I beg to move,
That this House has considered freedom of religion or belief and the 40th anniversary of the UN Declaration on the elimination of religious intolerance.
I start by thanking the many colleagues in the Chamber for attending today’s debate, and the Backbench Business Committee for granting time for it. I signpost to colleagues that I hope to speak for no more than 20 minutes.
MPs have effectively challenged successive Governments over the years to increase engagement on freedom of religion or belief—FORB—and, indeed, on FORB for all, whatever one’s religion or if one has no religion at all. Parliamentarians have raised the importance of recognising FORB as a UK human rights concern, and it is only as I have worked internationally on this subject following my appointment last December as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, that I have come to understand in the international context the important role that our parliamentarians play and have played over many years in their cross-party commitment to this subject. In this we are showing global leadership.
I was told by those arranging a conference on FORB in another not-so-small country that they struggled to get just three elected representatives to speak about it on a panel, but our all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, under the tireless leadership of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), is one of the largest and most active APPGs, with 143 members.
One of the three key elements of my mandate as the Prime Minister’s special envoy, as listed on the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office website, is:
“brings together UK efforts to promote religious tolerance abroad”.
So it is right that I engage with the APPG, although I am also a vice-chair, and I thank the stakeholders who facilitated the appointment of a strong, indeed recently strengthened, group of staff to support the APPG. Just yesterday, together we hosted an event here in Parliament attended by very many MPs, and I thank them all for attending, not least the COP26 President, my right hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma).
The event marked Red Wednesday, the day dedicated to shining a light on the persecution of Christians across the world and to standing up for the faith and freedom of all. It is a day when we light up public buildings, such as the FCDO, in red to remember in particular those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their beliefs. This year, for the first time, Lambeth Palace was lit up. I thank the Archbishop of Canterbury for that and for his concern for FORB.
Yesterday we heard in person from victims of FORB abuses about the suffering of the Hazaras in Afghanistan and of the widespread persecution of the Baha’is. As today also marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, we were reminded of the double jeopardy faced by many women across the world. They are persecuted and discriminated against for their faith and their gender, which was articulated so harrowingly in the report published yesterday by Aid to the Church in Need, “Hear Her Cries.” Indeed, after reading that report, I simply had to sit down and cry.
I am a huge admirer of my hon. Friend and of the work she does in this field. I am trying to help a Hazara Afghan woman who successfully got into Pakistan undocumented, but even now she has to remain in hiding lest our Pakistani “friends and allies” discover her and send her back to the tender mercies of the Taliban. Is that not a good illustration of what my hon. Friend is talking about?
Very much so. If my right hon. Friend would like to give me more details, I will pass them on appropriately.
Through the APPG, and inspired by my newly appointed deputy special envoy, David Burrowes, whom I thank for his wise and unstinting work on FORB over many years, this year we have initiated a prisoners of conscience programme that enables those across the world who are imprisoned simply for what they believe to be virtually adopted by an individual MP, who commits to ongoing advocacy on their behalf. With the prisoners’ full agreement, the aim is to highlight their cases and the situation of all who are unjustly imprisoned for their faith or belief. I invite colleagues to offer to partner by contacting the APPG.
Through my parliamentary office, I am also launching a campaign titled “End the Persecution.” I invite all parliamentary colleagues to contact my office for the toolkit that will be available for MPs to use in their constituency to hold meetings and raise awareness among the wider public of the egregious infringements of FORB across the world, of which the public are still often unaware, so that they in turn can become ambassadors. In particular, we want to encourage the next generation to champion FORB, which is why the “End the Persecution” campaign will have a focus on creating young FORB ambassadors.
