Thursday 26 October 2017
[Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]
Backbench Business Committee
International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day
I beg to move,
That this House has considered International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day.
It is only right to put on the record my thanks to you, Mr Evans, for making it down to fill the gap and chair this debate. That is much appreciated not only by me, but by all the other right hon. and hon. Members who have made it their business to come along and take part today.
I am delighted to have secured this important debate. Members will know that the issue is close to my heart. They will also know that yesterday, at Speaker’s House, we launched the report, “Article 18: From rhetoric to reality”. I am keen that Members who do not have a copy will be in possession of one before the day is out. The report is about moving from talking about the issue to the reality of it. Through the report we have tried to show how this House could best do that through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development. We want to mark International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day. It falls annually on 27 October, which is tomorrow, and was mentioned in the House today by the Second Church Estates Commissioner and by Mr Speaker.
The right to freedom of religion or belief is better known as FORB. I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, and have been for the past three years. The APPG is well supported by some 90 MPs and peers and is co-chaired by the hon. Member for Luton South (Mr Shuker) and Baroness Berridge. We thank all of them for their participation and support. One of our officers is the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy).
FORB is the jargon term used by those of us working on freedom of belief. The right is outlined in article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights, which states:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
We stand up for the rights of those of a Christian belief, those of other beliefs and those with no belief. That is a key issue for us in Parliament and in the APPG.
The legally binding version of the right can be found in the international covenant on civil and political rights, which has been signed or ratified by 175 countries. Although some states have made reservations to article 18, stating that they will implement it in line with their interpretation of sharia law, the right can be restricted only in exceptional circumstances. There is a perception that advancing the right strengthens male religious leaders’ ability to control groups, rather than it being seen as a right of individuals, which it truly and legally is. There are no protections under the right for religions or beliefs to be free from adverse comments. As a result, there is no justification or protection for states seeking to criminalise the defamation or insulting of any religion or belief.
Just today in business questions in the House, I raised a point about Nepal, which has brought in a new and very strict law. The law is stricter than the corresponding law in Pakistan, India or any of the other countries close by. It will clearly restrict the rights of those of a Christian belief and other religious minorities. We tried to influence that change in law, so it is hard when we find that it will still go ahead.
I welcome the Minister, and I am pleased to see him in his place. He understands the issue well, and we talked about it before the debate. He has had sight of some of my comments, so we look forward to his response. I thank him for that. I also thank the shadow Minister in advance for her contribution, which I know will be just as good as everyone else’s.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman securing this important debate. To reiterate what he is saying, if the new domestic legislation in Nepal does not align with international law and international mores, Nepal’s constitution will essentially mean that the state can discriminate—quite viciously, if required—against any person who does not share the state’s religious belief or who does not even have a belief. Is that correct?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely on the button; he has totally encapsulated the situation. Those of a Christian or other religious minority in Nepal are clearly second-class citizens. There is a caste system in many of these countries, and those minorities are below the caste system. That gives an idea of where they are. The law directly discriminates against those people. I thank him for his intervention. He has raised exactly one of the issues I want to speak about.
Recognition of FORB can be found throughout history. Over the years there has been greater recognition of the importance of freedom of religious belief. I feel almost like another Member in the Chamber, who waxes back into the centuries of history that he has knowledge of. I might repeat that slightly today. Freedom of religious belief has a history going back to 550 BC, when King Cyrus the Great declared that all subjects were free to worship as they wished. The Prophet Mohammed’s constitution of Medina declared citizens equal and indivisible regardless of religion. FORB is a right that can be rooted and implemented within all religious and cultural contexts.
Just yesterday our APPG published its report, “Article 18: From rhetoric to reality”, which was long in the making. It looks at how best to advance the right in different countries and makes several recommendations to the Government that I hope the Minister has read and taken note of, and will respond to.
The hon. Gentleman is a strong champion for faith communities, as is well known in this place. I, too, welcome the report, which is a fantastic development in this policy area. Does he agree that fundamentally we need to have a certain linkage between the UK’s aid programme and religious tolerance? We should not support regimes that, frankly, persecute minorities just because of their faith.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and that is why we are having this debate today. He makes a point that we are trying to put forward. He is vociferous on this issue in his constituency, as other Members are in theirs. I know that he will convey that point to parishioners in his constituency and let them know that we debated the issue in the House, that we supported those across the world who have been persecuted and that we were that voice for the voiceless—those people who have no one to speak for them and who we perhaps will never meet in this world, but will hopefully meet in the next. That is the duty we have.
The report talks about how best to advance the right of religious freedom in different countries. We made several recommendations, which I know the Minister will take on board. I am sure that colleagues will join me in welcoming recent developments from the Government, including yesterday’s declaration by the Minister for the Commonwealth and the UN that freedom of religious belief was for him a political and personal priority. Hearing a Minister say that should encourage us greatly. We should be encouraged about where we are and how our Government are going to take this matter forward for us—I am not trying to anticipate the Minister’s response today, but I know that there is an indication that will be the case.
I am sorry to have missed the start of the hon. Gentleman’s speech—I was trying to corral a Chairman. I pay tribute to the considerable work that the hon. Gentleman does in this area, particularly in support of the Christian communities around the world that are under increasing—probably intensifying—pressure. However, we should not forget people’s right in all societies to have no belief, and I think we should encompass those people in our concerns.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his knowledge of these issues and for his intervention. If he had been here at the beginning, he would have heard me mention that we are here to speak about those of a Christian belief, those with other beliefs and those with no belief. That is important, and it was endorsed by everyone in the room. The right hon. Gentleman will be encouraged to know that that was the case.
We are not always aware of its work, but Christian Solidarity Worldwide—some of its representatives might be in the Gallery today—made it its business to speak on behalf of a person jailed in the Philippines because he is an atheist. Representatives of Christian Solidarity Worldwide went to speak to him, engage with him and help him. We should be aware that many organisations who are stakeholders in that group do that already.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Truthfully, I am not sure I am in a position to answer that question, but wherever there is true Christianity—or true religious belief, whatever the religion may be—people should be able to practise other religions. That is what I wish to see. Does it happen in every country? No, but it happens in many.
The report’s first recommendations are to ask the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Development to identify freedom of religion or belief as a political priority of both Departments, and to establish a FORB programming funding stream to support that work. In some of the questions that I and other Members have put forward recently, we have tried to focus on that and perhaps nudge the Government towards doing it. Hopefully, the Minister will give an indication of how that will work in his response. It is also important that our embassies around the world have the freedom of religious belief clearly in their psyche, and that they are able to respond well to those concerns. Some Members may have heard my co-chair Baroness Berridge raise those issues last week on BBC Radio 4’s “Sunday” programme.
Although there is now considerable talk about FORB and how to tackle violations of that right, there is an ever-pressing need for systematic and proactive actions and policies to move FORB from rhetoric to reality. The scope of FORB violations is extensive, as the report clearly states—if Members have not read it, please let us know and we will make sure they receive a copy. It sets out 10 examples of persecution—of Christians, of those with other religions and, indeed, of those with no religion—and where it is necessary to speak up.
According to the Pew Research Centre, nearly 80%
“of the world’s population lived in countries with high or very high levels of restrictions and/or hostilities”
towards certain beliefs. The violations are truly global. There is not just one type of perpetrator or victim. Groups that face persecution in one country may be the persecutors in others. In his comments at Speaker’s House yesterday, Lord Ahmad noted that we want a society where Muslims speak for Christians, Christians speak for Hindus and Jehovah’s Witnesses speak for Shi’as. That came out of the international conference held in September 2015, and if we all did that, that would encapsulate what we need to do across the whole world.
Since 1978, waves of violence carried out by the Myanmar state and military have been directed towards the 1 million Rohingya Muslims living largely in Rakhine state. The 1982 citizenship law made it almost impossible for the Rohingya to keep their citizenship, and temporary voting cards handed out in 1993 were revoked before the 2015 election. The Rohingya have no parliamentary representation and are largely viewed as illegal immigrants. Recent military violence against the Rohingya, killing more than 1,000 people and forcing more than half a million—I think that figure has now increased to nearly 800,000—to flee to Bangladesh, Indonesia and Thailand, has been described by the UN as ethnic cleansing. There are about 120,000 Christians among those 800,000, and they have also had to flee with nothing. None of us, inside or outside this Chamber, could fail to be moved by the fate of those people.
I also want to speak about the Baha’is. I was fortunate last week to be invited to an event in my constituency to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Bahá’u’lláh—I hope my pronunciation is okay, for an Ulster Scots man—the founder of the Baha’i faith. Its motto is:
“The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens”.
If we want to encapsulate what we should all be trying to do, when we look on all our brothers and sisters wherever they might be across the world, that phrase—“and mankind its citizens”—is something we should be aware of.
I was introduced to the Baha’i faith when I was mayor in 1992, in a different life, by Eddie and Mary Whiteside, who lived in my constituency. Eddie passed away a few years ago but his wife and family still live there. He introduced me to the Baha’i faith, and told me a lot about what they try to do. I have never before met such gentle people—gentle in nature, in how they approach people and how they see things across the world. I am very conscious of them, and they epitomise the resilience of faith communities. I celebrated the 200th anniversary of the birth of their founder. Bahá’u’lláh taught that religious prejudice destroys the edifice of humanity; peace and security are unattainable without unity. The brothers and sisters, sometimes literally, of those I joined at that celebration are, however, undergoing systematic oppression in Iran.
I do not want to be political—though perhaps it is hard being a politician not to be political—and I do not want to refer to the Iran nuclear deal. Members will know that when that matter came to the House—my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds) will remember that night—I made my comments very clear. I felt that we should tie in any Iranian nuclear deal with human rights and equality. We should have done that. We did not do that the way that I wanted it done, and many Members on both sides of the House spoke equally strongly about it.
Those brothers and sisters are undergoing systematic oppression. Government authorities have killed or executed more than 200 Baha’is recently, and more than 10,000 have been dismissed from Government or university positions since 1979. As of February this year, at least 90 Baha’is remain imprisoned. They are not allowed to own property or have a job like we do, or organise, and their children are not able to get the opportunity of education, and healthcare is also restricted. That is the life of Baha’is in Iran. Today, in this House, we want to speak for the Baha’is, for the Rohingya Muslims and Christians, and for those people who are being systematically abused.
The Minister will no doubt have heard of the crimes of ISIS towards religious communities in Iraq and Syria, including an estimated 250,000 Yazidis, and they really “make you bad”—that is how we would describe it back home. They undermine confidence in the world and the people that live in it. The Yazidis have been particularly abused. They have been murdered, and Yazidi women have been subject to all sorts of attacks. Some 150,000 Yazidis fled to Mount Sinjar, where hundreds perished before a co-ordinated rescue operation could be carried out. Christian leaders estimate that there are now fewer than 250,000 Christians in Iraq, down from the pre-2003 estimate of 1.4 million—what a drop!
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his excellent speech and for bringing this important debate to Westminster Hall. Does he share my concern about evidence presented to the International Development Committee in the previous Parliament, which showed that Christians, in particular, in the refugee camps in Syria are being persecuted and now often do not go to the camps? The Minister and the Department for International Development should work together to ensure people of all religious beliefs are safe and secure in the camps.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. She, like everyone else in the Chamber, has a particular interest in this debate. She is very active on these issues in her constituency, and we have discussed them at length.
