Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 25 February).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will also be a short suspension between this debate and the next one that starts at 3.15 pm. I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall and are expected to stay for the entire duration of the debate. I must also remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times to each other and to us here in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address—they will have had an email this morning with the address. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they leave the room after using them. I also remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered land rights for religious minorities including Baha’is in Iran.
First, I place on the record my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for granting time for this debate. I also thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for co-sponsoring this debate in his capacity as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the Baha’i faith. He had hoped to be here, but unfortunately he has other things to do, so he is unable to be here. Others who wanted to participate have not been able to attend, either. None the less, the issue is of great importance. When I and others have made our contributions, hon. Members and the Minister in particular will understand how important it is.
I am pleased to see my good friend, the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara), in his place. He is always very faithful and attends not only in his role as a spokesperson for the Scottish National party, but because he has a deep interest in these issues, as has the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David). I very much look forward to the Minister’s response. It is good to see him in his place as well.
I am also a member of the all-party group on the Baha’i faith, but I speak today primarily in my role as chairperson of the all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief, a group that we have had in Parliament for some time. My interest in that particular APPG is significant. We have more than 130 members and peers from the House of Commons and House of Lords, so it is a deep interest for many people. The issue of the Baha’is has come to our attention for some time and we very much want to put the issue on the record. As I and others will explain, there is gross persecution of the Baha’is in Iran.
In March this year, the all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief published its third annual “Commentary on the Current State of International Freedom of Religion or Belief”. It includes reports on the state of freedom of religion or belief in 25 countries and territories, including Iran, and offers recommendations for UK foreign policy, which is why it is so important to have the Minister here to see what the Government can do to respond in a positive and helpful way.
In the foreword to the report, three leading experts in the field, Professor Sir Malcolm Evans, Dr Nazila Ghanea and Dr Ahmed Shaheed observed the following trend—this is their opinion in relation to Iran and the Baha’is in particular:
“It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that for many, the pandemic has provided a backdrop to a further deepening of the repression and suppression which they have been facing – as some states have taken the opportunities presented by the ‘eyes of the international community being elsewhere’”—
as they obviously were during the covid-19 lockdown—
“to return to their oppressive practices.”
Today, I will illustrate clearly that those oppressive practices are alive and, unfortunately, exceeding the boundaries of what is legally and morally acceptable in Iran.
I have met the Baha’is on many occasions. I can honestly say that they are some of the nicest, most generous and genuine people anyone could ever meet. They have a pleasant way with them, as well as a smile and a handshake that matches that pleasantness. Today, I wish to highlight one facet of why the Baha’i community in Iran are facing increasingly oppressive practices, and the particular injustice of the denial of land rights to the rural community of farmers in the small village of Ivel in Mazandaran province.
We all know the problems in Iran, its position in the world and how the world looks on it, but there is specific, physical targeting of ethnic and religious minorities, particularly the Baha’is. From the information available to the APPG and to my office, it is clear that the expropriation of land in the village of Ivel was the first indicator of a deepening pattern of escalating repression of the Baha’is in the province of Mazandaran at the hands of Iranian authorities. When we hear what has happened, we will know clearly where we are in relation to this.
Beyond Iran, the APPG for international freedom of religion or belief has, in recent weeks, heard evidence and testimony, which I will touch on, about how religious minority communities face denial of land rights in other states, ranging from the restriction of public goods necessary for agriculture to attacks on cultural heritage, even burial sites. Baha’i graves have been desecrated, which I will explain properly later on. I bring these issues to the attention of the Minister—my Minister—and to the Government—my Government.
There has been a Baha’i community in the village of Ivel in northern Iran for around 160 years. Many generations ago, shortly after the foundation of the Baha’i faith in 1844, the majority of the community were farmers, working for their subsistence through the hard discipline of an agricultural life, a way of life recognised by rural people in every culture and land across the world. The same families have tended the land for generations.
Some members of the Baha’i faith live in my constituency and a neighbouring constituency, and I have had the opportunity to meet them at home. They are so proud of their heritage, culture and where they are, and I know they wish me to speak on their behalf. The Baha’i community was committed to their farms, to their families and, very much, to their faith. They were also committed to service to their neighbours and to their nation. Anyone who meets the Baha’is will see that they are not just about themselves, but about others. I have been impressed by that.
From the earliest stages of the Baha’i presence in Ivel, they contributed resources and time to the social, economic and cultural development of their community, a commitment that is shared by so many people of all faiths and none. At the very beginning, the Baha’is reached out to those of other religious faiths and groups to ensure they created relationships that benefited from the pluralistic society, which unfortunately no longer exists.
They built schools and bathhouses that were open to all the people of the village—the Baha’is, the Muslims and those of other faiths. They contributed towards the care of victims of conflict and earthquakes. Despite their industry and service to others, these Baha’i farmers have been singled out for unusually persistent levels of persecution. From 1983 onwards, the post-revolutionary Government made repeated efforts to expel them from the village and displace them from their lands. What has been happening has been specific and it becomes much more worrying, as you will hear from my comments as we go on.
