keen that that type of engagement continues, because it is necessary. Will the Minister let us know what level and proportion of the UK’s development funding in Pakistan is invested in such projects?
I asked a parliamentary question about the make-up of the community engagement forum, which was set up a little while ago in relation to community cohesion across these islands. The Home Office confirmed that members of the Ahmadiyya community—Fareed Ahmad, from the Ahmadiyya Muslim Association and Farooq Aftab, the general secretary of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association—were represented on the Prime Minister’s community engagement forum. Those are welcome appointments.
The debate pack produced by the House of Commons Library is extensive and details a number of parliamentary questions and answers on similar topics to those raised in today’s debate. However, none of those answers contain any evidence that the pressure brought to bear by the UK Government in Pakistan on issues relating to the persecution of religious minorities has had any positive effect. I hope that the Minister will offer some words of encouragement to those of us who have participated in the debate and, indeed, to members of the Ahmadiyya community who are listening.
The Scottish National party is opposed to religious persecution. Religious freedoms are a fundamental human right, and we are disappointed that the Pakistan Government continue to condone and conduct religiously motivated attacks. We call upon the Foreign Secretary to press the Government of Pakistan to take action against all religious persecution. Pakistan should—this point was raised when we there with the British Council—reform its blasphemy laws, which are incompatible with the international covenant on civil and political rights, which it has signed. We also call on the Foreign Secretary to take further steps to stop the death penalty in Pakistan.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. It does not seem very long ago that I was sitting on your side of the Table. It was also a pleasure to serve under the chairmanship of Mr Turner, who has now left. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) for introducing this important debate. Religious intolerance and persecution should have no place anywhere in the world today, but unfortunately, as we have heard so clearly this afternoon, it does. It is a matter of huge regret that countries, especially Pakistan, continue to persecute minorities—not just the Ahmadiyya Muslims but other minorities as well.
As well as the powerful opening speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden, we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce)—I hope I can call her my hon. Friend—with whom I served recently on the International Development Committee. She always stands up for the rights of Christians and minorities in other countries of the world, and draws our attention to the plight of women and girls, who so often suffer when minorities are persecuted.
The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) made a powerful and well-researched speech. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) is clearly an expert and has a great interest in matters of persecution and religious freedom. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is a champion for the rights not only of Christians here and in other countries in which they are a minority but of other minority religious communities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) always speaks so well on any issue related to home affairs, especially discrimination. My hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) and I have worked closely on many issues to do with the persecution of minorities—not only religious ones. Indeed, we have travelled to India together to see the plight of the Tibetan Buddhist community there.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah)—my near neighbour, as I am an MP for Leeds—spoke powerfully from personal knowledge and understanding about the persecution of Ahmadiyya Muslims and the state of Pakistan today. The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) spoke about the communities that she is proud to represent and which suffer the kind of persecution that we have heard so much about. Finally, the Scottish National party spokesperson, the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) made a very good summing-up speech.
There were some relevant interventions from my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr Spellar), my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) and the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White), all of whom are no longer in their place.
In Pakistan, religious freedom is consistently trampled upon by state laws, and sectarian violence arises from that. There have been calls by United States Government agencies, such as the United States Commission on International Freedom, to designate Pakistan a country of concern, with the possibility of the USA removing its aid to Pakistan. In the UK, the Home Office and civil society groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented persistent and increasing sectarian violence against religious minorities in Pakistan. The Washington Post in April 2013 stated:
“Pakistan tops worst list for religious freedom”.
Ahmadiyya Muslims are particularly targeted for persecution; laws restricting the practice of their religion are used often to threaten and harass them. My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden stated that it is shocking that the persecution of the Ahmadiyya community is enshrined in law. It certainly is shocking to all of us who are democrats and believe in religious freedom.
