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Westminster Hall

Volume 701: debated on Thursday 23 September 2021

Westminster Hall

Thursday 23 September 2021

[Rushanara Ali in the Chair]

Backbench Business

Violence against Christians: Central African Countries

Before we begin, I encourage Members to wear masks when not speaking, in line with Government guidelines and those of the House of Commons Commission.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of violence against Christians in central African countries.

This issue concerns us greatly. I applied for this debate with the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and others. We have a deep personal interest in the violence against Christians in particular across the world. Those who intend to speak and intervene understand that the issue is close to our hearts. I declare an interest: I am chair of the all-party parliamentary groups on international freedom of religion or belief and on the Pakistani minorities.

In the Chamber today there is a selection of right hon. and hon. Members who also have deep interest in these issues. I am very pleased to see a goodly turnout, especially as it is the last day before we go home. I often call this the graveyard slot because it is the end of the time before recess. It is important that we are all here to discuss this issue.

Across vast and growing swathes of the globe, Christians are no longer free to peacefully practise their faith. For many, threats of abduction, sexual violence and even killing have become a daily reality, and entire communities live under a constant and pressing fear. We hear the stories; I know others will tell them, and I find them quite hard to deal with. They involve my brothers and sisters in the Lord, so they are close to my heart. Those are things I feel deeply, which is why this debate is so important.

In its 2021 report, the charity Open Doors estimated that just in the 50 countries in the world watch list, 309 million Christians face very high or extreme levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith—an increase of a fifth in just one year. It is not getting better; it is actually getting worse. That is the issue.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the charity Open Doors. Does he agree that its work is absolutely vital in continuing to shine a light on the situation that many Christians around the world face? It must be commended for that.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I thank her for that intervention, because her words are salient to this debate and underline the issue.

Events in sub-Saharan Africa have accounted for much of that persecution and discrimination. There has been a significant increase in the number of violent attacks against Christians perpetrated by Islamic extremists. In Niger, Mali, the Central African Republic, Sudan and Nigeria—I will focus on Nigeria, as others probably will—the situation has become increasingly worrying. Many of us in this House—everyone who is here today—try to highlight the shocking and rapidly deteriorating situation in Nigeria, where the number of Christians killed last year rose by 60% on the year before. That illustrates the issue that the hon. Lady referred to. Open Doors states that things are getting worse, not better, because the number of people being murdered because of their faith has increased greatly. The stories of what is happening on the ground are horrifying. More Christians are being killed in Nigeria than anywhere else in the world. That is worrying for us all.

Sudan recently abolished the death penalty for apostacy—a step forward in the region, which I hope we will see in more countries in the near future. Although there has been resistance to such huge changes, it has been considerably less in recent years. Does the hon. Gentleman have any thoughts about how tolerance of religion can be built upon?

Over the last few days, the hon. Lady and I seem to have followed each other in each debate. I thank her for coming along and for her intervention. The APPG that I am very privileged to chair speaks up for those with Christian faith, those with other faiths and those with no faith. That is what we try to promote. It is about tolerance and understanding people of other faiths, but it is also about accepting other faiths and people of different religious viewpoints. That is something that we all need to take on board.

The hon. Lady referred to Sudan. There have certainly been some stories in the press recently about an attempted coup that was thwarted. I welcome the steps that Sudan took, but what they have done needs to be replicated elsewhere in the region.

Violence is increasingly bleeding—and I use the word intentionally—over the borders into an already destabilised central Africa. This region, in the shadow of its more powerful neighbours, has all too often been overlooked, both by—I say it respectfully—the UK Parliament and by the wider international community. We must not let the displacement and killing of hundreds of thousands of Christians go almost unchallenged by parliamentarians. That is why we are having this debate, and I am very grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting time for it.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Nigeria, and I wanted to raise the plight of people there, which is extreme. This week, speaking to some of the agencies that work there, I heard that it is now commonplace for gunmen to go into schools, abduct young children—particularly those who have Christian beliefs—and hold them captive. Given that the Bring Back Our Girls campaign had such cross-party support, does he think that we should be doing more in this House? We could ask the Minister to think about what more we could do to bring back those children.

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I remember the abduction of the children. I think of Leah Sharibu. She is still missing—a young Christian girl who had never converted and was therefore kidnapped and imprisoned. Her mum, Rebecca, would love to see her back. A day does not pass that I do not pray for the return of Leah Sharibu back to her mum. Perhaps the Minister could give some indication—this is one of the questions that I wanted to ask, so I thank the hon. Lady for it—of what we can do in conjunction with the Nigerian Government to ensure that young boys and girls are not abducted from school.

Some countries in central Africa are in the unenviable position of being among the poorest in the world. I understand those issues: poverty often becomes violence, because there are people prepared to take advantage of it. Several of these states have spent much of the past decade trapped in violent conflict, governed by people who exert little or no control over vast swathes of their countries.

Increasingly, Islamic groups such as Boko Haram and Islamic State’s west African arm are expanding their terrorist campaigns against Christians eastwards, even into areas that have in the past been considered peaceful. Analysts warn that the region’s widespread poverty greatly increases the risk of the radicalisation—Islamist or otherwise—of these youthful and rapidly expanding populations. The region is an example of the fact that it is not only minority religious and belief groups that face persecution for their peacefully held beliefs; those belonging to dominant faith groups can also become the victims.

To return to the matter raised by the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire, more than 95% of people living in the Democratic Republic of Congo are Christian, yet Open Doors warns of soaring violence against Christians in that country, with DRC rising 17 places up the charity’s world watch list this year. That is the one league table that one does not want to rise up—one wants to be at the bottom of it. The Christian population in the DRC and their churches are said to be at huge risk of violence in the east of the country, where the Islamic extremist rebel group that calls itself the Allied Democratic Forces operates—its name itself is wrong.

Violence has left more than 1 million people internally displaced and has seen countless Christians become the victims of killings, kidnappings, forced labour and torture. Christian men are forcibly recruited into militia groups, while women often face rape and sexual slavery. It causes me great angst to recall that my brothers and sisters are subjected to this. Sometimes we become desensitised to the horror of rape and sexual slavery until we hear a story such as that of the young woman raped at the age of 13, passed on to be married to bring her into a “true faith”, according to her abductor, or passed on to be used—these are the words used by her family—as a pair of shoes to be tried on by whoever wants to try them on. These are not simply words: words are the way in which we try to explain such experiences, experiences that children suffer through, and while words in this Chamber cannot change those experiences, perhaps they can lead to change that will prevent them from happening again. That is what I would like to see.

Over the northern border lies the Central African Republic, which has been occupied by various armed militia groups since 2013. Many of those militias specifically target Christians, leading to mass displacement of people. There was a shocking surge in sectarian violence in the run-up to parliamentary and presidential elections last December, which led to a further 120,000 people fleeing home. Armed groups are responsible for the vast majority of human rights violations being perpetrated in the Central African Republic, including violating people’s right to freedom of religion or belief. Those groups continue to operate across the country without any restraint whatever, so we need a concerted plan by the Governments of all these countries for how we can help Christians in these areas, but also a plan from our Government and our Minister, to whom we look for support and leadership. I am quite sure that that will be forthcoming.

Lockdown saw an increase in domestic violence rates across the world, even here in the UK, but for vulnerable Christian women in central African countries, the danger has intensified, with increased reports of kidnappings and forced marriages—a devastating removal of any autonomy. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there need to be aid efforts focused specifically on women and girls?

I absolutely agree. I know that the Government intend to address the issue of violence against women and children, and if domestic abuse has risen in this country throughout the coronavirus pandemic, that is even more the case in countries such as the Central African Republic, Nigeria, Niger, Mali and Sudan.

Christian converts in the Central African Republic are ostracised by their local community and even face persecution from their immediate family members, who often force them to renounce their Christian faith through violence. They are not just asked to renounce their Christian faith: they are physically abused to make it happen. Christian leaders who have publicly denounced the violence have been threatened, and churches have been repeatedly attacked, ransacked and burned down.

Across Nigeria, there has been a significant number of attacks on church buildings and others. Aid to the Church in Need has said that displaced people are sheltering in monasteries and mission stations, where priests and religious leaders risk their own lives to try to protect others from persecution. I commend all the aid charities that are helping out, including Open Doors—to which the shadow spokesperson for the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire, referred—and many others such as Release International, the Barnabas Fund, and Aid to the Church in Need.

