I beg to move,
That this House has considered international freedom of religion or belief day 2018.
It is a pleasure to introduce this debate. Thank you, Mr Walker, for chairing it—it is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship. International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day will take place on Saturday 27 October. I thank right hon. and hon. Members—particularly those who will make contributions—for coming along. The fact that we debate this issue annually does not take away from its importance. It is good to consider again where there are problems.
I thank the Minister and the Government for their actions to advance the right of freedom of religion or belief. The appointment of Lord Ahmad as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religious belief is very welcome. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has appointed more staff to its FORB team and, crucially, committed to developing a statistical database to track FORB violations around the world. Those are significant and commendable steps to advance FORB. I truly appreciate the efforts of the Government and in particular of the Minister, who I know will always speak out for those who have no voice. That is the reason we are here.
We are privileged to have Ministers who are so compassionate and committed to the cause of human rights. As I have said many times, I am thrilled that we have the right Ministers in the right place at the right time. I very much look forward to hearing the Government’s plans for commemorating International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day and for defending and promoting that vital human right.
Unfortunately, despite the amazing work that has been done, there is much still to do. FORB violations are rampant and truly global. Earlier today, at a panel on Afghanistan, I spoke about freedom of religious belief and how religious minorities of all kinds are persecuted in that country. Other Members will speak about Pakistan, which I recently visited with the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) and Lord Alton. We had an opportunity to express concerns on behalf of religious minorities there, which we did with some fervour. I know she will speak about that.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned Pakistan. Bangladesh was of course formerly East Pakistan. Is he aware of the abuses of freedom of belief—I imagine there are abuses of freedom of religion, too—that take place there? The photojournalist Shahidul Alam was imprisoned for taking pictures of student protests. I know the Minister is looking at that case, and I hope he can give us good news soon, but it is an affront to democracy. We cherish freedom of belief in this country, and such abuses should be cracked down on.
I absolutely agree. Wherever there are human rights abuses—abuses of journalists or whatever else—we should certainly speak out. I thank the hon. Lady for reminding us of that case.
Just today I tabled a question to the FCO asking whether it will make a public statement in support of a full, independent investigation into allegations of forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience in China. Others will speak about killings along religious lines in Nigeria.
Before the hon. Gentleman moves on from China, I am sure that, like many of us, he is alarmed by the recent BBC news reports that millions of Muslims in China are being interned, seemingly because of their faith and not much more. Although we rightly want to do lots of trade with China, does he agree that we should take that issue up at the highest levels with the Chinese Government?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for reminding us of that case. He is absolutely right. The stories in the press in the past few days have been horrendous. We have seen the establishment of what cannot be called anything other than stalags—concentration camps—where people are subjected in every way, emotionally and physically, to efforts to change their views. Those Uyghur Muslims are among the people we speak up for today. I chair the all-party group on international freedom of religion or belief, which speaks out for people of Christian faith, of other faiths and of no faith. I also chair the APPG on Pakistani minorities. I am particularly interested in the issue the hon. Gentleman mentions, and I thank him for doing so.
Closer to home—we should not take away from what is happening here—there has been a 40% increase in hate crime on the basis of religious belief in England and Wales, and it is reported that churches in occupied territories in Ukraine have been denied registration and declared illegal. I am sure hon. Members will discuss those issues in much more detail—I intend to give just a general introduction—but I raise them to highlight the grave importance of International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day. Now more than ever, we must come together to stand up for those who suffer intolerance and persecution.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. I fully agree with him about the importance of speaking out for people of all faiths, in all countries, who suffer persecution for their faith. Does he agree, though, that we should celebrate the strength of multi-faith communities that live together harmoniously and the contribution that different communities working collectively can make to improving all our lives?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. It is good to remind ourselves that, around the world, many groups of different faiths celebrate together. On our visit to Pakistan, to which the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston will refer, we had an opportunity to encourage faiths to come together. It is important that we recognise, as I am sure everyone who will contribute to the debate does, that there is a need to understand that although we may have different religious faiths, there is nothing wrong with us coming together and appreciating each other’s faiths, thereby strengthening each other. It is important to do that.
Is it not also worth the House noting with concern that attacks on freedom of religion and Christian minorities are often a sign of worse to come? Regimes that oppress freedom of religion are likely to violate other human rights.
I thank the right hon. Lady for making that point. We highlighted the persecution of religious minorities when we visited Pakistan. To illustrate her point, 13,600 people have been abducted in Punjab province, and there have been 2,900 rapes and 190 gang rapes of women. The level of sexual violence against women is despicable and bothers me greatly, as I am sure it bothers everyone else in the House. That is an indication—it starts with that and then goes on to everything else. The right hon. Lady is absolutely right, and the horrendous statistics back up her point.
Of course, protecting FORB not only is vital for individual welfare but plays a key role in preventing social instability. Although stability is a complex phenomenon, the case of Myanmar shows how unaddressed Government and social persecution of religious groups can explode into violence, undermining stability and creating humanitarian crises. Indeed, the UN specifies that discriminatory practices, or targeting communities based on their identity, is a key risk factor for atrocity crimes.
In September, the House of Lords International Relations Committee published evidence from the UN and the World Bank highlighting that
“the tipping point for joining a violent”
“group was usually some sort of violation of law, or a sense of violation of law”.
That goes back to what the right hon. Lady said. That shows that making sure that human rights are protected can play an important role in ensuring stability and preventing violent conflict, which in turn is vital to long-term economic development.
The Select Committee on Foreign Affairs recently stated:
“Promoting the rule of law and democracy globally is key to developing the UK’s prosperity.”
In the short term, the Committee stated, the Government
“will face conflicting priorities between human rights and other Government policies, especially trade deals.”
We need to be careful about those. The Committee continued:
“This may create short term conflicts, but the prioritisation of human rights is in the UK’s long-term commercial, as well as moral, interest.”
I hope the Minister can tell us something positive about that in his response.
Given the importance of protecting FORB and marking International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day, I want to make five recommendations that might help in the significant efforts being made to advance FORB. I will then briefly discuss FORB issues in several countries in south Asia and the middle east, namely Pakistan, India, Nepal, Turkey, Egypt and Iran.
My first recommendation is for Departments that are significantly affected by FORB issues, such as the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development, to produce strategic plans for how they can advance this fundamental right and for them to work regularly with Lord Ahmad to co-ordinate their work. That is important. Would the Minister be willing to encourage those Departments to develop such plans? Will he also push for FORB literacy training for staff, so that they can understand the religious dynamics and tensions that clearly exist in the countries in which they work?
Secondly, DFID operates in many countries that have severe levels of discrimination and violence towards certain religious or belief groups. In these countries, DFID could encourage more non-governmental organisations to develop programmes that promote the welfare of marginalised communities and help to reduce tensions between religious or belief groups in conflict. Would the Minister be willing to encourage and support DFID to take such action? I know he would—I know I am pushing at an open door, to be honest—but I want to put the point on record. Will he ensure within DFID that modules that teach respect for people of all faiths and none are included in more education programmes, as well as capacity building programmes for police, civil servants, NGOs and other groups? I will not steal anyone else’s thunder, but it was important to see the police and other departments in Pakistan working to ensure that these things happen as well.
Finally in this section, I commend the Minister for the Government’s role in developing country-specific strategies for advancing FORB. Will he continue to work with FCO heads of mission and DFID country heads to produce more of these plans for promoting FORB?
The hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston, the noble Lord Alton of Liverpool and I made a trip to Pakistan; the hon. Lady will speak about that and I will let her refer to it, because it is important to do so. Religious minorities including Christians, Hindus, Ahmadis and other groups face very significant persecution in Pakistan and are severely marginalised.
When we were there, we visited some of the slums where the Christians, for example, were living. It is very hard, and none of us was not touched by what we saw. Any slum where any group lives is horrific, but we went to the Christian slum in particular, where there were 48,000 people living in 8,000 houses. It was quite unbelievable. I call them houses, but they were rudimentary. They were never more than a single block or a wooden frame with a carpet thrown over it. There was a single hose that ran through the slum, and open sewers. One thing about it, which the hon. Lady will speak about, is that the children were happy, smiling and clean. There was certainly a willingness to try to do something.
I do not do the pools, but if I did, or if I won the lottery, I would certainly give whatever money I won to do a project there. I have spoken to the Minister of State, Department for International Development, the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), and I intend to put forward some programmes that he might be sympathetic to assisting out there for all those who live in slums—all those minority groups, whatever they may be. It is important to do that.
I want to comment quickly on the 5% employment quota for non-Muslim Pakistanis. It is all very well for the Government to set a 5% quota for religious minorities to achieve jobs, but if people do not have the education to get those jobs and achieve the goal, it does not matter very much. The Minister has kindly said that he will look at that as well.
I also want to speak about possible reforms to the criminal law to prevent the persecution of religious or belief minorities in Pakistan. I will not go into too much detail, because some of it has been highly confidential, as the Minister knows, but I will say that we had the opportunity to meet two of the three judges who will decide the fate of Asia Bibi, who has been in prison under a death sentence for eight years, separated from her husband and family. We need a law that does not penalise people or treat them adversely, because someone with malicious intent can make an allegation, which is clearly what we have seen in this case. We made those comments clear, although I will say no more about that, other than to say that the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston will comment on it.
Next, I will speak about the FORB situation in India. Despite Prime Minister Modi’s pledged commitment to “complete freedom of faith”, since his election in 2014 there has been a significant increase in anti-minority rhetoric and mob violence against Muslims and other minorities. Let us be quite clear: I am here to speak for every religious minority, as the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq), who intervened earlier, knows. I am here to speak for all religious minorities, wherever they may be. We have spoken about the Uighur Muslims in China; we will speak about the clear persecution of Muslims in India. I want to speak up for those people as well and ensure that the Indian Government are aware of their commitment to international religious freedom through the UN. There have also been hundreds of attacks on Christians.
Worryingly, at the end of July 2018, in Assam State, the Indian Government effectively stripped 4 million people, mostly Muslims, of their citizenship, branding them illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. How annoying and frustrating is it to watch a democratic country specifically targeting those of other religious beliefs? The situation bears worrying similarities to the plight of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, who in 1982 also had their citizenship removed and were labelled Bangladeshi before being attacked by the Burmese military.
It is hard not to get emotional, strongly agitated and full of angst about what is taking place across the world, because there is so much happening. This debate is a chance to reiterate those points, and others will do so. All this is very concerning, not only for obvious reasons, but because violence and discrimination could cause significant grievance among the 250 million-strong non-Hindu population of India, leading to instability. Mob violence has already increased significantly across India, and in the past few months both ISIS and al-Qaeda have called on India’s Muslim population—predicted to be the second largest, if not the largest, in the world—to “take revenge”. We have a difficult situation developing in that country, and if the Indian Government do not start to do something about it, we are in great trouble.
The hon. Gentleman used the phrase “across the world”. While there are excellent organisations such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide that operate in this space, I have always been particularly struck by Open Doors’ “World Watch List 2018”. Going back to that phrase “across the world”, is it not shocking that we can draw a line from the west coast of Africa all the way through the middle east to the Pacific ocean and in every single country along that route there is persecution of Christians? Does he think it might be a good idea if every Christian place of worship in this country had the Open Doors “World Watch List 2018” up in its hall or reception as a visual reminder of what some of our brothers and sisters in the faith have to put up with?
That is a salient reminder for us all. We have one in the Freedom of Religious Belief office here. I am regularly in contact with Open Doors and many of the other organisations—Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Release International and the Barnabas Fund—and our churches all have them as well. The hon. Gentleman will know this, but every morning in my and other people’s prayer times, when we go around the countries of the world, there are 50 or 60 countries where persecution is rife. That is always a reminder to me at the beginning of the day of the freedom that we have here, and that others do not. He is right and I thank him for his intervention.
We had the ISIS-inspired attack in Madhya Pradesh in India, in which 10 people were killed. For the benefit of both India and its potential for a stable long-term relationship with the UK, we must take a stand against growing human rights violations there. I hope that the Minister can work with the Indian Government at least to make them aware that we are concerned.
I will speak quickly about Nepal. As the Minister knows, the Nepalese penal code 2017 contains problematic provisions that criminalise religious conversion and “hurting religious sentiment”. Those words give the Government power to do a lot of things to persecute religious minorities. We have had reports of 20 Christians being arrested and four churches being burnt down. Where does this stop? The Nepalese Government receives some DFID funding and gets support from our Government. The laws are insensitive to the feelings of religious minorities and their positions, and we believe that the legislation relating to criminal liability for doctors, and the issue of arrest warrants, is completely irrational and illegal. There is an excellent opportunity for the UK to suggest that Nepal reconsiders its problematic provisions in order to stay in line with its obligations as a member of the UN Human Rights Council. Members of the Human Rights Council must adhere to its principles.