In June 2010, those efforts extended to the authorities sending bulldozers to demolish some 50 Baha’i homes in the village. Since 1983, the Baha’is have used, and exhausted, every possible legal channel to defend their legal rights to their properties and lands. Their frustration is that something is happening that is truly wrong, evil and vindictive, and which specifically targets them, and they do not have the protection that they should have from the legal system in Iran.
Reports from the Baha’i international community reveal that on 1 August 2020 branch 54 of the special court for article 49 of the constitution of Iran ruled that the ownership of farmland by a number of Baha’is in the rural village of Ivel in Mazandaran province is illegal. Imagine if someone came along to you, Dr Huq, and said, “We’re going to take your house and you have no way of stopping it,” or said to the Minister, “We’re taking your property away as well, and legally it’s impossible to do very much about it.”
A further ruling from the court of appeal on 13 October 2020 ruled against the legitimacy of the ownership of land of 27 Baha’is. Members will see who are the targets. It appears to be the final step in the actions of the Iranian authorities to dispossess those Baha’is of their homes and lands in Ivel. There has been a movement across the free democratic world for those in authority to stand up for the Baha’is, and to do their best to try to raise awareness.
The judgment of branch 54 of the special court for article 49 of the constitution, issued on 1 August 2020, and a further extraordinary session of the court of appeal on 13 October 2020 appear to have closed off any final opportunities for the Baha’is of Ivel to defend their right of ownership to their land—land that they have cultivated and lived off, and that others have lived off as well. That land is their source of economic sustenance. Their lives, and their efforts and energies, have been poured into that land over the years.
It is also of note that on 13 October the appeal court order endorsed the decision in favour of the execution of Imam Khomeini’s order, known as EIKO, in the city of Sari to sell the farmlands owned by the Baha’is. Again it seems to me, and I suspect to everyone else, that it was specifically directed at them, and it was done, as I will illustrate, because of a certain religious belief. The Baha’is now look to the voice of the international community, including Members of Parliament and our Minister, as the only recourse to defend the rights of this community of innocent rural farmers.
We have the privilege in this House of being able to speak up for those who have no one to speak up for them. I know that you, Dr Huq, the Minister and others have done so regularly, because we see wrong in the world and we want to speak up for other people. We do it because it is right and because we have the opportunity to do so in this House. I assure the Baha’is that today’s debate is for them. It is a debate for those people we may never meet in this world. It is a debate on behalf of the Baha’is, whom I have a passion for and believe I should speak up for.
I record my appreciation of the tweet issued by the Minister of State, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, on 12 February, expressing deep concern at the expropriation of land from the Baha’is in Ivel. I am very encouraged by Lord Ahmad, a voice so often for those who have no voice to speak up for them. In his tweet, he said:
“The UK is deeply concerned by reports of expropriation & repossession of land owned by Baha’i communities in Ivel. This follows a worrying escalation in long-standing persecution against religious minorities in Iran. We will always stand up for people of all faiths & beliefs.”
Sheikh Ibrahim Mogra, an imam from Leicester and the chair of the Virtue Ethics Foundation also released a statement, in which he said:
“I am greatly alarmed to learn about the prejudicial ruling of two courts in the Islamic Republic of Iran confiscating land belonging to the Bahá’ís in the rural village of Ivel.”
Importantly—if it is being done because of religion, which it clearly is—he also said:
“Islam does not permit a government to confiscate land from citizens just because they follow a different religion or ideology.”
He went on to say that
“the verdicts must be confronted and overturned.”
Clearly, world opinion and religious opinion is very concerned.
The Baha’is’ lawyers were given no opportunity to see the court documents, to prepare a defence, or to present any arguments back in October 2020. This case could set an alarming precedent in nullifying Baha’is’ right to ownership of land. This is the latest in a pattern of persecution for the Baha’is in Ivel. The community has experienced taxes on their properties, arson, imprisonment, and expulsion as direct consequences against them. Numerous official documents reveal religious prejudice as the motive behind land confiscations, and some records show that the Baha’is have been told their properties will be returned to them if they convert to Islam. If they convert—do away with their own religion and take another—they are told that it will be okay, so this is very clearly direct action against them that is politically and religiously motivated.
Others across the world have supported the Baha’is in Ivel. The former Canadian Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney, is among a group of more than 50 high-ranking legal professionals who have written an open letter to Iran’s chief justice, Ebrahim Raisi. The letter condemns the court ruling to confiscate the Baha’is’ property and violations against the Baha’i community. It states that
“Under the current Iranian government, Bahá'ís have experienced home raids, attacks on properties, confiscation of possessions, dismissals from employment, denial of access to higher education, imprisonment, and execution”—
it can be as final as that. The letter also states that
“Bahá'ís have sought legal remedies, but to little avail”,
“The 2020 rulings now establish a dangerous constitutional precedent of judicially sanctioned confiscation that nullifies legitimate property interests based only on the owners’ religious affiliation, thus departing not only from international human rights standards but also from the text and intent of the Iranian constitution itself.”