It is important to stress that Muslims and other faith groups also suffer greatly as a result of this violence, and in some regions are even the primary victims. A significant percentage of the Central African Republic’s minority Muslim population has also fled across the borders: more than a quarter of a million refugees have fled to neighbouring Cameroon, for example. The problem starts in the Central African Republic, but it rapidly spreads, and Cameroon now becomes part of it. Cameroon itself faces an increased threat from Boko Haram, which is active in the north of the country, killing and kidnapping Christians for their faith with remarkable ease.

Security injunctions in the region have set heavy restrictions on churches that have already seen much of their congregations flee. Female converts from Islam are often forced into marriage with non-Christians there, and Christian women are threatened with abduction by Boko Haram. Religious leaders in the anglophone regions, some of whom are accused of supporting separatists, repeatedly accuse security forces of burning churches and desecrating religious spaces.

I believe there are actions to be taken; there are questions to be asked, and answers to be given by some of those security forces, who seem to be using their positions to enforce those illegal and criminal activities against Christians—all this despite Cameroon’s constitution, which prohibits religious harassment and guarantees freedom of religion and worship. That is a question for Cameroon to answer.

The international community must work to end the culture of impunity surrounding such attacks. People in the region have grown weary of the near-continuous conflict and the lack of law and order. They often have no trust in the institutions that claim to govern them. Those failing states then become the breeding grounds for further radicalisation.

I implore my Minister and my Government to provide support to the region’s Governments to fully investigate reports of kidnapping, violence and killings, and to bring those responsible to justice. The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) referred to the groups already there. The non-governmental organisations, Christian churches and charities, those who stand up for persecuted Christians and those involved in human rights issues are all there, and they would be able to provide an evidential base that would fully justify actions taken against those responsible.

Those administering UK aid in the region face stark choices. In central Africa, we see the intersection of great need, staggering volumes of people displaced by violence and severe cuts to official development assistance. My position on aid—like that of many others in this Chamber, I suspect—is clear: we did not want to see the aid being cut, because we felt it would have a detrimental effect on those who need it most, but none the less we need to make that point very clearly.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the aid budget should not have been cut at this critical time, but, given that it has, does he agree that it is important that it is channelled towards those most in need, and that much of the aid money could be focused not only on ensuring equality of access to education for young girls and those with disabilities as well as boys, but on community safety, particularly supporting Governments to ensure community safety and equality for minority groups?

The hon. Lady is right. If the money is going to be cut, and it is, the question is how we perhaps use it more wisely. She is correct to say that we must face the reality of where we are, so how do we use that money better and ensure that that happens? Again, when the Minister has a chance to reply, perhaps she can tell us what can be done to ensure that that happens.

It is also important to understand the great diversity of experiences in the region. According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, the Central African Republic had almost no previous history at all of sectarian violence prior to 2012, when fighting broke out between the Bozizé Government and the Séléka rebel alliance. It was during the ensuing violence that human rights began to be violated on such a vast scale, and the Christian population then became targets.

It is important to remember that these conflicts are neither perpetual nor inevitable. Despite having been a target of many attacks, for example, Chad’s diverse religious communities are said to remain relatively free of significant conflict, both between groups and from extremist movements. As the Lake Chad region is under significant threat from Islamic terrorist groups, we should look to further our support for countries’ efforts to maintain peace. Where a country is trying hard and hopefully succeeding in containing the violence, what are we doing to ensure that that violence does not boil over into adjoining countries and have an impact on them?

The Lake Chad regional stabilisation facility, which the UK—our Government and our Minister—currently helps to fund is a great example of how the UK can help to strengthen community security, provide basic services and support livelihoods in the region. Perhaps that example of proactivity ties in with what the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow referred to. If we can do it there, we can do it elsewhere. Do Her Majesty’s Government support similar programmes elsewhere in the region? We should embrace this depth of experience and champion much of Chad’s cross-border efforts.

The scale of religious-based violence in central Africa is truly overwhelming, but I am greatly encouraged by the commitment of Her Majesty’s Government to making international freedom of religion or belief a priority for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Government as a whole. We are thankful for that and want to welcome it. In accepting all 22 of the Bishop of Truro’s thorough recommendations from his independent review of the persecution of Christians across the globe, the UK Government—our Government—have demonstrated commitment to becoming a world leader in defending our values on the global stage.

The hon. Member for Congleton will refer to next year’s conference and how we MPs will check that the bishop’s recommendations are all delivered. We have set a target and I look forward to hearing the hon. Lady refer to that. Ahead of that independent review next year, I urge the UK Government to encourage our allies to carry out their own evaluations of their practices in defending freedom of religion or belief, both at home and abroad. The staggering scale of the displacement caused by religious-based violence in the region speaks to the urgency of the intervention needed now to halt the rapidly rising persecution of Christians—and, indeed, people of all faith groups—in central Africa.

Other global powers may have closer ties to parts of the region than the United Kingdom. What are other countries doing to help? We need to develop a partnership or team effort. We cannot afford to take a back seat on this issue. As aid groups have warned, extremism thrives on such conflict. As we watch the horror of the violence in central Africa, we recognise that the longer the international community continues to turn a blind eye to the suffering in the region, the greater the risk that the millions of refugees will never be able to return safely home. Many wish to, but they need the security, knowledge and confidence to do so.

In conclusion, I am thankful for the steps that the Government take to work in partnership with the NGOs and the Churches to provide support. I understand that there is not an unlimited supply of funding, but we are surely able to do more and do better. That is what I seek today. We recognise that the Government have a project and strategy for Chad, which they are helping to fund; perhaps we can emulate that in all the other countries concerned as well.

We talk a lot about what needs to be done, but we must also follow that with action. As the hon. Member for Congleton knows, I always have a scriptural quotation for these debates because it is important that people recognise that we as Christians are speaking up for Christians in other parts of the world—we are speaking up for our brothers and sisters who, unlike us, do not have the liberty to go to church and cannot socialise spiritually. They have not the right to prayer, their churches are burned and they are attacked. They do not have the job opportunities, education or healthcare because they happen to be Christians. Then they are directly targeted by Islamic terrorists and other groups, and sometimes by Government.

I love this verse, from 1 John 3:18, which reminds us:

“let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”

The issue is quite simple. It is time to make sure that we are walking the walk—taking action and not just speaking words. That is my final word. I look forward to what the Minister and other Members have to say. We are looking for positive action.

It is a pleasure to speak as vice-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief. I thank our chairman, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) not only for securing this debate and for an excellent, passionate speech but for his enduring commitment to freedom of religion or belief.

I, too, want to focus on Nigeria. There are multiple drivers of the deeply concerning and increasing causes of violence there, including issues that are specific to a local area’s history, politics and ethno-linguistic make-up, and resource competition. However, we must call out the reality that, today, is this: extremist Islamist ideology is the key driver of violence across Nigeria. The victims are Christians, Muslims and those of other faiths or of no faith at all. I visited Nigeria in 2016 and took the then head of the Christian Association of Nigeria to meet UK Department for International Development representatives to convey to them that the root of so much violence then was religious tensions. As the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, I am mandated to lead on the full implementation of the recommendations of the Bishop of Truro’s 2019 review by July 2022. That review describes perpetrators of atrocities in Nigeria as “militant Fulani Islamist herdsmen” and concludes:

“Fulani attacks have repeatedly demonstrated a clear intent to target Christians, and potent symbols of Christian identity.”

In June 2020, the all-party parliamentary group published its report, “Nigeria: Unfolding Genocide?” That two-year in-depth inquiry described in detail violations of freedom of religion or belief. The report was taken extremely seriously by the US State Department. I have been told that it contributed to the US designating Nigeria as a country of particular concern. I know from meetings that I held earlier this year, from elected parliamentarians in Nigeria, from a governor there and from NGOs how much that report was appreciated by them in Nigeria. It is cited it as shining a light on the grievous violations of FORB in that country.

I thank my hon. Friend for drawing out the point about ideology because that was the question that was forming in my mind after the speech of the hon. Member for Strangford as to what was driving this. My particular interest is in the report and the impact that she describes. Could she elaborate on whether anything is said about the impact of this terrible state of affairs on children?

My hon. Friend raises a very pertinent point. The impact of this violence on the young and the upcoming generation is acute. Indeed, a recent UNICEF report stated that 1 million Nigerian children are missing school due to mass kidnappings. Their parents are now too frightened to send them to school. The knock-on effects of that on their loss of education and their ability to earn a livelihood are acute.