Turkey has become a difficult country. The hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton referred to journalists, and Turkey’s clampdown on journalists and the media has been atrocious. Pakistan has been asked to send 230 Turkish teachers back to Turkey to make them accountable and to have their rights taken away. I have written to the Minister suggesting that we do all we can to ensure that the Turkish Government cannot do that. An early-day motion in the House this week also refers to that.
The hon. Gentleman is being generous with his time. Is he aware of another example of Christian persecution in the middle east: that of the American Quakers? Although they have an illustrious history of helping refugees of all faiths in the second world war and of hiding Jewish children, they are now on a banned list for travel to Israel. Does that not seem baffling?
I thank the hon. Lady for bringing that up. I was not aware of that one, but we will certainly pursue it through the APPG.
There has been a surge in ultra-nationalist rhetoric across Turkey, alongside hate speech and incitement to violence against non-Sunni Muslims. Religious minority groups face growing harassment, and foreign missionaries have been arrested and deported. Most notably, in 2016 the American pastor Andrew Brunson was arrested, along with his wife, and accused of being a threat to national security—the threat being that he was a Christian in Turkey, preaching the gospel to people who wanted to hear it. Where is the threat in that? The European Court of Human Rights has made many judgments on those and other long-standing issues, such as the right to raise one’s children in line with one’s religious or philosophical views, the right to establish places of worship and the right not to disclose one’s religious beliefs, but they have not been addressed by the Turkish Government.
Egypt may have fallen off the map a wee bit, but I could not be here without mentioning it. Egypt has many serious human rights issues, including restrictions on freedom of association, freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief. In recent years, Egyptian authorities have used torture and enforced disappearance against hundreds of people, and dozens have been extra-judicially executed. In addition, last year more than 100 Christians were killed in terror attacks amid an atmosphere of continued impunity for sectarian violence. In November 2017 gunmen attacked a mosque in North Sinai, killing over 300 people—the deadliest attack seen in Egypt for many years.
In December 2017 the head of the Egyptian Parliament’s committee on religion said that a new law was being drawn up to criminalise atheism. Well, the APPG that I have the privilege of chairing speaks up for those of Christian faith, of other faiths and of no faith, and that is contrary to what we believe in. The freedom to have one’s own thoughts is very much part of a democratic society. That law seems not to have had much support, although that is probably because the Egyptian criminal code already has severe provisions that can be used to target both atheists and “apostates”, to use their language.
It is important to highlight the plight of the Baha’is in Iran, as we often do in this House. While many religious and belief groups are persecuted by the Iranian regime, Baha’is are a particular target for official persecution. Since 1979, Iranian authorities have killed or executed more than 200 leaders of the Baha’i faith and nearly 1,000 Baha’is have been arbitrarily arrested in the last decade. Baha’is have been murdered simply for their faith.
I have a small but vibrant and particularly vocal Baha’i group in my constituency. I have attended their events, and I know they will be encouraged that the plight of Baha’is being mentioned in this House. They are often denied the right to higher education or prevented from working, and often their lands or businesses are taken away from them. Despite the presidency of the supposedly centrist Rouhani, oppression of the Baha’is in Iran is getting worse.
Hon. Members will know how important FORB is to me, as it is to them. I was going to say that I should stop speaking so that others have something to talk about but, tragically, as the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) said, there is no shortage of topics to cover when we look at what is happening across the world.
FORB is a fundamental human right not only because of its importance to human dignity and flourishing, but because of the role it plays in preventing conflict and maintaining stability. I thank the Government for their commitment to this right and humbly suggest that, to advance FORB even further, the Minister should consider: producing plans to provide DFID and Ministry of Defence staff with FORB literacy training; encouraging the development of Government and civil society programmes that promote FORB; and working with FCO and DFID country heads to develop country-specific FORB strategies.
I am sure that those from Christian Solidarity Worldwide will not mind me saying that just this week an event took place in the House—many Members present attended it—on its toolkit for standing up for freedom of religion or belief. It has produced a really good publication—if the Minister did not get a copy, I will make sure that he does—which is a toolkit for all of us individually but also for civil servants and those in departments across the world.
Hopefully these recommendations can help make a difference for religious or minority groups in countries such as Pakistan, India, Nepal, Turkey, Egypt and Iran who are being denied their right to FORB. The sheer volume of FORB violations in those countries—and elsewhere, including the UK—points us to the importance of International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day, which necessarily gives us the opportunity to come together and stand up for all those who are suffering, all those who are attacked, and all those who have to struggle and fight for something we take for granted. I come back to Pakistan where, as the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston knows, we went to church under police protection. By comparison, here in the United Kingdom we at least have the freedom to go to church and worship our God.
As parliamentarians, it is our duty to stand up for people, wherever they may be. To help with that, I direct hon. Members to the toolkit produced by Christian Solidarity Worldwide. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for coming to the debate. We may never meet some of the people across the world on whose behalf we are speaking, but today we have the opportunity to speak on their behalf.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on a wide-ranging speech that covered many areas. I know colleagues will mention many countries of concern across the world; I will focus on what we can do here. Today, we are standing up in Parliament to say how important freedom of religious faith and belief is to all of us, as it is to many colleagues who are not here. It is the responsibility of this country, faith leaders and indeed individual worshippers and people of no faith to stand up, regardless of their faith, for all those around the world who are being persecuted.
I was born an Anglican and worship in a Baptist church, so I call on the leaders of those Churches and of all faith groups in this country to get up every time there is a problem with persecution—there are such problems most of the time—and say, “As a Christian, I abhor the persecution by Christians of a minority,” or, “As a Muslim, I abhor the persecution of members of other faiths—Christians, Hindus or Buddhists—by a Muslim majority country.” I would like to see that, because sometimes, I fear, we are hot on looking at the persecution of people who share our faith—it is right and important that we are—but a little less vocal when it comes to the persecution of others. The hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) mentioned the case in China that has been highlighted by the BBC. It is vital that, as Christians, we stand up for Muslims who, reports suggest, are being targeted there.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. Does he share my enthusiasm for the European Court of Human Rights? Many cases have been brought to it by many different faith groups, and it has stoutly defended their rights. After all, it was born out of the second world war, which had a significant religious element—or an anti-religious element in relation to the Jewish faith.
My hon. Friend makes a vital point. We in this country have sometimes—especially at this time—been a bit confused about the difference between the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights, so let us make it quite clear. I and everybody in this room, I am sure, would never want the United Kingdom to pull out of the ECHR or to resile from our signature to the European convention on human rights.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We should make the point that the United Kingdom’s participation in the ECHR right from the beginning—we signed the convention after the second world war—is absolutely fundamental to who we are as a country. We need to maintain that and to not mix it up with other discussions about Europe, as I fear has happened even in my own party in the past, although not in the future, I hope.
It is important that all faith groups stand up for one another. I want Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs and atheists to stand together and fight for the rights of persecuted minorities, rather than raising concerns only if, for example, they are Muslims and Muslims are being persecuted, Christians when it happens to Christians, or Hindus when it happens to Hindus. It is vital that we all hang together in this, or, as somebody else said, we will surely hang separately.
It is important that our debate is framed by that view, so am grateful for my hon. Friend’s wise words. Many people who engage themselves in this issue, but by no means all, come at it from a strongly religious—strongly Christian, in this country—standpoint. It makes life a lot easier for all of us, especially in the areas I cover as a Minister—Asia and the Pacific—when our high commissions and embassies are able to make the case that we are not specially pleading for one particular or predominant religion, but raising a general, human rights-related issue. It is important that we able to do that. That was perhaps not quite the case in the past. I understand the strength of feeling, particularly in Christian communities, as my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) rightly pointed out, but this is a human rights issue that applies to all people of all religions and none, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford also rightly points out.
I am most grateful to the Minister, who takes his role incredibly seriously. We are proud to have him in that position.
As Members of Parliament, we are honoured to be able to travel quite a lot. I encourage all Members, when traveling to another country—even if it is not part of their role, or they may be on a Committee visit—to meet people of faith or no faith who are being persecuted, or who are experiencing that sort of problem. I have done that on some occasions. I have also met people of minority faiths who are supported and do not have a problem. On a recent visit to Kosovo—a predominantly Muslim country, but one that has freedom of religion enshrined in its constitution—I was honoured to meet a Christian pastor to talk about that country’s serious problem with youth unemployment, which is running at 60%. He was very open about the way in which he was able to establish churches in that country and about the freedom of religion there. That gave me great comfort, but I have been in other countries where I have received less comfort from the reports of the minority groups that I met. Parliamentarians often have privileged access, and it is important that we use it to encourage those who are being persecuted or are under pressure, and to say, “We have not forgotten you. You are remembered in the United Kingdom and its Parliament.”
Some Governments that profess to offer freedom of religion and belief actually undermine it. The Foreign Office and the Department for International Development can advocate on behalf of minorities in relation to the methods used, which are often fairly technical. They include the development of the constitution and how it deals with what is often known as proselytising, or seeks to restrict the right to freedom of speech, which appears to be there but is actually not. Another such measure is refusal of planning permission for places of worship—it should be given, but reasons are found for it not to be, year after year. In the end, groups are forced to register to use temporary accommodation, or are not even able to meet together. Again, the Foreign Office, or DFID if it is working in the country, can say to Governments, “Hang on—you are not abiding by your own laws. You are discriminating against a group by not allowing them to establish a place of worship, even if it is permitted.”
Finally, although we know that Governments have little control over this, we need to look at the role of social media and how it enables the spread of fake news, such as the spreading of lies about people that results, in some countries, in their being lynched or murdered for something that they have not done. We should encourage Governments to take up those cases, to ensure that those who use social media for such terrible purposes are held to account judicially, and that the companies that enable those people are regulated in a way that we have begun to talk about here.
Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak, Mr Walker. I hope that this Freedom of Religious Belief Day will be the chance for people of all faiths—particularly their leaders—and no faith to stand up for all those who are persecuted across the world, and to not make exceptions for those with whom they do not share a faith.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), not only for his excellent speech but for the tireless commitment he has shown to raising this issue in Parliament over the years.
The hon. Gentleman’s knowledge and passion were extremely helpful during our recent trip to Pakistan, where we discussed many of the issues that will be raised by hon. Members today. I was very grateful to the Pakistani people for the warm welcome we were given and for the engagement and energy that we saw in every face in every meeting every day. They have hope and faith, and they are looking to us for help. We travelled from cities to slums, from the heart of the Supreme Court to the outskirts of Islamabad, and we consistently found people who recognised the significant scale of the problems faced and who are ready and willing to tackle these challenges.
Today, just two days before International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day, is the perfect time for me to discuss some of the challenges facing Pakistan and another important nation—China. I begin with something that the hon. Gentleman mentioned: the recent BBC investigation into China’s organ transplant industry. Last week, I attended a meeting about the persecution of a group I had never heard of before: Falun Gong practitioners. To say I was shocked and appalled by what I heard would be a significant understatement. Falun Gong is a spiritual practice that was outlawed by the Chinese Government in 1999. Since then, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom reports that Falun Gong practitioners have been arbitrarily detained in their thousands, being regularly confined in labour camps or disappearing altogether. As if that were not bad enough, there are widespread, consistent and credible reports that China is forcibly removing organs from those prisoners to supply the vast, expanding and lucrative organ transplant industry.
Organ harvesting. I think we all need to take a moment to let the idea of that sink in. It is 2018 and we are talking about human beings—men, women and children—being treated like cattle, killed on demand for the benefit of others, and all because they practise the wrong faith. The Chinese Government of course deny that that is happening. They acknowledge that it used to happen, but say that it has stopped. I know that all hon. Members would very much like to believe that that is true, but the evidence suggests otherwise.
I refer the Minister to the 2016 report compiled by former Canadian Cabinet Minister David Kilgour, working alongside prominent international human rights lawyer David Matas and Ethan Gutmann, an award-winning investigative journalist. Their report is a meticulous examination of the transplant programmes of hundreds of hospitals in China. It draws on media reports, official statements, medical journals and hospital websites, and analyses information such as hospital revenue, bed counts, bed utilisation rates, surgical personnel, training programmes, state funding and more. Their research indicates that the Chinese regime is performing between 60,000 and 100,000 organ transplants a year—a vast discrepancy with the official estimates of roughly 10,000 a year. Where are the organs coming from?
The alarming discrepancy with the official statistics is not the only evidence—indeed, it is just the tip of the iceberg. For example, since 2000, Chinese transplant hospitals have quoted waiting times of between days and weeks for an organ transplant—sometimes even hours. To give hon. Members some context, the average waiting time for a kidney transplant in the UK or US is two to three years, and these countries have much longer established traditions of voluntary organ donation.