Germany’s federal Government commissioner for global freedom of religion issued a press release as well, calling on the Iranian Government to
“recognise the Baha’i as a religious community and to respect the rights of all religious and faith minorities.”
Officials, including politicians from Brazil, Sweden and Canada, have also expressed their support for the Baha’is, so this has taken on an international flavour now, which I think is very important.
In the Iranian province of Mazandaran, persecution has escalated. The APPG warns in its report that the crisis of the covid pandemic could provide a backdrop for a ratcheting up of repression of religious minorities, and that appears to be taking a more ominous shape within that province, in which the village of Ivel is located. I have expressed concern about this in the Chamber to other Ministers before: I have always felt that countries that are indiscriminate in how they target ethnic groups or religious minorities can do so under the cover of the covid pandemic. On 9 March 2021, the Fédération internationale des ligues des droits de l’homme—that is a good Ulster-Scots go at French—an international NGO, issued a press release that gave notice of a directive that reveals plans by authorities in the Iranian province of Mazandaran to intensify their suppression of Baha’is and other religious minorities. It is not just the Baha’is: if someone is of a different religion from Islam, the state religion, then they are targeted, but today we want to speak specifically about the Baha’is.
The text of a directive from the Commission on Ethnicities, Sects and Religions in the town of Sari in Mazandaran, dated 21 September 2020, which has the authority of the highest levels of the Iranian Government, calls for the rigorous control of the Baha’i community in virtually all aspects of life. They can no longer practise their religion; they can no longer have individual thought. According to the Iranian Government, they have to rigorously adhere to what that Government want them to do. It worries me when I read and observe what is going on. This directive mandates the identification of Baha’i students in order to bring them to Islam—in other words, they cannot be a Baha’i and cannot have a different faith, but have to have the faith that the Iranian Government want them to have. The economic strangulation of the Baha’is is another way of making that happen.
These sinister instructions are similar in nature to documents that Members who follow the plight of the Baha’is in Iran will recognise. The language draws directly from the Iranian Government policies to suppress Baha’is found in an infamous 1991 memorandum on “the Baha’i question”, and in the 2005 letter issued to the highest levels of the security forces for monitoring and identifying all Baha’is. This came from the top: the order to take on the Baha’is came from the highest level. Both documents were confidential communications that were uncovered and brought to light by the former UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the former UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief: the late Maurice Copithorne of Canada, and the late Asma Jahangir of Pakistan. I pay tribute to their memory and their service to human rights.
In recent years, the Baha’is in Iran have faced increasingly harsh treatment. Attacks on homes, businesses and personal and community property are reportedly increasing. Baha’i cemeteries have been desecrated, seized and bulldozed. Family connections with former generations, and with the land that they love, are being bulldozed as well. In January 2021, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Javaid Rehman—in conjunction with the APPG on Pakistan minorities, which I chair—published a report outlining human rights concerns in the country. Among other issues, the special rapporteur noted deep concerns that discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities persists, including forced evictions and land confiscation in minority areas. It is probably easier to do it in minority areas, because there are not many people there. In 2020, hundreds of people were reportedly arrested for resisting land confiscation and house demolitions—as anyone would if someone was taking their house—despite presenting evidence of ownership. Even when someone owns a house and shows their ownership, they still do their worst.
The report notes that in November 2020, over 100 Iranian security agents undertook raids, without cause, against the Baha’is, reportedly demanding deeds and confiscating items. Their protection from the security forces and authorities is zero, which has led to longer-term fears about the widespread and unlawful seizure of Baha’i-owned property. In a statement to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2021, Javaid Rehman said:
“I am disturbed at the harassment, arbitrary arrests and imprisonments of religious minorities, particularly members of the Baha’i faith who have experienced a new wave of house raids and land confiscations in recent months.”
A global campaign calling for an end to the persecution of the Baha’is, and the return of ancestral lands that were confiscated by an Iranian constitutional court in August 2020, has also been gaining international support in the last few months. Today’s debate enables us to highlight these issues and then ask the Minister to respond on the Government’s behalf.
The September 2020 directive calls on the Mazandaran authorities to review the latest status of the “perverse Baha’i sect”—their words, not ours, obviously—and states that the Baha’is are to be rigorously controlled. My goodness—it scares me to think what that means. The directive proposes a detailed plan at the highest level for cultural and educational institutions. These are ominous and alarming developments, representing a sharp acceleration in a range of pressures on the Baha’is in Mazandaran. If the collective voice of the international community does not deter the Iranian authorities from the unjust repression of innocent citizens from a minority community, there must be concerns that the invidious rise in persecution could widen to other regions of Iran, or indeed to other religious minority groups in other parts of the world. It is clear to me and my colleagues in the APPG on international freedom of religion or belief that the plight of the 27 Baha’is in a village in northern Iran echoes the experiences and travails of many people of various faiths and communities across the world, and we have seen that escalating throughout the pandemic.