This month, it has been estimated that there are 70 mass graves containing the remains of ISIS victims. There was an article in one of the newspapers the other day about one of the towns outside Raqqa, which has just been liberated, in which 20,000 Christian people had lived along the banks of the river. Of those 450—almost 500—families, there are just 50 left. They live in mud huts and are probably the lowest class in the whole society. They live on handouts from their families who live in America and elsewhere. Again, that is an indication of the problem that Christians face. Their villages were marked by elaborate churches and monasteries, but now the 35 Christian villages of the Khabur valley echo emptily. That illustrates what has happened.
I want to talk about Syria and Iraq. I understand that, in the last few days, the US Government have said that they want to stop the UN’s funding for Iraq because it is not getting through to religious minorities. I find that very worrying, if that is what they are doing. If the funding is not getting through to religious minorities, I would want to make sure it does, but stopping it would mean that nobody got it, so we need to be careful about that. I had the opportunity to visit Iraq under the auspices of Aid to the Church in Need. I visited Irbil and Alqosh, and I got pretty close to Mosul, where battles were still ongoing. It was good to travel in places that the Bible spoke of, such as the plains of Nineveh. Will the Minister take up the issue of the US’s very worrying indication that it intends to stop its aid?
We are glad that the UN Security Council announced that it will set up an international investigative team to gather evidence of ISIS crimes. We want that to happen, but we ask that the Government ensure that the team is adequately resourced, that its leaders have internationally recognised credentials, and that its evidence is used to bring the perpetrators of ISIS’s crimes to justice.
In Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Pakistan and Malaysia, both the Shi’a Muslim and atheist communities face treatment amounting to persecution. In Saudi Arabia, the Shi’a town al-Awamiyah, in the eastern province, remains besieged by security forces. Legislation that came into force in 2014 declared the promotion of atheism in any form to be terrorism—how can the two be equated? Earlier this year, the death sentence of a 29-year-old man, Ahmad al-Shamri, on charges of atheism and blasphemy was upheld, even after two appeals. Despite the variation in the scale of violations, there are recognisable patterns, and “Article 18: from rhetoric to reality” outlines good practices, which the Government can use to tackle FORB violations in different countries and contexts.
I declare an interest: I am also chair of the all-party group on Pakistan minorities. That issue is very close to my heart. The violations in Pakistan and countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey include the spread of intolerant narratives and their use in school textbooks. A story in the press yesterday indicated that, in Saudi Arabia, one of the princes said he is going to make a change. I hope he will make the strong Islamic viewpoint more moderate and try to change society. That can only happen over a period of time, but if there is a mood of change, I welcome that. If that happens in Saudi Arabia, that is good news. Textbooks contain biased material, including hate speech about Hindus, Christians, Ahmadis, Sikhs and Shi’as have been found in a number of provinces in Pakistan, including Sind and Baluchistan.
The Ahmadis are a small minority Muslim group that lives in Pakistan and Indonesia. The hate speech that has been fomented against them has been incredible. When the state of Pakistan was first formed, Muhammad Ali Jinnah made a speech on 11 August 1947 in which he said—this was his hope for Pakistan—
“You may belong to any religion, cast or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the state.”
How that has changed between 1947 and 2017! I speak, as we all do, for the right of the Ahmadis to practise their religion across the world—in Pakistan, Indonesia and elsewhere.
In recent years, there has been a resurgence in laws treating blasphemy as a criminal offence in countries including Indonesia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Mauritania, Russia and Nigeria. In Nepal, about which the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) spoke, there is a criminal code Bill that criminalises religious conversion and the hurting of religious sentiment. What does “the hurting of religious sentiment” mean? It can mean anything. If someone wants to interpret it strongly, they will do that. It is very worrying that that stringent legislation has now been signed into law. After all the parliamentary changes in Nepal, it is sad to see that the worst possible legislation has resulted.
[James Gray in the Chair]
The increased use of anti-terrorism legislation against religious or belief groups in countries including Iran, China, Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, has resulted in a variety of FORB violations. In July, Russia declared the Jehovah’s Witnesses a terrorist organisation and prosecuted scores of them for meeting and being in possession of their literature. In August last year, five Christian members of an Iranian house church were arrested at a picnic and charged with acting against national security. Such things are happening all over the world.
At the same time, we hear stories of churches growing. Three weeks ago, we had a missionary weekend at our church—the Baptist church at Newtownards. We hear of churches growing in Laos, where there is a Communist regime, and of people being saved and becoming Christians. People have religious liberty, even though it is very restricted. We hear some good stories, but we are here today to speak out on behalf of the people who do not have the opportunity to enjoy the freedom we have in this country.
The APPG’s report recommends that the Government track and audit the overseas funding and investment of relevant Departments, including DFID, to ensure it is not being channelled directly or indirectly to Governments, organisations or individuals who do not support or demonstrate a clear understanding of and strong respect for FORB. The importance of that has been demonstrated by the fact that some of the UK’s and US’s education funding has been given to the provincial government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan. In 2016, that government gave $3 million to Darul Uloom Haqqania seminary, known as the “university of jihad”. That illustrates the problem. That religious institution supports the Taliban and religious radicalisation in Pakistan. It is not clear whether US or UK funds were included in the funds that the provincial government gave to it, but that example highlights the importance of auditing and tracking funding. In the report, we ask for such things to be looked at.
Action to tackle divisive and intolerant narratives about those with different beliefs in school textbooks and broadcast on radio and television is also greatly needed. That action is needed not just overseas but here in the UK, too. It is alarming that overseas media channels that broadcast messages legitimising violence towards people because of their beliefs continue to be broadcast directly into UK homes.
There are many good things happening. We have the right of freedom of religious belief across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Last week, I was fortunate to attend the 200th anniversary of St Mark’s parish church in Newtownards, which was celebrating 200 years of doing Christian work in the town, of spreading the gospel, of encouraging people and the community, and of highlighting the physical, prayerful, emotional and spiritual part of Christian life. We are very pleased that the Church of Ireland church, as well as other churches, has been so involved in that.
Action to tackle divisive and intolerant narratives is important. The APPG report therefore recommends the establishment of a cross-departmental programme to create space across a range of media and educational platforms for pro-FORB messaging and narratives that delegitimise dangerous speech against those with different beliefs. Such action across a range of media platforms will also support measures intended to prevent violent extremism by helping to build respect and understanding between people and, in turn, cohesive communities.
Increasing religious literacy as well as FORB literacy is a crucial first step for UK embassy staff and all country-specific civil servants throughout the relevant Departments, including the country desk officers. Again, that is one of the recommendations of the report. That is one of the things that we are asking for because it will make a difference to people throughout the world. Training in one literacy or the other, or both, would vary depending on the official’s role. Such training would provide officials with the confidence and necessary skill set, including the tools, principles and practice to monitor and track religious dynamics and to respond appropriately to conflict when it breaks out. We could be right there where it is happening to help directly through our Government, embassies and staff. That is one of the things that we are trying to achieve.
The frameworks and training are readily available. The report highlights them and the Government can ensure they are maximally used. To enhance embassy staff and civil servants’ work overseas on FORB, local consultation with affected groups would increase understanding of the real causes, concerns and flashpoints, helping to find solutions for the many FORB violations. There is a balance to strike when consulting groups, to ensure that no one agenda takes precedence due to someone’s lived experiences, but the people affected are often far more able to identify the most pressing concerns in complex situations, and they are sometimes able to provide more immediate solutions to their problems. If we have competent, well-trained embassy staff on the frontline, clearly they can affect change where it is needed and when it is needed.
A long-term vision beyond the immediacy of politics is needed for such work. Action would allow religious communities who have been in conflict to come together to share understanding and create a future vision for co-existence. I have tried to draw out a central theme for where we are—it is about co-existence, all the religions together, respect for each other, practising our religion as we wish to, and ensuring that we have the right to do so. Building networks of influential community leaders and organisations who are trusted within those communities and who can lead those mediations will allow that work to reduce conflict and human rights violations to be successful. We have an end goal and a target that we are trying to achieve.
Work is particularly urgent in the middle east. There has certainly been some talk—I am not sure how much substance it has—about the Government creating a middle east ambassador or envoy from this House. If so, there is a clear role for that person to play in this context. In Iraq and Syria, the building of an equal, multi-faith society that is represented in local and national government is critical to ensuring long-term stability in the region.
I am sure my colleagues welcome the FCO and DFID integrating use of the right to FORB into their work, such as that on preventing violent extremism. To continue that work, I ask that the extremism analysis unit carries out research to add to the evidence base that is outlined in the APPG report and to analyse the role of religion as a driver of extremism, as well as to find evidence of the role that the promotion of religious tolerance plays in building societies resilient to extremism. I hope that the Foreign Secretary and the Minister will agree to meet with me and my colleagues in and outside this House who are working on this to discuss how that work can continue in the UK and at the international level.
I hope that DFID Ministers and civil servants working to achieve the sustainable development goals will agree to meet us, too, to discuss how the right to freedom of religion or belief plays a role in achieving SDG 16, which is about building peaceful and inclusive societies, and how religious leaders and faith and belief-based organisations are key partners in that. As we can see, not only is FORB a fundamental human right of great importance for the more than 80% of us globally who say that we adhere to a particular religion or belief but, in making that right a reality, it would be helpful in building peace and stability, and so achieving UK Government goals and objectives.
Expanding networks globally recognise the importance of FORB, such as the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief, which I joined in New York in 2015. Globally, the IPP now has some 200 parliamentarians who have committed to raising this human right within their own countries. That process, which started in New York in September 2015, was replicated here in the APPG, which brings some 90 MPs and peers together, and in Africa, the Americas, the far east and the middle east. We are trying to build forums where people can come together. I met a Christian and a Muslim from Pakistan; the Muslim said she was speaking for the Christians, and the Christian said she was speaking for the Muslims—that is an example of the goal we should look forward to.
The private sector’s work to promote religious tolerance is recognised in the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation’s annual awards, which have been supported over the past few years by the International Olympic and Paralympic Committees.
To mark International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day tomorrow, I hope that the Minister will agree with the importance of this human right and commit to working with me, all my colleagues in the Chamber who have the same belief and commitment, the APPG, its staff and all stakeholders—we have 22 or 23 stakeholders who are part of the APPG. The work is to move, as the report says, from rhetoric to reality. That is what we want to achieve. Without Government support, this is a human right that will not be a reality for many people around the world and there is no better time than International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day to work towards that reality. That is where we will be tomorrow. As I said earlier, we are the voice of the voiceless—for those who have no one to speak for them, we do it here.
Yes! I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Gray, and thank you for volunteering to oversee our proceedings this afternoon.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this debate and on his tireless work in championing the cause of religious minorities around the world. He is well known for standing up for people who are voiceless and unable to speak for themselves in countries where those with their religious beliefs are oppressed. I endorse the report he mentioned, which was released yesterday. It sets out a commendable agenda, which I trust will be supported across the House, irrespective of political parties.
In the short time in which I wish to speak, I will concentrate on Hindus who are minorities in certain countries, in particular minority Hindus in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Russia. No doubt colleagues will raise the plight of other minorities throughout the world, and it is absolutely right that they do, but I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for British Hindus and am proud of that role. The APPG frequently raises particular problems faced not only by British Hindus but by Hindus in other countries.
