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Persecution of Christians

Volume 655: debated on Tuesday 26 February 2019

7. What recent discussions he has had with his counterpart in China on the persecution of Christians in that country. (909443)

The UK has long championed freedom of religion, but I am concerned that we could do more for the 240 million Christians estimated to be facing persecution for their faith around the world. I have therefore asked the Bishop of Truro to conduct an independent review into what more the FCO can do. Last week, I agreed the terms of reference for his review.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for that review. When I meet Christians from countries where they are under pressure or persecuted, I see loyal citizens who contribute enormously to those countries, whether in health, education, business or so much else. Why do those countries persecute their citizens for their faith?

It is often because they are in the grip of totally misguided ideologies. I thank my hon. Friend for his long championing of this issue. It is a little known fact that around 80% of the people who suffer persecution for their faith are Christians, often in some of the poorest countries in the world—and particularly in the middle east, which 100 years ago had a population that was about 20% Christian. Now that is down to 5%.

Given that a third of Christians in China and Asia are experiencing high-level persecution—that is 140 million people—what discussions have the Government had with the Chinese to end that? What protection can the Government give those Christians facing persecution?

We do all we can to raise these issues. I raised freedom of religion issues with my counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, when I went to China last August. We raised them in November in the Universal Periodic Review—a regular review of human rights issues in China. The noble Lord Ahmad is in Geneva this week for the UN Human Rights Council, where he will also be raising the issue of freedom of religion in China. My hon. Friend is right to be concerned.

It was reassuring to see the Pakistan Government protecting the independence of their courts in overturning the blasphemy conviction against Asia Bibi. What support are this Government giving the new Government in Pakistan to ensure consistent protection of Christians from persecution?

We have excellent relations with the new Government of Pakistan; in fact, I spoke to the Pakistani Foreign Minister yesterday. We co-operated on the Asia Bibi issue. We wanted to support them because we recognise that the situation on the ground there is extremely fragile. They are trying to do the right thing. As one of the biggest aid donors to Pakistan, we play a crucial role in stiffening their resolve to do the right thing.

As the Foreign Secretary will know, the Chinese face mounting criticism over the treatment of Uighur Muslims, up to 1 million of whom are said to be in detention. What action are we taking in Geneva to try to establish oversight of the situation of the Uighur Muslims?

On 4 July last year, Lord Ahmad, who is in Geneva at the moment, was appointed the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religious belief. He is himself from a persecuted Muslim minority, so he understands these issues. The answer is that China is, of course, a sovereign country but we raise this issue at every opportunity. We are very concerned about it. If we do not raise these issues, we have to ask who will. That is why we have a big obligation.

The continuing bloodshed in the Sudan is threatening Christians and Muslims alike. What plans do the Government have to deal with the Bashir regime, to make sure that we bring some peace to that bedevilled country?

My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East met the Foreign Minister of Sudan yesterday. We remain concerned; Sudan is one of the five countries where Christians suffer the worst persecution, alongside North Korea, Somalia, Afghanistan and one other country. We are very concerned and continue to raise the issue at every opportunity.

First, I thank the Foreign Secretary for his hard work and dedication to the job in hand. I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary groups on international freedom of religion or belief and on Pakistani minorities. Christians are being persecuted across the world. What steps is the Foreign Secretary taking to collect data about persecuted Christians and belief groups in order to support policy making?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise that issue. Good data is available from the campaigning organisation Open Doors, from which we get the figure that there are 240 million persecuted Christians around the world. One of the recommendations that I am sure the Bishop of Truro will be considering is whether we need to be more robust in our data collection, so that we can better inform debates in this House.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. [Laughter.] The Bishop of Truro’s review of the Foreign Office’s work is very welcome. Will the Foreign Secretary include Ministers in other Departments to ensure that the Bishop’s work in relation to the persecution of Christians, and the British Government’s handling of that support, are cross-governmental?

I shall try to give a one-sentence answer. The Bishop is free to make whatever recommendations he likes, and we have facilitated introductions to other Departments so that he can liaise with them during his review.