In March of this year, I chaired a webinar with the Baha’is to explore this subject, and I wish to share two further case studies of the pressures on the land rights of religious minority communities. The webinar was helpful but reinforced our fears about cases that reached beyond Iran. At a webinar on 4 March, Pablo Vargas of Impolso 18, a human rights organisation, gave testimony about concerns in Mexico. Mexico is an inherently pluralistic country with a large Catholic population and a small Protestant population. Despite that, there have been cases of human rights infringements against religious minorities, especially people who are members of indigenous communities and also from religious minorities.
Article 24 of the Mexican constitution guarantees freedom of religion or belief, yet Christian Solidarity Worldwide, one of those excellent organisations that speak up for Christians and other religious groups across the world, has expressed concern about a culture of impunity and a reluctance to prosecute those responsible for criminal acts such as violations of the freedom of religion or belief. Mr Vargas reported expulsions of indigenous Protestant Christians from ejidos, areas of communal land used for agriculture, which families are granted the right to cultivate. There are also reports of seizures of land in Mexico.
Again, for the benefit of this debate Christian Solidarity Worldwide kindly supplied my office with a case study of the phenomenon that Mr Vargas describes. It states the following:
“In Cuamontax in the state of Hidalgo, a family was expelled from the community on 20 July 2019 for belonging to a minority religion. Their home was looted and destroyed, and their ejido”—
their property rights—
“were taken away. In August 2020, the community leaders harvested the crops that this family had been cultivating on their land. This was a demonstration to that family that the family is no longer recognised as part of the community and almost two years later the family is not even allowed to enter the community.”
Imagine that happening—every one of us will feel angst in our souls, our hearts and our minds for those people.
Another powerful testimony was offered at the webinar by Max Joseph, a researcher on Iraq for minority rights groups. He spoke in depth about the plight of the Assyrian Christians and noted that land ownership is one reflection of shifting demographics, whereby Assyrians, Yazidis and other ancient Christian communities have suffered repeated land seizures as a process of ethno-nationalism, particularly across the 20th century, which has manifested itself in crimes as severe as genocide. We are extremely concerned about that.
One example was a case in 2018 where Christian MPs submitted legislation to the Iraqi Parliament calling for the return of over 60,000 properties in Baghdad alone, but to no avail. One comment by Mr Joseph captures the injustice of the theft of land rights for many minority communities. He observed:
“Land theft is something that the vulnerable suffer from the dominant.”
That sums up the situation really well, and it is happening in Iran, Iraq and Mexico.
The final speaker that day, Stephen Powles, QC, of Doughty Street Chambers, expressed the hope that what is lost may one day be retrieved. Certainly, the purpose of this debate is to try to make that happen. But how much better it would be if the lands, farms and rights of the Baha’is, the Christians, the Muslims and all communities of faith and belief facing persecution in our world today were not lost in the first place. It would be great if that was the case, but unfortunately it is not.
In conclusion, I have some requests to make of the Minister. Bleak as this situation is, I wish to record the hopeful signs of global solidarity. I am encouraged when I realise that those of standing in 50 countries across the world are prepared to sign a letter and voice their opinion and express global solidarity for the right of freedom of religion or belief, which these cases have elicited. The Baha’i community has received an extraordinary wave of support in response to these injustices. The global outcry has included the voices of Government officials, parliamentarians, civil society organisations and faith leaders of all faiths, which is really important. It underlines that this situation is wrong, morally and legally, and we need to speak up.
It is notable that prominent among these voices are prominent Muslim organisations and learned Islamic scholars who are speaking out. That is really important, because it shows the solidarity of the world among those of different religious persuasions who see the danger and are speaking out.
There have also been statements of support from the American Islamic Congress, the Canadian Council of Imams and a respected faith leader known to many in this House, Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, a visiting Imam to De Montfort University. He has called upon the Iranian Chief Justice to address this injustice, adding:
“Islam does not permit a government to confiscate land from citizens just because they follow a different religion or ideology”—
and, I want to make clear, nor should it.
Those of us who labour in the sphere of freedom of religion and belief understand full well that there are bonds of friendship and solidarity between Baha’is, Muslims, Christians, Jews and people of all faiths and those of secular and humanist beliefs. This is not a clash of religions. This is a struggle for all people of faith and belief to enjoy the rights enshrined in article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights, against the abuses and the persecution carried out by those in authority who deny them the right to believe and live by their beliefs. Parliamentarians of all parties here and in the other place share the view that informed and calibrated accountability for abuses of religious minorities has a place in bilateral and multilateral efforts to dissuade authorities in Iran, Iraq, Mexico and elsewhere from acts of persecution or from granting impunity to forces that commit such acts.
I welcome a commitment from the Minister—I am in no doubt at all that it is forthcoming, but it is good to have it on the record—and any public statement that Ministers and ambassadors of the UK Government might make on these issues, to continue the process of accountability. I also thank the Foreign Secretary and Ministers and civil servants of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. I know they are very aware of these matters.
