The UK promotes and protects the right to freedom of religion or belief internationally. Through our UK Aid Connect scheme, up to £12 million will be available over the next four years for organisations to promote the building of freedom of religion or belief.
Clearly the right hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. I am delighted to be able to tell him that we are working closely with colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on a project that will generate exactly that evidence on the persecution of religious minorities. The project’s long-term objective is to generate data to better inform international policymakers to promote freedom of religion or belief more effectively.
Religious literacy is crucial to understanding the way in which our policies affect developing countries. I am therefore glad that the FCO has relaunched its course on that, but it is only voluntary. What more can be done to encourage DFID staff to take up such courses?
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s work as a Church Commissioner. She will be aware that the Prime Minister has recently appointed Lord Ahmad as her special envoy on freedom of religion or belief. In that role, he has the important job of ensuring that that is taken up as widely as possible.
The Minister may be aware of a case in Pakistan involving a young woman called Asia Bibi who, under blasphemy legislation, faces the possible fate of execution in that country this week. What representations can the Minister make, as a matter of the utmost urgency, to try to ensure that common sense prevails in the Pakistani courts in that case?
Pakistan is one of the largest recipients of UK aid, so does the Minister agree that along with our aid should come an expectation that the recipient should do everything in their power to improve the protection of basic universal human rights?
The most recent report from the European Parliament intergroup on freedom of religion or belief and religious tolerance states:
“much of the world’s population is deprived of their right to freedom of religion or belief”.
What steps are the Department undertaking to ensure the protection of minority groups in Nigeria, as the Nigerian Government are reportedly unwilling to initiate forceful action?
The hon. Lady is right to raise the fact that three quarters of the world’s population live in countries with high levels of government restrictions on freedom of religion or belief. Nigeria’s constitution does guarantee that freedom. When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister recently met President Buhari she was able to raise that important issue, and I am glad the hon. Lady shares the ability to raise it in Parliament.
I feel the need to prompt the Minister. Nigeria is one of DFID’s top five recipient countries and Nigeria has been identified by both the European Parliament intergroup and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom as a “country of concern” with regards to its poor record on upholding the right of freedom to express religion. So may I ask the Minister again to tell the House what actions her Department has in place to ensure that the Nigerian Government uphold the rights of religious minorities in the country?
The hon. Lady is right to raise this issue. I am sure she agrees that humanitarian assistance should always be distributed on the basis of need, disregarding any issues of race, religion and ethnicity. I assure her that we regularly raise this issue, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State did recently, and that there is a plan in place both at local and national level to address it.