Along with the work of my parliamentary office and my work with the FCDO, my role comprises three legs of a stool: Parliament, the public—by working with civil society and engaging with non-governmental organisations—and the FCDO. My parliamentary office has conducted intensive deep dives over the past few months into countries where violations of FORB are egregious or of key concern. In effect, these have been virtual visits, as in-person visits have been impractical for much of this year due to the pandemic. We focused on a number of countries and spoke to dozens of witnesses who provided us with first-hand evidence of the concerns about FORB in their country. This has provided invaluable feedback to the FCDO, and the deep dives have helped to inform advocacy. In recognition of that, I am pleased that some FCDO desk officers have started to observe our deep dives.
We learned from the personal experiences of those on the ground in Nigeria, Myanmar, Eritrea and Afghanistan. I will briefly present some of the shocking things that have been shared. In Nigeria, marginalisation and persecution of religious minorities has in many areas become institutionalised, from girls being forcibly married and converted to people being denied public office because of their faith. In Myanmar, human rights organisations report that since the military coup and the pandemic, those experiencing persecution due to their religion or belief have been increasingly targeted, denied access to key services and occasionally forced into unjust arrest, where they are tortured horrifically.
In Eritrea, those arrested are reportedly held in makeshift detentions. Many prisoners are held in shipping containers, where they can be at risk of being burnt to death in the heat of the day and then frozen at night—many go mad with the suffering. Others are held in holes in the ground. Upwards of 20,000 people are held in those camps, and many are beaten, including pregnant women beaten around the womb.
In Afghanistan, we spoke directly to members of several religious communities, including Christians, Sikhs, Muslims and Hazaras, and the non-governmental organisations supporting them. Those who do not submit to the beliefs of the Taliban are frequently at risk of losing their life, and some have lost their lives. We heard of some 1,000 Hazaras who had been thrown out of their homes and were wandering the countryside, with a dozen or so found by others beheaded at the roadside. Relocation and resettlement schemes urgently need to include religious minorities. As we heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), refugees who have fled to neighbouring countries continue to be vulnerable.
I turn now to the Truro review. The second part of my published mandate is to
“support implementing the Bishop of Truro’s recommendations on Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) support for persecuted Christians around the world”.
I should say that this is FCDO work not just for persecuted Christians, but for all those who are persecuted around the world, whatever their faith or none. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), the former Foreign Secretary, for initiating this review, and him and the Bishop of Truro for their continued strong commitment to FORB. Both of them have been of great support to me in my role. To oversee the implementation of the review, I hold regular meetings with officials and with the Bishop to ensure that the 22 recommendations will be implemented in full, both in word and in spirit, by the deadline of early next July. I am pleased that the FCDO indicates that delivery of more than half the 22 recommendations has occurred and that good progress is being made on the remainder, and that we are on track to deliver them all by July 2022 in line with our manifesto commitment.
Let me highlight a few of the recommendations. The last time we debated FORB in this place, concerned was expressed by a number of colleagues, on a cross-party basis, about the support for my role. Recommendation 6 was for
“suitable instruments / roles to monitor and implement”
the Truro approach,
“establishing permanently, and in perpetuity, the role of Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief with appropriate resources and authority to work across FCO departments supported by a Director General level champion for FoRB.”
I am pleased to report to the House that since those concerns were expressed there has been significant movement to provide more dedicated official support for the role, not least through the appointment of our former colleague David Burrowes as deputy special envoy. Together, we can press on to ensure we make the most of the opportunities of the next eight months to build on the Truro review progress.
On recommendation 2, this year FORB was included in the G7 communiqué for the first time, laying the foundations for further collaboration within this group. Recommendation 8 was on a global human rights sanctions regime: In March, the Foreign Secretary announced sanctions, alongside the US, Canada and the EU, against perpetrators of gross human rights violations against Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang. I look forward to further sanctions specifically targeted at individuals who violate FORB, as that is much needed.
On recommendation 20, we have used our position on the UN Security Council to raise awareness of the persecution of religious minorities in conflict. Lord Ahmad hosted a successful Arria meeting in the margins of the Security Council in March.