It is time for us in this House, collectively, from all political parties and from all religious views, to stand up and show the Baha’is that we are standing by them. The fact that other Governments and parliamentarians from across the world have done the same should encourage us. It should encourage the Baha’is. I know whenever the APPG for international freedom of religion or belief first started, we recognised that it was our job—I believe it is my job, as a Christian—to speak up not only for those of Christian beliefs, but for those of other beliefs and, indeed, of no belief. Today, I am standing up for the Baha’is. I hope that our Minister and our Government will do the same and show solidarity for the Baha’is, who need our help at this time.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair for this afternoon’s debate, Dr Huq. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this important debate on land rights for religious minorities, including the Baha’i community in Iran. I thank him for his typically detailed and passionate speech on behalf of yet another voiceless minority group around the world. We have relied so much in this Parliament on his good work.
We heard about the issue of minority communities and the access that they have to their traditional homelands. As he pointed out, it is a real, live and relevant issue, nowhere more so than in the middle east, particularly in Iran and Iraq. I will address the Christian and Yazidi minorities there, too, a little later.
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman made specific mention of the Baha’i community in Iran. There is overwhelming evidence that the 350,000-strong Baha’i community, which constitutes the largest non-Muslim community in the country, continues to suffer systematic persecution simply because of their religious beliefs and their decision to exercise their fundamental right to practice their faith.
Like the hon. Gentleman, many of us will have Baha’i communities in our constituencies—I know I do. I have met them many times in Helensburgh. I know the people they are, I can see the good work that they do and I am proud to call them my friends.
For more than 30 years the Iranian authorities have been absolutely determined to marginalise and remove the social and economic rights of the Baha’i community, with instructions from the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council explicitly stating that official dealings with the Baha’i community should be conducted in such a way
“that their progress and development are blocked”.
It is a remarkable and appalling indictment of the Government in Tehran that they behave in such a manner.
As a result, the Baha’i community is regularly demonised in the official state media and by clerics from the pulpits in the mosques. The authorities have actively and officially encouraged blatant discrimination—discrimination that, as we have heard, all too often has led to violence, murder and the confiscation of property and land. Just last year, in a further escalation of the official Iranian repression of the Baha’is, the Government in Tehran officially barred Iranian Baha’i citizens from holding national identity cards. In effect, that stripped them of their basic rights and access to the most fundamental services as citizens of their own country.
There is little argument that Iran’s Baha’i community is among the most persecuted religious minorities in the world. As the 2019 report of the United Nations rapporteur to Iran says, in the eyes of the Iranian Government the Baha’is are considered to be “unprotected infidels”, leaving them very much at the mercy of the state and of the Government. As a result of this state-sanctioned repression, in recent months the Baha’i community experienced a whole new wave of house raids and land confiscation. The hon. Gentleman highlighted that, like so many other regimes, the Iranian Government used covid as a smokescreen to cover their actions. In November last year, without warning the Iranian security forces raided the village of Ivel where the Baha’i community make up about half the population and have been settled for more than 150 years. Among their other crimes, the Iranian security forces unlawfully seized Baha’i property, with hundreds reportedly arrested for resisting house demolitions and land confiscation even though they presented proof that they were the legal owners.
The Baha’i community in Iran is not rich. It is not powerful. The Baha’is do not have deep pockets and they do not have influential friends. The Baha’is are often hard-working, low-income agricultural workers with no other assets or means of earning a living aside from their homes or their farmlands. This means that state-sponsored, court-sanctioned land theft takes away everything they have.
What happened in Ivel was not just the judicially sanctioned confiscation of property and land based solely on the owner’s religious affiliation; it was a flagrant breach of international human rights that also flies in the face of the Iranian constitution. Article 13 of the constitution provides protection of named minorities such as the Zoroastrians and Christian and Jewish communities, but it specifically excludes the Baha’i. Article 19, however, says explicitly that
“regardless of the ethnic group or tribe to which they belong”
everyone in Iran has equal rights. That is reinforced by article 20, which says:
“All citizens of the country, both men and women, equally enjoy the protection of the law and enjoy all human, political, economic, social, and cultural rights”.
Yet we know that the reality is very different. The Baha’i community, despite the protections afforded by the constitution, is afforded absolutely no protection in Iran.
What is happening to the Baha’i community in Iran is deeply concerning, and we in the SNP strongly believe that freedom of religion and belief is a fundamental right that cannot be taken away from an individual by any Government. Iran has to know that the world is watching. While we have known for several years that Iran seems to care very little about its international reputation or how it is perceived globally, that does not mean that we can stop applying pressure where we can and when we can. We will continue to support in any way possible any initiative that will bring pressure to bear on the Iranian Government to cease this awful persecution of a peaceful religious minority. We hope that as well as the Minister highlighting to his Iranian counterpart the things that have been said this afternoon, the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, will take the matter directly to the Prime Minister, and seek for urgent diplomatic pressure to be exerted by the UK Government on the Iranian Government to fulfil the human rights obligations that they have signed up to. Perhaps we could ask the Minister to consider following the example of the German federal Government commissioner for global freedom of religion, who has called for Iran to recognise the Baha’i religion under article 13 of the Iranian constitution.