I welcome the new Minister to her post. I have had the pleasure of working with her and seeing how effectively she worked in her previous role. When she responds to this debate, I hope that she will agree to meet me, the hon. Member for Strangford and other officers of the APPG about our 2020 report and subsequent concerns. Since that report, those concerns have been exacerbated and are even more pressing. Dr Obadiah Mailafia, a former Nigerian presidential candidate and former deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, who provided oral and written submissions to our all-party parliamentary group inquiry, sadly died on 19 September 2021 after allegedly receiving poor treatment. In a speech that he delivered just a few days before he died, at a symposium entitled “The role of the Church in nation-building”, Dr Mailafia had warned that the country was

“certainly exhibiting the features of a failing state in terms of the kind of violence we are seeing, widespread insecurity, terrorism, the abuse of humanity, criminality, rape, killing, maiming and destruction. We are a failing state.”

He goes on:

“Rival groups control territory. Boko Haram is in control over half of Niger State and if they successfully take over Niger, Abuja will be a walkover. Government cannot provide security for the people. Nowhere is safe in the country. The forests have been taken over by foreign invaders. The economy is collapsing. There is the collapse of the institution. Police, university’s standards are low. Corruption has taken over in the country.”

On 4 August 2021, Intersociety-Nigeria released figures compiled from documented cases of violence that are deeply disturbing. The statistics reveal that in the past 12 years, 43,000 Christians have been killed by Islamist Fulani militia, 18,500 have disappeared—many, I have no doubt, also killed—and 17,500 churches have been attacked. Ten million people uprooted in the north, 6 million forced to flee, 4 million displaced and 2,000 Christian schools have been lost. Within that timeframe, 29,000 Muslims were also killed. The report states that moderate Muslims are targeted for several reasons,

“as collateral mistakes or punishment for those collaborating with the ‘unbelievers’ or in revenge for state actor attacks against their targets, or for purpose of enforcement”

of extreme interpretations of Islamic sharia law.

Earlier this year, I read a well-evidenced report on the impact of covid from testimonies on the ground in Plateau state and Kaduna state. I will pass details of that well-evidenced, authoritative and lengthy report onto the Minister. I quote briefly from it:

“In Nigeria, the attacks on Christian villages during the pandemic were religiously motivated. Local politicians are perceived to deploy security forces and distribute aid along ethno-religious lines. Participants reported”—

that is, participants of the research for the report—

“that soldiers appear indifferent to their communities and fail to pre-empt or repel attacks.

In Nigeria, the lack of protection and security for Christian villages in Kaduna and Plateau exacerbates the impact of covid-19.”

It goes on to say:

“The loss of access to schooling for children is universal, across all the groups. It is exacerbated in Nigeria by the attacks on Christian villages, where schools and churches have been burnt down, and teachers have fled.”

Looking at the Christians, even in their facial outlook, the research team talks of them being

“emotionally broken, psychologically demoralised”.

They were

“representing anxiety of an ambiguous future caused by the loss of husbands, children, wives, relatives and their sources of livelihood.”

Christian men in Plateau state spoke of attacks, which in Kujeni took place during Sunday mass. They felt the response from the Government was inadequate and that the attacks were religiously motivated, as they targeted Christian villages, not neighbouring Muslim villages. One said:

“Yes, yes because I know this has everything to do with my faith, why burning my church, why burning my church?”

The critical deficit of governance is evident in the lack of security services provided by the state.

This morning, I had the privilege of speaking with an individual who has direct knowledge of what is happening in Nigeria now. He is an authority on the issue. I want to quote his words. They are lengthy. Just a few hours ago, he told me this:

“The violence is getting worse by the day. It is affecting the whole country. ISWAP”—

that is, Islamic State West Africa—

“has taken over the command of Boko Haram and have joined forces with the Fulani militants. The Governor of Niger State has declared that Boko Haram and ISWAP have planted a flag just 2 hours from Abuja. Just 2 weeks ago they have new headquarters set up in Southern Kaduna. With the developments in Afghanistan they have become emboldened. If Nigeria collapses it’s a fragile area surrounding it—there is an impending implosion—Chad, Niger, Cameroon, Mali, Ghana, Central African Republic.

In the NWest there is Muslim on Muslim violence—Sokoto, Kebbi and Katsina. The Governor of Katsina has said that people doing the violence are Muslims, Fulani and some foreigners. People cannot send their children to school for fear of violence and abductions. No reasonable parent can send their child to school…People dare not farm their land. The situation of Christians is pathetic.

Recently, a bus carrying Muslims was attacked, and there was anger across the country. This does not happen when Christians die.

Muslims are dying at the hands of fellow Muslims, however, the attacks are incessantly on the Christian communities, whilst the federal government remains silent.”

He continued:

“If only the British Government would regularly call out this violence against Christians, and ask the Nigerian Government to do something.”

I asked him what he wanted the Nigerian Government to do. He said:

“I want them to guarantee security. When schools and villages are attacked. The army and police don’t take action. I want them to take action.”

He added:

“People are being attacked with AK47s and machetes and more recently the Islamic jihadists showed they have the capacity to shoot down an aircraft—they did so. Two weeks ago, they attacked the Nigerian Defence Academy in Kaduna and killed two officers and took one captive, released three days ago. What they want is to take over Africa.”

I will close with this: we need to acknowledge the scale of ethno-religious violence, and to urge the Nigerian Government to hold those responsible to account. Security and stability need to be ensured for all communities, especially in the north and middle belt regions, and the Yoruba and Igbo people urgently need to be provided with the help and protection that they are crying out for.

As fellow parliamentarians in our all-party group, such as the noble Baroness Cox and Lord Alton, have said previously, for the sake of all the people in Nigeria, and for the sake of security across the continent and beyond, we urge the UK Government to press the Nigerian Government swiftly to address this violence, and to ensure protection, justice and recompense for victims of all ethnicities, without bias.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the second time this week, Ms Ali. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for speaking on this incredibly important issue. It is so important that we keep giving the issue the attention that it deserves. I do not think it is nearly widely enough reported on, and consequently, it is not taken as seriously as it should be by the British people.

In Somalia, we know that Christians are referred to as high-value targets. Indeed, all minority religions in that country are heavily persecuted. The tiny populations of Christians in the country are also in danger from al-Shabaab, who have often murdered believers on the spot—especially if they are from a Muslim background. In the Central African Republic, in the year up until 30 September 2020, there were at least 56 attacks on churches, with at least 35 Christians killed for faith-related reasons. Open Doors reports that the destruction of churches has become common, something that is hard for us to understand here in the United Kingdom.

There is a urgent need for reconciliation between Christians and Muslims. The Archbishop of Canterbury is right to call for a much greater focus on the need for reconciliation globally, and for the United Kingdom to be at the forefront of promoting that, which I am sure we all agree with.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the most serious threat to Christians is that the eastern part of the country has become a safe haven for the Islamist group, the Allied Democratic Forces. That group seeks to create an Islamic state in Uganda and has been targeting churches and Christians in the north-east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo for several years, since its attempt to overthrow the Ugandan Government failed.

These issues are current, as less than a month ago, on 29 August, suspected ADF militants killed 19 civilians in North Kivu using machetes and firearms, and 13 houses were set on fire. On 1 September, four people were killed in the same area, when a convoy was ambushed and dozens of people were abducted. The Government blamed the ADF for the incident. In July 2020, a United Nations report suggested that the crimes committed by the ADF might amount to war crimes.

In Cameroon, 53 Christians were killed for faith-related reasons in the year to 30 September 2020, including on 6 November 2019, when suspected Boko Haram fighters killed retired pastor David Mokoni. The following month, Boko Haram began a series of attacks on Cameroon’s Christians, including opening fire on a funeral, something that is almost impossible for us to understand, and there were homes looted, with seven Christians killed. In South Sudan, the dean of St Luke’s Cathedral and 32 worshippers were shot in September 2020.

The Church of England continues to support reconciliation efforts and to work with its international partners to end the protracted conflict. Tragically, on 16 August this year, two Catholic nuns were among those murdered on a bus, and no perpetrators have yet been held to account.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton said, Nigeria faces the greatest challenges in this part of Africa. The number of Christians killed is truly shocking. Open Doors estimates that in the year to 30 September 2020, at least 3,530 Christians and 1,020 Muslims were killed. Practitioners of African traditional religions have also been violated. The United Kingdom and Nigeria have particularly close relations, and Nigeria is an important member of the Commonwealth. Many Nigerians in the United Kingdom view the atrocities in their homeland with horror.

The murder of George Floyd last year was truly shocking and the global outrage that followed was entirely justified. However, I have sympathy for the headline I saw recently, referring to the thousands of Nigerians killed for their faith this year, which asked:

“Do these black lives matter?”