Approximately 95% of the population of Pakistan are Muslim—70% Sunni and 25% Shi’a—with Christians making about 1.5%, Hindus about 2% and, according to some statistics, Ahmadis approximately 0.2%. However, the exact number of Ahmadiyya Muslims in Pakistan is disputed. It is estimated to be between 600,000 and 2 million. We have heard this afternoon that Pakistan has repressive blasphemy laws and has enshrined in law and the constitution amendments that specifically target the Ahmadis; but the Pakistani Government have failed to take up their Supreme Court’s recommendations in 2014 in relation to violence against religious minorities, and the proposal to form a special police force to monitor sectarian violence. The Pakistani Government have also failed to amend or repeal blasphemy law provisions that give the pretext for violence. Militant groups continue to attack religious minorities. Human Rights Watch stated in 2015 that
“the failure to prosecute or imprison suspects of religious violence is in part due to the sympathy for some groups within the security forces”.
We have heard that Hindu women are victims of forced conversions and forced marriages because Pakistani law does not recognize Hindu marriages. The main justification for state action against religious minorities and the vigilante justification for sectarian violence are those blasphemy laws enshrined in Pakistani law. Blasphemy is considered by the state, and by many Pakistanis, as the defiling of the Prophet Mohammed and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe said, section 295-C of the penal code of Pakistan states:
“Use of derogatory remarks etc. in respect of the Holy Prophet: Whether by words, either spoken or written by visible representations, or by imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) shall be punishable with death, imprisonment for life, and shall be liable to fine”.
In 1986, the blasphemy laws were reformulated and capital punishment was prescribed as the maximum punishment. However, no one, thank goodness, has yet been executed for blasphemy.
Blasphemy allegations are often false, as we have heard, and are often used to promote violence against religious minorities. In 2015 the Home Office said:
“There is clear evidence that the legislation is used by non-state actors to threaten and harass Ahmadis”.
Victims of attacks by non-state actors are unable to seek effective state protection from authorities. The Pakistani Government have consistently failed to repeal the blasphemy laws that provide a pretext for violence against religious minorities. In 2014 there were a record 1,400 cases of people being arrested for blasphemy in Pakistan. In 2015 17 people were convicted of blasphemy, and they are now on death row; 19 others are serving life sentences.
Blasphemy laws have nothing to do with blasphemy and are often used to settle petty disputes and personal vendettas. Accusations of blasphemy are usually the only pretence needed for vigilante groups to attack religious minorities in Pakistan. Saima Baig, a Karachi-based environmentalist, wrote in the Huffington Post recently on a case that we have already heard about in the debate:
“A man named Abdus Salam, who was an Ahmadi, won the Nobel prize in Physics in 1979. The anti-Ahmadi sentiment is so inherent that Pakistan even refuses to acknowledge its only other Nobel Laureate”.
The other one is Malala Yusufsai, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak mentioned.
“His persecution led to him leaving the country. And we rewarded him by desecrating his grave”.
In a separate article on religious persecution in Pakistan Saima Baig said:
“The State of Pakistan must really think about whether it wants to join the rest of the world in the current century and promulgate and implement laws that provide security and safety to its citizens. This is the responsibility of the State and it must not be allowed to shirk it in the name of religion. Pakistan must do away with instituting 7th century laws that have no basis in today’s society. It is not hard to do so.”
Deutsche Welle reported on an attack in November last year:
“On Saturday, November 21, an angry mob in the eastern Punjab province set ablaze a factory owned by the Ahmadis, after one of its employees was accused of desecrating the Koran.
‘The incident took place after we arrested the head of security at the factory, Qamar Ahmed Tahir, for complaints that he ordered the burning of Korans,’ Adnan Malik, a senior police official in the Jhelum city, told the media.
‘We registered a blasphemy case against Tahir, who is Ahmadi by faith, and arrested him after confiscating the burnt material, which also included copies of the Koran,’ Malik said.
According to local media, after the arrests hundreds of people descended on the factory, setting it on fire.
A spokesman for the local Ahmadi community said three of their members were detained by the police on blasphemy charges.
A day later on Sunday, Muslim protesters attacked and occupied an Ahmadi mosque in a town near Jehlum, as an act of ‘revenge’ for the factory incident.