That evidence, combined with testimony from Chinese medical professionals, has led to reports by major news outlets across the world, including the BBC, CNN and The New York Times. Indeed, the evidence is so persuasive that it has led numerous countries across the world to condemn the practice and to introduce legislation to prevent organ transplant tourism to China. For example, in 2016 the United States House of Representatives passed resolution 343 on forced organ harvesting in China. That resolution
“condemns the practice of state-sanctioned forced organ harvesting in the People’s Republic of China”
“demands an immediate end to the…persecution of the Falun Gong spiritual practice”.
Earlier this month, it was announced that a people’s independent tribunal on forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience would begin in London during December 2018. The tribunal will be chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice, who led the prosecution of Slobodan Milosevic, former President of Serbia, at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. I hope that hon. Members, including the Minister, will follow closely the work of the tribunal on forced organ harvesting.
The accusations are grave and difficult to believe, but does not their very gravity mean that we should do all we can to assess their validity? Should we not make absolutely sure that the claims are not true? Can we really say that we care about protecting freedom of religion or belief if we do not fully investigate such horrible reports? This Government have made very important strides against horrible practices such as modern-day slavery. Will the Minister agree to tackle this equally revolting practice? It is especially important now, as the Chinese Government seem to be expanding their persecution to Uighur Muslims. The UN has reported that 1 million Uighurs—innocent Chinese citizens; peaceful practitioners of Islam—have been detained in “re-education” camps in Xinjiang. Although I am a great believer in the importance of studying, I do not think that even I would want that kind of education. Also, The Guardian reports that millions of Uighur Muslims have been arbitrarily detained for unwanted blood, tissue and DNA tests. Why? What could possibly be the motive for that? Given the evidence mentioned earlier, one could be forgiven for concluding that it is preparatory work for including Uighurs in the forced organ transplant system. Can we really stand by and not look into this?
I shall finish my discussion of freedom of religion or belief in relation to China by quoting a passage from a report produced in 2016 by the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission:
“This is an issue that emerged in 2006 and was initially met with official scepticism. Yet…the evidence has continued to accumulate, and the issue shows no sign of fading away. The United Kingdom should address it head on. Working with others within the international community, Britain could help commission an independent investigation to examine the size of China’s organ transplant industry…the United Kingdom could enact legislation making it a criminal offence to travel to China for organs. The UK Government should raise detailed questions about organ transplant processes and facilities with the Chinese Government, specifically around how waiting times for compatible organs are so short and where organs are sourced from.”
I hope that the Minister will take those recommendations to heart.
On my recent trip to Pakistan, I was shocked to learn about the ongoing persecution of another group that I was unfamiliar with until recently—the Ahmadis. The Pakistani penal code, which the Member for Strangford mentioned, is used to prevent Ahmadi Muslims from identifying as Muslims or even using Islamic greetings, although they are Islamic people. Ahmadis are routinely arrested arbitrarily on false charges of blasphemy and have been subjected to vicious attacks in public, including acid being thrown at them. Hundreds of Ahmadis have been murdered on grounds of faith. Ahmadis are also technically prohibited from voting, because to vote they are required by the state to register as non-Muslim, which many refuse to do.
I have a lot of association with the group of Muslims the hon. Lady talks about. They came to my constituency and asked whether they could hold a meeting showing that the Koran was a book of peace, rather than a book of war, because they have a great attraction to the legitimate government system within a country. It was a fantastic event. I hope that the hon. Lady will, with me, endorse their great feeling for the British system, which they showed at that meeting.
I will; I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is good that the Ahmadis felt that they could come. When people who have come from a country where they were persecuted have the faith and strength to go to someone who is completely alien or slightly alien to their religion, it gives some confidence that they believe in us and this country.
It is not only in Pakistan where intolerance is being displayed towards these people. In Glasgow in 2016, there was a case in which a man travelled a considerable distance—I cannot remember how far; he might have come from the north-east of England. [Interruption.] It may have been Birmingham. He came to confront a newsagent in his shop and kill him—stab him to death—simply on the basis of his religious conviction. That is something that has been visited upon our own shores.
I hope that the Minister will discuss with his Pakistani counterparts what can be done to support this beleaguered population, especially given that the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religious belief, Lord Ahmad, is an Ahmadi himself. If we fail to stand up for the freedom of religious belief of Ahmadis in Pakistan, we place ourselves in the rather ridiculous position of failing to stand up for the freedom of religious belief of our own special envoy for freedom of religious belief! It is urgent that we deal with that.
One thing that could really help, and which I urge the Minister to push for, is the implementation of the 2014 Pakistan Supreme Court judgment, which ordered the Government to, among other things, establish a national council for minority rights. This body has yet to be established, but if it were set up and the judgment implemented fully, it could have a significant impact on the welfare of Pakistani religious or belief minorities.
The hon. Member for Strangford mentioned that religious minorities in Pakistan do not have sufficient skills to obtain more valuable employment. The chairman of the Public Service Commission in Pakistan suggested an interesting idea to our delegation to address that problem. He mentioned the possibility of gathering all those who had just fallen short of the qualifications needed for a particular job, and training them to get them to the required standard, so that they would be ready when the next job came around that is put aside for these people. He specifically mentioned nursing as an area where such a program could be especially effective, and that he would appreciate support from the UK. Similarly, the Punjabi Ministry for human rights specifically asked our delegation to suggest that the UK earmark aid funding to help religious minority groups to overcome the significant barriers they face in Pakistan, which, believe me, are quite shocking. Will the Minister consider those ideas?
Before I finish I want to talk about refugees from Myanmar. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees recently declared that Chin State in Myanmar is stable and secure from a refugee perspective, and that it would begin to return Chin refugees from India and Malaysia. The Chin Human Rights Organisation has, however, produced a report detailing how systematic violations of freedom of religious belief, including killings, torture and other forms of cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, are still prevalent. Is the Minister willing to ask the UNHCR to share the information on which it based the conclusion that Chin State is stable and secure?
I thank the Government for their work on freedom of religious belief and for graciously meeting and supporting our delegation in Pakistan. I hope the Minister will do all he can to investigate and evaluate claims of forced organ harvesting in China, including pushing for an independent international tribunal on the issue. I trust that he will also work with his Pakistani counterparts to push for implementation of the recommendations made by the hon. Member for Strangford, and to support religious minorities in Pakistan, such as the Ahmadis, by calling for the establishment of a national council for minority rights. Finally, I am sure that refugees from Chin State, Myanmar would be immensely grateful if the Minister asked the UNHCR for the evidence showing that the state is stable and secure.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer). I associate myself with her comments.
It is always a pleasure to speak in a debate secured by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is a doughty champion of the rights of people to express their religious belief and to find and approach God in their own way. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) noted, this debate is not about the freedom to express the belief that I share with someone, but the freedom to express the belief that one has. The hon. Member for Strangford always makes the point that it is also about the freedom to express the belief in no religious faith, to not believe in God, to be an atheist, and to not be compelled to believe in something. For me, that is the core of this debate.
I am pleased to say that my church is quite active in the work of Open Doors. We publish the world watch list there each year, which brings home to those coming through the doors of St Matthias in Torquay—a Victorian church that has stood for about 150 years—that there are still many countries around the world where a church cannot stand so openly and its worshippers cannot just walk in. For many people, that simple act of wanting to go to church on a Sunday and praise their Lord could lead to them being sacked from their job, imprisoned, persecuted and, in some cases, killed. The chance to reflect on that in this Chamber is always welcome.
It is appropriate for me to reflect on this issue, which was recently brought home to me when I met two missionaries in my constituency who work in a part of the world where there is significant state repression. I have been asked not to give any more details than that. They told me about their experience of working in those areas—taking the faith out in a place where the Government do not have a particular view about the Christian faith as such, but believe that one’s faith should be in the Government itself, and where they want to crack down on any sign that people have their own thought processes or think for themselves.
In all too many cases, cracking down on people’s freedom of religion goes hand in glove with cracking down on every other right that they have. The countries that are likely to abuse religious rights and freedom of belief are exactly the same countries that crack down on journalists who write unhelpful articles or people who just believe that they should have a different say—for example, by being able to vote freely.
Every year we reflect, sadly, on the fact that North Korea tops Open Doors’ world watch list for persecution of Christians—being candid, it would top the list for the persecution by the state of any religious faith, except that which says that the leader of that country is some sort of divine being. While the North Korean regime may wish to celebrate its 70th year, there is nothing for its people to celebrate about the existence of that state for the last 70 years. The country is clearly in a desperate state and many people are starving.
Even among all that, there are still an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 Christians in the country. Even with everything they see around them, they hold on to that shining faith, which many of us share. However, it is estimated that between 50,000 and 70,000 people—the margins have to be wide, because it is incredibly hard to get accurate statistics or conduct work to establish what is going on in that country—might be in labour camps, in appalling conditions reminiscent of many of the concentration camps we saw in Europe back in the 1940s, when another tyrannical regime sought to put itself in the place of God.
While that may sound depressing, it is also quite inspiring for Christians in the west when we hear the story, for example, on the Open Doors website of Hea Woo, who planted a church in a North Korean labour camp—literally planted a church there for fellow Christians to come together in the name of God. While they were meeting in a toilet in a North Korean labour camp, rather than one of the great abbeys, such as the one we have opposite this place, or the churches that many of us frequent at home, there is still a church, and God and the Holy Spirit would have been there with them when they came together in Christ’s name. It is an inspiring picture that shows how the power of faith breaks through. Even in the worst, most horrible and appalling conditions, people still see the Christian faith as their source of light and inspiration. The story talks about still thanking God for the grace that they receive. For me, that is what was so inspiring about what it means to those people.
When I have come to these debates in previous years, we have inevitably ended up looking towards the middle east and the appalling behaviour of Daesh, which saw Christian communities that had existed for thousands of years and are named in the Bible wiped out in a few weeks. Thankfully, that group is being pushed back and is in retreat, but that should not hide the fact that appalling repression continues. In some cases, the people who are seeking to liberate areas from Daesh still hold the view that only one faith can be tolerated in their communities.
The issues in Turkey have already been touched on. Many of us were hopeful when we started to see signs of a new regime in Saudi Arabia, which removed the ridiculous ban on women driving and started to make noises about letting them in cinemas. The last couple of weeks and what happened in that country’s Turkish consulate will perhaps have given people pause for thought, however, about where it is going. No matter what trade or other interests we have, we should not be afraid to challenge certain countries. All Christians want to do is to proclaim God and to proclaim their faith. They do not want to force someone else to share their faith; they just want to freely share theirs, as people can in this country.
We should look not just at the middle east, but at sub-Saharan Africa and at the situation in Nigeria in particular. Nigeria is a melting pot of many cultures and faiths. It has the opportunity and the resources to be a wonderful place that provides a high standard of living for its people, but all too often those resources are caught up in conflict or destroyed, particularly by Boko Haram’s actions in the north. That group has sought not only to suppress people’s religious freedoms, but to take away rights to education. It particularly does not want women and girls to be educated and it enforces those views and beliefs.
It will be interesting to hear the Minister’s thoughts, but the next place where we may need to think carefully about how we continue to promote peace, stability and security, and how we ensure that some of those basic rights are guaranteed, might be in areas where the problem is not the state, but corrupt local forces on the ground or a non-state actor looking to impose its own regime and beliefs. We will need to think about how we continue to respond to that growing threat, particularly in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, as the focus of certain extremist groups moves away from the middle east, from Syria and Iraq, to that troubled part of the world. We have seen the situation in Libya, where not only can faith not be freely practised, but where there has been a return of the type of scenes involving slavery that we hoped had disappeared in Wilberforce’s era, but which are sadly being revealed in our 21st-century world.
It is likely that we will be here again next year, and hopefully we will be able to reflect on some progress. It is easy to get quite depressed sometimes about where certain parts of the world are going, but it is worth remembering that religious repression was common 30 years ago across swathes of eastern Europe, including in parts of what is now the Federal Republic of Germany. Whole generations of people in Europe had to live under oppression.
I heard the points that my hon. Friends the Members for Henley (John Howell) and for Stafford made about the European convention on human rights, but there is a debate to be had about how it can become a more effective thing to be signed, because there can be very few people living in eastern Ukraine who feel that their rights are being well protected by having Russia as a signatory to that accord.