I am grateful for the opportunity of today’s debate, to put these matters on the record and to express my concern about the seriousness of these issues. There is an ongoing need for reconciliation and the acceptance of diverse minorities, and their right to practise their religion or belief without fear in Africa, and around the world. As the hon. Member for Strangford said, there are 300 million Christians being persecuted globally, which is a very large number.

Looking back at Nigeria, I am shocked that in the last decade it is estimated that 37,500 Christians have been killed; my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton used a slightly higher figure. That is the equivalent of the population of a fair-sized British market town, such as Dunstable in my constituency. Where is the press? Where is the media focus on this issue? It needs to be there, and it is not always.

As the hon. Member for Strangford said, we have become desensitised. All these numbers and figures sometimes get a bit numbing, which is why it is important to mention some individual names. Leah Sharibu was mentioned earlier, and she is one of the 276 Nigerian schoolgirls abducted on 14 April 2014. She is still in captivity and her mother does not know what has happened to her: we continue to hope and pray for her release.

I commend the Government for taking this issue seriously; I have no doubt that they do. I am pleased that they are committed to implementing all 22 of the Bishop of Truro’s recommendations, and that they will host an international ministerial conference next year on freedom of religion or belief. That is absolutely right, but as the Minister has heard today, this issue has never been more important. Never has there been a greater need for the United Kingdom to take a lead in this area.

I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for once again ensuring we have a debate on these matters. I have been taking part in these debates for the best part of two decades. At first, the position of our Government was studiously neutral, but I am glad to say that progress has been made.

This debate is part of a process of drawing attention to what is happening and trying to shine a spotlight on these matters. I will go through a few cases. We have heard about the situation in South Sudan. In April, there was a violent attack against the then Father—now Bishop—Christian Carlassare, the Italian missionary appointed as Catholic bishop of Rumbek in South Sudan. The Government invaded his residence and fired 13 bullets, injuring the bishop-elect, who had to be airlifted to hospital in Nairobi. South Sudan is, of course, a majority Christian country but is still plagued with violence, as groups have been jockeying for power for the 10 years since independence.

In 2021, an Anglican priest, Rev. Daniel Garang Ayuen, was murdered. In 2018, a Jesuit priest, Father Victor Luka Odhiambo, was murdered. In 2017, the Pentecostal leader, Joel Mwendwa, was murdered.

I hope the United Kingdom Government have been quietly proactive—I am afraid it probably is only quietly—in trying to bring peace and security to South Sudan. I recently met our former ambassador to South Sudan, Chris Trott, in the context of his becoming the ambassador to the Holy See. He assured me that our Government took the situation in South Sudan seriously, and that he was trying to work with Church leaders of all denominations to resolve it. It seems to me that working with the Churches is key to all this and to understanding what is happening on the ground.

In South Sudan, Auxiliary Bishop Daniel Adwok of Khartoum told Aid to the Church in Need, which is a Catholic charity I work with closely, that

“Terror reigns in South Sudan, with warriors, government and politicians grappling for power, positions and not minding the fate of the ordinary Southern Sudanese. The fact that until today no one knows—the government itself does not know—how many people died in South Sudan since the start of the war in December 2013 is indicative of how the value of the human person has become of no worth in South Sudan.”

One of the reasons for this sort of debate—my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) rightly articulated the point of view that black lives matter—is that there is precious little interest in this in the media and among the general population in Europe. These places are considered to be faraway places of which we know little. Perhaps the general view is that life there is not of such importance, as it is in Europe. Although we will mention a whole series of cases, names, figures and facts, as my hon. Friend said, the fact is that every one of these murders is a human life. All these children have mothers and fathers, and all these mothers and fathers have children. It does not matter that it is happening in a very poor, remote and faraway place. Every single one of these massacres and incidents of horrible violence is tearing a family apart. It is cruel and horrible. Once again, the hon. Member for Strangford is to be congratulated on trying to draw attention to this, even if only here and not in the main Chamber.

Let us look at other countries we have heard about. The so-called Allied Democratic Forces—the ADF—is a Ugandan violent Islamist group that is being forced slowly out Uganda, we hope. It now operates in the North Kivu province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and beyond. In December last year, 17 people in the village of Mwenda were killed in a machete attack. Weeks later, on 4 January, 22 more were killed in the same village. Simultaneously, 25 were murdered in the village of Tingwe. This is all in the past 12 months.

Members will have noticed that I started speeding up when I read those out—22 murdered here, 25 here, 35 there. These are all individual human beings. Imagine if it was going on in Europe or America. In 2016 the United Nations estimated that ADF had killed 645 people since 2014. Five years later, that number has hugely increased. The ADF is hardly the only group involved, either. There is a group calling itself the Islamic State Central Africa Province, affiliated to ISIL in Iraq and Syria. It has been operating in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and infiltrating neighbouring states. In June this year it claimed responsibility for an attack on a Catholic church in Beni in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as well as a suicide attack at an intersection at the same time.

In Mozambique, Islamic State militants have linked up with a pre-existing local group, Ansar al-Sunna, to expand the insurgency in the Cabo Delgado province. Illia Djadi from the charity Open Doors has said,

“These predominantly Christian communities are attacked by an Islamic extremist group with a clear Islamic expansionist agenda”.

He pointed out that, while different groups with different origins are involved, there is a common agenda. Militants want to create an extreme Islamic state, stretching from the Sahel, where French soldiers have been hugely successful in fighting rebels, all the way through central Africa, Kenya and Somalia.

My right hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, as he always does. He talks about a common agenda. Does he share my concern that not only do these individual groups have a common agenda, but they are now linking up? That is what is really concerning, because there is serious danger across a wide range of countries in a continent.

I think we should take that extremely seriously, in terms of western geopolitical interest. We are not talking about uncoordinated local attacks, terrible as they might be in terms of human lives. We are talking about whole provinces in danger of being lost by the central state. We have seen what has happened in Afghanistan. If anybody thinks this will not come back to bite us in terms of terrorism being exported, that may be a rather sanguine point of view.

Let me finish with a comment from Bishop Paluku Sikuli Melchisédech of Butembo-Beni in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He has given a harrowing account to Aid to the Church in Need of the Islamist insurgence in the country, saying that

“The number of incidents is particularly high in the northern part of our diocese. Armed groups are destroying schools and hospitals. Teachers and pupils are being killed. They are even killing the sick as they lie in their hospital beds. Not a day goes by without people being killed.”

He added:

“We need centres where people can go for therapy. Many people are traumatised. Many have watched as their parents were killed. There are many orphans and widows. Villages have been burned to the ground. We are in a state of utter misery.”

The bishop implied that the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are complicit in the violence. He said that

“The state as such does not exist.”

I have been to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and it is a failed state. There is no doubt about it. The Bishop said:

“The reach of the government does not extend into the east, be it out of weakness or complicity.”

Responding to the growing threat of extremist Islamisation, the Bishop said:

“Islam is being forced on us. Mosques are being built everywhere, even though no one needs them. The mosques do not look like the traditional ones we are familiar with.”

He added that

“anyone who has been kidnapped by these terrorist groups and managed to escape from them alive has told the same story. They were given the choice between death and converting to Islam.”

What about the UK response? We have the Minister here. What can we do? The evidence is overwhelming and appalling in terms of human dignity, rights and peace, and also a danger to us. I have said the Government, and the previous Government, were too reticent in these matters, but we have had progress. We welcome the changes we have seen in recent years, particularly the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s review chaired by the Bishop of Truro into Government support for persecuted Christians. The review issued its report in July 2019 and we received a solid commitment from Ministers to implement its recommendations.

The situation in central Africa shows the Government need to do more. In particular, the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, needs to have—I say this directly to the Minister—a properly dedicated civil service resource. She cannot say this herself; she is an absolutely committed lady, but she has not been given the support she needs from our Government in terms of support from senior Ministers, such as the Foreign Secretary, or in terms of resources given to her. Too often in Government, hon. Members are appointed as envoys to keep them quiet, but this lady is not going to be quiet. All right, Minister?

Give her proper support because she is literally working every day of the week on these issues, and she is not going to give up or go away.

Is there any frontline role for the UK to be more proactive in defeating violent extremists in central Africa? When the Minister replies, I very much hope she will not just say, “This is terrible” and all that, which we all agree with, but she will say what we can do. The French are very good in all this. I declare an interest: I am well-known for my belief in the importance of strategic co-operation with our French allies, who are our closest neighbours. We depend on them in many ways. They have been extremely effective in the use of their special forces, and one of the reasons why we want to improve our relationship with France is we want to work more closely on that.