On recommendation 14, freedom of religion or belief is a key theme of the annual human rights and democracy reports and will continue to be so in future. I would like to see greater integration of FORB with the reports on other human rights, as they are so interrelated; I think for example of the right to associate, freedom of speech and other rights, such as media freedoms.
Recommendation 11 was on religion training, and earlier this year, along with Lord Ahmad, I launched the core training unit on “Religion for International Engagement”, recommended for all FCDO staff and essential for FCDO officials in relevant diplomatic posts so that they can engage more informedly with religious communities in the countries in which they serve. During 2021, I wrote to every UK diplomatic post across the world—almost 200 of them—asking about our diplomatic engagements on FORB in the countries where they serve, and I was greatly encouraged at the clear increased understanding of and interest in engagement on FORB by our embassy staff. There is more to do, but there is no doubt that since the publication of the Truro report in 2019 this engagement by our diplomatic staff has markedly increased. Having said that, there is always more that we can do, and it is important that the religious training modules do not remain on the shelf—or, more accurately, in a portal that is not accessed by FCDO officials—but are accessed, with their understanding embedded in FCDO thinking.
There is still a way to go before FORB is at the heart of FCDO thinking in the way that other rights are, as was evidenced by the FCDO outcome delivery plan 2021-22, which was published in July, when FORB received slight or, some may say, scant reference. I am pleased, however, that on discussing this issue with our new Foreign Secretary, who took up the post after that date, I found that she has personal support for FORB, and she indicated to me that that document does need review. I look forward to working on this, and I thank the Foreign Secretary for her particularly strong statement for FORB this week when announcing the dates of a major international ministerial conference to be hosted by the UK on 5 and 6 July 2022, in London. She said:
“There are still too many places around the world where practising one’s religion, or having no religion, can cost you your freedom or even your life. The challenges to these freedoms continue to grow in different shapes and forms around the world. So we must act...to help ensure that everyone, everywhere can follow their own religion or belief.”
I am pleased that the Foreign Secretary used the word “act”. One of my priorities is to ensure that we move from awareness raising to action—to making a real difference in the lives of people who are losing their jobs, education, homes, livelihoods, families, freedom, access to justice and even life itself, simply on account of what they believe. These people are being discriminated against, marginalised, beaten, threatened, tortured and killed.
On recommendation 9, the John Bunyan Fund was founded as a result of the Truro review, and we have used it this year to fund research to understand the intersecting vulnerabilities experienced by those who are a member of a religious minority and are living in poverty in the shadows of covid-19. I commend the excellent research by CREID—the Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development—which was funded by the John Bunyan Fund and was launched at an event I attended last week. It is helping to raise awareness of how the pandemic has affected the daily lives of religious minorities in India and Nigeria. I commend it to parliamentary colleagues, many of whom are passionately concerned about FORB but may not be aware of this work. It an excellent example of something I constantly experience, which is that some really good FORB work is being done by FCDO officials but parliamentary colleagues are mostly unaware of it.
I see it as a key part of my role, in fulfilling my mandate to bring together UK efforts, to initiate better working together. This is about enabling all of us, whether officials or parliamentarians, to cross the road that is Whitehall more often. It is only a few yards between the Foreign Office’s King Charles Street building and the Houses of Commons and Lords.
Recommendation 17 required the initiation of a working group to include civil society organisations and is one of the success stories to have come out of the Truro recommendations to date. A roundtable, the UK FoRB Forum, was formed and has gone from strength to strength. Just a year ago, it had 45 member representatives; there are now nearly 100, including NGOs, civil society organisations, charities and academics. I meet the member representatives for one morning monthly, and those meetings are proving to be a powerful opportunity for them to bring grassroots information and concerns from the countries where they work, often bravely and with limited resources. Such engagement increasingly has the potential to inform Government action and policy development. It is a priority for me to take back to officials the information shared at such meetings.