As the hon. Member for Strangford has said, land rights for religious minorities is not solely an issue for the Baha’is or Iran. The atrocities perpetrated by Daesh in Syria and Iraq in the last few years, and the chaos in the aftermath of its military defeat, had a devastating long-term impact on minority religious communities across the region. In Iraq, Christian, Yazidi and even Jewish communities that once flourished alongside their Muslim neighbours are decimated and dispersed—unable or, in many cases unwilling, to return, because of security fears. Persecution and bloody sectarian violence have reduced the number of Christians living in the Nineveh plain and the Erbil region from 1.5 million at the start of this century to a mere fraction of that number today.
The Yazidi community, likewise, have for centuries lived and worked on the land around the Sinjar and, after the most awful genocide at the hands of Daesh, when their people were murdered and forced to flee, their population, which was about 700,000 a decade ago, is less than half that today. Given that the security situation is so fragile and that almost none of the Islamic State perpetrators of that Yazidi genocide have been brought to justice—and still, today, 3,000 Yazidi women and children are missing—how could they, and why would they, go back to their homes? Also, tragically, the Jewish community has of course all but disappeared, having been forced out of Iraq over many years.
On Tuesday night I was privileged to be asked to chair the launch of the Aid to the Church in Need 2021 report on religious freedom in the world. It is an extremely important and detailed piece of work running to several hundred pages, and I commend it to all colleagues with an interest in freedom of religion or belief around the world, and in the basic human right to exercise the freedom to worship and freedom of expression. One of the speakers at Tuesday’s launch was Archbishop Nathanael Semaan who joined us from the diocese of Erbil. He gave a first-hand account of how minority faith groups have been systematically cleared from Iraq in recent years, and made the point that although Daesh may have been beaten militarily, the mentality and mindset that allowed it to flourish in the first place has not gone away. He also pointed to the Iraqi constitution, which despite recognising the right of non-Muslim faith communities to exist, relegates them to the status of second-class citizens, because it gives constitutional recognition to the supremacy of Islam.
The archbishop made the very relevant point that the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all have long and deep roots back to the land that we now know as Iraq. Abraham himself was reportedly born in the town of Ur Kaśdim in the south of the country. As the archbishop said, Iraq has a rich history of religious diversity, and an Iraq without that rich diversity is simply not Iraq. Although he was speaking specifically about Iraq, his words could easily be applied to many other countries in the region and indeed across the world, where many faith groups and communities have lived side by side in mutual respect and tolerance for many years. In too many cases, that is something that has gone completely, and in other areas we can see its final disintegration. It is incumbent on us to speak out, just as it is on Governments to do what they can to defend the human rights of minority communities who face oppression and discrimination for nothing more than holding fast to a faith or belief.
In conclusion, I thank my friend, the hon. Member for Strangford, for securing this debate, for once again shining a light where it needed to be shone, and generally for the tireless work that he does day in, day out on behalf of religious communities around the world as chair of the all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief. The world is a better place for the work that he does and for having him in it. I am grateful to him.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Dr Huq. I want to echo the comments of the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) and give my warmest congratulations to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing this debate and for his detailed and passionate exposé of the situation faced by the Baha’i community in Iran. It is important that we have these kinds of debates because the voice of the British Parliament is strongest when parliamentarians, irrespective of parties, speak as one. It is significant that I agreed totally with what has been said by the hon. Members for Strangford and for Argyll and Bute. No doubt I will agree also with what the Minister says. It is important that we put aside our political differences on a raft of issues and speak with one voice in defence of religious freedom and give maximum support to the Baha’i community in Iran.
A lot of people do not realise that the Baha’i religion was founded in Iran in the last century but one. Iran has the largest non-Muslim religious minority: some 350,000 people adhering to that faith. Yet that religion is not mentioned in the Iranian constitution, even though other religions are. It is not a question of simply ignoring that religion. A green light is being given for a host of different persecutions.
As has been referred to already, in 2019 the annual report of the United Nations special rapporteur for Iran said that Iran regarded the Baha’i faith as something that was beyond the pale, and it referred to Baha’is in particular as “unprotected infidels”. That has meant we have seen the most appalling persecution of Baha’is for the past 40 years and more. We have seen persecution, intimidation, and hundreds of Baha’is imprisoned and even executed. They have been excluded in large numbers from higher education and have been prevented from finding work in many parts of the country. We have even seen Baha’i cemeteries being desecrated. That is totally and unequivocally unacceptable and needs to be condemned in the strongest possible terms.
Significantly, the situation was referred to in a statement made to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2021 when Javaid Rehman stated:
“I am disturbed at the harassment, arbitrary arrests and imprisonments of religious minorities, particularly members of the Baha’i faith who have experienced a new wave of house raids and land confiscations in recent months.”
Those land confiscations are something that the hon. Member for Strangford rightly focused on.