The Minister will not be able to comment on how our special forces have been involved, but I believe special forces are crucial in dealing with terrorism. These people are bullies, and what they do not like is some Special Air Service person lying in wait for them and shooting them in the back when they are on their way to murder people. It is one thing that bullying terrorists and murderers do not like. I believe that co-operation—I accept the Minister cannot comment on this part of my speech—and special forces are crucial.

Perhaps the Minister can comment on the support she is giving to friendly Governments, such as Nigeria. There is a huge amount of belief in these areas that central Government is either weak, corrupt, complicit or totally ineffective. I went to a conference organised by the British Government last year where we had people coming from all over central Africa and relating their experiences, and the common theme was the ineffectiveness of central Government. I do not know exactly what the state of our aid programmes is, but I would have thought, given we are such a major aid donor, that we have a lot of influence, and we should not be afraid to exert that influence on Governments that are weak, corrupt, complicit or ineffective.

In conclusion, is there more that our Government can do to help national, regional and local government officials in this part of central Africa that is plagued by violence? We cannot just walk by on the other side of the road. We have a duty to protect others, prevent further catastrophes, and help to secure peace and stability in the region. The United Kingdom must do more. We must do our bit and pull our weight.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing the debate. It has been said by others better than I can, but this is clearly an important issue that we need to give due attention to. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ali. I must confess that I had not intended to speak—I had some questions and made interventions accordingly—but I am moved by what I have heard. I think that there are some important points to add to what has been said.

I would like to make two key observations, and both draw on my own experience. I was an engineer before I came here, many years ago. I went through university and learned the ways of an engineer. As an engineer, one is taught to look at problems and seek their causes before jumping to solutions and answers. I was particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for talking about the cause of this problem: militant Islamic extremism. We have to acknowledge that. Those were not her words but the words of reports that she cited. It may be uncomfortable, but we have to look at it. If an engineer is building a bridge, they cannot say, “I would really rather this foundation sprang from a rock instead of a sandy riverbank.” They have to deal with the situation that is there to successfully deliver a solution. We have to deal with reality.

Let us face it: in a secular western society, that is uncomfortable for two reasons. First, we have lost some of the fluency of the language of faith that would allow us to apprehend these issues and understand the motives and behaviours involved in them. Secondly, that lack of fluency has flowed through into our policies, our institutions and the way in which we deliver these things. These are institutions that have built up over decades. That is the reality of the situation. If one is an engineer trying to build a bridge, one has to deal with the conditions. If the bridge is a long way from supplies of concrete and steel and from roads, one still has to get those supplies there. We have to deal with the situation as it is.

In her speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton talked very effectively about the impact and consequences. I asked about children in part because my sense from her speech was that there is a much wider impact than simply, as the title of the debate has it, “violence against Christians”. It is clear that this militant extremism is displacing people. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) listed a litany of displaced peoples and nations: refugees who have moved as a consequence of this behaviour. Again, we have lost some of that fluency—understanding what impact beliefs and ideologically driven behaviour can have. Perhaps it is because we approach things with our western, rational, secular mindset. We say, “This does not make sense,” or “I cannot understand or explain.” For other peoples in other parts of the world, this may seem like reasonable, sensible, logical and acceptable behaviour.

I was very interested in the choice of words of the hon. Member for Strangford at the end of his speech: “in deed and in truth”. I will come back to this at the end, when I address comments to the Minister. We must take action—in deed—but that action must be in truth: it must be in proper cognisance of the challenge that we face and of our capacity to deal with it. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) for making his points about the civil service and the capacity that we have to deliver these things. There are others more experienced in these matters than I am and will know better what Government have done and can do. I would only add my own name, voice and weight to that plea for the necessary resource to do this work. From what has been said this afternoon, there can be no doubt that we are of one mind and intent in seeking to alleviate and resolve this problem.

My second point might seem small and inconsequential; again, it occurred to me when I was listening to the earlier speeches in this debate. They brought to mind a report that I heard recently of the return of some of the Chibok girls who had been kidnapped by Boko Haram some while ago. I understand that recently the girls have started to be released. Again, I am not an expert in these matters, but my understanding is that the Nigerian Government have a programme of deradicalisation, rehabilitation and reintegration, which is encouraging some of Boko Haram’s terrorists to put down their weapons, and to come out of the wilderness—literally—and back into civilisation.

However, the reports were talking about one or two girls who are coming with their family: with their children and husband. That concerned me, because they did not go with a husband; they did not have a family when they were kidnapped. I am concerned that in some of this reporting we are losing sight of something else that happens alongside this conflict and terror. An important part of the conflict and terror is the violence perpetuated against women in these situations; I think we all know what I am referring to.

The kind of man described in the report is not the “husband” of one of those girls, as we would understand it in a normal, consensual marriage—or even perhaps in an arranged marriage, as might be normal in a different culture. We have to be sure and somehow, in addressing this problem, to address the violence perpetuated against women, and not simply accept or allow such casual reporting of an abuser as a “husband”.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, particularly as he had not intended to speak in this debate. Does he agree that we need to stop using the terms “forced marriage” and “forced conversion”, because they simply are not acceptable terms? Marriage should be a relationship entered into freely; when one makes a declaration of faith, or a decision about faith, that is something that one does individually from one’s heart. Neither marriage nor faith should be “forced” on someone else. We need to start talking about such situations for what they are—the most dreadful abuse, often of young women, including rape.

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention; she is absolutely correct.

I try to read around subjects and understand them, having entered politics—with a splash, I suppose, here in Parliament. Reading some essays about freedoms in society, one that really struck me was about exactly this point: about how freedom of thought, freedom of speech and freedom of action follow on from each other. What we have seen in this case is an obliteration of each one of those: the freedom of belief is removed through coercion; the freedom of speech, including the freedom to consent to a marriage, is also removed through coercion; and then the freedom of action is removed through rape.

I will draw my remarks to a conclusion, but I will make one further comment. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough really made a compelling argument for us to be interested in this subject. If it is not enough for us to recognise that people and groups are displaced, to recognise the damage that does to geopolitics and to recognise that such instability eventually laps against these shores as well, then it is enough to say that this is about human lives and that we are connected to them. That connection is much greater than any division by colour, race or distance. That is why we must take an interest in this issue and pay attention to it.

I will stop there, but first I thank the Minister for her interest; I know that she has a keen interest in these issues. Secondly, I thank the Government for what they have already done, and I urge them to address the point that the hon. Member for Strangford made at the start of the debate about acting in deed and in truth. There must be full acknowledgement of this problem, including its scale.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Ali. I commend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and the others who secured this important debate on a topic that should be of deep concern to us all. Today’s speeches have been particularly thoughtful.

I am fortunate to represent East Renfrewshire, which is one of the most religiously diverse areas in Scotland. The issue of freedom of religion and belief, particularly for religious minorities—including Christians in some areas of the world—is of significant concern to many of my constituents, although the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) made the very good point that the topic is not given a wider airing. I am very grateful to my constituents for their continued engagement on this issue. I know that the ability of Christians to practise their religion freely and fairly across the world is a matter of real significance, and should be of concern to people across Scotland, the UK and the world.

There is no doubt that we would be right to remain deeply concerned about the severity and scale of violations and abuses of freedom of religion and belief in central African countries. The hon. Member for Strangford spoke about Open Doors—a fantastic charity that allows us to have information about persecuted Christians around the world that we might not otherwise have access to. The Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Cameroon are all mentioned in information that Open Doors has shared, highlighting the top 50 most dangerous countries in which to be a Christian. We have heard very powerfully, particularly in the speeches made by the hon. Members for Strangford and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), about the situation in Nigeria.

This year, the Democratic Republic of the Congo rose 17 spots in the Open Doors world ranking, mainly due to attacks on Christians by the Islamic extremist group Allied Democratic Forces in the east of the country, with 460 killed in the period 2019-20 and 100 churches attacked or closed down. Christians in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are at risk at all times of kidnapping, torture, murder, forced recruitment into militia groups, forced labour, and having their homes destroyed. Christian women in particular are extremely vulnerable to rape and sexual slavery, as the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) has powerfully expressed.

In the Central African Republic, there has been near-constant conflict and fighting since 2013. Much of the country is occupied by various armed militia groups that are responsible for a range of human rights abuses, and many of those groups—whether Islamic extremists or otherwise—specifically target Christians, so life is constantly uncertain for people in areas under militia control.