On one of my hon. Friend’s previous points, it is worth putting on the record that, although we would like to do more and achieve more, by raising the issue in this and other European Parliaments, we can shine a light on parts of the world where in the past that might not have happened. Although we can all become rather depressed about how much more work has to be done in this area, we can make a real impact through these sorts of debates, bringing parts of the world, and hence the rights of many millions that could otherwise be ignored, to the forefront of many people’s minds here and in other democracies. We should celebrate that, while recognising that there is much more to be done.
I thank the Minister for his intervention. He is absolutely right that such debates shine a light and give hope to people who may not be able to express their faith freely. They show that in parts of the world where people can do that, we care, we focus and we will speak up for their right to express their faith. As I said about the case in North Korea, some of the stories, and the fact that people do such things under those conditions, are an inspiration to any of who profess to have faith—in my case, the Christian faith.
It is welcome that we continue to stand up and speak and that we continue to comment and make noise about this issue. People can look at what we are saying and see our thoughts, our values and how we freely and happily associate as people with different religious beliefs. I bet that there are different views and different denominations among hon. Members in this Chamber, which makes us all stronger and more secure in our faith. It is not a threat to someone’s faith to be with someone of another faith. Those who are strongest in their faith have nothing to fear about anyone else’s belief. It is those who are weak in their faith who define themselves by what they are against, not what they are for.
Following the Minister’s welcome intervention, it would be interesting to hear more from him about what concrete steps the UK can take, diplomatically and economically, perhaps using our development budgets, to promote the freedom of religion or belief and to support countries that are moving away from oppressive regimes or where communities are trying to re-establish themselves, particularly those that may have been driven out by genocidal behaviour. Part of that process is about supporting them to go back to their areas.
What difference does the Minister think the UK will be able to make as a P5 nation in the next couple of years? As he mentioned previously in a statement in the House, it is likely that France, Britain and Germany will be on the Security Council, which are three countries that work closely together on many issues, including securing basic human freedoms.
It is welcome to have this debate again. It is always welcome to be able to stand up and shine a light, to proclaim our faith and to make it clear that we feel that it is important that we can approach God without feeling that that needs to take away anyone else’s right to have a faith or not. By standing up and having this debate again, we have given hope and inspiration. If it gives hope to one more person in a dark dank hole in a North Korean labour camp that one day things will change, because people are standing up and speaking about their condition, it is worth every minute we spend here.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster). I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing this incredibly important debate and for his tireless campaign for all those around the world who are persecuted because of their faith.
As the proud chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, my contribution will focus largely on the persecution of the Ahmadis. One of the largest mosques in western Europe is on the border of my constituency. As several hon. Members have said, the community identifies as Muslim but does not believe that Mohammed was the final prophet sent to guide mankind. That belief has led to widespread persecution across the world, and, I am afraid to say, even in the UK, as has been mentioned. I will take hon. Members on a global tour, from Indonesia to Islamabad, Bangkok to Burundi, and describe the day-to-day reality faced by the community.
In Algeria, 280 Ahmadi Muslims have been arrested on the grounds of their faith in the last two years alone. In Burundi, 13 young Ahmadis were arrested earlier this year while attending a religious education class. In Egypt, the Interior Minister started the year by issuing arrest warrants for at least 25 Ahmadis, including the publications secretary for the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, Ahmadis are the only international religious group denied the right to register as a religious community. In Indonesia, Ahmadiyya Muslim is not even an authorised religion.
In Pakistan, as we have heard, it is a criminal offence for Ahmadis to call themselves Muslim, name their place of worship a mosque or even say the Islamic greeting. Hundreds of Ahmadis have been murdered in Pakistan. There is a separate electoral register that effectively denies them the right to vote. Even the grave of a Nobel laureate, Professor Abdus Salam, has been desecrated, to remove the word “Muslim”.
Finally, I turn to Thailand, where this month the Government have arrested 113 Ahmadiyya Muslim refugees amid a new crackdown on immigration, putting them at risk of deportation back to Pakistan, despite the fact that those arrested included Ahmadis who have been granted resettlement in Thailand.
Will the Minister take away from today’s debate the urgent need to raise the case of those Ahmadiyya Muslims with the Thai Government, and can he establish precisely what measures are being taken to ensure that such global hatred is prevented from reoccurring? I ask that final question because although I have taken Members on a global tour, the persecution of the Ahmadiyya community has now spread to the UK.
It was referred to earlier, but I also give the example of the murder of an Ahmadiyya shopkeeper, Asad Shah, in Glasgow. I could also cite the case of the Waltham Forest communities forum, which actively stopped an Ahmadiyya Muslim from being re-elected, stating that he could not be a representative of Islam. There is an undercurrent of hostility, in the form of posters calling for a boycott of Ahmadiyya businesses. The former national president of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Students Association has even described Ahmadiyya posters being torn down on campuses right across the country.
Such a scourge of extremism is a stain on the freedom of religion that we rightly and proudly celebrate here in the UK. In recent months our all-party parliamentary group has held a five-part inquiry that has heard evidence from around the world and from across the UK. It is the first ever parliamentary inquiry of its kind. The testimonies given were harrowing, conveying the scale of the hatred faced by Ahmadis far more starkly than any facts or figures could indicate. The APPG is compiling the evidence into a report and I will take this opportunity to invite the Minister and all Members here today to its launch, which we expect to take place at the beginning of the new year.
We cannot let such widespread persecution go unchallenged. As an MP, I have a duty to stand up to it on behalf of my constituents; as a Chamber, we have a duty to eradicate it from our country; and as a country, the Government have a duty to challenge it globally, wherever and whenever it is allowed to flourish.
It is a privilege to speak in this debate to mark this year’s International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing it, for his work on this issue and for the tour de force that was his speech. I will also say how much I respect every speech that has been made in the Chamber today; I agree with everything that has been said.
Let me start with some positive news. Earlier this week, Members may have heard news of a 13-year-old boy in Pakistan called Sharjeel, who was the only Christian in his class, all the other pupils being Muslim. Last week he turned off a water tap at school, for which he was beaten and expelled, on the grounds that he had polluted the water supply. Colleagues may recall the case of Asia Bibi, the wife and mother who is still in detention, some nine years on, for drinking water from a communal tap, for which she was accused of polluting the water supply.
Sharjeel’s mother went to the school to object to his treatment. She was told that he was an infidel who was only fit for cleaning latrines. How, therefore, can I say that I have some positive news? Following the concerns raised in the past few days by religious freedom activists, in Pakistan and abroad, with the authorities in Pakistan, there has been a swift response, which is very different from what happened in Asia Bibi’s case, which I hope will help that lady. In Sharjeel’s case, direct action has been taken by the Human Rights Minister in Pakistan, Dr Shireen Mazari—the head of the school has been suspended and an inquiry has been launched by the district education office.
That shows that when we raise individual cases of concern, we can make a difference. Of course, we need to do more. I therefore ask the Minister to keep a watchful eye on Sharjeel’s case and to raise it as soon as he can with his counterparts in Pakistan. At the same time, may I also draw his attention to the fact that around half a billion pounds of UK aid is spent every year in Pakistan? However, there is little evidence that the aid money is being used either to prioritise freedom of religion or belief in that country or to help persecuted minorities. In Pakistan, 5% of minorities should be given proper jobs but, due to a lack of education, many members of minority groups do not qualify.
I pay tribute to the hon. Members for Strangford and for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) for the work they have done, because they have not just been talking about the issue, as I am today; they actually went to Pakistan and brought back their concerns, as did Lord Alton, who has told me about the camps that many of these people are living in, because they could not support themselves. The camps lack even the most basic facilities—no running water, electricity or latrines. However, I understand from Lord Alton that no DFID staff member has ever visited the camps. May I ask the Minister to rectify that omission, in a country that receives so much UK aid?
My hon. Friend puts it so well. He and I have seen that that is the case in many countries we have visited with the International Development Committee.
One of those countries is Nepal, where we met Christians who were greatly concerned—I am going back now three or four years—about restrictions on their freedom in that country. I thank the Minister, because I know that he has taken very seriously the concerns that we have expressed many times about such restrictions in Nepal. Actually, they are now far worse than they were even when we visited the country a few years ago. He knows much about the situation in Nepal, so I ask him once again to urge the Government of Nepal to repeal or amend sections 155 to 159 of the country’s new penal code. That code, which came into force just in August, severely restricts freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief. I have met people from Nepal who are now seriously concerned about being imprisoned as a result of speaking about their own faith in their own homes. That cannot be right.
[Steve McCabe in the Chair]
I also ask the Minister to call on the Government of Nepal to amend its constitution. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) mentioned constitutions being used to restrict freedom of belief. Again, the Government of Nepal have put in place elements of the constitution that are deeply concerning. Specifically, I ask the Minister to press the Government of Nepal to remove from the constitution any reference to restrictions on conversion, bringing it into line with the country’s obligations under article 18 of the international covenant on civil and political rights.
I will turn briefly to another matter: the persecution of Falun Gong in China. I commend the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston on her superb speech. She said so much to express the horror and incredulity that many of us felt when we heard about forced organ harvesting. It is almost beyond belief to hear reports that a Government are incarcerating people because of their beliefs, taking their blood and DNA samples, and then—this would appear to be the case, which is why the Minister must look into it—there is a request, almost to order, for an organ for transplant. If that is correct, it is horrendous. Of course, when the organs are removed, the victims die.
I thank the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston for mentioning the report on that issue that the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission produced over two years ago. I do not like to go away from these events without presenting the Minister with something, so I handily have a copy of the report, which I will pass to him if he has not seen it. I ask that he acts on all the requests made by the hon. Lady. I ask that he raises the issue with the Chinese delegation at the next human rights dialogue with China, and asks why the practice appears to be continuing, despite the Chinese authorities’ announcement of a full transition to voluntary donations as long ago as 2015. If that is the case, let the Chinese authorities say so, because at the moment they are not confirming that.
I will now turn to a country that so far has not been mentioned: Russia. I will take this opportunity to pass to the Minister the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission’s latest report, launched just this Tuesday—it is on our website, conservativehumanrights.com—on human rights in Russia today. Time prohibits me from going into detail, but I hope he will read the report, particularly the several sections that are pertinent to today’s debate. Those sections deal with restrictions on freedom of expression, the press, assembly, association, and religion or belief. It is concerning to note how many religious groups other than the Russian Orthodox Church now face increasing restrictions in Russia.
The commission received detailed submissions from the European Association of Jehovah’s Christian Witnesses regarding the recent treatment of its members in Russia. In April, the Russian Supreme Court banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses as an “extremist” organisation. Those who continue to practise their faith—of whom there are 170,000—risk being prosecuted and jailed for up to 10 years. That is not just theory; it is happening. Evidence of widespread, specific cases of arrest, search, and seizure for interrogation and detention of Jehovah’s Witnesses is detailed in the report. I would be grateful if the Minister could raise those concerns with his Russian counterparts, or ask his colleagues to do so, when the opportunity arises. I hope that will be soon, because the report contains the names of over 100 individual prisoners who are currently in detention, specifically in connection with their rights to freedom of religion or belief. We ask the Minister to ensure that those names are drawn to the attention of the Russian authorities. They have come to our commission from the Memorial human rights centre.
It is great to see you in the Chair, Mr McCabe. Russia has given so much to faith—to the Christian faith through the Orthodox faith, but also other faiths in other parts of Russia—and has benefited so much from faith. We recall Dostoyevsky, who was converted to Christianity through his experience in a labour camp under the Tsars. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is sad to see a country that has gained so much from faith behaving in this way?
In my introduction, I referred briefly to eastern Ukraine, which Russia has annexed and taken over. Some Baptist pastors went missing in that area and are entirely unaccounted for. Churches have been destroyed and people have been restricted from being able to worship their God. Russia has control there.
Yes. There are many other aspects of the report that time precludes me from going into, but there are indeed many geographical areas where persecution is taking place.
I would be grateful if the Minister agreed to meet my co-commissioners and me to discuss our report. We received some evidence in person from some important witnesses, including Marina Litvinenko—her husband, as Members will remember, was assassinated in London over a decade ago—and Bill Browder, whose lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, died in prison in Russia, as a result of which Mr Browder has campaigned internationally for justice and human rights in Russia. We also received evidence via Skype from Garry Kasparov, the world chess champion, who was driven into exile because he could not freely live his life according to his beliefs in Russia.
I will now turn to Nigeria—I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) wants to speak about that country, so I will shorten my comments a little. A serious issue is occurring in Nigeria. I will refer first to my letter of 9 October to the Minister for Africa, my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), regarding the case of Leah Sharibu, one of 110 girls abducted by Boko Haram from their school in Dapchi. The other girls were all released some six months ago following negotiations, but Leah—the only Christian among them—remains in captivity because she refuses to convert in exchange for her freedom. She has now spent more than 200 days in captivity. Will the Minister speak with his ministerial counterpart, and perhaps respond to my question in that letter about what steps the UK Government can take to assist the Nigerian authorities in ensuring Leah’s swift and safe return?