An organisation called Human Rights Without Frontiers, which is based in Brussels and lobbies many of our European Union partners, has released a plethora of information highlighting the plight of Hindus across the world who are being oppressed in certain countries—in particular, I have to say, in Islamic republics that do not tolerate the Hindu religion. I believe that Governments, whoever they are, have a fundamental right to protect their borders and ensure that all citizens are protected, but after that, above all else, they should protect the minorities that live within those borders. People should have a fundamental right to celebrate their religion irrespective of what that is, as long as it does not offend or jeopardise the security of their country. We should speak up about that in Parliament—loud and clear.
In Pakistan over the past year alone, there have been countless acts of violence, persecution and discrimination against Hindus by the community but also by the Government and the army. I have highlighted several issues, not only in Pakistan but in Bangladesh and, I have to say, among the Rohingya. The hon. Member for Strangford highlighted the plight of the Rohingya generally, but as recently as 26 September 2017 a Daily Mail article highlighted the minority of Rohingya who are Hindu—the Rohingya are not just Muslims but Hindus as well. They fled violence in Myanmar and, in front of witnesses, eight young women were forced to either convert or die in refugee camps. To me, that is reprehensible; it is on the public record and I believe it should be condemned outright. Although I have every sympathy for the Muslim majority of Rohingya who flee in fear of their lives, it is reprehensible that the Hindus are picked on by that majority and are forced to convert or die in those camps.
There was a case in June in Thar of a Hindu girl of only 16 being abducted by men and forced to convert. The Hindu population was in outrage when that happened. That young girl was forced to convert to Islam and to marry a rather older Muslim boy. In this country we are not immune to that. As long ago as 2007, Sir Ian Blair, who was the Metropolitan Police Commissioner at that time, pointed out that the Metropolitan police and universities were working together to combat “aggressive conversions”. He produced evidence of the huge number of complaints that had been investigated by the Met police, which was working with university authorities on the problems experienced in this country. The Hindu Forum of Britain highlighted the plight of Hindu girls in this country at the time, and this is still going on. We have to protect the minority rights of people in our country as well as those in other countries. Just in October, we heard about the plight of a Coptic Christian family who were captured in Egypt earlier this year. They were eventually allowed to return home after being kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam. The reality is that that goes on in a number of places across the world and we all must speak up about it.
In Pakistan, the new developments in so-called online blasphemy laws have resulted in the imprisonment of peaceful Hindus—people who celebrate their religion and put it online are arrested. Prakash Kumar, who is in the Gadani jail in Pakistan, was arrested in May 2017 for allegedly sending blasphemous content through WhatsApp. As a result of the accusation, he was surrounded by a mob that physically attacked him and, after the police arrested him, gathered outside the jail calling for him to be executed.
When we speak up for freedom of speech we have to face the fact that it should be a fundamental right for people to promote their religion. They should not be imprisoned or face execution for such activities. In Bangladesh, the arrival and activities of Islamic State and other violent extremist groups have contributed to increased attacks against the Hindu population and other religious minorities. The attacks have targeted not only individuals but places of worship. That is another of the insidious things going on across the world: places of worship are deliberately targeted and demolished because the majority population does not like a minority celebrating its religion.
Hindu communities have arrived in Bangladesh to escape persecution in Myanmar, as I have mentioned. They have had to set up Hindu refugee camps but have received very little attention from across the world and, more importantly, no aid from the Bangladesh Government. Indeed, I do not believe that they have received international development aid from our Government. If the Minister cannot respond to that specific issue today, will he look into it? Clearly, we need to protect all those minorities who are fleeing for fear of violence.
In Russia, Alexander Dvorkin, the vice-president of French-funded anti-sect organisation FECRIS, was behind the 2011 attempt to ban the holy scriptures of Hinduism in Russia. In February this year, a rally was held in front of the Russian embassy in the capital of India to protest against his anti-religious activities. It is quite right that we should confront people, wherever they are, who suggest that we ban religions and religious books, and say, “No.” We should speak up for all minorities and encourage them to celebrate the faith that they hold dear.
As I understand it, about 75% of Russians are, on the face of it, Russian Orthodox Christians, yet according to the report that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned, there is suddenly persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Protestants in Russia. I asked in my earlier intervention, “What Christian country actually persecutes?” In a way, we could say that Russia does.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. We always have to be careful when we talk about persecution of religious minorities. In this country, we are only 400 years from the time when someone who was the wrong version of Christian could be burned at the stake, so we must always be careful about pursuing this subject. I counsel him to remember that, not so long ago, religion was banned altogether in Russia; it was held under the radar. As he quite rightly says, the majority of the population of Russia purport to be of a Christian faith, but that does not mean that everyone is, and it certainly does not mean that the Government protect religious minorities. We should be careful about pillorying countries, but we need to zero in on the evidence, where it exists and where it can come forth, so that we can raise those issues and, indeed, so that the Minister can raise them with his counterparts.
Advocates of women’s rights across the world, of which I am one, cannot ignore the worldwide reports of Hindu and Sikh women and girls being kidnapped, forced into marriage against their beliefs and converted to a religion that they do not share. The reality is that that goes on in a range of countries. We must confront that evil—because evil it is. I have nothing against people who decide voluntarily to enter a relationship or a marriage with someone of a different religion and opt to convert to that religion—that is of course their choice—but kidnappings, forced conversions and forced marriages of women and girls, against their will, occur systematically across the world. It is fundamentally wrong that that is hidden and is not spoken about enough.
I have challenged people about that numerous times, and I invite students in particular but also religious organisations to bring forward the evidence for public scrutiny, so that we can get a serious debate going and have transparency about this issue in this country and across the world. Specifically, I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister to take up the issue of the protection of religious minorities and particularly Hindus and Sikhs in countries around the world where they are under serious threat of oppression and forced conversion, and the threat of death if they refuse to convert.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I pay great tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is a doughty and tireless campaigner on this issue. He deserves great credit for all his work and campaigning on it and the way in which he raises it constantly in Parliament and beyond.
Religious freedom is the right to believe in something or nothing. It was one of our erstwhile monarchs who allegedly said she had no desire to make “windows into men’s souls”. However, as the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) rightly said, there was a time when that was not true on these islands and people were burnt at the stake for their beliefs.
Let me tell of an incident rather less grim than that but pretty bad none the less. Of course, it has to be a Welsh example: the Llanfrothen burial case of 1888. Hon. Members will be forgiven if they have not heard of it, but here is what happened. It was a case to ensure that the local rector complied with the Burials Act 1880, allowing a quarryman named Roberts to be interred in the consecrated part of the churchyard rather than a plot described by the lawyer of the day—a certain David Lloyd George—as
“a spot, bleak and sinister, in which were buried the bodies of the unknown drowned”.
That was where they put the Welsh nonconformists: the free Church people. Victory in that case for the dissenting Mr Roberts led to great civil liberties for Welsh nonconformists and free Church denominations. I suggest Mr Lloyd George had not forgotten that when he continued his campaign, which led to the disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Wales.
I do not claim to have the degree of expertise of the hon. Member for Strangford as he talks about the issues of concern in different countries, so I will not try to replicate that, but one aspect of the debate that intrigues me is how faith groups in this country are sometimes spoken about. When political parties are reported as having more than half a million members—something I really welcome—journalists report that as “soaring membership.” When Spurs get a crowd of 85,512 at Wembley, we are told it is “amazing”—I do not know much about football, but that is what one of the papers said. When 72,000 people on average attend a Six Nations rugby game, it is “incredible.” Yet when Church of England attendances reach 760,000, in one report it is all about “downward pressure”. Some poor clergyman or woman quoted in the report said, in slightly macabre terms:
“We lose approximately 1% of our churchgoers to death each year.”
I find it interesting how the debate sometimes goes in this country. That figure, for one church among many and one faith organisation among many, in one part of the UK, constitutes a lot of people and shows that our faith communities are actually pretty vibrant.
In my defence, I will quote something Polly Toynbee wrote—I am not sure she will like that. In 2014 she spoke about the work of the Church of England and its concerns on welfare policy, describing it as being “good on food banks” as she discussed that particular aspect. What she said was quite intriguing:
“Faith makes people no more virtuous, but nor do rationalists claim any moral superiority. Pogroms, inquisitions, jihadist terror and religious massacres can be matched death for death with the secular horrors of Pol Pot, Hitler or Stalin.”
That is an interesting comment in a Polly Toynbee article—I expect a letter from her next week.
We need recognition of the importance of faith in this island and beyond by some of our more secular commentators. We need to welcome the role of faith communities. Of course, we need to welcome them in all our political parties. I was delighted to see the launching of Catholics for Labour at this year’s Labour party annual conference. It is my view that genuine multiculturalism and freedom of belief are not really possible without an appreciation of the importance of our faith communities.
If I may, I will throw two specific but totally unrelated thoughts into our discussion pot. It is right that we have laws against hate crimes of various kinds on our statute book. Freedom of thought and different beliefs is vital, but the discourse needs to be conducted with respect. I do not claim to be an expert on this, but I pose the question whether we should join the 16 other countries on the continent of Europe and make Holocaust denial an offence. Is that not a form of hate speech and something our law should reflect?
My second and unrelated point concerns the United States of America and the death penalty. One may ask, “What does that have to do with religious freedom?”. Quite a lot, I would argue. The death penalty is allowed in 31 of the 50 American states, although I welcome the fact that, of those 31, 12 have an official moratorium or have had no executions in the past 10 years. There are many arguments against the death penalty, but that is not my point today. My point is that perhaps no other nation has such a strong lobby fighting for the religious liberty of Christians across the globe, yet many of the countries where Christians suffer persecution suffer in such a way that their lives may end horribly through the death penalty. If the United States seriously wishes to advocate more powerfully on their behalf, all the states of that nation need to be serious about getting rid of the death penalty. I would be grateful to the Minister if the British Government took that up with the Americans.
We take that up with every nation. We are committed to the abolition of the death penalty around the globe and it is an issue that I will take up at every opportunity with high commissioners and ambassadors from every nation, not just the United States.
I am most grateful to the Minister for his reassurance. Finally, I wish you, Mr Gray, and every Member here a very happy International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day tomorrow. I fear it will not be quite so happy for the many people who face persecution around the world, but it is our job to continue to take up this cause.
It is a slightly unexpected surprise to have the pleasure of you chairing our debate, Mr Gray. It was welcome to see you, along with Mr Evans, swoop in as a superhero to make sure that we could have our debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing the debate and thank him for his assiduity in ensuring that these matters are regularly on the agenda in Westminster Hall and in the main Chamber. When I was on the Backbench Business Committee, we sometimes used to have a jokey point of order before the public session, in which we would ask, “Are we able to go ahead if we don’t have an application from the hon. Member for Strangford?” as we seemed to have one at virtually every session. I say that not to be dismissive, but to compliment a parliamentarian who uses every method to get the things he passionately cares about on to the agenda, not least freedom of religious belief.
It is apt that we are having the debate today, given that tomorrow is International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day and that next week marks the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation, when Luther hammered his list of indulgences to the cathedral door, setting in chain a number of events that are almost unparalleled across our and European history. That happened at a time when states had a strong role in enforcing the king’s religious belief on the whole country, and when one church in western Europe had a monopoly on Christian religious thought. That led to a lot of things that Luther listed and that the Reformation sought to address. Of course, Luther’s actions did not immediately lead to a period of great freedoms. Indeed, some countries saw some of the worst crackdowns on people’s religious beliefs ever seen in European history. We have touched on people facing horrendous penalties.