Prior to the coup in 2013, there had been no previous history of sectarian violence in the area, but since then, armed groups have regularly manipulated ethnic and religious divisions to realise their aims, as we have heard today. For instance, this February, over 100 homes were destroyed and supplies damaged in an arson attack on a camp located in the Catholic Church compound of Alindao. In Bangassou, 500 Muslims are reported to be sheltering with Christians in the Catholic churches, and in Grimari, churches have also provided shelter to 1,500 Muslims and Christians.

I turn to Cameroon. Dictatorial paranoia and Islamic oppression have led to the targeting of Christian communities there. For instance, as we have already heard, the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram is very active in the north, and has kidnapped and killed Christians for their faith. Christian women also face significant danger of abduction by Boko Haram and forced marriage—the comments we heard about that earlier were absolutely on point. Again, we see that double whammy effect of Christian women and girls being doubly vulnerable, targeted for both their faith and their gender. In addition, country experts indicate that several girls have been forced to act as suicide bombers to further decimate Christian populations. While the Government have been fighting a civil war, Boko Haram has regrouped, and the pandemic has also increased opportunities for action by jihadists, who are likely to make further inroads if a sustainable peace is not achieved.

This UK Government’s progress in implementing the recommendations of the Truro report, which should be a means of trying to make progress in this area, has been too slow. We in the Scottish National party welcomed the Truro report: it was a bit shorter than we would have liked, but it makes robust points, and it is important that we see a commitment to real action in a timely way. I appreciate that the UK Government did say that they would accept the 22 recommendations made by the report in full. However, as of 9 July this year, which is the latest update I can see, only 10 of the recommendations have been fully implemented. As we have heard, an independent review of progress is due to begin next year, but there is nothing that suggests to me that the 22 recommendations will be fully implemented, especially given that work on four of them has yet to start, two years on.

It was somewhat unfortunate that the role of the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief was vacant for a time, although I am very aware that the hon. Member for Congleton is very focused on these matters, which is welcome. We also need to think about the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office Human Rights and Democracy Report. If that report is correct in saying that defending freedom of religion and belief for all is a priority for this Government, as I know it is for the hon. Lady, then more urgency is needed in achieving the implementation of the remaining recommendations, especially given that the number of those being targeted for their faith is certainly not reducing.

Every day 13 Christians are killed worldwide because of their faith. In 2020, 260 million people—approximately 10% of all Christians in the world—were persecuted for their religious beliefs. That is an increase from 245 million in 2019 and approximately 215 million in 2018, according to a report by Open Doors. More can and must be done to provide adequate support, particularly in relation to aid, to persecuted Christians. However, as we know, the UK is in fact cutting bilateral aid to Africa by 66%. Frankly, that is not good enough.

International aid is vital in stemming the spread of religious intolerance, stigma and socioeconomic exclusion, all of which tie together. The UK Government have been warned time and again not to lose sight of the benefits of international aid in tackling these issues, but they are cutting that aid. They are sending no bilateral aid to Cameroon at all this year, for example, although a very small amount has been promised. It is not entirely clear if that will go towards trade purposes rather than humanitarian support.

The Bishop of Truro’s report did draw positive attention to the £12 million freedom of religion or belief programme under the Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development. However, it has not yet been publicly confirmed whether that programme will continue beyond its current schedule. I would welcome any clarity on that.

Last year, the Advocacy Policy Officer at Open Doors at that time, Dr Matthew Rees, said:

“Both the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office must do more to recognise the specific and hidden vulnerabilities of women from minority religious communities and provide tailored and added support through targeted programming.”

I would be keen to hear from the Minister about the commitments made in the report that detail this double vulnerability and the disproportionate impact that Christian women face in many countries because of their gender and faith.

It would also be interesting to hear what the FCDO is intending. How will it look to increase funding in areas of reconciliation mediation, religious persecution survival, trauma care—all really important points, which have been well-aired today—and also places of worship, security funding and rapid response teams globally? Will it make an assessment of the adequacy and effectiveness of aid distribution to persecuted Christians? It is vital that the UK Government’s words and actions marry up, acting, as the hon. Member for Strangford said, in deed and in truth. These deeds really do matter. The Government cannot simultaneously criticise religious persecution abroad and overlook human rights abuses when they are searching for a post-Brexit trade deal with Cameroon, for example.

The UK should have followed the lead of the US and Canada in approving resolutions that call out with great force the brutal campaign of subjugation of minorities in Cameroon. The US Senate’s resolution praised the fact that the US trade representative at the time terminated Cameroon’s access to preferred trade rights due to persistent gross violations of internationally recognised human rights, in order to penalise the Biya Government and urge members of the international community to join the United States in a strategic, collective effort to put pressure on the Government of Cameroon, including the use of all available diplomatic and punitive tools.

On the very same day, the UK Government brought into effect their continuity trade agreement with Cameroon, which still remains unpublished and was subject to negligible parliamentary scrutiny. If it had been subject to due parliamentary consideration, we would have highlighted that it gives no concern to the persistent gross violations of international human rights taking place inside Cameroon. We are yet to see whether it contains the provisions that we would want on human rights, but I remain somewhat sceptical. Perhaps the Minister can clarify that point. The negotiations were a missed opportunity to raise valid concerns about the persecution of Christians. Instead, the UK Government signed an agreement, apparently with no hesitation over the Government of Cameroon’s human rights record and no apparent effort to strengthen human rights provisions.

The issue of freedom of religion and the protection of people’s right to their religious faith should be something we all agree on. We know that Christians in central African countries are routinely persecuted for their faith. We have heard that other groups, including Muslims and those of other faiths, are similarly persecuted. We should be sending a message here, backed up by actions. I sincerely hope the Minister is going to talk us through that. It is very clear that people in these situations can wait no longer.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Ms Ali, and to contribute to this important debate. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his continued support for this issue in the House, as well as the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who I know well from the all-party parliamentary group on North Korea, and who shares with me a real concern about human rights across the globe. The work of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief looks so interesting. I receive the newsletter, but it is difficult to fit in all the meetings, due to my role. I know the important work that comes out of it feeds into debates like this. It is a delight to be here and to listen to the different thoughts of Members.

The right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) made a very important comment on resources for the role that the Prime Minister has given the hon. Member for Congleton. The resource must be there so that effective scrutiny can take place, not just in country—there is a real need for the hon. Member to travel to, for example, Nigeria, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo—but of the merger of DFID and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and how that sits alongside the trade brief, so that one Department or Minister is not saying one thing while another is saying something else almost simultaneously.

Although the merger is still in its infancy, I do not think that Members who are interested in foreign affairs have really seen the full forcefulness that we could have, given the excellence of the civil service and so on. We cannot really feel the impact of the special envoy, because it has not all quite been brought together yet—the vision has not quite been laid out. I hope we will see more of that vision in the coming months and that the role of the hon. Member for Congleton will be underlined, because it is so important to see where minority religious groups are being persecuted.

Something I appreciate about the APPG is that it defends the rights of those who have no religious beliefs. My constituents often write to me on that issue—I have very well known humanists in my constituency. It is such an important point. In some countries in the world, it is not acceptable to not be a believer, so I am so pleased that the APPG underlines the rights of those with no religious beliefs.

Does the hon. Lady take some comfort from the fact that a good Christian friend of mine went to visit an atheist imprisoned in Indonesia to console him? Like me, she would probably like to see rather more of that sort of thing.

I think there is too much hatred between different groups in the world. What we need to do, as debates like this do, is to promote tolerance, understanding and respect.

That brings us back to the point made by the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald): we are all worried about cuts to the DFID programme. With a 66% cut in our aid to the poorest continent in the world, we worry that some of the very long-term, slow-burn work on developing civil society, tolerance and understanding, and education—girls’ education, in particular—might be lost. I suppose the Minister will give me reassurances on that question.

Hon. Members have laid out very well the severity of the persecution, discrimination, abductions, sexual violence and killings that we have unfortunately seen in the countries we have talked about today. South Sudan is obviously a notable one. Seeing the murder of those two nuns on the bus last month was tragic, and something that I know our constituents care deeply about and want us to be talking about.

I also thank hon. Members for raising the Bring Back Our Girls campaign. It was very powerful when Michelle Obama highlighted it, but I think that we did do a lot more in the House at that point, and it would be facile to think that that problem has gone away. We know that if 1 million children were not attending school anywhere else, we would be up in arms about it, so it is important to highlight that.