I draw the Minister’s attention to concerns that nothing less than genocide is unfolding in Nigeria, with inadequate international attention paid to it. In recent years there has been an escalation in attacks on communities in several states by well-armed Fulani herdsmen. Local observers describe those attacks as a campaign of ethno-religious cleansing. Reports from Christian Solidarity Worldwide—an organisation whose work globally, and in this case in Nigeria, I also pay tribute to—say that
“the local chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) recently revealed that herders have destroyed over 500 churches in Benue state alone since 2011.”
When I visited Nigeria over two years ago with the International Development Committee, my colleagues and I attended a roundtable of civil society representatives. One of those representatives was a senior member of the Christian Association of Nigeria, who highlighted concerns about the issue, saying that ethno-religious cleansing was happening. Sadly, insufficient notice of his concerns was taken by DFID representatives in Nigeria at the time. Two years later, the matter has significantly worsened. I implore the Minister to look into the situation. It has been exacerbated by inadequate Nigerian Government action, which CSW says has “entrenched impunity”.
The people being persecuted by those herdsmen need Government support, as the herdsmen are so brutal that individual communities are defenceless against them. Only yesterday evening, at a meeting of Nigerians, I spoke with someone who had lived in Nigeria until very recently. He told me that those herder militias are so brutal that even Boko Haram leaves them alone. They are armed with sophisticated weaponry, including AK47s, in some cases chemicals, and even rocket launchers. Those militias are believed to have murdered more people in 2015, 2016 and 2017 than Boko Haram, destroying, overrunning and seizing property and land, and displacing tens of thousands. It is not sufficient to say that they are simply traveller communities involved in farmer-herder clashes, attacking indiscriminately. That is what I heard when I was there.
Attacks on Christian communities by these herdsmen are becoming far too common. CSW reports that in the first quarter of 2018 they have perpetrated more than 100 attacks on communities in central Nigeria, claiming more than 1,000 lives. To give one example, in August a Nigerian pastor, Adamu Wurim Gyang, his three children and his wife were burnt alive when their house was set on fire in Abonong village. A clergyman, Ezekiel Dachomo, appealed in a video in September for assistance from the US, UK parliamentarians and the UN, saying:
“Please stand for us. We are dying…please allow us to survive. We have nobody. Only God in heaven can stand for us. Please, I am begging you. United Nations, your silence is getting worse…Please, please, I’m begging you stand for the helpless.”
The international community must hear these cries. Those of us who remember the barbaric genocide in Rwanda are reflecting now that history could be repeating itself. Will the Minister work with the UN to urge the Nigerian Government to develop effective solutions to bring an end to this atrocious violence?
Before I turn to my final country, I urge colleagues, in addition to commemorating International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day today, to support Red Wednesday on 28 November. I ask them to join calls for the Speaker to permit the buildings of Parliament—the Commons and the Lords—to be lit up red to highlight the concerns we have about these freedoms. I also ask them to urge local public buildings in their communities to do the same. A third day that I would like to draw colleagues’ attention to is specifically about victims of genocide. I tabled an early-day motion in July asking for support for an international day commemorating victims and survivors of religious persecution. If colleagues would be good enough to sign that EDM, we can perhaps bring the need to have a particular focus on victims and survivors much more into the international arena than we have to date.
I will move on to my final country, which is, as it was when we were last in this Chamber debating this issue, the UK. I rejoice that here in the UK we enjoy a significant heritage of prizing and protecting freedom of expression, freedom of thought, freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. We do not suffer persecution of the type we have heard about in many countries. However, I have become increasingly concerned in recent years about whether these freedoms are being adequately protected in practice in our country.
I welcome the recent Supreme Court judgment regarding Ashers Baking Company, where the Court ruled that the owners should not be compelled to promote a message that clashes with their own sincerely held biblical beliefs. The ruling has implications not simply for Christians or for religious people; it is an important safeguard for us all, because it upholds an important principle of freedom of expression—namely, that no one should be compelled to express a belief that they do not hold, still less a message with which they strongly disagree.
None the less, I want to sound two notes of caution in closing. First, although I am pleased by the Supreme Court judgment, I am concerned that the case progressed to anything like the extent it did through our courts. I am all the more concerned because its progress was reportedly funded at enormous public expense—to the tune of around a quarter of a million pounds—by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, and that is not to mention the fees of the McArthur family. Should the issue not have been sensibly resolved more quickly, and certainly without the trauma that the brave McArthur family must have endured to make the public stand they did? I pay tribute to them, as I do to the Christian Institute, which supported them. Why did a public body support the action? Why did the courts not uphold this important freedom much earlier in the process? As one part of the solution, I suggest that we need to see a redoubling of efforts to promote religious literacy in the judicial system.
Secondly, while underlining my welcome of the recent judgment and the vindication of the McArthur family, it is important to recognise that that does not negate the challenges faced by many other Christians in the UK on account of their Christian faith. I hope that the judgment is a turning point in securing a better, practical settlement in the protection in everyday life of religious freedom generally, not only for Christians, but for those with other beliefs. I hope that the judgment will encourage those who have sincere beliefs to speak out about them and not to feel that they are subject to what has been called “the chilling effect”, inhibiting them from doing so. I hope that we will see further evidence in coming months that judicially, politically and culturally our commitment to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as to freedom of expression, is deep and real here in the UK, even where that freedom may be politically or culturally inconvenient. In terms of religious freedom, we should stand as an exemplar beacon of hope to others who suffer far more gravely around the world.
It is a great pleasure to participate in this debate and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. Equally, it is an enormous honour for me to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who in so many ways stands as a beacon for all of us, particularly those of us who recently became Members, who share her deep convictions and principles. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—he is my friend—on securing this debate. He is another shining beacon, an example and a city set on a hill in this regard and many others.
With this debate, we are talking about something that is fundamental to civilisation: freedom of religion or belief. It is a fundamental freedom. It is in so many ways the foundation freedom. I feel passionately about the subject because I am a member of a religious minority—the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—that has a long history of persecution and misrepresentation. Happily, those dark days are largely behind us, but the lessons learned are deeply ingrained and any suggestion of intolerance or persecution of any minority religious group or minority group of any kind is anathema to me, as I am sure it is to other hon. and right hon. Members.
The first President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith, declared the human right to exercise
“that free independence of mind which heaven has so graciously bestowed upon the human family is one of its choicest gifts”.
On another occasion, he said:
“Meddle not with any man for his religion: all governments ought to permit every man to enjoy his religion unmolested. No man is authorised to take away life in consequence of difference of religion, which all laws and governments ought to tolerate and protect, right or wrong.”
Freedom of religion or belief is a foundation human right as described in the universal declaration on human rights, which this coming December will be 70 years old. Article 18 reads:
“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.”
It is my sincere belief that it is a fundamental responsibility of Government to frame such laws as are necessary to secure for each individual citizen the free exercise of conscience and to hold these laws inviolate. To violate that right is to suppress the freedom of the human soul, and no Government can long exist in peace, nor can any society prosper, while citizens are denied such fundamental freedoms.
Earlier this year, the Pew Research Centre published its ninth annual study of global restrictions on religion. It is a comprehensive examination of freedom of religion or belief in 198 countries, and it showed that for the second year in a row there has been an increase in the overall level of restrictions imposed on freedom of religion or belief by Governments. The report states that the share of countries with high or very high levels of Government restrictions—that is, laws, policies and actions by officials that restrict religious beliefs and practices—rose from 25% to 28%. That is the highest percentage of high or very high levels of Government restrictions since 2013, and falls just below the 10-year peak of 29% in 2012.
Open Doors summarises the global trends of people being persecuted for their Christian faith. More than 200 million believers in 50 countries have experienced high levels of persecution because of their faith, and more than 3,000 Christians have been killed for their faith in the reporting period for 2018—more than twice as many in any previous reporting period. Each of Open Doors’ top 11 world watch list countries are now classified as places of extreme persecution—more countries than ever before in the 26 years of the world watch list.
Open Doors’ report highlights the deteriorating situations in Libya, Eritrea, India and Egypt. Countries where there is extreme persecution are North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan, Eritrea, Libya, Iraq and Yemen, many of which have been mentioned. For the 17th consecutive year, North Korea has been named the most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian, and sadly the situation in Afghanistan and Somalia is in many ways just as critical.
Sam Brownback, the recently appointed US ambassador- at-large for international religious freedom, has singled out the situation in China, which he describes as worsening for people of faith. The situation in China has been well documented, especially in the last few days, as reports of large-scale camps—euphemistically described as re-education centres or schools—have reached the west. As many as 1 million Muslims have been locked up in such camps without trial. In western China, the Uyghurs number some 12 million souls. They are Muslim people who live with the constant threat of arrest and censure by the Communist authorities. BBC journalist John Sudworth, whom I commend for his recent reports, states:
“Harsh new legal penalties have been introduced to curtail Islamic identity and practice—banning, among other things, long beards and headscarves, the religious instruction of children, and even Islamic-sounding names.”
Christian churches have long been the object of official Chinese attention. To register as a state-sanctioned Christian organisation, religious leaders must receive training to adapt doctrine to Government and Communist party thinking. Recent repression efforts target both house and state-sanctioned churches through the harassment and detention of Christian believers, blocking entry to sites of worship, interrupting gatherings, dismantling crosses, demolishing churches and disbanding congregations. Recently, the Chinese authorities have begun to insist on the installation of monitoring equipment in churches in Beijing.
Last month’s provisional deal between the Vatican and the Chinese Government is regarded as a key moment in decades of struggle over the Catholic Church’s right to appoint bishops in China. Pope Francis recently recognised the legitimacy of seven bishops approved and appointed by the Chinese Government. Yet a fundamental characteristic of freedom of religion is the right to Church autonomy to determine its own theology and doctrine, to establish membership standards and to own and manage sacred properties, and the right of its members to associate freely without unwarranted governmental or other official interference.
The position of Falun Gong practitioners, which has been mentioned, and Tibetan Muslims is also well documented, with both subjected to some of the worst extremes of Chinese oppression. Our view of China must be tempered by what we know about those fundamental abuses of human rights, and when we embrace China or seem to celebrate its contribution to the world, we must never forget or leave behind the many millions of people of faith who are persecuted and prosecuted by the Chinese authorities. What representations have been made recently by Her Majesty’s Government to China about the treatment of religious minorities?
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. Does he agree that one of the questions to ask the Chinese Government is, “Why are you afraid of people of faith? They contribute so much to society. They’re not trying to undermine you. They may have a slightly different view on certain things. As Communists, you may proclaim atheism, although I suspect that quite a number of members of the Communist party do have a faith. What are you afraid of? You will benefit greatly from allowing people to fulfil their potential as sons and daughters of God.”
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and associate myself entirely with the sentiment that he and my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) expressed. There is nothing to fear when one has faith, well founded, and any system that fears people of faith is a system that is in deep trouble. Such is the nature of tyranny and oppressive regimes everywhere.
The Christian and Yazidi minorities of northern Iraq were decimated by Daesh in 2014. Iraq’s Christian community once numbered 1.5 million, but today probably fewer than 200,000 Christians remain. Mark Green, the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, recently described the region in The Washington Post as
“a land of pain…It’s very clear what the Yazidi have gone through is as disturbing as I can describe, and is ongoing. They have families that have been broken up and disappeared, as well as murder, rape and torture.”
I pay tribute to the recently announced Nobel peace prize winners, the Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman, for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence in conflict. Ms Murad is 25 years old. I have a son of a similar age. The Wall Street Journal, when reporting the award of the Nobel peace prize, wrote:
“Ms. Murad was among some 6,000 Yazidis who were rounded up by Islamic State militants when they overran northern Iraq in the summer of 2014.
Hundreds of adult men, including six of Ms. Murad’s brothers and stepbrothers, were murdered, while women and girls—as young as nine, the U.N. reported—were awarded to fighters who raped and sold them in slave markets. Ms. Murad escaped after three months and became one of the first Yazidi women to speak out about the horrors”.
Ms Murad wrote in August:
“We, and the Yazidi community generally, need more than sympathy.”
What is being done by Her Majesty’s Government to offer aid, protection and security to the Christian and Yazidi communities in northern Iraq?
Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the work of the co-recipient of the Nobel peace prize, Denis Mukwege, who has also stood up bravely on behalf of particularly the women of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the face of the terrible civil strife that they have endured. Both those people exhibited enormous bravery and stood up for their beliefs.