In the village of Ivel in the province of Mazandaran in northern Iran, a Baha’i community has flourished for the past 150 years, but in June 2010 the Iranian authorities sanctioned the demolition of 50 Baha’i homes, and we have seen evictions and people cast out as a consequence. The international community, and the United Nations in particular, is extremely concerned about the situation. Mr Brian Mulroney, a former Canadian Prime Minister, to whom Members have referred, recently signed a high-profile open letter signed by more than 50 judges, lawyers and former Attorneys General addressed specifically to Iran’s Chief Justice, Ebrahim Raisi, stating that the court ruling that apparently has given sanction to the demolitions was a departure
“not only from international human rights standards but also from the text and intent of the Iranian constitution itself.”
That was a telling statement from someone held in enormous international esteem. Strong statements have followed from Canadian politicians, in particular, Swedish politicians and German politicians. We have even seen a powerful seminar held in the European Parliament, where the unanimity of concerns was noticeable. I hope that Britain will add to the huge groundswell of opinion that is in evidence, and articulately and forcefully place our condemnation on record.
I look forward to the Minister’s response to the debate and I am sure that, given Britain’s consistency on human rights and our adherence to international law, he will make a strong statement, sending the message from the British Parliament that all politicians, irrespective of our political differences, are strongly in favour of religious freedom and are firmly behind the Baha’i religious minority in Iran.
It is a pleasure to serve under you in the Chair, Dr Huq.
I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing the debate. I pay tribute to his considerable efforts and his tirelessness, not just as a member of the APPG on the Baha’i faith but as chair of the APPG on freedom of religion and belief.
I echo the words of the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), who was right to say that the world, including Iran, should take note of the fact that from every corner of the United Kingdom and every political corner of the House there is unanimity of voice on the importance of the issue. I am glad that he made that point at the conclusion of his speech, enabling me to echo it at the start of mine.
The issue of inequality in land rights affects millions of people around the world, and it is of particular concern, as the hon. Member for Strangford said, to the most vulnerable and minority groups, including religious minorities.
The UK Government support good land governance as a key pillar of inclusive and sustainable economic development around the world. Securing land and property rights is necessary to release other human rights: the right to food, the right to water and the right to housing, to name just a few. The UK Government fund development efforts to support effective protections against forcible evictions and to facilitate responsible investment in land, which we believe are integral to economic growth, rural livelihoods, conflict prevention, environmental sustainability and fundamental human rights.
The House is well aware that we monitor human rights in Iran very closely. The recent deterioration in the land rights of religious minorities in Iran is deeply troubling. Our bleak assessment is that Iran continues to violate human rights across the board, including, sadly, the right to freedom of religion or belief. While some faiths in Iran, most notably Christianity and Judaism, benefit from constitutional protection, in truth, there is widespread discrimination against all religious minorities, but it is markedly worse for unrecognised faiths, including the Baha’i.
The Baha’i community in Iran faces systematic discrimination, as the hon. Member for Strangford outlined. They face harassment and targeting. Baha’i-owned shops and businesses have been forced to close across the country by the Iranian authorities, and the state’s efforts to identify, monitor and arbitrarily detain Baha’i people show little sign of abating. Those patterns of repression extend beyond property rights. We have seen Baha’i students, as the hon. Gentleman said, pressured to convert to Islam or be denied an education altogether.
The Government share the view of the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran. Discrimination against the Baha’i community is legally sanctioned by a lack of constitutional recognition in Iranian law and by the absence of other meaningful legal protections. Alarmingly, our assessment suggests that there has been a rapid and severe decline in the rights to freedom of religion or belief in Iran over the last year, particularly for the Baha’i community. Arrests of Baha’i followers have increased. The sentences handed out have been arbitrary and disproportionately lengthy. Meanwhile, the Iranian authorities at local and national level have appeared to intensify plans to suppress religious minorities.
In late 2020, we understand several court judgments in Iran ordered the seizure of farmland from Baha’i communities in the village of Ivel in Mazandaran province. These lands have been farmed by Baha’i families for more than 150 years. While the Iranian Government have reportedly been attempting to expel the farmers since the 1980s, the recent court ruling against the legitimacy of Baha’i ownership of land has had a profoundly negative impact. It presents serious wider implications for the property rights of other unrecognised religious minorities.
Members will be aware that the UK is committed to defend the freedoms of religion or belief for all and to promote respect between different religions and non-religious communities. We have concerns, and when we have such concerns we raise them directly with Governments, including at ministerial level. We do not shy away from challenging those who we believe are not meeting their obligations, whether publicly or in private. We remain deeply concerned about the violations of the freedom of religion or belief in many parts of the world, including in Iran. Where this right is under attack, other human rights are almost always under threat as well.
In response to the reports of persecution of the Baha’i, the Government have taken the following steps in recent months. At the Human Rights Council, the UK called on Iran to end the discrimination and persecution of religious minorities, which continue to persist, particularly towards the Baha’i and Christian converts. On 12 February, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon issued a statement expressing deep concern about reports of expropriation and repossession of land owned by Baha’i communities in Ivel. The UK continues to co-sponsor the UN Third Committee resolution on the situation of human rights in Iraq. The resolution expressed serious concerns about Iran’s violations committed against unrecognised religious minorities, including the Baha’is. Our efforts ensure there remains widespread global support to highlight and call out these issues.