When I was a councillor in Coventry, I represented a ward that includes the martyrs memorial, which commemorates a number of people who had been burnt at the stake for being too Protestant, at a time when someone could be hanged as a traitor for being a Jesuit. The memorial allowed us to think about what that meant in our own area. We have seen the “Gunpowder” drama—I should not say drama, really; it is factual in some ways but a bit of a drama in others—that depicts the religious strife that was going on in this country just over 400 years ago. It was between people who believed in the same lord and saviour, Jesus Christ, who I believe in and who I know the hon. Member for Strangford believes in, but some were not able to express their beliefs, which led to conflict and much discrimination at the time.
As we stand here today, things have thankfully moved on and our societies have been greatly changed by the events that came out of the Reformation. Particularly in the UK, we now thankfully have the ability to express our faith freely. However, we are clear that this is about the right not only to express religious faith, but to express no faith. If someone thinks faith is nonsense and they do not agree with it, it is as important that they have the right to say that they are an atheist or a humanist as it is that they have the right to say they are a Christian, a Muslim or a Sikh. It is about the ability to find one’s own path and make one’s own decisions and beliefs and, hopefully—in my view—to approach God in the way one wishes. People have the fundamental right to express that, which the state will protect. Equally, those with faith should stand up and defend those who wish to express their right to have none.
However, that is still not the case around the world. In far too many countries holding a religious belief is seen as some sort of threat to a leader or regime. As I reflected on in a previous debate on this subject, political oppression all too often goes hand in hand with oppression of religious belief. The countries that most restrict their citizens’ political rights almost always do the same for their religious beliefs. It is sadly no great surprise that North Korea regularly tops the league table for the persecution of Christians, just as it tops many league tables for political persecution. It is the idea of not wanting people to be their own person; that they do not have a soul of their own and are only part of a collective that must bend its knee to a ruler who wishes to put themselves in between their people and God, and in so doing use the power of the state to exact terrible retributions on anyone who wishes to challenge that.
It is not only in those open ways that we see persecution. We also hear about missionaries finding it very difficult to do their work in some countries. Again, that is not because there is a great objection to what they teach—the love and compassion of Jesus—but because they are seen as a sort of challenge to an established order, such as a dictatorship or one-party state. The idea of anyone having any type of free thought might start to undermine that system, not because there is any great philosophical disagreement, but purely because those established orders just do not like the idea of anyone being able to offer something beyond what their tyrannical system wishes to offer.
It is still touching to talk to some of the missionaries working today and to hear stories that remind us of Europe’s past, and to realise that to this day there are people who wish to preach the good news found in the gospels, but who find themselves being monitored by police forces. They know that although they might not be dealt with, due to the slight protection that a British or American passport provides, those who come to hear that good news face real risks—sometimes to their lives, but also to their jobs, economic prospects and what their families can do.
It is right that the Government look to promote people’s rights under article 18. It is always a pleasure to see the Minister in his place. From some of the answers given in the other place to recent questions asked by the Lord Bishop of Coventry, I note that the Government are looking at what can be done, particularly at the Commonwealth summit, to raise the issue of religious persecution with those countries where it still exists. Certainly, if the Commonwealth is to be a true Commonwealth, it is about not only trade deals and selling goods, but the values that we share and that underpin our whole societies. Freedom of religious belief must be one of those rights.
It is good to hear this debate again and I welcome the chance to talk. Some of the history is encapsulated in how places such as Paignton parish church in my constituency have been changed and shaped. The church has its original 14th-century font and a 15th-century pulpit, which has had various changes made to it, owing to the changing fashions of religious belief, with features that were originally desirable becoming less welcome at a later date. I remember as a child being taught the story of the church in Plympton St Mary, where I was christened, and the fact that, because of Cromwell’s troops, there are statues above its main door that have no heads. Plympton had been a royalist stronghold and, because of its differing views, after the civil war the troops came and desecrated the church. They tried to pull the statues down but could only take off the heads. The rest of the statues are there to this day, minus their heads, as a reminder of what happened.
I welcome the fact that over the past 30 years people in many parts of eastern Europe have become free again to express their Christian belief. Some of the examples we hear are concerning, but the message that must come out from this House is that Members are speaking up and giving encouragement to those who hope perhaps one day to preach their faith in their own Parliament, council or market square.
Tomorrow is not about the freedom to express the religious faith that I believe in, that the hon. Member for Strangford believes in, or that anyone here believes in; it is about each person’s freedom to express their faith as they choose, without fear or favour, knowing that they have a fundamental right to do so. I welcome the debate and the work being done, and I look forward to the Minister’s response on how the Government are taking those views forward.
Like others, I greatly enjoyed the opening speech by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and the contributions from other hon. Members. I love the historical context because, as I shall elaborate, it is extraordinarily important.
Mention has been made of statues losing their heads and of the brutality, on both sides, of the Reformation. One thinks of Mary Tudor and, as has been mentioned, of the gunpowder plot, which is currently being dramatized on television. In my country, Scotland, described by the Reverend Sydney Smith as
“that land of Calvin, oat-cakes, and sulphur”,
the town of St Andrews, where I went to university, saw the particularly brutal martyrdom of Patrick Hamilton, who was the Abbot of Fearn, which is near my home town in the highlands. In 1528 he was burned to death at the stake for his Protestant beliefs. He burned for six hours, from 12 noon until 6 o’clock at night, in a particularly cruel and brutal martyrdom. It is said that on his death an angel’s face appeared in the tower of St Salvator’s chapel in St Andrews University. To this day, due to a natural act of God through erosion, there is a rather beautiful face in the stone. In the place where he was burned, the initials PH are set in the paving stones, and students at St Andrews make a conscious point of never standing on those stones. It was said at the time that
“the reek of Patrick Hamilton hath infected all those on whom it blew.”
It was a turning point in Scottish Reformation history.
It is easy to over-simplify this. We tend to think of the rebellions in 1715 and 1745 as having been Protestant versus Catholic, but it is not quite so easy. In the 1745 rebellion, Bonnie Prince Charlie took his troops south through Carlisle and got as far as Derby. If we examine who the Jacobites were, we find that among those from north of the border there were some Catholics, high Anglicans and Episcopalians. But an awful lot of them were Presbyterians—I look to the two Scottish National party Members in front of me, the hon. Members for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) and for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day)—of a nationalist persuasion who were not at all convinced by the 1707 Act of Union. We must remember that the rebellion of 1745 was during the time of Whig supremacy, in my own side’s glory days. The people who joined Bonnie Prince Charlie’s flag from the south were actually Tories who wanted to change the Government, so it was not nearly as simple as one might like to think.
I have an interesting anecdote about religious tolerance. One of the people who most strongly supported Bonnie Prince Charlie was Cameron of Lochiel, the chief of Clan Cameron, known as Gentle Lochiel. The Camerons were and are to this day of a high Anglican persuasion, but it is interesting that they protected their Catholic tenantry on their estates of Auchnacarry and Lochaber. A late gentleman who graced this place, Charles Kennedy, was of the Roman Catholic persuasion. His family had a croft on the Cameron estates but were allowed to worship in freedom, protected by the Cameron family. That is why they have their own graveyard, where Charles is buried today, on the Cameron estates. The future Cameron of Lochiel is a Tory Member of the Scottish Parliament. I would have loved to get him to the Liberal persuasion, but I did not prevail in that regard.
In Scotland it has been a journey towards tolerance. We learn from history, as other Members have said, but we must learn not to be too complacent. SNP Members may touch on this, but we know what can arise at an old firm match between Celtic and Glasgow Rangers. In the UK it is easy to pat ourselves on the back and say we are doing very well. However, the hon. Member for Strangford made mention of 1947. The question is: was Cyril Radcliffe too hasty when he drew the boundary lines between India and Pakistan? What if we had departed the Indian subcontinent in a way that was a little more considered? Goodness knows, but it was sadly a blot on this country’s record. A British decision led to some of the most ghastly inter-religious murders, and we may never know the sum total of people killed.
In conclusion, it has been a journey. The point was very well made by the hon. Member for Strangford in his opening remarks that we must reach out via our embassies and everything we do through the FCO and the like. In my own small way, I am a member of the Church of Scotland, and I have learnt from this debate and found it absolutely fascinating. My days of saying that I am a newbie are drawing to a close, and I cannot get away with that argument for terribly much longer, but it is great to learn and I will do what I can. To be perfectly fair to HM Government, I have no reason to doubt the good intention that they are pursuing in this regard, as far as I can see.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. May I join the chorus of congratulations for the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing the debate and making such a passionate speech about his cause? He is a tireless campaigner on this issue and many others, and I thank him.
This is an extremely timely debate, particularly in the light of International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day tomorrow. I congratulate the APPG and the hon. Gentleman on their report. I have looked through it. Hon. Members who have had a chance to look at it will have seen on page 6 or 7 a picture of the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. If anyone has not had a chance to visit that memorial, I recommend they do so, because it is an extraordinarily moving experience that really illustrates everything we are talking about today. You start at ground level and descend into the centre of the memorial, as you are overwhelmed by the blocks on either side, which of course is deeply metaphorical for the horror that overwhelms societies—Europe in this century, and many other places, sadly, throughout the world today—when we see such religious intolerance. It is an extremely moving experience. The ground is also worthy of note, because it has bumps, to symbolise the bumpy path that all countries have to go down on the way to religious tolerance.
I dwell on that for a moment to echo the comments made by a number of Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), about recognising that it was not so long ago that we had religious intolerance in this country. The hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) quoted Elizabeth I’s famous saying that she had no desire to have windows into men’s souls. Without going into a history lesson, Elizabeth I was really speaking out of political expediency rather than religious tolerance, as Catholic emancipation was still to come.
Indeed, it was only the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 —the Duke of Wellington’s last great battle, as it were—that enabled Catholics to stand as Members of Parliament. That ought to give us all pause. In 1834, the whole Palace burned down, which means that very few Catholic MPs sat in the old Palace of Westminster and the vast majority of Catholic MPs served in the same Chamber that we all serve in. To me, that brings home that religious tolerance in this country is a relatively recent phenomenon. That tradition now is happily long standing, but it was not always so.
Around the world, there is so much more work to be done in so many areas. That is a reminder for us all that religious tolerance is not just a moral absolute, although clearly it is the right thing to do, but has a practical benefit as well. As my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) said, religious tolerance so often leads to political intolerance. If we have freedom of religion and expression of any religion or none, we also tend to have free, prosperous and stable countries, and we see much less of the violence that has sadly blighted so much of the world and continues to do so today.
I will dwell in these short remarks on some of the areas around the world today where much more work needs to be done. One example is Egypt, which the Foreign Office has made a human rights priority country, as I hope the Minister will confirm. Daesh continues a campaign against Christians in that country. There were the Palm Sunday attacks only recently, where two churches were attacked, 44 people were killed and many, many more were injured and maimed. There is perhaps some promise in the fact that so many people from other faiths rushed to help in the course of those attacks, showing that tolerance is always there, in the human spirit. However, we need to work and use our good offices as much as we can in this place to ensure that Governments around the world allow people to do what, in my view, they naturally do, which is to allow others to worship in their own way.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and sorry that I cannot stay for the whole debate. We have talked about the work done in this Parliament and by the APPG and my hon. Friend—I call him my hon. Friend—the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). Does he agree that the fact that the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia has felt it necessary to make remarks about turning away from extreme interpretations of Islam is a measure of the importance of keeping up pressure on the human rights front on Governments that, until now, have been excessive and repressive?