From my work as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on malaria and neglected tropical diseases, I know that Nigeria has a huge malaria burden. It does seem that the global health security question is often married up with conflict, violence and the persecution of minority faiths.

I put on record the excellent work of Open Doors and Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which do such important work and have fed into the Bishop of Truro’s independent review. My colleague, the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire, has gone into where we are with the review in depth, so I shall not repeat that. However, I would appreciate it if the Minister said where she thinks we are with the 22 recommendations.

We all welcome next year’s ministerial conference—it is important to get people around the table talking about the recommendations and how we can do more, but we need to apply more urgency to the task. As we know, the violence is getting worse. It was good that we had the example of what is happening in south Kaduna. This is not a time to withdraw mentally; we must keep up the focus, even though we have had the 66% cut to the aid budget, which, of course, some of us in this Chamber voted against. We must not lose that focus on education, civil society and the promotion of tolerance.

I commend the right hon. Member for Gainsborough on his comment about working with partners. I share with him the commitment to work with friends in France, across the Sahel and across the region, because it is only by working with all our partners that we can achieve what we want. Where the French have put in a lot of resources, let us work with them, sharing the expertise that they may have in a particular area and complementing it with the UK’s specialities and niche approaches, so that together we offer the most secure environment we can for those African nations.

I want briefly to highlight three other hon. Members. Back in September, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) asked the former Minister, the right hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams), what assessment the FCDO had made of

“the adequacy and effectiveness of the distribution of aid to persecuted Christians.”

We heard at that time that

“the UK will be the third largest donor within the G7 as a percentage of GNI. We will spend more than £10 billion in aid”

in 2020. Will the Minister before us say, in her concluding remarks, whether she feels that the posts across the FCDO network will retain their regular network reporting on local human rights situations, including in relation to the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of religion or belief?

In April 2021, my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) asked the former Minister—again, not the Minister we have here today—about tackling

“religious persecution and gender based violence of Christian women in countries around the world.”

The former Minister replied that the UK was committed to that. Will the Minister before us say what shape her commitment will take to defending freedom of religion or belief for all, and recognising that women and girls from religious minorities often suffer because of both their gender and their faith?

Will the Minister lay out how she will ensure that our human rights policy work considers the intersectionality of human rights, including the importance of addressing the specific vulnerabilities experienced by women and girls in the countries we have talked about today? For example, in the DRC, a project with faith leaders and community action groups halved women’s experience of intimate partner violence from 69% to 29%. These actions and our commitment can make a difference, and the DFID funding is crucial, so I look forward to the Minister’s comments in that regard.

Through UK Aid Connect, will the FCDO continue to support the Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development programme, managed by the Institute of Development Studies, to work with women from religious minorities in the five countries in Africa and Asia that have been pinpointed, to understand the problems that are faced and identity effective approaches to tackle these issues?

[Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]

It is a delight to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I look forward to finishing my brief remarks under your chairmanship.

We have had a good airing of the issues in this debate. We have talked about security, and specifically about violence against women and girls, and the 1 million girls who are missing from the education system in Nigeria alone. We have also heard about hotspots such as South Sudan and the Central African Republic. We have thanked the NGOs who work tirelessly to bring these matters to the attention of the UK Government. They have high expectations, as do our constituents, that we will focus on the areas that have been outlined today, so that violence can be reduced and we can put in place the civic society model that we have here, which should be expected abroad as well, where women are respected, there is a focus on education, and basic human rights and safety are promoted.

I look forward to hearing from the Minister, who is new to her role. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford and all hon. Members who have participated in the debate on this important topic.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing such an important debate. I commend him for his tireless work in defending freedom of religion and belief.

I thank my predecessor as Minister for Africa, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge). He worked tirelessly to build strong relationships across Africa and put great effort into promoting this cause during his time in the role. I am absolutely committed to continuing work on this important issue.

My own interest in bringing people together across religious divides comes from my childhood and teenage years, when I saw the work that my mother did as a volunteer English doctor in Northern Ireland, reaching out to Catholic and Protestant communities, and bringing them together to help in that long journey towards peace. It is also rooted in memories of my grandmother, a theologian, who was one of the people who worked towards and succeeded in setting up the World Council of Churches after the war.

I thank all the members of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief who have come here today. I have taken note of their annual commentary. It provides valuable insights and I would be delighted to meet the group’s members.

Violence against any person because of their religion or belief, or indeed lack of belief, is completely unacceptable. I deeply agree with hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), that it is important that we continue to raise these matters in this place. Although this debate focuses on the plight of persecuted Christians, we must not forget those who have been persecuted for belonging to other religions and holding other beliefs, and those who have no religious belief at all. The Government are committed to championing freedom of religion or belief for all, which is enshrined in the universal declaration of human rights.

Earlier this afternoon, in my first week in this role, I met the African heads of mission based in London. I strongly emphasised that democracy, human rights and the rule of law are core UK values, and that they include the freedom of religion or belief. I also emphasised the UK’s support for 12 years of quality education. All boys and girls must be able to go to school safety. Our Prime Minister continues to be passionate about championing the right of all girls across the world to get those first 12 years of education, and we chaired an education summit on that in July.

When I met the heads of mission, I also took the opportunity to emphasise my interest, and that of so many Members, in the rights of women and girls. Women and girls should have the right to make the decisions about what affects their lives. That means that they need access to education, healthcare and employment opportunities, and that they must know that they can live their lives safely and securely.

I will not take too many interventions, if that is okay, because I want to cover quite a lot of content, and we have already run over the hour and a half. I may come back to the hon. Lady later.

We want everyone, everywhere to be able to live in accordance with their own conscience, to practise their own choice of faith or belief, or to hold none. They must be able to do so free from persecution, prejudice and harm.

Okay; let me make a little progress, and then I will take interventions.

When countries protect and promote freedom of religion or belief, they tend to be more stable, more prosperous and safer from violent extremism. The Minister responsible for human rights, Lord Tariq Ahmad, continues to work closely with the Prime Minister’s special envoy, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), whom we are honoured to have here today, in delivering those goals.

As we have heard, challenges to freedom of religion or belief sadly persist in central Africa—especially in countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic—and countries such as Nigeria. We are particularly concerned about human rights in those countries. Christians make up the majority of the populations of many central and southern African countries. However, those of minority religions, such as Islam, face frequent difficulties in exercising their rights. That can include violent attacks by armed groups, and converts often face additional pressures, such as being ostracised by their communities because religion is so closely tied to culture and heritage.

As the APPG report highlights, violence in the region is often triggered by inter-communal disputes. Although victims may not be targeted specifically because of their religion, the intersection of identity rights and religion cannot be ignored.

Thank you, Mr Sharma, for reminding us of the length of the debate. The Minister is making a very good start to her speech by talking about the role of women and intersectionality. In her assessment of her role, which I understand is in its infancy, how does she see the envoy, the resources and the reorganisation within the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, with trade off to the side, coming together, so that we can better understand, as parliamentarians, how we can scrutinise the arrangements?

Let me deal with the first of those points, as clearly we can scrutinise arrangements in many different ways in this place, including being able to intervene in Westminster Hall debates on the newly appointed Minister for Africa on a Thursday afternoon. As we all know, there are many ways to ask questions of the Government. I also point the hon. Lady to the integrated review, which is worth reading, because it sets out in great detail how different Departments will work together not only to support British interests across the globe, but to help build partnerships with other countries.

We recognise that women and girls from religious minorities can often suffer because of both their gender and their faith. That is why our human rights policy looks at the intersectionality of human rights: for example, the importance of addressing specific interests such as gender-based violence, which may be experienced by women from religious minority communities. The Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion and belief, my fantastic hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, has spoken about that double vulnerability that many women from religious minorities face, including at an International Women’s Day event organised by the UK Freedom of Religion or Belief Forum this March. I thank her for the effort that she puts into this work, because having that additional voice on those sorts of platforms really helps in continuing to reiterate these important messages.

The hon. Member for Strangford spoke very powerfully about incidents of violence and abuse in the DRC. The UK is deeply concerned about the violence against civilians in the DRC, including the recent attacks by the armed group Allied Democratic Forces. Back in April, the British embassy in Kinshasa issued a joint statement with international partners condemning the attacks perpetrated by the ADF in Beni and North Kivu, and we continue to urge the DRC Government and the UN to work together to protect civilians from ongoing violence and address the root causes of conflict. The previous Minister for Africa, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East, raised this issue with the President on multiple occasions. We are committed to ensuring that the UN peacekeeping mission MONUSCO remains focused on delivering its mandate to protect civilians, and that vulnerable communities remain central to the UN’s work in the DRC.