The Bishop of Truro chaired the UK FoRB Forum for the first year, and it is now well served by the new, elected chair, the founder-president of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Mervyn Thomas. It is my pleasure to work with him. We have only just begun to understand the potential of what the roundtable can contribute to championing FORB and challenging its abuses. Again, it indicates the global leadership that the UK is demonstrating. It is not too much to say that I believe that, along with the work of the APPG and the engagement of parliamentarians, we can and must share such best practice at next year’s ministerial conference, to inspire others in countries across the world where, I have come to learn, perhaps only one or two parliamentarians champion FORB, or where NGOs do not have the opportunity for such collaborative joint working.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech and I thank her for her great endeavours in her role, which are making such a difference. Could the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association work with UK parliamentarians in the near future to reach out to other parliamentarians on freedom of religious belief internationally?
I thank the hon. Lady for her engagement on this issue. She makes an excellent point; indeed, the reception that I hosted just yesterday, on Red Wednesday, was held in the rooms of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. I am sure there will be other ways in which we can work collaboratively together.
Let me turn to the third aspect of my mandate on the FCDO website, which is the importance of my working
“with the members of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance to raise awareness of cases of particular concern”
and to advocate
“for the rights of people worldwide who are discriminated against or persecuted for their faith or belief”.
I cannot overestimate the importance and the strengthening of the 33-country International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance over the past year. It was founded only in February 2020, with a handful of countries—one of the founders being the UK—but has now grown to 33 countries. As a founding member, the UK is a member of the steering group, at which I seek opportunities to raise instances of the suppression or threatening of FORB. I have been able to take information from my deep dives there.
Within the past year it has been my privilege to initiate an alliance statement on standing in solidarity with people of all faiths and beliefs in Myanmar who played prominent roles in the anti-coup movement. It has been of great encouragement to people suffering in Myanmar to know that they are not forgotten by the world in their fight for freedom. Following that statement, I was particularly moved by a letter I received from Cardinal Bo, the leader of the Catholic Church in Myanmar, in which he said that the statement
“was a very important message of support for religious leaders in Myanmar”.
It was also my privilege to help to draft the alliance statement on the importance of protection of religious minorities in Afghanistan and, more recently, one to highlight the ongoing plight of Yazidi women, more than 2,700 of whom are still missing.
We need to make sure that such statements lead to action. Encouragingly, that was the case with the alliance statement on Afghanistan. Not only was it well received by the White House, which commended it for “plugging a gap”—at that point, no other international statement had highlighted the risks to religious minorities in Afghanistan—but work on the statement led to action. It helped to trigger the alliance country representatives from Brazil and the US to talk to one another and recognise that one could provide the visas and the other an aircraft to provide refuge to 193 members of religious minority groups fleeing Afghanistan.
I take an active role on the alliance’s advisory council of experts, and on its education working group, along with Robert Rehak, the Czech envoy representative. The working group aims to promote an understanding of FORB among young people, including through school textbooks, university programmes and more informal settings, so that they in turn can inspire the next generation to respect other people’s beliefs in communities around the world. The alliance wants to help to reverse the increase in the abuses of FORB around the world, so the education working group is helping to share ways, tools and best practice, not least from the UK, through the excellent work of the British Council—yet another way in which the UK is showing FORB leadership—on how to teach the next generation on FORB.
Going forward, it will be my continued privilege to work with an increasingly effective and growing alliance. I recently met with our Commonwealth envoy Jo Lomas to discuss how we can work together to encourage more Commonwealth countries to join. To coincide with this week’s anniversary of the statement, we held our virtual 2021 ministerial forum.
Speaking of the ministerial, I am delighted to have played perhaps some small part in helping to secure the UK’s hosting of the next in-person ministerial conference in July. The Prime Minister announced the principal of the conference in the integrated review earlier this year and will draw on all the UK’s FORB work to build stronger global partnerships and agree common goals on FORB for all. It will be a major international gathering and an opportunity for us as a nation to support FORB as a right for all and to agree concrete action with partners internationally. The conference will be supplemented in June and July by an active FORB fringe of no less than 100 events in and around Parliament and beyond, both in-person and virtual, to be organised by my parliamentary office and the FORB APPG, with the already enthusiastic support of many from civil society. Members should contact my office or the APPG to get involved.