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for that excellent intervention and I entirely agree. There is a real job that we can do in keeping up the pressure. It just shows that when we do that, results can be achieved.
Another country about which there is much concern in this country and around the world in respect of human rights is Iran. President Rouhani took office in 2013, and we have seen an increase in the persecution of religious minorities—people imprisoned because of their faith—and an increase in harassment and arrests. Of course, that causes enormous concern to all of us in the House. There has also been an increase since the elections earlier this year.
[Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]
The situation of Syria and Iraq has touched all of us in the House and, indeed, the entire country. I have met in my constituency in west Oxfordshire the six families whom we have settled. Of course, the situation has a special impact when one has met families and children who have had to flee their home and their country and find and make a new home elsewhere. It is also a fresh reminder to us—we have already touched on this—that religious intolerance is not just between faiths, but inside faiths. It has occurred between Christians, between Protestants and Catholics, in our own culture and among the different strands of Islam, which we have also touched on today. When we hear about the abduction, torture, rape, loss of property, destruction of property and forced conversions in Syria—500,000 Christians have been forced to flee that country, and I think I am right in saying that 230 are still in captivity—we realise how much there is still to do in that country before we can see a happy and tolerant place where people are free to practise their religion as they see fit.
I welcome all the work being done in the House by the APPG under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Strangford, and everything that the Government are doing. I am pleased that freedom of religion or belief is integral to everything the British Government do, and I thank the Government for all that they are doing. Of course the Minister will freely acknowledge that there is more to do—it is perhaps trite for me to say so—but I want to put it on the record that there is much more to do throughout the world. We all recognise that freedom of belief or religion and, indeed, the freedom to have none at all is the foundation of everything that we are in this House and in this country, and we must do all that we can to ensure that the blessings of tolerance are spread further throughout the world.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I thank the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) for his speech, and extend special congratulations to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this most timely debate. It is a celebration of what we want and what should be, and it is, I believe, a stepping-stone to achieving that.
The celebration on 27 October is of course to celebrate the passing in the USA in 1998 of the International Religious Freedom Act, which tasked the US Government with promoting religious freedom abroad. However, it is also a celebration of far more than that—the freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief, a freedom guaranteed under international law, including article 18 of the UN’s international covenant on civil and political rights. Interestingly, that article cannot be derogated from even in times of public emergency. Of course, this freedom is also embodied in the universal declaration of human rights, the European convention on human rights and our own Human Rights Act 1998.
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and that right includes the freedom to change one’s religion or belief and the freedom, either alone or in community with others, in public and in private, to manifest one’s religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance. This most profound of rights allows the individual not only to hold to a faith, but to subscribe to their own views of a faith or a different theological school within a faith and also to hold non-religious beliefs. Indeed, it protects the individual from being compelled to state an affiliation with any particular religion or belief.
The establishment of a rule of freedom of religion or belief, as we have heard today, can be traced back in history to way before 1998. Without wishing to bore hon. Members with yet another history lesson, I would like just to draw attention to Thomas Jefferson. He viewed the varying institutional forms of religion and worship as a matter of personal opinion and saw any state involvement in religion as coercive or corrupting. In 1786, he advocated and enshrined his view in the Virginia state legislature. By 1791—only five years later—that would appear in the US constitution as the bill of rights and the first amendment. Looking at this issue as we are today, I think it is important to find out why Jefferson advocated that back in 1786.
He was Welsh and learned. In 1786, the US was still a new country—indeed, many debates took place within these walls at that time—but immigrants from all around the world were flocking to that country, seeking a place of religious freedom. It would perhaps be unfair to say that the US at that time was such a place. Indeed, Jefferson was driven to seek an amendment in the Virginian state because he had seen the repression and oppression of Quakers. They were being attacked for their religious beliefs and marginalised for their ideas. Jefferson wanted that new country to be welcoming to all and free from the repression evident in the old world. His actions were to articulate the right to freedom of religion or belief.
Here we are today, and it would be wrong to say that the situation has improved across the world. Oppression is as widespread now as it was then. I pay huge tribute to Dr Ahmed Shaheed, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, and I would like to put on record what he has said:
“Given the increasing global interaction between peoples, allowing persecution across the globe to be immediately felt by others abroad, including diaspora communities, both foreign and domestic policy will be enhanced by developing an understanding of religious or belief dynamics which influence people’s behaviour towards others. It is crucial that we try to see the world as others see it and that we invest more in translating our expressions of solidarity into operational action.”
That is why this debate is so timely and important. As much as it is a celebration, strictly speaking, of an event in 1998, it is much more than that. It is a demand that Governments declare the right of freedom of religion or belief, even where state religions exist, where religious tensions run high, where Governments profess the dangers of their children being led astray, where forced conversions take place, where apostasy is still a crime and where theocracy is the rule. The enactment in 1998 directed the US Government to promote freedom of religion abroad —a cry that has been listened to by other Governments, including ours. It is a desire that must be continually pushed through dialogue, treaty, trade and influence. Tomorrow should be not just a celebration of what should be, but a celebration of what is—a celebration of a move from rhetoric to reality.
I shall finish by returning to Jefferson. When it came to religious belief, he argued that everyone should be answerable to their own god or, I would add, no god. That freedom must be defended by everyone.
I apologise that I came to the debate only recently because of attendance at a Select Committee, Mr Rosindell. I shall keep my remarks short in case other hon. Members have already covered what I want to say. And what I want to say comes very much from my own family’s experience—not recent experience, but experience as a Huguenot family back in the 1600s, when the family came from persecution in France to the freedom that there was in England and, indeed, in other parts of the United Kingdom and other parts of the world.
There are three areas where I believe that the freedom of religion, of thought and of expression is vital and it is very important that our Government proclaim that in a modest, factual and responsible way around the world. It is not something to be ashamed or shy of, but something to be celebrated.
The first area concerns the economic consequence of freedom of faith or religion. The Huguenots were industrialists in France. When they were driven out, it cost France a substantial industrial base, particularly in textiles, but they brought that industrial base to England and other parts of what would become the United Kingdom. As a raw material producing country with the great wool barons of East Anglia, England became a textile-producing country and was one of the bases for the expansion of industry in these islands. So a practical reason for toleration is that it allows people with initiative, imagination and drive to come to your country. We have seen that on so many occasions.
One of the most recent examples in the United Kingdom was when Uganda, under the dictatorship of Idi Amin, decided that it did not want its Asian community any more. The Asian community that came from Uganda to the UK and other parts of the world—but mainly to the UK—as a result of that expulsion has been of enormous benefit to this country. The welcome that this country and other countries gave was both the right thing to do and very much in our interest.
My hon. Friend is making a good contribution to this debate. Does he also recall that the wonderful people expelled from Uganda, whom I regard as Britain’s gain and Uganda’s loss, were denied access to return to India, the nation of their birth, by the Indian Government at the time? That is why a Conservative Government in this country encouraged them to come here, and they have contributed tremendously to the economy and wealth of this country.
I am most grateful for that intervention; I was not aware of those details. I would point out that the same people who were welcomed here are now contributing greatly to the economy of Uganda and other parts of the world. The blessings that they have received in this country, very much by dint of their own hard work and application, they want to spread around the world. They are a fine example of what can be done when a people who are persecuted in one country and welcomed into another then decide to share the benefits of their prosperity with other countries around the world. I would also say that about Huguenots, who have made a great contribution in this country, in Canada, Australia, South Africa and Germany, and in what were then the Low Countries and now the Netherlands and Belgium.
Religious persecution is counterproductive. It drives out people who have a strong faith. Often with a strong faith comes a strong commitment to the community and therefore the economy, and to the common wealth of the nation, so I urge all Governments that persecute religious minorities to simply look to their own interests. They are absolutely doing the wrong thing for the future of their own country. They are narrowing the economic interests of their country and narrowing the culture and political space within their own country.
Secondly, I would look at the benefits to science. It has often been said that there is not much contact between science and religion, but I would say absolutely the opposite. What often drives scientific investigation is a desire to know more about this wonderful creation of God. My own father-in-law, the late Professor Donald MacKay, who was from the north-east of Scotland, always proclaimed that that was the most wonderful part of these islands. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] I will not comment on that, but I can hear some affirmation. He worked with Alan Turing and many other distinguished scientists. He was a physiologist and brain scientist and also a very strong believer who wrote many books on the relationship between science and faith, which are well worth reading. I could give many other examples of scientists who have derived their desire for the investigation of this world from their faith and trust in God.
Thirdly, I want to stress what religious persecution takes from a country in terms of its culture. If some of the most creative people—those who have a faith or no faith—are persecuted and driven out, a huge amount of the country’s culture is lost, whether it is in its literature, music or graphic arts. There are many examples, but I will give just one small example of how our great writers and artists in this country have drawn upon their faith. Jane Austen grew up in a vicarage in Hampshire and the next-door parish was the parish of the Reverend Lefroy, hence the connections between her family and the Lefroy family over the past 200 years. It is clear that that experience of growing up in an atmosphere in which there was a strong and vibrant Christian faith had a great influence on Jane Austen’s writing.
Would Jane Austen’s novels have been written in a country in which there was repression? Possibly. We have seen examples of great literature that has come out of repression, but I would argue that a free country where people are allowed to follow their faith and to express themselves in a way they believe is right, and where there is no fear of the law coming down on them because of what they think or believe, is the best possible environment in which to produce great literature or great music. Thank you, Mr Rosindell. I appreciate the opportunity to say those few words.
Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to this important debate, Mr Rosindell. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing the debate and, as many others have recognised, for being a great champion for these issues, not only in this House but elsewhere. I know that he will continue that work. He has been tireless in raising the persecution and oppression of religious minorities and others all over the world. Long may that continue. We have heard interesting contributions today, some historical and some on where we need to reach. That has been welcome and, certainly from my perspective, educational.
I will make some general remarks rather than go into details. I said in my maiden speech that I was incredibly proud to be part of this Union: not just proud but hugely privileged because in our democracy we have the right to private belief, public opinion and the protected ability to argue, discuss and persuade others in relation to our belief, our faith and our views. It is the right to all beliefs and, as rightly pointed out, to none at all that makes the United Kingdom and our democracy great. From my earliest memory those were the principles that were emphasised and articulated.
In Northern Ireland the term “civil and religious liberty” is often used, and it was used very much when I was a child. One of my earliest memories is when I was seven or eight years of age and looking up at the banners and bannerettes at the loyal order parades. This may seem a strange analogy or reference to some, but many of those bannerettes and banners showed scenes of religious persecution and the battles fought for religious liberty. They emphasised for my generation that those liberties, won through pain, death and battle, must always be celebrated and protected.
Some may perceive such celebrations and parades in Northern Ireland and Scotland in terms of the dominance of one religion over another, but in fact they are a celebration of religious and civil liberty. As a child I sat on my mother’s knee, looking at the parades and banners, and asked her what the pictures on the banners meant. My enthusiasm for going to church, like most children’s, could only have been described as variable; but when she explained to me that the pictures represented stories of the battles and challenges that we went through in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and, at the time that they happened, Ireland in trying to get religious liberty, it gave those things a different emphasis, and put them in a different perspective for me—even as a child of seven or eight. She made it clear that it was not a matter of the dominance of a religion; it must go all ways, and those hard-fought liberties must be extended to all.