I, once again, thank my hon. Friend. I think I might have mispronounced the gentleman’s name when I mentioned him, for which I apologise, but I absolutely associate myself with what my hon. Friend has said.
To return to the case that has to be made and remade for the primacy of freedom of religion or belief, earlier this year the all-party group for freedom of religion or belief, under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Strangford, welcomed Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Dr Daniel Mark, chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, to Parliament. I want to reflect on some of the remarks that Elder Christofferson made on that occasion because they are highly pertinent. He said that freedom of religion benefits not only believers but all of society, whether they know it or not. He tied religious freedom to the freedoms of worship, association, expression and opinion, and assembly, and from arbitrary arrest and detention, and interference in home and family, saying that all rights and liberties are mutually supportive, with freedom of religion as what he called,
“the root freedom in giving life to all others... Religious freedom protects the freedom of individual belief and expression in all areas of human activity. This enables people to develop and express their own opinions in matters of philosophy, politics, business, literature, art, science, and other areas, which naturally leads to social and political diversity.”
Elder Christofferson went on to say that freedom of religion connects to the rights of free speech, free expression, freedom of the press, and freedom peaceably to assemble, and that those basic freedoms tend to rise and fall together.
As I conclude, may I ask the Minister to consider the following questions? How will the Government respond to the commitments made at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in relation to freedom of religion or belief? How will such matters be followed up? In Washington in July, an event was sponsored by the US Administration at which there was something called the Potomac declaration and the Potomac plan of action, part of the first ever US-sponsored Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. How can we ensure that such gatherings are not just more talk? How can we ensure that they are more than talk? Are we prepared to do more to stress the link between international development and adherence to article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights and perhaps even the Potomac declaration? Is Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon’s July appointment as the Prime Minister’s special envoy on freedom of religion or belief intended to be seen as an answer to what the United States calls an ambassador-at-large for freedom of religion or belief? What exactly is the extent of the remit that the noble Lord Ahmad now has?
I am grateful for that additional question on the role that the noble Lord has been given, which we all welcome and had long sought.
May I thank you, Mr McCabe, for the opportunity to participate in this important debate? I pay tribute to all my colleagues who have spoken or will speak in this debate, which I consider to be one of the most important debates that we hold annually. It allows us the opportunity to restate our collective, individual and national commitment to the principle of freedom of religion or belief—a freedom that I believe this place represents to the whole world.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I know that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), whom I warmly congratulate on securing this debate, has a debate coming up on 27 November on the subject of armed violence against farming communities in Nigeria, most of whom are Christian. I will use the situation in Nigeria as an example of how we might approach the issue of religious freedom. Although this does not fall under my remit as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Nigeria, I do know the country and feel that I can comment in that context.
The federal and state Governments in Nigeria are prevented from adopting a state religion or discriminating in any way on religious grounds. The split between Christians and Muslims is almost exactly 50/50—there is about a 1% difference between the two. Although some 12 states follow sharia law, they do so for Muslim-to-Muslim relations, and it would be wrong to characterise an area in Nigeria as either Christian or Muslim. For example, although significant numbers of Christians live in the north, which is traditionally thought of as a Muslim area, there is no evidence of sharia courts being used for Christian activities unless they particularly want to raise a concern about a Muslim activity. Sharia law is simply for Muslim-to-Muslim activities.
Both Muslim and Christian groups in Nigeria have complained about the Government’s handling of disputes, particularly in the central band across the middle of the country where there are long-standing disputes between Christian farmers and Muslim herders involving rival claims and complaints that security forces did not intervene when farming villages were attacked by herdsmen. It is interesting to note that when farming villages were attacked by herdsmen, there was uproar in Abuja. The President was summoned to Parliament, as were service chiefs and security advisers, and they were subjected to intense pressure from parliamentarians. Equally, however, the media regularly report claims by Christians that northern leaders, backed by the Government, are trying to Islamise the whole of the country. Of course, the presence of Boko Haram is crucial to that.
Boko Haram is a terrorist organisation. It is not one that the Government can control. Although, with the help of British service personnel who are there as advisers, the Nigerian Government are trying to attack Boko Haram, Boko Haram will not be defeated by military means alone. It will be defeated by the country sharing in the wealth creation that is going on in Nigeria and by making sure it is shared at an individual level, so that people are offered something that Boko Haram cannot offer. There are already signs of success in that.
There have also been reports that Christian groups in northern states are not given building permits—I think that was raised earlier. So we have a situation where Christian communities decide they are simply going to build the churches that they want to and will wait until the Government come and bulldoze them, which they do from time to time. It has happened in various states. However, I also came across an example of a mosque in a similar situation. It was threatened with demolition because it did not have the right planning permit. This issue goes across religions, but we rarely hear about it. Unfortunately, it appears the demolition of the mosque was stopped before it went ahead, and no one quite knows why.
It is worth noting that Muslims, too, complain of a lack of freedom of religion more generally. In one case, a Muslim was denied the chance to be called to the Nigerian Bar simply because she wore a hijab. Christians also complain that it is difficult for them to be admitted into schools, especially to study medicine and engineering, and in many states it is also difficult for them to take courses in Christianity.
There are optimistic signs, however. Some good work is being done by religious leaders on both sides of the argument, including efforts to bring peace to the areas in question. Those were started as a result of the attacks between farmers and herdsmen, particularly after 300 farmers were killed by raiding herdsmen. The violence is related to religious differences, but we should not pretend that all the violence in Nigeria is the result simply of religious differences. Economic and social factors are involved as well.
I absolutely acknowledge what my hon. Friend says. For example, many of the herdsmen, who used to have grazing grounds and could roam fairly freely, now find that the grazing grounds are restricted; but we cannot deny the element of ethnic or religious discrimination in the attacks—in large part, although not in all cases.
I was not suggesting that religious differences played no part in the attacks, just that they are not the sole cause. We can legitimately blame a number of other factors, including the fact that the media misreport situations widely across Nigeria. We can also blame rapid population growth: the population of Nigeria is about 190 million at the moment, but the World Bank predicts that by 2050—not long hence—it will be 400 million, making it the third most populous country in the world, after India and China. In that situation it is not surprising that tensions arise.
The tensions do have religious aspects. On 15 April 2017, 12 worshippers died and many more were injured in Aso village in Kaduna state, when herdsmen opened fire on an Easter vigil service. Media reports said the attackers boasted about disrupting the Easter celebration, but it not known whether that is true. There are efforts to promote interfaith dialogue, to ensure that feelings on all sides are listened to and that reconciliation is reached.
I intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) with a point about the importance of the European Court of Human Rights and what I might term its parent body, the Council of Europe. The right to hold religious beliefs is protected under article 9 of the European convention on human rights. A wide range of faiths have brought cases to protect their freedom to practise religion. I accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) about needing to tighten that up, but it depends on countries being willing to accept the judgments of the Court. Russia has suspended itself from the Council of Europe and can no longer appoint judges, although the population of Russia still has access to the European Court of Human Rights. The Court is hearing a vast number of cases brought by Russian individuals against the Russian state.
That is important for the reason that I raised earlier. The European Court of Human Rights was born out of the conflict of world war two, which had a great deal to do with religion—the Jewish faith and the imprisonment of those of that faith in concentration camps. However, the Council has gone beyond that. We have produced a tremendous number of reports about the need to ensure respect for the religious backgrounds of refugee families coming to Europe—that must of course be mutual, and respect should also come from them. We must not forget the vital role that the Council plays. It may be ignored by many UK Ministers and the UK may be the only country never to send a journalist to monitor its actions, but it still carries out its role and the treaties are signed, by us and others, on a consensual basis. That is an important point to bear in mind.
I again congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford on bringing the debate, and hope my remarks have been helpful in elucidating some of the details.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr McCabe. We know that God is shining on us when there is a Scotsman in the Chair in Westminster Hall. I say that as an atheist. I sincerely congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing the debate on an issue that he has championed consistently and with depth. It feels almost rude of me to say these things with my back to him, but I hope that he will take the words in the spirit in which they are meant. He has always stood up for the right of those of faith, and those of none, to go about their lives in the way they want.
Many Members have given examples illustrating the deeply horrifying and sinister persecution that takes place in countries around the world against different religious minorities. I have no desire to repeat those, but I want to single out one Member who spoke, the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. She has a long-standing interest in their plight and does a good job chairing the group. I am only sorry that I cannot get to more of the meetings.
Many hon. Members will remember the case of Asad Shah, mentioned by the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr). He was the Ahmadi shopkeeper from my constituency, on the south side of Glasgow, who was brutally killed. He was loved by everybody; there was not a person with a bad thing to say about him. He was a traditional shopkeeper: the self-service machines in Tesco were not for him; it was for him to fill the basket. People went in as customers and left as friends. He was brutally taken from us because of religious persecution.
I shall never forget that night. The shop where he was killed is about a four-minute walk from my front door. I remember seeing on social media that something had happened. No one quite knew what. I thought, “I am not going to sit up and worry about this. I am going to go to bed.” In the morning, I woke up to the worst possible news: the friendly shopkeeper had been slaughtered on the streets of my constituency. Afterwards, I saw something that I hope never to have to see again. People were rallying outside his shop, which sadly has since had to close because his family have had to leave Glasgow altogether. Hundreds of people had come together to stand in silence and remember a much loved and gentle man. Every time I saw him, he was always friendly. I do not think he ever remembered my name; I was just “Mr SNP” every time I went into his shop. I can assure the House that I have been called worse.
All of us on the south side of Glasgow remember Asad Shah with great affection. We will always be horrified at how he was taken from us and at the motivation behind it. The scenes of solidarity on that Friday night were quite something to see, but I hope I never have to see them again.
I wish the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden the very best in her work to address the plight of the Ahmadi people. As you will know, Mr McCabe, the south side of Glasgow has a substantial Muslim community. There are many Muslim people whom I count as friends and who are fairly progressive even on issues such as gay rights, but I am always amazed that the minute I mention Ahmadi Muslims, something happens—a shutter seems to come down. People keep telling me, “Stewart, it’s best that you don’t bring up the subject in other mosques or with other Muslims. It won’t help you at the next election.” However, it is vital that the hon. Lady and I, along with other hon. Members present, continue to shine a light on it.
One of the most shocking things to come out of the inquiry that our all-party group has just undertaken is that there seems to be gloom about any progress against the persecution of the Ahmadis. The younger generation in Pakistan appears to be more wedded to harassment of Ahmadis than the older generation, so we are in for decades of this. Nor should we assume that all Members of this House share the view that the hon. Gentleman espouses. Discrimination exists among our own ranks.
The hon. Lady makes a very good point. I think it was the hon. Member for Stirling who said that we have to continually make the case for religious freedom, just as we do for women’s rights, gay rights, ethnic minority rights or any other kind of social progress, because history tells us that someone somewhere will always be waiting to take those rights away.
Let me turn to a subject that has not yet been mentioned. The first debate that I secured as an MP was a debate in this Chamber on human rights in Saudi Arabia. My primary reason for securing it was the case of the jailed Saudi writer Raif Badawi, whom the Saudi Government considered to have committed the crime of apostasy. Here is a man who needs freedom from religion, not freedom of religion. His wife and their three beautiful children now have to live in Canada. He was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and is still in prison, as well as facing a massively unaffordable fine that he will never be able to pay.
I understand that Saudi Arabia is a very tough country and that there are many reformers who have to walk an incredibly fine line—it is never black and white. However, I want to hear more about what the Government are doing about Raif Badawi’s case. We hear constantly that it is being held up at the Supreme Court, yet the human rights organisations that I have talked to cannot see any evidence of that.
Saudi Arabia has been brought into sharp focus recently because of events in its consulate in Turkey. I echo what my party’s Westminster leader, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), told the Prime Minister yesterday: the time has come for a fundamental shift in the relationship between this kingdom and that kingdom on the issue of arms sales. This dance with the devil has gone on for too long, and it has to change.
I will bring my remarks to a close soon, because the Minister is the man we are all here to hear from. First, however, I must mention one religious group who have been persecuted more than any other in history: the Jewish people. They have been hunted from every single corner of the world for hundreds of years. It still happens today, even in this country. For the sake of hon. Members who were not present at our debate on antisemitism earlier this year, let me repeat what I said then.
In every city I go to, whether on holiday or on an official visit, I always try to visit the Jewish museum. I love visiting museums in many different cities, but the only museums in which I have to check in my backpack, take off my coat and go through airport-style security are the Jewish museums. It is the same in Paris, Berlin, New York or any other city. Why is that? Why do Jewish schools, even in this country, need security outside them? Why do synagogues around Europe need armed security? Many people think that the persecution of the Jewish people is over, but only a fool would think that.