I am also working closely with our US counterparts, who intend to bring international grassroots FORB champions for a follow-up conference on 7 July. It is critical that the alliance membership is fully engaged in and integrated into the official thinking as we plan the UK-hosted 2022 ministerial conference, because the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance and the international FORB conferences, which now go back some four years—next year’s will be the fifth—have the same inspirational roots.
In my role, I am aware that no single individual can possibly address the problem of the scale that FORB entails. We have to work together: faith leaders, academics, grassroots organisations, parliamentarians, officials and, of course, Ministers and the Prime Ministers all have a role to play. Next year, 2022, looks to be an exciting year for the UK to play our part and demonstrate our global leadership on FORB.
It is quite right that I have been overwhelmingly positive about the UK’s work on FORB this year, but before I finish, may I leave the deputy Foreign Secretary—the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, my right hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly)—whom I thank for kindly attending this debate, along with the Leader of the House, with the following thoughts? Further work is needed to achieve the ambition of embedding FORB in the FCDO. One way that will be illustrated is through clearer advocacy and protection for religious minorities facing persecution in places such as Nigeria and Pakistan.
As the Bishop of Truro’s review says, we still need to see FORB as more
“central to FCO operation and culture”—
of course, it was still the FCO when the review was published in 2019. The review also said that a commitment to it should be enshrined
“in strategic and operational guidelines.”
We also need to demonstrate that with sanctions tailored specifically to target FORB violators. We need to more effectively construct and impact FCDO work upstream to prevent mass atrocities with effective early-warning mechanisms. We need to see the vulnerabilities of religious minorities more clearly applied as a criterion for the distribution of humanitarian aid and relief.
We need to see quicker responses to individual cases of injustice and inhumane treatment raised by MPs and NGOs. In too many cases of individual abuses across the world, including many that I have raised, there has been only a general response, such as that for freedom of religion and belief, which is
“a key human rights priority for our Government”.
Where we provide more tailored responses, we can see real results. I was so encouraged by what happened after I highlighted concerns about four Christians in Somaliland, one of whom was a young woman imprisoned with her tiny baby. I heard that our diplomatic officials attended the court hearing, after which they were released. One will never know for sure what impact our engagement had, but we should not underestimate the UK’s soft power in influencing freedom of religion or belief.
Where we cannot take action on individual cases or in particular countries, it would be helpful to have clearer reasoning as to why. Going forward to 2022, I would welcome a meeting with each FCDO Minister on their individual country responsibilities to help to promote mutual understanding and joint working on FORB. I thank Lord Ahmad, our Minister for Human Rights, for his strong commitment to collaborative working with me and I look forward to that being increasingly effective going forward.
More effective working will see my role as envoy given the support required to fulfil my mandate, which, until recent changes, was limited and in some cases lacking. Too much energy was wasted on internal issues rather than addressing the needs of the vulnerable. Indeed, there needs to be a fundamental discussion about the role of special envoys—indeed, all envoys. We need to examine how this relatively recently enhanced role, certainly in terms of numbers, fits into the mechanisms of Government, and how we can work most effectively alongside Minsters. That would help officials to work more effectively too.
There is a substantial piece of work to be done here, and I would welcome meetings with the Minister to develop thinking on this further. I end as I started—indeed, as I have highlighted throughout almost all of this speech—by thanking my parliamentary colleagues and indeed all I have worked with. So much progress has been made on FORB this year, and there is so much more we can look forward to in 2022, as we continue to exhibit global leadership, championing FORB for the UK, helping to promote countries to become more stable, less prone to insecurity threats and more able to trade freely and to facilitate and release the potential of all their citizens. I close with some words from the Bishop of Truro:
“We cannot just see FoRB as a side-bar or special interest issue. It bears upon some deeply serious issues in today’s world: issues with which governments…should be hugely concerned, issues such as trade, poverty, security, racism, women’s rights and the very right to life itself.”