In October 2020, we made a national statement at the UN Third Committee, focusing particularly on our concerns about the lack of freedom of religion or belief in Iran, and the treatment of religious minorities. The Government have consistently made clear to the Iranians our concerns at persistent violations of freedom of religion or belief, and many other human rights. Iran must comply with its treaty obligations to uphold human rights of believers of formally protected religions and of unrecognised ones.
We will continue to hold Iran to account on a wide range of human rights issues, including land rights, both through bilateral contacts directly with the Iranian Government and on the international stage, including using our membership of the Human Rights Council and at the United Nations, alongside like-minded partners.
On our broader action to support freedom of religion or belief, on 20 December 2020, the Prime Minister reaffirmed his commitment by appointing my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) as his special envoy. Mrs Bruce works with Ministers, officials and other parties to deliver the Government’s aim of seeing everyone, everywhere able to have and practice a faith or belief, or to have no religious belief at all, in accordance with their own conscience. In fact, her first joint external meeting, alongside Lord Ahmad, was with representatives of the Baha’is.
The Government have excellent links with the Baha’i community in London and more widely, and we continue to work with faith leaders to advocate for the rights of their communities in Iran and elsewhere. In November 2020, the Minister responsible for human rights, my noble friend Lord Ahmad, further underlined the UK’s commitment to freedom of religion or belief for all at a number of international meetings. These included speaking at the ministerial meeting to advance freedom of religion or belief and at the Ministers’ forum of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance. I hope the House is reassured that we will continue to call out such violations for as long as Iran continues to commit them.
While we rightly discuss Iran’s violations towards religious minorities and its citizens, in response to a number of points raised by hon. Members I would like to take this opportunity to set out our wider engagement with Iran. The Government have been consistently clear that we want to put the relationship between the UK and Iran on a better footing, as we continue to hold Iran to account for its human rights record, including on the freedom of religion or belief.
We strongly believe that maintaining diplomatic relations will help to achieve our vision for a non-nuclear Iran—an Iran that acts as a responsible regional power and an Iran that does not pose a threat to UK and the UK’s interests. We maintain that that diplomacy is also the best way to secure the release of all arbitrarily detained dual British nationals. The Government will work with all international partners to deliver those shared goals and to keep our diplomatic door open for discussion on a wide range of UK interests.
Let me end by reassuring the House that our commitment to defend freedom of religion or belief for all and to promote respect between religious and non-religious communities endures. Let me also assure hon. Members that we will continue to monitor and assess the threats to the Baha’is and other minorities, including through violations of their land rights. We believe that one of the most effective ways to tackle injustices is to encourage states to uphold their human rights obligations. I assure the House that the Government remain committed to encouraging Iran to respect human rights, and calling it out on the international stage when it fails to do so. We will continue to make representations on those issues at every level, at every opportunity.
I thank the hon. Members for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) and for Caerphilly (Wayne David), and the Minister, for supporting the Baha’is very clearly in word and, I believe, in person. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute referred to how Iran needs to know that the world is listening. The hon. Member for Caerphilly said that there must be a strong message from Parliament, and I think that the Minister gave exactly that. He outlined the Government’s position and strategy, and Baha’is across the world should take some solace from the fact that this House has rallied to their cause, heard their pleas and responded in a positive fashion. I appreciate that.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute referred to the land grab as real and relevant, and to the fact that we all have Baha’is in our constituencies. It is not just that. We recognise that, but the people of the Baha’i faith in our constituencies tell us what they want us to do, and bring it to our attention. Today, we have brought it to the attention of all other countries. I think he referred to shining a light where it needs to be to shone, which he did. The hon. Member for Caerphilly referred to the importance of Parliament in what it does here, and to the prominent legal authorities that have made a statement. If people of legal standing in all countries across the world do that, legally it speaks volumes.
I am particularly heartened by the Minister’s response. I never doubted that it would be good, but he did exactly what I think we all wanted, and it is on the record. It is not just words, by the way; it is actions, which our Government and our Minister are doing with passion and belief. I take encouragement from his comments about bringing up human rights at the UN, and highlighting FORB issues wherever they can.
It is also important—it is very good to have it on the record—that the Government want to have a wider engagement with Iran, and a better relationship to maintain diplomacy. The Minister spoke about the grabbing of the land rights, but it is not just that; it is the Baha’is’ right to water, education, food, health and jobs. All those things interact. There are fundamental human rights issues, and a pattern of oppression.
Clearly, the UK is committed to freedom of religion and belief, as has been said. We hope that the Baha’is in Iran, and those who are colleagues and constituents, will be encouraged. Land theft is something that the vulnerable suffer at the hands of the dominant. We want to change that, and today this House has made it happen. Thank you, Dr Huq, for chairing the debate. It is not often said, but I thank all the staff as well for what they do. They make it happen. I have no idea how the technology works, by the way, but I know that they do—and thank goodness they are doing it and not me.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered land rights for religious minorities including Baha’is in Iran.