We have heard in the many contributions so far that the journey of the past 400 years has not necessarily been smooth; there have been challenges, which we have overcome. However, we should be proud of the fact that we are where we are today, and that the rights in question are the core and cornerstone of our democracy. I believe we are in the best position to push forward, to be at the forefront of ensuring that the principle of freedom of religious belief and opinion is spread throughout the world, and to tackle oppression and persecution. The importance of educating each new generation lies not just in educating them about the history of what we have been through, lest we return to intolerance and persecution; it is also a question of defending liberties within the United Kingdom, and doing our part, working with other countries across the globe, to extend fundamental liberties to others.
I pay tribute to the report by the all-party group on international freedom of religion or belief, and to the incredibly hard work that has gone into it, and I want to highlight some of the issues that have been mentioned. Although I have long had an interest in the subject, I was still surprised to read the statistic that
“80% of the world’s population live in countries with ‘high’ or ‘very high’ levels of restrictions and/or hostilities towards certain beliefs”.
That should shock and dismay us, and it shows how far we have to go. It was interesting that, in highlighting the oppression and persecution that must be tackled, the report included people’s ability to leave their religion. Although I am hugely proud of the democracy and freedoms in the United Kingdom, we should be aware that there are still challenges. One appalling example is so-called honour killings. Very often, young women may not even want to leave their religion, but perhaps want to leave a particular shade, aspect or interpretation of their religious belief, or to display and express their belief in a different way. In the United Kingdom, there are young women who are killed for that decision, right now. At the heart of article 18 is the right to change or leave one’s religion. We have come far, and our experiences of the past 400 years should motivate us to be at the forefront of tackling oppression and persecution around the world, but we must also be incredibly careful that intolerance and persecution do not creep into the United Kingdom. It must be tackled, and a clear message must be sent. Young people, no matter what their religion, should be able to grow up in the United Kingdom and make the decisions that are the cornerstone of British democracy.
I repeat my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford for securing the debate. I entered the House only in June, but I assure him and the all-party group that I want to do all I can to support the work they do through my own experience. That is at the core of things for me; yes, I am a strong Unionist and that is at the core of my political ideology and beliefs. However, what underlies that for me, and has done from a young age, is the basic concept of freedom—of civil and religious liberty. I will do all I can in my role to bring that about not just in the United Kingdom but for our sisters and brothers all over the world, regardless of their views or religion, or their decision to have no religion.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. It would have been a pleasure to serve under anyone’s chairmanship at one point, when we thought we did not have a Chair, and I think we are setting a record for the number we have had during the debate. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing this timely debate. I acknowledge the work he has done on the issue over a long period of time and I look forward to working with him in future.
Freedom of thought, religion and belief is an essential human right. No one should ever be persecuted for practising their religion or no religion, but we know that religious persecution is growing around the world. It is more important than ever that we stand up for freedom, particularly freedom of religion and belief, and that we set an example and provide leadership across the globe. From the contributions to the debate, I think everyone agrees on that across the Chamber, which is encouraging.
The world is watching us—certainly my constituents are. Since January, I have been contacted by constituents about a varied list of such issues: the plight of atheists and non-believers in Malaysia, the treatment of Christians in India, the persecutions of Christians globally, the execution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, the persecution of Christians and minority faiths in Iran, hate crimes in the UK against apostasy, the treatment of the Christian community in the middle east, and anti-Semitism against Jewish and Israeli students in the UK during Israeli Apartheid Week. That list comes from a quick look through my case files last weekend so it is probably not exhaustive.
I am concerned that anti-Semitic sentiment is growing as the far right gains a voice in contemporary culture. Since Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States, there has been a notable rise in anti-Semitic attacks with swastikas and Nazi imagery increasingly prevalent. That is very worrying. Trump’s comments on Islam have added to that picture of the creation of a religiously intolerant society. His so-called Muslim ban sparked outrage across the world but, at the same time, gave a seemingly mainstream voice to people with abhorrent views.
Against that backdrop, I am pleased that positive steps have been taken in many places. I will mention Scotland in particular, and the work of ecumenical groups in my constituency, whose very existence fosters an attitude of openness and discussion. Inter-church groups and Churches Together in Bo’ness, Linlithgow and Bathgate gather to share their faiths and to engage with local communities. I have visited events organised by the local Muslim community in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally). The events are targeted at the entire Falkirk district, which includes a sizeable part of my constituency, and offer a real opportunity to engage in religious pluralism and inter-cultural dialogue.
One such event was the recent Eid in the Park, which is now an annual event, publicly celebrating Eid in Callendar Park, a public open space in Falkirk. It is a hugely valuable opportunity for the wider local community to learn about Islam, and a great family fun event. I have attended for the past two years and I hope it continues for a lot longer. I am also looking forward to visiting the Falkirk Islamic Centre tomorrow. I made that diary date prior to knowing that it was International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day, but that will give me something to talk about when I get there.
I have tabled a number of questions on the issue of anti-apostasy. Individuals who leave their religious community or convert to another faith sometimes face significant challenges or rejection as a result of that decision. I sincerely hope that it can be given much greater attention and that people who suffer as a result can receive the support they need. Sadly, at a UK level the Government do not collect data on hate crimes motivated by anti-apostasy, so there can be no accurate assessment of the issue locally. I do not disagree with many of the Government’s answers, which say that they treat it as a hate crime, as it clearly is, but it would be nice to get the numbers and see how significant it is in our communities. I hope the Minister will reconsider the Government’s stance on the collection of necessary data in the UK, because a Home Office action plan could then be drawn up for that specific group. These people are vulnerable when they leave their religious community, particularly if they go to no faith and do not have the support of another religious community. High profile cases have been reported in the press where people have converted between faiths, but statistically it is more of an issue for people who go to no faith.
On 25 August, I wrote to the Foreign Secretary to raise a constituent’s concern about the persecution of atheists and non-believers in Malaysia. I have not yet received a response, so I would be grateful if the Minister would give his colleague a wee nudge to get me a reply. It would be well received by my constituent and my office. The UK Government’s commitment to religious freedom both here and abroad has been stated many times in this place. It would be welcome if the Government continued their strong lead on the issue by seriously addressing anti-apostasy hate crime across the globe and within their own country, and by ensuring stronger diplomatic interventions with foreign Governments where human rights issues of religious freedom and the freedom to have no faith have been highlighted.
Thankfully, I live in and am proud to represent a very open and welcoming constituency. There is a clear message from the communities I serve and Scotland as a whole that we welcome people from diverse cultures and backgrounds and we are a truly welcoming and diverse nation. I suggest that such openness to discussion is the way forward. We cannot simply bury our heads in the sand amid an increasingly religiously pluralistic society. Instead, we must seek to develop a religious literacy, which will enable us to engage in constructive intercultural dialogue and so better understand and live alongside one another.
I have friends from pretty much every major religious faith—I am not saying from every religious faith—and the one common factor that people of genuine religion have is that they are very tolerant and fair minded and really support their society. It is the people who exploit religious differences we need to guard against—not those of religious faith. Before I close, I wish to praise again the honest and hard work of the hon. Member for Strangford and the APPG in this regard. I want to take this opportunity to make my own personal commitment that I will strive to do anything and everything I can to help to protect this very important right. I hope we can all unite behind that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. As my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) just said, we have had a veritable feast of Chairs today, but I am glad we have been able to make progress.
I join in all the congratulations that have been paid to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is a real champion for this issue in the House. He rightly enjoys cross-party support, which has been demonstrated in the speeches and contributions that we have heard today. I welcome the re-establishment of his all-party group. I am pretty sure I am a member of it; but if I am not, he will make sure I am. This morning, I received from his own hands a copy of the latest report—a very substantial piece of work. As he said at the start, it stresses the need for a concerted and continued effort to protect the rights to freedom of religion and belief all around the world. We will come back to some of the report’s recommendations later.
There are three key areas I want to cover in putting forward the Scottish National party’s position: the key principles of religious freedom and the importance of marking the day; reflections on some of the different examples we have heard of religious freedom’s current relevance; and then some questions for the Government and some action they can take.
As the hon. Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) noted, the International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day on 27 October began as a commemoration of the US International Religious Freedom Act 1998. Unfortunately for the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone), this day was not celebrated in Jacobean times. We have had to wait all these years for it to come round. The historical perspectives that we heard from him, the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) and other hon. Members are very important. They demonstrate the role that different religions and faiths have played in our societies for literally thousands of years. Now, in the modern world, we have what we might call a secular framework in the ECHR and the UN declaration of human rights. That secular framework should protect all religious beliefs and those with none and provide that level playing field for engagement.
I think it is fair to say that, in their purest form, there is not a single major world religion that allows for intolerance or persecution. The golden rule, as it is known, which can be found in over a dozen of the world’s largest religions, can be summed up as, “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” That should be the fundamental basis and principle on which we conduct all our human relationships. When we see states or societies corrupting and perverting a religion in a way that allows them to persecute minorities, of whatever kind, they are not respecting the religious freedom that we all ought to enjoy.
The hon. Member for Stafford demonstrated that religious persecution and intolerance can be counter productive on many different levels: economically, culturally and, importantly, scientifically. The hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) mentioned the right to no belief and the place of atheism and secularism. It is a duty of states to protect those rights too.
Unfortunately, during this debate we have heard so many examples of situations around the world. The situation of the Rohingya in Myanmar has been discussed many times recently in this Chamber and the main Chamber. The brutal treatment and oppression of the Rohingya minority is a huge disappointment to all of us, particularly those who looked up to the struggle for freedom and democracy in Burma. We can only hope that progress is made. In 2016 this House voted to describe the atrocities perpetrated against the Yazidis in Syria and Iraq as genocide. In those days, the Government perhaps paid a little more attention to resolutions of the House than they have recently—I hope they will live up to those standards.
We also heard about the persecution of Christians. The hon. Gentleman spoke about the role of missionaries in different societies. Missionaries exist in all religions and should be free to evangelise. St Francis is attributed with the saying, “Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary use words.” We should be known first by our actions, and the first action ought to be tolerance, peace and solidarity. Some of the most incredible people I have ever met were religious missionaries who gave up their lives and their homelands to make other countries their homelands and to live out their faith. If that has the effect of converting people to their faith, they will be very pleased, but their first instinct is to serve the poor and the oppressed in the countries they live in.
I have written to the Home Office, rather than the Foreign Office, about missionaries who are UK citizens, but have lived abroad for many years—decades, often. When they come back to the UK, perhaps for their final years, they sometimes have difficulty accessing medical treatment or the NHS because they have not been paying tax. I think that is something the Government could helpfully keep under review.
There have been a number of studies about the oppression of Christians. I pay tribute to some of the organisations that have been mentioned such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide. Aid to the Church in Need produces a hard-hitting report on a worryingly regular basis, highlighting that experience. In this part of the world we think of Christianity as the establishment—we begin our day in Parliament with Christian prayers—but that is not true in other parts of the world. It is important that those persecutions are highlighted, but indeed that applies to a range of different minorities.