‘A mob attacked our mosque in Kala Gujran, an area in Jehlum, took out its furniture and set it on fire. Then, they washed the mosque and later offered evening prayers in the mosque,’ Amir Mehmood, a member of the Ahmadi community, said.
Rights activists say that a cleric of a Muslim mosque in the area had urged the people to ‘punish’ the ‘blasphemers.’ They also accuse the local administration and the police of not preventing both attacks on the minority group.”
Labour believes, as I am sure do Members throughout the House, in freedom of religion, not just in the United Kingdom but throughout the world—the freedom to worship without fear or persecution. There is not a Member in this Chamber or the House who would oppose that.
I want in closing to pay tribute to Muhammad Nayyer, the secretary for external affairs of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Association of Leeds. He recently came to the Sinai Synagogue in Roundhay in my constituency to speak to the Leeds Jewish community about his and his community’s experience in Pakistan. After his speech I was privileged to be presented with a copy of the holy Koran by Mr Nayyer. It was the first time he had been to a synagogue, and he remarked how similar it was in many ways to his own mosque.
My final words are a quotation—
“but then eject them forever from this country. For, as we have heard, God’s anger with them is so intense that gentle mercy will only tend to make them worse and worse, while sharp mercy will reform them but little. Therefore, in any case, away with them!”
Martin Luther said that in 1543. He was writing about the Jews; but it could have been said about the Ahmadiyya Muslims in Pakistan.
It is a pleasure to work under your chairmanship today, Mr Brady. I confess I have a terrible cold, so my speech will, I think, read better than it will sound. I apologise and hope that hon. Members will bear with me.
I think that this has been a phenomenal debate, and a very important one. I pay tribute to the incredible contributions that have been made, with passion, expertise and the determination to raise an important issue. Many questions have been raised, and I will do my best to respond to a number of themes that have come up. However, as I have pledged and, I hope, done in the past, I will write to hon. Members with more details if I do not have the opportunity to cover everything to the extent they expect.
I will begin as other hon. Members have done, by congratulating the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on securing this worthwhile debate. The standard of that debate reflects what the Labour party spokesman, the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) pointed out—the House’s close interest in human rights issues not just in this country but throughout the world. He is right; and this country has a proud reputation for defending the rights of minorities such as the Yazidis of Iraq and Syria; the Baha’i of Iran; and the Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims of Burma. We have stood up for individuals such as Meriam Ibrahim in Sudan. She was raised as a Muslim but chose to follow and marry into the Christian faith, and for that choice she was punished, charged with apostasy and adultery, and imprisoned with her young son while heavily pregnant.
Today, with intolerance very much on the rise, we now see reports of anti-Semitic and anti-Christian attacks even here in Europe. It is especially important that we stand up for people’s right freely to express their faith, or indeed to have no faith at all. I welcome this opportunity to debate the specific issues of religious minorities in Pakistan, which I do not recall the House discussing during my time as Minister for the middle east, north Africa and south-east Asia.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) and others have mentioned the important contribution of the Pakistani diaspora to this country, which is important to recognise, and I am glad that it has been expressed today. Before going into the details, I say at the outset that we have a strong, powerful and important relationship with Pakistan. We have a historical relationship—Pakistan is a close ally in the Commonwealth —and we have a commercial relationship, too. Bilateral trade with Pakistan is moving towards £3 billion. We have shared security interests in the region and, as I have mentioned, we have a massive diaspora relationship, with thousands of people moving backwards and forwards between Pakistan and this country every single month.
As the hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) said in her powerful speech, Pakistan is an important country that has made progress over past decades and has gone through a difficult period as it moves from military governance to civilian governance. We should applaud and encourage the continuing path in that direction. It is important to recognise where Pakistan has come from, but our relationship means that we can have frank and important conversations about some of the details that we have discussed today. That is where we are with our relationship. I address some of the challenges that we face knowing that Pakistan is a friend, and friends should be able to say such things on the record as matters of concern.