It is a source of great pride that Scotland is, I think, the only country that has never had an antisemitic law on the statute book. Indeed, the declaration of Arbroath, the oldest medieval text in the world, refers to Jews and Gentiles as equals. That is not to say that everything in Scotland was a picnic; of course it was not. There are positive things in our history, but we should never take them for granted.
I welcome this debate, and I welcome the fact that there is an international day to celebrate freedom of religion or belief. Although I do not have a religion or a religious belief, I will stand with hon. Members who do. We will constantly make the case for people’s freedom to worship or not worship, as they see fit. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I would like to start by thanking the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald), because I was going to begin my speech by mentioning the case of the Jews, as he and many others have done. I know that hon. Members wish to hear from the Minister, but I ask them to bear with me as I sum up for the Opposition.
I am reminded of a particular case that is close to my heart; I hope hon. Members will forgive me if they have heard it before. It is the case of Raina Sevilla, a Jewish woman who moved from Switzerland to Paris in 1934 in the belief that France was a safe place for Jews to live. Just six years later, after the fall of Paris to the Nazis, she was asked, along with so many other Jews in Paris, to register and wear the yellow star. Some months later, she was picked up in the middle of the night and taken to the Vel’ d’Hiv, the velodrome in the middle of Paris. In June or July 1942, along with so many others, she was taken from there to Drancy, the makeshift concentration camp on the north-east outskirts of Paris, near the railhead at Bobigny. The next day she was taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she was sent, along with many thousands of other older women and children, to the gas chambers. She was my great-grandmother. That is why this debate matters, and why it means so very much to all of us.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Glasgow South for taking up the case of the Jewish people. I am not a religious man either, but I am Jewish. Every single one of us knows where religious intolerance can end, because we have seen it. History teaches it to us. Every single Member this afternoon has given a brilliant speech telling us why this debate, timed to coincide with the International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day, is so appropriate, so important and so essential to the very essence of our existence as a Parliament in this free country of ours.
I pay tribute to my good friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—I hope that he does not mind me calling him my good friend. We have worked closely together over many years. He gave his thanks to the Government for their support and for the good work done, and for what is still to be done. I know that we will hear from the Minister shortly about how that will be developed. All Governments in this country, of every party, have supported the right that we value so greatly.
The hon. Gentleman talked about forced organ harvesting in China, as others have done this afternoon, and the Falun Gong, a religious minority in China who are being persecuted in astonishingly horrific ways. There are many parallels with what the Jews have suffered, especially during the second world war. He mentioned Chinese Muslims, who have been in the news recently. I have had emails, as I am sure have many other Members, from constituents who are angry and upset at what they hear in the media. It is good that our free media is able to report that, but it is tragic what they have to report and that this is still going on.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the abductions in Punjab and the Rohingya people in Myanmar, as did other Members. He made some positive suggestions, which I know the Minister will examine in his summing up. He talked about an area that is a concern to me as shadow Minister for the middle east and north Africa—Egypt and the torture, disappearances and executions of Christians. He mentioned his comprehensive five-point plan to help stop religious persecution abroad. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s response.
The hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) is one of my very favourite colleagues; we worked together on the International Development Committee for three years. In his excellent speech, he talked about the importance of freedom of religious belief, but he also said it was vital to stand up for all those abroad who suffer from persecution—that faith communities themselves must stand up against persecution not of their own faith but of other faiths in other countries. That is an essential point for all of us to remember. He talked about the role of the Court of Human Rights, which is fundamental to who we are as a country. I totally agree with that sentiment, and so does my party. Social media is a great invention, but the abuse and misuse of it has to be stopped in some way. I hope that we, not as legislators but as individuals, might have the power to do that.
My colleague and hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) spoke about her recent trip to Pakistan and the warm reception she received. I have experienced that myself on visits to Pakistan. She mentioned the persecution of the Falun Gong in China, many of whom I have met over the years. Sadly she is now also familiar with the plight they endure day in, day out. She mentioned the 2016 report on transplant programmes in China, and we thank her for the detail she gave—the 60,000 to 100,000 organ transplants per year. Where are those organs coming from? I am afraid the conclusion that we have to draw is the organ harvesting that is so widely documented and evidenced now. It is the tip of an iceberg, as she said. She told us more about Pakistan and the ongoing persecution of Ahmadiyya Muslims, and I will come to that in a minute.
The hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) made an excellent speech. He said that the right to believe in “your own faith, which is not necessarily my faith” is a fundamental one, and that he welcomed this debate each year. He spoke of how cracking down on religious belief always leads to cracking down on every other freedom. He referred also to North Korea and the shocking abuses there. It is the most repressive country in the world and is completely opposed to any freedom of religion, except the one religion that matters—the ability to worship the leader. There are still, in spite of all that, so many Christians still alive and active, and it is a tribute to human nature and the extraordinary conviction of people of faith and of no faith that those Christians, alone and abused and banned from practising their faith, can practice it in the holes in the grounds or the toilets, or wherever it may be in those forced labour camps. Let us hope that we see an end to those, sooner rather than later.
We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh). I pay tribute to the work she has done, year in year out, to draw attention to the plight of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in this and other countries around the world. She detailed the worldwide persecution of that community in her tour d’horizon of all the countries in the world where they are persecuted for their faith. She mentioned the tragic murder of the shopkeeper Asad Shah in Glasgow, as did the hon. Member for Glasgow South, who knew that gentleman. It was absolutely shocking. Listening to my hon. Friend, I was reminded of what the Nazis did to the Jews in Germany. The way they are being treated is so very similar. We have to stand up for them and that is up to all of us. My hon. Friend mentioned the scourge of extremism being a stain on our reputation in our country, a country renowned throughout the world for its religious tolerance. It is our duty as Members of Parliament to stand up against it.
I give huge praise to my friend, the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). We also served together on the International Development Committee for three years. As well as enjoying our time together, I learned a lot from her. We travelled across many countries where we saw the excellent work of the Department for International Development. She took us around the world in great detail. I will not reiterate that detail, because we want to hear from the Minister. She mentioned shocking cases in Pakistan, including that of Sharjeel and the positive response to the international condemnation, which means that this House can do something to draw attention to such horrors and persecution.
The hon. Lady also talked—this is very relevant—of the £500 million of taxpayers’ money that this country spends on aid in Pakistan, none of which is spent on promoting religious tolerance and education. She also mentioned Nepal—I have visited that country many times—and its new penal code. Let us hope that it sees sense and responds to international pressure to rescind that article of the penal code and to change its constitution. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on that.
The hon. Lady mentioned the Falun Gong. She also talked about Russia, which we have not debated very much so far this afternoon, and the report of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. It is an excellent organisation—here is a Labour shadow spokesperson talking about a Conservative body, but any organisation or political body that draws attention to this kind of persecution should be praised by all of us, and I praise the hon. Lady for that work. She talked about what Boko Haram is doing in Nigeria, and the kidnapped girls. I thank her for reminding us that there is one child left—the one Christian girl. We need to campaign for her release too.
The hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) spoke of freedom of religion as a fundamental human right and noted that, for the seventh year in a row, we have seen an increase in governmental restrictions on religious freedom. He talked about Afghanistan and Somalia, which we have not heard very much about.
The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) has always contributed to these debates and has always had much to say in his area of expertise, which is Nigeria. We all benefit from that and I am grateful to learn more about Nigeria, especially as we know about the 50:50 split between Muslims and Christians. Generally, in spite of all the turmoil, including the vastly increasing population and the problems they face, there is actually a lot of good work going on in Nigeria. It is important that we remember that many nations that face problems of religious tolerance and freedom are doing their very best against such a backdrop.
The hon. Member for Henley used one word that is important throughout this whole debate: respect. It is a word that we do not hear too often these days. We need to show more respect, not just for one another in this place, but for those who have a different way of life and a different approach to life—a completely different faith from that which we may or may not have—and emphasise their right to live by that faith, underpinned by the relevant articles.
Let me say just a few words about human rights. The hon. Member for Stirling mentioned article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights, which I will not go through again. There is also article 18 of the international covenant on civil and political rights, which is very similar, and article 9 of the European convention on human rights, which clearly says much the same as well. We have many of these articles worldwide that confirm the right to religious freedom, yet we see it being abused so much all over the world.
I will not repeat what hon. Members have already said about different countries around the world. We should look to ourselves as well. According to data released by the Community Security Trust, a Jewish organisation in the United Kingdom, the number of antisemitic incidents in the UK rose by more than a third to record levels in 2016, and it has risen again since then. I know that the Government will be doing all they can to stop that, but according to the Metropolitan police here in London, the number of hate crimes against Muslims has increased from 343 incidents in 2013 to 1,260 in 2016. The Casey review highlighted just three years ago that at least 55% of the general public believe there is a fundamental clash between Islam and British society values. We all need to work to change that. The Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Lord Ahmad, said in 2017:
“The persecution of individuals based on their religion or belief remains of profound concern to the United Kingdom. The freedom to practise, change or share one’s faith or belief without discrimination or violent opposition is a fundamental human right, and the UK Government are committed to defending this human right and promoting respect and tolerance between religious communities.”—[Official Report, 17 July 2017; Vol. 627, c. 5P.]
I thank the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) for summing up for his party. One of the most important things about this issue is that it should be considered on a cross-party basis. That is not to say that there will not at times be disagreements about how we go about trying to promote freedom of religious belief, but I am pleased that he made such a strong case on behalf of the Opposition. We need to work together, and I make an open offer to him and to the SNP spokesman: if they want to come to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to learn more about the precise nature of the deep work that is done in this area, I would be only too happy for them to do so. That might be useful, given that we will have many more such debates.
I disagreed with one thing that the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) said. This really is not about the Minister; it is about everyone else. These are Back-Bench debates, and while I shall try to answer the matters raised—please forgive me if I fail to do so; I will take some things up in writing—I have spent long enough on the Back Benches, rather than in a ministerial office, to recognise that it is very important to ensure that everyone has their say, instead of spending too much ministerial time on these issues. The hon. Gentleman also touched on Saudi Arabia, which is slightly outside the main scope of today’s debate, and I do not want to put a foot wrong by giving him incorrect information, so if he will forgive me, I will write to him in detail afterwards.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on marking International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day once again. I am glad for my own good that it is a once-a-year occasion, but I know that, like many Members here, he takes this very seriously, 365 days a year. As ever, I pay great tribute to him and to all members of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief for their tireless and persistent advocacy on this issue around the world. This Saturday, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London and our posts across the globe will be marking the day in a variety of ways, all of which are designed to demonstrate the UK’s steadfast commitment to this fundamental human right.
That commitment is part of our broader policy of defending and promoting universal human rights and freedoms, which are a vital component of the rules-based international system. Freedom and equality must remain the bedrock of democracy, the form of government that we all recognise as delivering security, wellbeing and, hopefully, high levels of prosperity for all citizens. Promoting human rights also goes hand in hand with open markets and free trade, which nurture economic prosperity alongside genuine security and stability. Those are the conditions that ensure that all citizens can enjoy their political rights and freedoms. That is why we remain at the forefront of states that promote universally a culture of respect for human rights. I am very excited at the prospect of having both France and Germany on the Security Council over the next two years, as my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) pointed out, which will mean having three large, western European nations with great reach across the globe, hopefully being able to make a real impact in this area.
We embrace the work that engages foreign Governments, both bilaterally and in multilateral forums such as the UN Human Rights Council. I reiterate all sentiments about the European Court of Human Rights as an important pillar for ensuring that we move forward correctly. It also invites work on ambitious campaigns on totemic issues: we work on eradicating modern slavery, preventing sexual violence in conflict, and promoting gender equality in all aspects of life, but notably in girls’ education—something that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is very committed to. On the back of our own Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting here in London, we are working with 52 other nations across the Commonwealth to ensure 12 years of education for all girls around the world.
Let me say a little bit about Lord Ahmad’s role—it was brought up, and I feel it is worth touching on. The UK Government remain active at the highest levels, not least within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, in standing up for the rights of people of all faiths and of none. The Prime Minister’s appointment in July of my noble Friend the Minister for Human Rights as her special envoy on freedom of religion or belief signalled the UK’s determination to step up our action to address religious discrimination and to promote mutual understanding and respect. It is important to recognise that the title of Prime Minister’s special envoy makes a real difference. It opens a lot of doors for anyone in that role, and it is a respected title across the world.
Lord Ahmad will lead renewed and targeted international efforts on this issue, including by raising awareness of the benefits to society of religious diversity and respect for all faiths and for none, which many Members have mentioned. His first objective is to up the tempo of the UK’s response to violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief and to focus on certain countries in particular. As colleagues know, promoting human rights, and specifically advocating for freedom of religion or belief, has long been a focus of the work of our embassies, high commissions and consulates general overseas.