We also heard about the Ahmadi community. Very sadly, in my city of Glasgow last year, a member of the Ahmadi Muslim community posted on his Facebook page to wish a happy Easter to his Christian friends and the Christian customers of the shop he ran, so he was killed by someone who subscribed to a different branch of Islam. That was an absolutely shocking and dreadful occurrence. It shows we cannot be complacent about religious intolerance in our own societies. What happened was particularly ironic given that the Ahmadi community’s mantra, as I have seen when I have visited their mosques, is, “Love for all, hatred for none.” We could not really come across a more peaceable community.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he just said. After the attack in Glasgow, the law of this land made the person responsible accountable for their actions, but in Pakistan, perpetrators are given free rein to attack innocent Ahmadis in the knowledge that they will never face prosecution for their actions. We are here today to speak for them. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that Pakistan also needs to step up to the mark?
As I said, given the defining mantra of the Ahmadi community, the persecution of them is almost inexplicable. My understanding of the meaning of the word Islam is that it is a form of submission, of peaceful understanding and of coming to terms with oneself and one’s place in the world. That ought to apply around the world.
In a debate on religious freedom, we should touch on anti-Semitism. The hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) spoke powerfully about visiting the Holocaust memorial in Berlin. I have also had the privilege of visiting it on a couple of occasions and it never fails to make people stop and think. The Community Security Trust has reported 80 violent assaults targeting Jews here in the UK this year. A total of 767 anti-Semitic incidents were reported between January and June. The CST sees that as a rise over recent years. We have to question why that has happened, call it out for what it is and ensure that it is condemned.
The UK Government have a number of opportunities to respond. Some are outlined in the all-party group’s report, which asks what priority the Foreign Secretary is giving to freedom of religion or belief, and whether the Government are willing to look at providing appropriate funding and how they are reviewing the existing funding streams and particularly the training that is provided, for example, in embassies and to diplomatic staff.
There was discussion at the start of the debate about whether DFID funding should be given to regimes that support religious persecution. We have to be careful about using aid as a political tool, but equally, it should not be used in any way to support persecution. That does not mean that aid cannot be given to other organisations, such as grassroots organisations, NGOs and, particularly, faith-based organisations in developing countries or fragile or conflict-afflicted states. In fact, there is perhaps even more of a case for ensuring that organisations working on an ecumenical basis—working for peace, security and justice—are appropriately resourced.
It would be useful to hear the Government restate their commitment to human rights conventions, and particularly to the ECHR given the context of Brexit. I reflect on the fact that the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross raised the issue of sectarianism, which still blights our society. Being a neighbour to the amazing, mighty Partick Thistle FC, I am fortunately not required to have any view on the success or otherwise of members of the old firm, but sectarianism must be called out and condemned as unacceptable. We should work on a cross-party, cross-Government basis to tackle that in our society.
In conclusion, I commend the different initiatives here in the United Kingdom to promote religious tolerance, some of which were spoken about by the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) and my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk. After International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day tomorrow, in a few weeks’ time we will celebrate Scottish Interfaith Week—I believe there is a UK equivalent. Speaking about the week last year, the First Minister noted:
“Scotland is a modern multi-faith and multi-cultural country where all people can live together in harmony, and where people of all faiths and ethnic backgrounds can follow their religion or belief and achieve their potential. These events are tremendously important in bringing together different communities united in a common purpose.”
I finish by quoting one of the great spiritual leaders of our time, Pope Francis. In a meeting on religious liberty that he held in the Independence Hall in Philadelphia in 2015, he described religious freedom as
“a fundamental right which shapes the way we interact socially and personally with our neighbours whose religious views differ from our own.”
He went on to say:
“Let us preserve freedom. Let us cherish freedom. Freedom of conscience, religious freedom, the freedom of each person, each family, each people, which is what gives rise to rights.”
I look forward to hearing from the Minister.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell, and to follow the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady). Like everybody who has spoken, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing this important debate. We all know that, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, he is a tenacious campaigner for these rights. He always makes a thoughtful and extremely knowledgeable contribution to these debates, and I thank him for that.
The hon. Gentleman secured a similar debate earlier this year on the persecution of Christians and the role of embassies. Many issues raised today were raised in that important debate, including violence against the Rohingya Muslims, which the United Nations has described as “ethnic cleansing”, and the subsequent refugee crisis in Bangladesh—a very current issue that we have had many debates on. In this debate, hon. Members have talked about our words becoming actions, and we have to keep up the pressure on Bangladesh to provide aid to the refugees and to allow international aid agencies into the country. We need to do whatever is in our power to help the plight of the Rohingya Muslims. It is a real issue.
Other issues raised in the previous debate included: the persecution of Christians in Syria and Iraq; the restrictions on freedom of religion or belief in Russia, which have led to the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses; and the attacks by Daesh on Coptic Christians in Egypt. The hon. Member for Strangford raised the issue of a new law in Nepal, which creates a caste system whereby Christians are relegated to the status of second-class citizens.
[Ian Paisley in the Chair]
The Archbishop of Canterbury, while on a visit to Jerusalem earlier this year, spoke of the persecution of Christians in the middle east. He said that in the conflict zones of the middle east, every part of life was dominated by suffering:
“That is true whether you are a Christian or not but in this region in addition to the suffering of war, conflict and the tragedies of death and injustice, Christians especially are experiencing persecution, are especially threatened.”
Many hon. Members raised the issue of religious intolerance within the UK. In London alone the number of hate crimes against Muslims has increased from 343 in 2013 to 1,260 in 2016—the number of incidents has almost quadrupled in three years.
As has already been referred to, the APPG has produced a report on freedom of religion or belief, which I read with great interest. It is obviously timely that we should be discussing the report on the eve of International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day. The report states that
“acts of intolerance involving religion or belief are on the rise globally. A climate of intolerance is being fostered in many nations by xenophobic and nativist narratives, which are also de-sensitising the general public to dangerous practices such as stigmatisation and incitement to hostility against those with different beliefs.”
The report centres on article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights—on the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion—and many hon. Members have rightly referred to that today. Despite 243 states signing international human rights provisions on freedom of religious belief, violations still go on and, as has been said, nearly 80% of the world’s population live in countries with high or very high levels of restrictions on and hostility towards certain beliefs.
The report makes 14 recommendations, which I hope the Minister will address when he sums up. Of particular interest to me are recommendations 1 and 2, which call for freedom of religious belief to be identified as a political priority for the Foreign Secretary and as a strategic priority in the work of the Department for International Development. The report asks about funding, and calls for funding to be transferred from DFID to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in order to establish a freedom of religious belief funding stream within the FCO. I would be interested to hear his views on that recommendation.
I would also like to press the Minister on recommendation 12, which calls for the FCO to recognise the role of freedom of religious belief within prevention of violent extremism measures across the UK Government. It recommends that the extremism analysis unit should carry out research to analyse the role of religion as a driver of extremism and provide evidence that promoting tolerance on the basis of religion or belief helps build societies that are resilient to extremism. Interesting and far-reaching suggestions are made throughout the report, including about sharing best practice internationally. I hope that the Minister can comment on its ambitious recommendations.
We in the UK must do everything in our power to ensure that people of faith or no faith the world over have the freedom to pursue their beliefs without fear of harassment or victimisation. Where there are humanitarian issues and breaches of human rights, the UK should use all diplomatic means available to ensure that international law is adhered to, including bilateral relations and multilateral forums such as the UN Human Rights Council.
The all-party parliamentary group’s report is to be commended and noted for its recommendations on initiatives to tackle violations of freedom of religious belief at the international level, including the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief. Finally, the support of the new UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Dr Ahmed Shaheed, is also vital in tackling incitement to violence on the basis of religion or belief.
So that the Minister does not have to rush the fences, I inform him that he will have sufficient time to make all the points that he wishes in responding to this detailed debate. The Chairman of Ways and Means has given us permission, if we desire or require it, to extend these proceedings by a further 12 minutes. The hon. Member for Strangford will also want to respond, and we will have sufficient time for that.
It is a great pleasure to work under your chairmanship as well, Mr Paisley. I am not sure whether there are planes to be caught and other things beyond 4.30 pm, but I will endeavour to respond to all aspects of the debate.
I am delighted to represent the Government in this debate and, along with everyone else, to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing it on such an important occasion. I pay tribute to him and to all the members of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief for their continued strong commitment to promoting this universal human right. We welcome the views of parliamentarians and civil society groups on what more we might do, and we seek to act on those views where possible.
I was going to thank the new boy and the new girl who have made speeches today, but unfortunately the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) has now left the Chamber. Perhaps he took to heart the idea of catching a plane home—he has a slightly longer commute to his constituency than I do, of course. He and the hon. Member for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly) made good and heartfelt speeches, as indeed did all Members who contributed.
To speak slightly personally, I have spent all but four months of my 16 years in this place as a Back Bencher. Although I believe firmly that I must speak today on behalf of the Government, I am also aware, as the Government need to be aware, that we do not have a full majority in the House of Commons. Therefore, the opinions of Parliament in this and many other matters have increasing importance. I take seriously this sort of debate. In my role as a Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister, I will endeavour to pass it on to the high commissions and embassies within my bailiwick, in order to ensure that the concerns expressed by parliamentarians do not just die in the ether or appear on a few pages of Hansard for a particular day, but are given practical effect. I give my word to everyone here that I shall endeavour to do so and to boil down the issues debated, as well as the important report, to make a practical—if not life-changing—day-to-day difference in how our embassies and high commissions operate. I will ensure that the concerns addressed by parliamentarians, not just in this debate but in numerous others, are brought to bear.
To an extent, that has already been done in relation to Burma, as the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) pointed out. As my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford rightly said, more than 600,000 Rohingya have been forced to flee to Bangladesh since 25 August. Parliamentarians’ active role has contributed to the UK’s continuing leading international position on the matter. The issue is evolving, and I know that frustration has been expressed at various times, not least by the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton, and rightly so; it is her role in opposition to provide a practical sense of concern about the pace of reform.
I spoke about the issue yesterday at a Foreign Affairs Committee hearing. The situation continues to evolve, in diplomatic and political terms. As recently as Monday I was at the United Nations in Geneva to pledge on behalf of UK taxpayers an additional £12 million, bringing to £47 million, or $62 million, the UK’s contribution to the heartfelt international efforts in response to this terrible humanitarian catastrophe, which at the moment is occurring predominantly in Bangladesh. The hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton is absolutely right that we are doing all we can to ensure that the displaced can return to Burma, and one hopes that some of the money will be spent to rebuild lives and villages on that side of the border.
That is an example of what is going on; no doubt in three or four months’ time there will be other issues for me, as a Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister, or one of my colleagues, to deal with. That is why we appreciate the work of the all-party parliamentary group and parliamentarians to raise the temperature of such important issues; it informs and complements our work overseas. I stress that I will, in my own small way as a Minister, take it seriously. If we hear such representations, we will try to ensure that we can act on them in our embassies and high commissions elsewhere.
Tomorrow our posts across the diplomatic network will mark International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day in various ways. I want to mark the occasion by reiterating the Government’s commitment to promoting and protecting freedom of religion or belief, reflecting on the situation in a number of countries of particular concern and setting out what action the Government are taking on the issue.
Article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights is the fundamental principle underpinning our work. It defines freedom of religion or belief as
“the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”.