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce).
I am delighted once again to participate in a debate on freedom of religion or belief.
Sadly, such debates to highlight the persecution of peoples based on which God they choose to believe in or which religion they choose to draw comfort from are as necessary today as they ever were. The persecution of any religious group is a fundamental breach of our basic freedoms. I wish to applaud the work of Open Doors, which works tirelessly to support persecuted Christians around the world while drawing up its annual World Watch List, launching this in the House of Commons every year to great interest and support from MPs across the House. At this launch every year, MPs have the opportunity to hear at first hand the harrowing testimony of those who have lived under these brutal regimes as Christians, as they bravely share the horror of the brutality that they have suffered and the desperate things that they have witnessed, which will be forever seared into their brains.
In the global scale of persecuting Christian minorities, at No.1 in 2021, we have North Korea, closely followed by Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya and Pakistan. These are countries where a person can be killed, forcibly converted as an alternative to death, and subject to institutional discrimination; where blasphemy laws encourage the targeting of all religious minorities; where young Christian girls can be forcibly married off; and where, during the pandemic, life-saving aid was withheld from Christians unless they converted to Islam. It is deeply disturbing and inexplicable that fewer than 1% of refugees that the UK accepts from Syria are Christian, despite the fact that they make up more than 10% of the Syrian population and are a persecuted minority. I hope the Minister will address that when he gets to his feet.
The list of despicable behaviour and practices carried out by, or sanctioned by, the state in such countries is completely unacceptable and must be wholeheartedly condemned. Earlier this year, I—alongside many of my colleagues across the House—was sickened to my stomach by the contents of the Open Doors report, “Destructive Lies”, which exposed the appalling persecution of Christians and Muslims in India.
The cover of that report bears the image of Preetha—not her real name—a pastor’s wife in India. She was brutally beaten by Hindu extremists while praying with her husband and some friends. When she was taken unconscious to hospital, she was refused treatment because of her Christian faith.
The report lifts the lid on vigilantism against Christians, which has been sanctioned by the government machinery, with even the Prime Minister of India himself staying stubbornly silent on the issue, as Christians are dehumanised, discriminated against, and subject to violence. There is no justice provided by the state through the courts or police, even despite public lynchings, with social media platforms apparently happy to host material that incites the targeting of religious minorities through mobs mobilising and discussing their plans on platforms publicly and visibly.
The international community must use every ounce of its diplomatic and economic weight and strain every sinew to do all it can to counter this appalling situation. In addition, it must establish a fact-finding commission on violence and other human rights violations against religious minorities in India, as the situation there appears to be especially grave. Furthermore, corporations, which own social media, urgently need to increase their moderators who can address specific local issues of discrimination, harassment and violence circulating on their platforms and apps in India. We know that this can be done as, in the US, Facebook has undertaken an overhaul of its algorithms and tripled the size of its moderation team to identify and address racialised and inciting speech against black groups in the US.
The recent report “Hear Her Cries” sets out harrowing case studies of the persecution of Christians in countries such as Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Pakistan, with the kidnapping, forced conversion and sexual victimisation of Christian women and girls. Indeed, in Pakistan, research suggests that Christians could comprise up to 70% of women and girls forcibly converted to marriage.