The all-party parliamentary group on the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, which is chaired by the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden, does a great deal of valuable work to support the beleaguered Ahmadiyya minority in many countries across the world. We are not only dealing with Pakistan; other countries have been mentioned, too. I pay tribute to the group’s work. We met to discuss these issues on 20 January—my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is a regular at debates on such matters, were also there. I admire and pay tribute to the group’s leadership and chairman.
It is important that the all-party parliamentary groups on the Ahmadiyya Muslim community and on international freedom of religion or belief work together and continue to bring such matters to the fore and that we debate them in the House. Both groups discharge an invaluable service in reminding us of the importance of the freedom of religion or belief, which we in the UK are lucky enough to take for granted, but some people in other countries cannot, as we have heard today.
Religious minorities suffer more than most, and it is right that we should speak up for them on their behalf if we see evidence that their voices are not being heard and that their rights are being denied. Today’s debate, unfortunately, is a sad reminder of the persecution suffered by Ahmadiyya Muslims in Pakistan. As has been said, the Pakistani constitution discriminates against them. They struggle to exercise their right to vote because they have to state their religion from a list on the ballot paper, and because the religion is not recognised they are denied the ability to vote. The hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) mentioned education, and Ahmadiyya Muslims are denied education for the same reasons. They face arbitrary detention, their literature is banned, their mosques are attacked and, as the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) and others have said, their minarets are also destroyed.
The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh), the spokesman for the Scottish National party, also talked about the lack of justice in Pakistan. Last year’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office annual human rights report detailed cases of extremists specifically targeting Ahmadiyya Muslims. The report highlighted the case of an Ahmadiyya man who was shot and killed after a Muslim leader denounced the Ahmadiyya as “enemies of Pakistan” on a popular television show. I am sorry to say that it is not only the Ahmadiyya Muslim community that experiences persecution. Shi’a, Hazara, Christian and other religious communities also face intimidation and violence, forced conversion and marriage, attacks on places of worship and sectarian killings. All those appalling abuses continue to take place.
The misuse of blasphemy laws against Muslims and members of religious minorities, such as Christians, can lead to mob violence and the potential use of the death penalty against victims, which is a particular concern. A stark example is the case of Mrs Asia Bibi, a Christian lady who was accused of blasphemy after drinking water from the same bowl as a Muslim woman. She is facing execution after five years on death row. People in her own village, including religious leaders, have publicly stated that they would kill her if she is released. I continue to follow her appeal process very closely.
The Government deplore violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief, wherever they occur. We regularly urge the Government of Pakistan to honour their international commitments and guarantee fully the human rights of all Pakistani citizens. The scale of the challenge facing Pakistan is illustrated in the film “He Named Me Malala,” which I saw a couple of months ago. I had the honour of meeting Malala Yousafzai when she spoke at the Syria conference last speak, highlighting again the plight of minorities. It was an honour to have her at the conference.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I will address the role of the Department for International Development. Pakistan is a country in which we invest an awful lot of money. There have been many questions about whether that funding should be conditional, and I will address those issues. He makes a valid point, and we are a friend of Pakistan. We want to work with the country, which allows us to highlight such areas to ensure that there is progress.
I can see that the Minister is in trouble with his cold. I am unclear on whether the governor of Punjab has been to the UK or is about to come to the UK. If he has been, were the Government able to raise the issue of the Ahmadiyya in his region? If he is about to come, will the Minister include it in those discussions?
I met the governor of Punjab—he happens to be the brother of the Prime Minister of Pakistan, so he has access to the powerbase—prior to meeting the APPG, so I did not specifically raise the plight of the Ahmadiyya community, but I did raise other matters. The plan is that I will visit the country in the near future. I, the Foreign Secretary and others have taken many opportunities to raise these issues and the plight of other minorities in Pakistan.
Our high commissioners are being changed over, and this morning I met Tom Drew, our next high commissioner, who is about to depart for Islamabad, and we discussed these very issues. He is aware of the concern and of the fact that this debate is happening today. We have also raised the issue with the Pakistani high commissioner in London, and I assure the hon. Lady that the next time I meet the Chief Minister of Punjab I will raise it with him, too.