As a number of hon. Members have pointed out in this debate, the article states that everyone has the right to choose a religion or belief, or to have no religious belief at all. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spoke earlier this year about her
“determination to stand up for the freedom of people of all religions to practice their beliefs in peace and safety.”
I set out my own personal commitment on this issue when I last spoke on it in a debate in July, and I know that Lord Ahmad, the FCO Minister with responsibility for human rights, regularly expresses sentiments similar to mine, both in the other place and in his engagements in London and overseas. I also know that he was with many Members yesterday in Speaker’s House for the launch of the APPG’s report, which is a genuinely impressive piece of work that will further inform our efforts in this area.
We make those efforts not just because the right to freedom of religion or belief is a principle worth defending for its own sake. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), who said that we also make those efforts because we believe that societies in which people are free to practise their faith or belief are, by their very nature, more stable, more prosperous and more resilient to extremism.
Sadly, however, the situation in a number of countries around the world continues to cause grave concern, and as I have a little more time than I had anticipated I will give some specific examples. The information provided by the Pew Research Centre shows that Christians have been harassed in more countries than any other religious group. The middle east is the cradle of the religion, although obviously it is also the cradle of other religions, namely Islam and Judaism. However, Christians in the middle east are particularly suffering from harassment. In Iraq the Christian population has fallen from over 1 million in 2003 to a current estimate of 250,000. We are also concerned about the plight of Christians in Syria, Burma and a number of other countries.
However, followers of all faiths and religions suffer persecution, as at times do people of no faith, so I will set out what the UK Government are doing in some specific cases. Essentially, our approach is to tackle the issue on two fronts: first, working with and strongly lobbying countries individually; and secondly, working within organisations such as the United Nations.
A recent example of our bilateral approach is our work to defend the rights of Christians in Sudan, and we welcomed the release of several pastors earlier this year. We have also called for the release of the Eritrean Patriarch, Abune Antonios, and we are supporting the rights of many faith groups, including the Baha’i in Iran and, as has already been said, the Rohingya Muslims in Burma. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) made the important point that some Rohingya are actually Hindu and that some have no religion at all, but they too have been persecuted during these terrible times. What I am saying also applies to Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia and Shi’a Muslims in several countries, including Saudi Arabia.
Lord Ahmad recently visited an Ahmadiyya mosque in Dhaka in Bangladesh for a multi-faith gathering, at which he made a call for universal religious tolerance. Most recently, we have expressed concern about proposed amendments to the law in Nepal, which my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford rightly said would restrict religious freedoms. Only last month I had the opportunity to speak about that issue directly with my US counterpart at the UN General Assembly.
As an example of our multilateral work to defend and protect religious freedoms, I draw the House’s attention to the UK’s leading role in the global efforts to bring ISIS or Daesh to justice. All of us here are only too aware of the absolutely appalling treatment that that paramilitary group has meted out to anyone who does not subscribe to its extremist ideology. That has included religious minorities in Iraq and Syria—Christians and Yazidis—and of course the majority Muslim populations in those countries.
The UK is determined that Daesh will not get away with it. That is important not only in countering extremism, but in defending the right to freedom of religion or belief. We have led the multilateral response to Daesh. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, together with his Belgian and Iraqi counterparts, got the ball rolling last year with a UK-led initiative to bring Daesh to justice. Just last month a new UK-drafted UN resolution, co-sponsored by 46 member states, including Iraq, was adopted unanimously by the Security Council, as Daesh accountability resolution 2379. The resolution calls on the UN Secretary General to establish an investigative team to collect, preserve and store evidence of crimes by so-called Islamic State, beginning in Iraq. I know that we will be supported by members of the APPG, who focused on the issue when their report was launched yesterday.
That UN investigative team will be led by a special adviser with a mandate to promote the need to bring ISIS to justice around the globe. We have contributed, as a down-payment, £1 million to support the establishment of the team, to ensure that it is adequately resourced at the outset and that the evidence collected is used to bring the perpetrators to book.
However, our work on promoting freedom of religion or belief goes beyond bilateral or multilateral efforts overseas. We are also now committed to stepping up our engagement with faith leaders here in the UK. That is why Lord Ahmad has established a regular roundtable with a variety of faith leaders and representatives, the first of which he hosted as recently as Monday. The aim of the roundtable is to discuss how the Government and faith leaders can work together to address issues of religious freedom. We want faith groups to play a bigger role in seeking solutions to international crises and to broader international challenges. That international network will be of critical importance. Also, when the Foreign and Commonwealth Office marks International Human Rights Day in December, we will focus particularly on promoting freedom of religion or belief, and on the important role that faith leaders can play in driving that agenda.
We shall continue to support religious freedom and tolerance through our project work under the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Magna Carta fund for human rights and democracy. I must confess that I am particularly proud of a project that is helping secondary schoolteachers in the middle east and north Africa to create lesson plans that promote tolerance and freedom of religion or belief among all their pupils. The project is being implemented by an organisation called Hardwired Inc, which, along with other civil society organisations, is a vital partner in our efforts to make article 18 a reality. I pay tribute to its dedicated work.
We continue to strive to be as effective as possible in promoting freedom of religion or belief. Ensuring that our embassy and high commission staff are properly trained is an essential part of that programme, and I know that the APPG’s report rightly highlighted such training. I will continue to look for ways to improve religious literacy among our staff. We already provide a set of resources to support their work, which we will promote more widely to our posts overseas. Earlier this month the FCO launched a new religion and diplomacy course. We will continue to review actively both that course and the feedback it receives from our staff, to ensure that it meets our needs in a fast-changing world.
In addition, my noble Friend Lord Ahmad will write to all our ambassadors and high commissioners tomorrow, reissuing our freedom of religion or belief toolkit and instructing them to give serious consideration to freedom of religious belief in their diplomatic engagement with host Governments. Where there are violations of religious belief, Members can be assured that the FCO and its Ministers are clear that they will be addressed through our diplomacy with international partners.
In partnership with Lord Ahmad, I will also write to the embassies and high commissions in key countries for which I have responsibility, asking them to report on precisely what they are doing to promote freedom of religion or belief. I will ensure that our embassies are aware of the strength of both parliamentary feeling and my own personal feelings on this issue.
As recently as 2011 there were 150,000 Christians in the city of Aleppo in Syria, which is a country I visited in my first term as a Member of Parliament. Now, as far as we can understand, there are fewer than 35,000. Religious persecution has increased in other Muslim countries, such as Pakistan, Sudan and Iran. In Nigeria, 1.8 million people have been displaced by Boko Haram. In India, it has been suggested that the harassment of Christians has increased with the current rise of Hindu nationalism. However, I also take on board what my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East said on that issue, namely that Hindus and Sikhs themselves are under day-to-day threat in parts of the subcontinent. In China there are now no fewer than 127 million Christians, which I fear has upset the authorities there, who see Christianity as some form of foreign infiltration and seek to Sinicise it in some way.
I will now take the opportunity to address one or two issues that were specifically raised by a number of Members. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford that there are concerns that some provisions of the new penal code in Nepal may be constructed to limit the freedom to adapt, change or practise a religion. I have already raised those concerns with the Government of Nepal and will continue to do so.
My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) mentioned Egypt, which is a human rights priority country. Her Majesty’s Government have been clear that freedom of religion or belief needs to be actively protected. The Government of Egypt have stated their commitment to protecting the rights of minorities and the need for religious tolerance. We regularly raise concerns with the Egyptian Government about the deteriorating human rights situation, including issues that affect Christians. The Coptic Christian community is made up of 8 million to 9 million people and has been around as long as any other Christian group, but there are great fears for its future, and certainly for its future stability.
May I take this opportunity to apologise to the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day), who has not yet received a response to his letter on behalf of his constituent from 25 August? I will endeavour to find out where the letter has gone in the system. He made some interesting comments about the apostasy issue. I will contact the Home Office to request that it finds a way to include such cases within the hate crime statistics, if that is at all possible. I will get back to him when I have a reply.
There was a slightly discordant shot from the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) on genocide. Genocide is strictly a legal term. Whether a parliamentary motion or Ministers refer to it as genocide is neither here nor there; it is strictly a legal term. With what has been happening in Burma and various other parts of the world, it is clear that a process has to be gone through in the UN and finally in the International Criminal Court before a genocide can be proven.
I want to reassure those Members who raised the issue of funding. All DFID’s support to Governments involves discussions on human rights, and we will continue to give serious consideration to adopting recommendations 1 and 2 from the report to take account of DFID and FCO funding streams. I do not want to commit my Department on the Floor of the House without it having had a proper look through all the recommendations. To be brutally honest, many of them relate to issues that we already address on a day-to-day basis, but we will give the report serious consideration. Once we have had a chance to look through all the recommendations, I will get back to the shadow Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford to say which ones we are in a position fully to adopt and what action we would look to take elsewhere.
My hon. Friend did raise that case. If he is happy, I will take it up in writing. We will ensure that the matter is taken up.
In conclusion, the Government believe strongly that whole societies benefit when the fundamental rights of all their citizens are respected and protected. That includes the right to religious freedom or belief, or to have no religion at all. That is why we will continue to work with individual countries, with the international community and with faith leaders and civil society organisations to promote and defend this fundamental right. The UK Government’s position is to remain absolutely committed to promoting freedom of religion or belief as enshrined in article 18 of the international covenant on civil and political rights, supported by article 2 on non-discrimination and article 26 on access to justice. I think I speak for everyone who has contributed to this important debate when I say this: only when these universal rights are universally respected can there be religious freedom for everyone, everywhere.
I am not sure if we hold the record this afternoon for the most Chairs involved in one session; perhaps Hansard could check that record to see whether we do. For whatever reasons, we have had four Chairmen. We are very pleased to have had them all, and I am pleased to have you, my friend and colleague, in the Chair for the final part, Mr Paisley.
I sincerely thank all those who came to the debate. I did a quick headcount, and some 23 right hon. and hon. Members contributed and came to give support. It is always good to have that and to have had cross-party support, which is so important. We are trying to encapsulate in the debate the idea of international freedom of religion or belief for those with Christian beliefs, those with other beliefs and those of no belief. All the parties have come together to encapsulate that theme and I again thank each and every one of them for their participation.
It would be remiss of me not to thank the staff of the all-party parliamentary group, which the Minister also referred to, and some are here—Katharine Thane, Amoro and Lesley. I also thank Baroness Berridge. I thank them for their hard work and the effort they have put into this. I also thank the stakeholders who make it happen through their contributions.
I thank the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) for encapsulating what we are thinking in all parts of the House. Let me say to the Minister what a pleasure it is to have a Minister come to a debate who is knowledgeable, understands the issues, is compassionate and replies in a positive fashion. We can all take heart that we have a Minister who can do that so well and we look forward to working with and alongside him. He should let us know if he needs anything at all from us as individual Members in this House—from all of us who have participated and from the all-party parliamentary group. There is one wee thing we would like to ask for as a PS: we hope that the all-party parliamentary group might have a meeting with the Minister and perhaps, if it can be organised, with the Department for International Development as well. I leave that wee thought with him, and I do not expect to hear a reply today.
I will finish with a biblical message, and it is from the beatitudes. Everyone in the House will know the beatitudes. The message is:
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
We are here to be a voice for the voiceless—a voice for all those people across the world who we will probably never meet, but who we speak for.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day.