In the Central African Republic, there are long-standing concerns about violence along religious lines. I am grateful for the APPG’s explorations of the nuances of the conflict and the religious tensions in that country, which will further enrich the Government’s understanding and help to inform our approach. Sadly, hate speech and inter-communal tensions remain prominent in the CAR, and disinformation can be used to drive divisions for political and economic gain, so while the current conflict is not predominantly religious in nature, the lack of formal justice and reconciliation mechanisms mean that tensions could become defined along religious and ideological lines. We will continue to monitor this issue very closely, and FCDO officials are working with researchers in the CAR to understand more about the role that disinformation is playing in fuelling this conflict. We continue to shape the peacekeeping mission mandate in both countries to protect vulnerable communities and promote inclusive dialogue.

Turning to Nigeria, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton and many others spoke passionately about the violence and, indeed, the increase in violence in Nigeria. We are very troubled by the rising insecurity in that country, including terrorism in the north-east, where insurgents from Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province are responsible for regular attacks on both Christians and Muslims. Both groups regularly attack Nigerians of all faiths who do not subscribe to their extremist views, causing immense suffering in both Christian and Muslim communities. Separately, there is inter-communal conflict and banditry occurring across multiple states; again, that continues to blight both Christian and Muslim groups. The drivers of those conflicts are deeply complex; they can be highly localised and relate to a number of different factors.

We really welcome the APPG report on Nigeria. It analysed inter-communal violence in the middle belt, and acts of terrorism committed by Boko Haram and ISWA in the northeast. A full response was issued by my predecessor as Minister for Africa, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East, which emphasised our support for solutions that get to the root causes of the conflict—addressing the root cause is so important if the violence is to be reduced. My predecessor visited Nigeria in April, and discussed the increasing of security across the country with the Government and community leaders. During the Nigerian delegation’s visit to the Global Education Summit in London in July, he also discussed the impact of insecurity, potential religious dynamics, and issues such as school kidnapping with the Nigerian Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister of State for Education.

We totally condemn the devasting impact that this violence has had, and is having, on people in Nigeria. We continue to make clear to the Nigerian authorities, at the highest levels, the importance of protecting civilians—including all ethnic and religious groups—and protecting human rights for all.

I have been listening very carefully to the Minister, and I thank her for much of what she has said. However, when a Minister talks about the fact that they have mentioned something when visiting a country, it is often the case that that has been done quietly and in private. What many of us are now sensing is that there needs to be a clear and public calling out of what is happening in Nigeria, and a call to the Nigerian Government to tackle it in the way that I have previously spoken about. Private discussions will no longer cut it.

I know that my hon. Friend thinks about this matter very deeply, and I am looking forward to discussing it with her in more detail. What I am hearing from groups that are expert in this area is that it is really important that we look at the different things that are happening in different parts of the country, and that we try to avoid conflating the north-east conflicts with the inter-communal violence that is occurring, for example, between farmers and herders. We do not want to risk exacerbating ethnic tensions. These are incredibly complex matters, but I hear what my hon. Friend is saying. We do not want the ideology that can be seen in the north-east extending into broader inter-communal violence. These are complicated issues, but issues that we are right to discuss and to tackle.

The hon. Member for Strangford outlined the UK’s support for the Lake Chad basin regional stabilisation facility. I can confirm that the UK is committed to security and stability in the wider Sahel region. We have currently deployed 300 troops to the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, as part of a long-range reconnaissance group. We are providing further conflict, security and stability programming to support the reduction of violent conflict and promote long-term stability in the region. There is an investment of approximately £12 million a year in that programme. It includes local stabilisation projects in Mali, strengthening civilian-military co-ordination to facilitate humanitarian access, for example, and improving the participation of women from all communities in stabilisation projects and the peace process in Mali.

As I said earlier, the scheme that the UK Government have introduced is excellent. It is really proactive and positive, and I would ask whether we could roll it out in some of other areas.

I will very much look into what the hon. Gentleman says, and I thank him for his praise of the project.

I want to come back to Sudan, as it was mentioned in one of the earlier interventions. I spoke to the Prime Minister of Sudan, Abdalla Hamdok, yesterday. We totally condemn the attempted coup and strongly support the civilian-led Government in the country’s transition to democracy. Standing up for democracy is a core value of our country.

In Cameroon, we engage with faith actors of all kinds and the Government. We are deeply concerned about the upsurge of Islamic State and note that it is targeting security forces—including, sadly, some security forces trained by Her Majesty’s Government.

I am glad that the Minister mentions Cameroon, but I would not like her to move away from that subject just yet. Is she able to answer some of the questions that I posed about Cameroon and trade? It would be helpful to Members across the House to hear a bit more about what lies beneath the agreement that has been reached.

I will get back to the hon. Lady separately on that topic, if I may.

There have been some questions about the implementation of the recommendations in the Bishop of Truro’s report. I am pleased to hear many colleagues draw attention to the Bishop of Truro’s independent review on the persecution of Christians. I was personally delighted when I heard that he was going to do the review. It was at a time when I was the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Foreign Secretary’s team and to Foreign Office Ministers, and I know how important it was to Members across the House. I was really pleased to see the report come out and the conclusions that it had reached. The Government are committed to implementing the bishop’s 22 recommendations in full, to drive real improvements in the lives of those who are persecuted. Eighteen of the recommendations have already been implemented or are in the process of being implemented, and we are on track to deliver all 22 recommendations by July 2022—so 22 by ’22.

As a long-standing champion of human rights and freedoms, the UK has a duty to promote and defend our values of equality, inclusion and respect, both at home and abroad. I can assure right hon. and hon. Members that this Government will continue to do just that.

I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions. I will start with the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who is a dear friend. She referred to the psychological pressure on Christians, which is sometimes missed because we focus on the physical side. She also referred to the combination of Boko Haram and ISWAP in relation to the destabilisation of Nigeria. It is a very important issue, which we have to address.

I apologise, Mr Sharma, because I should have written down all Members’ constituencies—you realise when you want it that you have not done it. If you forgive me, the hon. Gentleman to my left-hand side—

I thank the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) . He referred to something very appropriate: Black Lives Matter. Across the world, Black Lives Matter ran a great campaign, but here is a campaign for Black Lives Matter that does not seem to have caught the attention of the world. It should have done so, which is what the hon. Gentleman said.

The right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) is someone with whom I have had many discussions. I never realised that this was a matter that he has been bringing up in this place for 20 years. I can recall very well, and the right hon. Gentleman will remember, the debate we had in 2012. I have never forgotten his contribution that day. That is the truth. I felt it swung that debate, which was on the persecution of Christians, in the main Chamber. I have always remembered that.

The hon. Gentleman across the way—

Apologies. I thank the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) for his late arrival—not his late arrival, he was here from the beginning. Rather, his late arrival to speak. His contribution was really appropriate and we thank him for that.

The Scottish National party spokesperson, the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), and I are together on so many of these issues and I was pleased to see her coming down to participate and refer to the aid cuts. Also—I hope I caught this right—she said that sometimes, when Christian children are kidnapped and abducted, they are then converted and used as suicide bombers. I was not aware of that. It is incredibly worrying.

The Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), as always, delivered on so many issues. She reminded us of the Bring Back Our Girls campaign, which I can recall very well. I thank her for her massive contribution on these issues.

I should have said at the beginning—it was remiss of me not to do so, but I am going to do it now—how pleased I am, and I mean it, to see the Minister in her place. She knows that she and I were born in the same town, in Omagh, County Tyrone in Northern Ireland. She is a lot younger than I am, of course, but I am very pleased to see her in her place. I am also pleased that in reply to the hon. Member for Congleton the Minister kindly agreed to have a meeting. The two of us and other officers who are also Members of Parliament will be happy to follow our engagement further.

On the rights of women and girls and the human rights of many, I see—and I thank all right hon. Members and hon. Members for their contributions—that this House is united, on behalf of our Christian brothers and sisters but also on behalf of those of other faiths across the world. We have the great privilege in this House and in Westminster Hall today of putting forward our requests on their behalf. Everyone who spoke has a burden on their heart for those people across the world, and we wish to see our Government as they do and as they have—sometimes we need to recognise the good work that our Government do and I recognise that. I thank them all and look forward to working with the Minister over the next period of time. Two people from County Tyrone—along with others—working on these issues, because they are so important.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of violence against Christians in central African countries.

Sitting adjourned.