I understand that the Minister’s voice is under some pressure; we can appreciate that. I just gently say to him that there will be a report from the all-party group on international freedom of religion or belief, which will be the Pakistan inquiry. It might be helpful for him to receive a copy. If he is happy with that, when we get a chance we will ensure that he receives a copy of the report—the inquiry was chaired by Lord Alton of the other place—as it might be helpful when it comes to presenting the case on behalf of all those religious minorities in Pakistan.
I will be very grateful to receive that; I thank the hon. Gentleman very much indeed for the offer.
In addition to the conversations that I have already mentioned, in August last year the Foreign Secretary expressed our concerns about religious freedom and the misuse of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan. The misuse of those laws is at the core of what we are discussing here. Our concern is that sometimes judges are not willing to enforce these blasphemy laws because of concerns about their own safety. We need to encourage and further advance greater maturity of the justice system in Pakistan.
I have also impressed on the Pakistani high commissioner to the UK, Syed Abbas, the importance not only of respecting the rights of religious minorities in Pakistan but the importance of the Ahmadiyya, Shi’a, Hazara and Christian communities, many of which we have referred to in debates here in Westminster Hall and in the main Chamber.
We also work through the European Union to promote human rights overseas. For example, the EU preferential market access scheme has helped to incentivise progress on human rights in Pakistan. This has led to the creation of a cell to help with the implementation of international human rights obligations. Also, Pakistan has submitted overdue UN treaty reports and re-established a Government ministry specifically to lead on human rights. That is a very important and welcome development. This progress is encouraging, but we cannot be complacent. We recognise the need to maintain the pressure on the Government of Pakistan to honour their commitments to human rights, and we will continue to do that.
I turn now to some of the other matters that have been raised this afternoon. First, there is the issue of international aid. Aid is provided not on a national basis but on a federal basis, so we discuss these matters with the various chief ministers in Pakistan. As hon. Members know, the Foreign Office does not lead on aid, but I promise hon. Members that I will meet the relevant Minister in the Department for International Development to make sure that we can see that aid is being properly distributed in Pakistan.
Hon. Members will be aware that we have a proud legacy of making sure that aid goes to vulnerable people and is not somehow tied up in conditionality. The problem with placing conditions on the aid that we give is that we can end up denying it to the very vulnerable people whom we want to support. So we need to look at cognitive measures that will enhance and encourage change, but also recognise that the DFID contribution to Pakistan is immense. Indeed, I think that it is one of the highest aid contributions in the world.
I fully accept what the Minister is saying about conditionality. The important issue that I ask him to raise with DFID Ministers is the fact that religious discrimination is a root cause of poverty, as we have demonstrated today in this Chamber. However, in my opinion, to date DFID Ministers have not sufficiently addressed this issue as a cause of poverty in the way that other issues have been addressed, for fear of appearing to discriminate. That is a hurdle in thinking that we need to overcome.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the criteria that must be met for aid to be advanced to a country. The development committee that focuses on these issues wrote the rules back in the 1950s, and the guidance on overseas development support was written in the aftermath of the second world war and designed to focus on poverty itself. We know today that instability is also directly linked to the cause of poverty, but the rules have not changed.
I have been encouraging change, and we are slowly moving in that direction. Those rules need to be updated and advanced, to recognise other ways of ensuring that poverty can be tackled, such as by providing stability and improved governance, so that people make better decisions to move their country forward and also alleviate the challenges of poverty.
A number of hon. Members spoke not only about Pakistan but about the wider issues. I think we spoke of those issues when we met the all-party group on the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. Bulgaria was mentioned as well, which raises eyebrows. This is a country in Europe; it is part of the European Union. Why on earth are we seeing this sort of persecution in Bulgaria as well? I raised this issue with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe, and he is pursuing it from his angle. I will ask him to be in touch with the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden to provide an update of what is going on. However, I am aware that the Grand Mufti of Bulgaria is very influential in these circumstances. We need to work harder, particularly as Bulgaria is essentially part of the European community, to ensure that persecution of the Ahmadiyya community does not happen so close to the UK.