I hope the Minister can tell us whether Lord Ahmad is being provided with any additional resources and staff support to fulfil this additional role, as we have seen in countries such as Canada and, I think, the US. He already has a ministerial role, so what are the Government doing to enhance his support in this additional role?
I was going to come to that, because it was raised by our hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell). Let me set out Lord Ahmad’s objectives. He will have two additional full-time staff working alongside our diplomatic network and international partners to work across Departments for a step change on freedom of religion or belief within diplomacy, to promote FORB in key countries of concern—obviously those will change from time to time, with their particular circumstances—and to respond effectively to any instances of the suppression of FORB that we are made aware of. I appreciate that there are only two members of staff, but there will be a greater emphasis on that issue in our embassies and high commissions overseas, not least among those who are employed locally.
I have raised the issue of freedom of religious belief on my travels over the past few months—for example, with the Nepalese Prime Minister. I have raised our concerns about the deteriorating human rights situation in Xinjiang with the Chinese Vice Premier. The Foreign Secretary reiterated our concerns about Xinjiang with Chinese state councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi when he visited in July. As hon. Members have said, we have increasingly grave concerns about the human rights situation in China and the Chinese Government’s deepening crackdown. Credible reports have been published recently about re-education camps and widespread surveillance and restrictions targeted at ethnic minorities. That issue has been covered in The Economist and elsewhere for some months.
Lord Ahmad has been extremely active in promoting human rights, including the freedom of religion or belief, in Sudan. For example, he expressed our serious concern about the persecution of Christians and the wanton destruction of places of worship. At the recent UN General Assembly in New York, in a meeting we hosted, to which many other countries were invited, he drew attention to the scourge of antisemitism and to the UN report on the crisis in Burma, which concluded that the Burmese military may have inflicted genocide. It has certainly carried out ethnic cleansing and has committed crimes against humanity against the Rohingya.
For the avoidance of any doubt, genocide is a legal term, so my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) will understand that we therefore tend not to use it. We do not wish to downplay the issue, but the term is legal rather than political, and it makes more sense for us to focus on political issues on which we can hold people to account directly.
I appreciate that.
Earlier in the year, Lord Ahmad met a range of religious leaders in Israel to discuss their concerns. He also met Yazidi and Christian leaders in Iraq to hear about their experiences and to reiterate the UK’s commitment to freedom of religion or belief across Iraq.
A number of hon. Member raised the especially distressing case of Asia Bibi. I assure hon. Members that we have been following the case very closely. I have made plain our views, and will continue to do so as a matter of principle, about the death penalty, let alone for that particular charge, and about the injustices that minorities in Pakistan face. I have made a number of representations to Pakistani authorities at all levels. We are at a highly sensitive moment in that very distressing case, so I am not able explain publicly what we and international partners are saying privately to the Pakistani authorities.
There are lots of issues to cover, so hon. Members will have to forgive me if there are things that I am unable to cover. If time runs away from me, I will catch up with hon. Members subsequently in writing. The hon. Member for Strangford raised a number of issues that I hope I have already covered. On DFID, we want to work with Lord Ahmad on a cross-governmental basis. I will say a bit more about that later.
I think I have covered the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) raised. I confess that I could not agree more with what he said; it was very refreshing. It makes life easier for us if we can say, “This is not special pleading because there are Christian groups here. The Christian groups want to see the rights of all religious groups upheld. This is a human rights issue first and foremost.” That makes our argument so much more powerful. I echo my hon. Friend’s very valuable point.
The hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) touched on a number of very important issues. The issue of organ harvesting is almost unbelievable. She will understand that, although I am not questioning the reports in any way, we need to get to the bottom of exactly what has happened. She will be aware that, in the past, organs have been harvested from people who have been executed. It is a grisly situation. We remain deeply concerned about the persecution of Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Falun Gong practitioners and others in China simply because of their religious belief. We believe that societies that aim to guarantee freedom of religion are more stable, prosperous and resilient to violent extremism. The very wise words of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford on this matter were right. What have they got to fear? China is moving ahead in the world, including in terms of prosperity. The hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston will appreciate why arguments about culture in particular have to be made privately, but please be assured that we do make our concerns felt.
It was interesting that the hon. Lady talked about Kachin and Shan states in Burma, rather than about the Rohingya situation, which has been discussed and on which a huge amount of work is being done in the international community. We are very concerned about the ongoing violence and we do not take the view that that part of Burma is stable and secure. There are human rights concerns, particularly relating to Christians, about those areas, which are run by both the Burmese army and armed ethnic groups. We raised concerns about the treatment of ethnic minorities in Burma, including in Kachin and Shan, in the Human Rights Council in September 2017. The former Foreign Secretary raised the matter during his March 2018 visit to Burma, and the new Foreign Secretary went to Burma and met Aung San Suu Kyi as recently as September this year. I know that all hon. Members will continue to press the Government of Burma on the crucial need for interfaith dialogue and religious tolerance.
The hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) touched on the reports that Pakistani refugees are rounded up and placed in detention centres in Thailand when they are assessed to be of the Ahmadi religion. We are following the recent deterioration in Thailand and will continue to do so. It is particularly sad, because there has been progress in many of these areas in that country in recent years. We understand that there are approximately 100 people, mainly from Pakistan, whom the Thai authorities consider to be illegal immigrants, and this follows arrests of Cambodian and Vietnamese nationals at the end of August. We understand that about 200 people claim refugee and asylum status and are in immigration detention. Some of them are already registered under the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. I am in touch with David Miliband on that matter.
We believe that the recent orders are not aimed at any specific group but apply to anyone the Thai authorities deem to be an illegal visa overstayer, as part of the general tightening of immigration enforcement. In September, a senior official from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office raised our concerns about the treatment of those in immigration detention with the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We will continue to work with the Thai authorities to improve detention conditions. The hon. Members for St Helens South and Whiston and for Mitcham and Morden will have to forgive me for not saying any more now. If we have more to pass on, we will try to do so in writing, but let us make sure we stay in touch on this issue.
The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden has been a great advocate for the Ahmadis, and we have discussed the matter previously in the House. As she is aware, Lord Ahmad is of that religion, and she can be assured that he will raise the issue across the globe at every appropriate opportunity.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton raised a number of issues. I raised concerns about freedom of religious belief with Nepal’s Prime Minister Oli when I met him on 6 May during my visit to Kathmandu. I sought the same sort of assurances that my hon. Friend sought from me on precisely how the penal code was to be enforced, and we made it very clear that we would be very reluctant to see it being used to restrict full freedom of religious practice, especially for religious minorities.
In addition, our embassy in Nepal—we have a tremendous ambassador there in Richard Morris—regularly discusses human rights issues including freedom of religious belief with the Government of Nepal. Nepal does not receive a huge amount of DFID money, which is one of our concerns. We feel that it would be appropriate to have a number of other DFID programmes in Nepal—we have a tremendous historical connection, particularly between the Gurkhas and the Ministry of Defence—but we undertake significant work in that regard.
We have been closely monitoring the legal provision on freedom of religious belief included in the reforms to the national penal code in Nepal. The embassy has heard the concerns of the interfaith council—in fact, I heard them myself at a meeting in early May—about the lack of provision for registering religious organisations and the problems that they face in trying to conduct their day-to-day activities as non-governmental organisations, so we are keeping that under a fairly constant review.
My hon. Friend the Member for Henley is a great advocate for Nigeria and has done a tremendous job as a trade envoy there—I know how much work goes into that. I know there is to be a full debate on the situation in Nigeria, for which we will have more evidence, and I suspect it will be either for me or for the Minister for Africa, my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), to respond to that debate. For now, let me say that the Prime Minister raised the issue with President Buhari during her visit to Nigeria in the summer, and emphasised the need to tackle the crisis through mediation and conciliation—the general community conflict advice. With the wisdom that comes from knowing more about that country, my hon. Friend the Member for Henley was absolutely right to identify that the situation is more than a simple religious issue. It is a little more complicated it might appear, although there are clear religious elements. In her representations, the Prime Minister was clear that the violence must stop while work is done to meet the needs of all affected communities. The Foreign Secretary raised the subject when he wrote to his counterpart in August, and the British high commissioner in Abuja has raised the issue with the Nigerian vice-president, with President Buhari’s chief of staff, and with a number of other governors of affected states.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr). He spoke about a number of issues, some of which I have touched on, namely the concerns about DFID funding and the Yazidis in Iraq.
I know we are running out of time, so I will finish by stressing that this is not just an issue for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. One of the most important things I do in much of my work on matters ranging from climate change to international energy policy or cyber-security, is recognise that one of the great strengths of our sometimes much-maligned system of government—we are perhaps a little too self-deprecating about it—is the international reach of our Foreign and Commonwealth Office through the number of posts that it has across the world. We feel that it is important to take the UK’s work on religious freedom forward—it is very much a “One HMG” effort, as we put it. For example, the Department for International Development has increased its own engagement on the issue, which I think is very important, although it is a probably a step too far at the moment for development aid to be contingent on money coming through for that sort of work, as one or two of my hon. Friends were suggesting.
I am always struck by the fact DFID money goes to help some of the most vulnerable people. For example, we have had strong difficulties with Cambodia. We have tried to engage, but I think that, for example, paring back our funding for demining on the basis that we had disagreements about press freedom in Cambodia would have been the wrong step to take. By staying committed to a range of development and aid work, we can at least keep some sort of dialogue going, even if we might disapprove of that Government’s actions. That begins to build a degree of trust, and we can start moving in the right direction in other areas.
Although I understand the points rightly made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford, ending that assistance would be a retrograde step. If we get the development issues right and recognise that development is an integral part of a state’s recovery—that notion applies to Pakistan in particular, which is the single biggest recipient of DFID funds—we can hope that having a piece of the action in that respect buys us a place at the table to continue to make plain representations and achieve movement in the right direction. We should not hold out huge hopes in all individual cases, but I will take on board the important concerns expressed my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton and make sure that they are passed back to Islamabad.
I hope my hon. Friend will forgive me but I am worried about running out of time, and I know that the hon. Member for Strangford will also want to get a word in at the end.
DFID’s wider programme is also designed to benefit religious minorities. As I touched on, in Iraq some £237.5 million in humanitarian support has helped Christians, Yazidis and other minorities who have been forced to flee persecution by Daesh. At the Foreign Office, we have also increased our support for freedom of religion or belief through the Magna Carta fund to over £1 million. That will fund projects in countries such as Burma, Indonesia, Iraq and Sudan.
Respect in education is a key element of our freedom of religion or belief strategy. Children are not born prejudiced; sadly, prejudice is learned. It does not have to be that way, and we believe that more should be done in schools to ensure that children remain as open minded as possible and respectful of difference. As the hon. Member for Leeds North East rightly said, respect is the operative word here. We believe that it is not simply enough to promote tolerance; indeed, that word alone suggests a begrudging acceptance. We plan to create a step-by-step guide for teachers and schools around the world to draw them into best practice and help them foster greater respect for different faiths and beliefs.
Naturally, learning does not end at school, and colleagues may recall that when we last debated this issue, I mentioned our efforts to increase religious literacy across the civil service. I am sure that hon. Members will be pleased to know that our collaboration with the LSE Faith Centre is proving extremely popular, and annual faith and diplomacy courses for staff across Whitehall are now very well attended. In addition to such projects and initiatives, we continue to promote the issue internationally with our bilateral advocacy. We work with like-minded partners as well as with civil society across the globe.
The UK Government remain absolutely convinced of the key importance of freedom of religion or belief, not just because it is a basic human right, but because it goes hand in hand with all the other rights and democratic freedoms that make up the foundations of a fair, stable and successful society. That is why my ministerial colleagues and I are committed to promoting and protecting freedom of religion, and I am so pleased that that applies to Parliament more widely. I thank everyone for their contributions. Through Government, we shall work and strive for a better world—a world in which there is greater mutual understanding and respect, where everyone is able to practise their faith or to hold no faith at all, and to live the life that they choose.
I thank the Minister for his energy and deep interest in the subject of our debate, and for the steps that he and his Department have taken, which we all acknowledge. I thank the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), the Scottish National party spokesperson, the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald), and all right hon. and hon Members for their insight and powerful contributions.
Today, this Chamber has been a place where a voice for the voiceless was heard. I will finish with the words of a man of faith and a scriptural text pertinent to the debate, 2 Corinthians 4:8-9:
“We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed.”
I thank the Minister and all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions to a debate that will mean much to people whom we may never met, but who greatly value what we can do for them in this House.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered international freedom of religion or belief day 2018.