A couple of other countries were also mentioned at that meeting. For example, on Thailand we continue to work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, not only on a wide range of refugee issues but on persecution as well. Again, I will write to hon. Members with more details of what is happening on that front. As I say, Thailand was raised at the all-party group meeting. So, finally, was Indonesia.
Our ambassador in Jakarta has discussed these issues, including the plight of the Ahmadiyya community, with the Minister of Religious Affairs, and has urged him and other community leaders to ensure that the right of individuals to practise freedom of religion and belief is respected, and indeed protected. I understand that a Bill is now going through that is based on the protection of religious and faith communities, and I hope that that will be a major advancement in Indonesia. However, we need to keep the pressure on and keep working on this issue.
To conclude, I once again thank the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden—
I apologise for extending the Minister’s time on his feet, but will he address the issue raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) about the religious inter-faith forum? It was set up by the Foreign Office under the coalition Government, but at this time it does not seem to have been re-established.
I had asked for a note on that, to see what had happened. If I may, I will write to the hon. Lady. I am not familiar with where things are at the moment, and it would be wrong for me to place something on the record without knowing the details. However, the importance of this issue has been raised; the hon. Lady’s point is on the record, and I will write to her with more details as to what stage that forum is at.
To conclude, Mr Brady, thank you very much indeed for the opportunity to place these important points on the record and to put into context the work that the Government are doing to put pressure on Pakistan, one of our important allies, to advance its views on dealing with the persecution of the Ahmadiyya, and indeed of other religious groups, in Pakistan and in other countries.
I assure hon. Members that we will continue to take every opportunity to raise issues of concern with the government of Pakistan; indeed, when I next meet the Chief Minister of Punjab, I will raise this issue. Our aim is, of course, that one day everyone, everywhere, whatever their faith or belief, will enjoy the rights that we in this country take for granted
I thank you for your chairmanship, Mr Brady, and I warmly thank every Member who has contributed to the debate. I think in excess of 16 Members have spoken. When I discovered that we had the Thursday afternoon before recess slot, I thought, “Oh dear.” I thought that I would be bringing the Lahore telephone book with me in an effort to fill some time. I am sure that everyone will agree that we have had tremendous and moving contributions from Members representing nearly all the parties in the House, and I thank them for that. I also thank the Ahmadiyya community for encouraging this amount of interest and support. It is a relatively small community in our country. It always punches above its weight—“punches” is probably the wrong word to use for a community that is not violent—and gets involved in its community and its issues at home. I thank all involved.
We have heard about the many dimensions of persecution of the Ahmadiyya community, but also about other religious minorities in Pakistan. I hope that our discussion will mark the beginning, not the end, of the UK Government’s consideration of what they can do to end religious persecution in Pakistan. Like many other groups who have sought refuge in the UK, the Ahmadiyya community gives so much back to this country. It is a great champion of charitable causes and promotes peace, cohesion and understanding in our communities, but the Ahmadis are fearful for their families, loved ones, friends and fellow community members back in Pakistan, where their lives remain at risk if they openly practise their faith. As anti-Ahmadi sentiment becomes more pervasive across borders, we are increasingly seeing discrimination in other countries, too. As our debate has demonstrated, the extent to which Ahmadis cannot access justice, enfranchisement or equal treatment in Pakistan cannot be underestimated. The persecution that they face is simply intolerable in this day and age.
The UK is proud to have Pakistan as a close ally—we all commend and celebrate that, but the relationship also requires the UK to make it clear that the freedom for Ahmadis and all religious groups to practise their religion without fear is a fundamental right. The UK Government and this House have a strong moral responsibility to encourage freedom of religion and freedom of speech, not just within our own borders, but internationally. They are not just British values but universal human rights.
I look forward to the Minister and the UK Government taking a more proactive approach in promoting what should be absolutely universal: the Ahmadi message of “Love for all, hatred for none.” That message still endures despite the persecution of Ahmadis, and it is a message we can all share.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the persecution of Ahmadiyya Muslims and other religious minorities in Pakistan.