According to this year’s Open Doors report, the total number of Christians killed for their faith rose by 60% to 4,761, of which 3,530 were in Nigeria. During the pandemic, there have been reports of Nigerian families from several villages receiving only a sixth of the rations allocated to Muslim families, while in other countries where Christian persecution is rife, some Christian families had their ration cards torn up or were simply excluded from receiving covid-19 relief all together by the authorities, unless they denied their faith. Regimes and nations that attempt to dictate to people which God they should worship are regimes and nations that have no respect for basic fundamental human rights. The crushing of a minority faith is nothing more than a means of control—insidious control, over even which God people choose to worship. This barbaric persecution is evil.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Congleton, who was appointed special envoy for freedom of religion or belief last December, for bringing together UK efforts to promote religious tolerance abroad, and working on how the UK can protect and promote this fundamental freedom internationally. I know that this issue matters to her very much. I can say confidently that she will have the support of the SNP Benches as she seeks to address the appalling religious persecution that we see all too often around the world, and to help implement the Bishop of Truro’s recommendations on Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office support for persecuted Christians around the world.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) on her speech. I particularly follow her very good point about taking refugees from the camps in Syria. I have myself made the point to United Nations agencies that Christians, Yazidis and other minority groups in Syria are fearful of going to these camps because they are often bullied, and we are taking few minority groups from the camps.
The focus of this debate will be mainly on what is happening around the world, but I want to say a bit about our own country. Our country is noted for its tolerant attitude and freedom of religion, but we should be aware of focusing on the splinter in other people’s eyes and ignoring the beam in our own.
Most of us in this country—even religious people—have quite a relaxed view about our own teaching and follow a policy of “live and let live”, but for many years I have defended the rights of some religious groups that take a literal view of their teaching to be allowed space to practise their faith. I am thinking particularly of the orthodox Jewish community, some evangelical Christian communities such as the Plymouth Brethren, and observant Muslims who take a traditional view of their faith. Although we live in a tolerant and secular society, we should allow those people some space. There has been progress; I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and the Bishop of Truro on that. I also congratulate the Government on now being prepared to call out intolerance.
It is true that around the world, Muslims are persecuted. I am thinking particularly of Myanmar, the Uyghurs in China, and some low-level, casual persecution in India. But—this is the point that I want to make and it is one that people are often fearful of making in this place—overwhelmingly it is Christians who are being persecuted around the world. They are being persecuted or treated as second-class citizens in the Muslim world, and we have to be prepared to call this out.
We cannot just go on taking a completely even-handed attitude to this issue, by saying that freedom of religion is incredibly important, which of course it is, and that intolerance is terrible, which it is, but ignoring the fact that in every Muslim country—I would be happy to give way if somebody can prove me wrong—even if there is not outright persecution, Christians are second-class citizens. I am thinking of countries such as Egypt, which has a large and established Christian community, the Copts, who face all sorts of difficulties—for instance, if they want to build a new church. If there is an allegation of rape, or kidnapping of one of their children, they face difficulties with the police. Overwhelmingly, it is Christians who face this persecution.
We had a statement earlier about migrants and we feel strongly that we should help genuine asylum seekers, but some of us have again and again talked about genuine asylum seekers such as Maira Shahbaz in Pakistan—a 14-year-old girl who was kidnapped, raped, abducted and is still living in hiding. Has the Foreign Office really done enough to get that girl out and get her to a place of safe haven in our own country? We have to be prepared to take on some of our allies. I am thinking particularly of Pakistan, to which we give £300 million a year in aid. It is not just the fact that Christians and other minorities are second-class citizens there, but that often the state, the courts and the police ignore the outright kidnapping and abduction of minority groups. It is a difficult argument for the Government to make. However, if the Foreign Office is not prepared to make that argument with our own allies—I am thinking of, for example, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Jordan and Egypt—then where are we going?
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, I really commend the latest report from Aid to the Church in Need—“Hear Her Cries”. Around the world, it is overwhelmingly women—particularly young women, and particularly in Muslim countries—who are the victims of either high-level persecution and terrorism at the hands of organisations like Boko Haram or low-level conditions in which they are second-class citizens, as in Egypt. There is widespread under-reporting and official denials of the scale of the problem. The research indicates that Christians make up 95% of women and girls held by Islamic extremists in Nigeria. As well as widespread under-reporting, there is fear of reporting abductions and rapes because of the shame that might accrue to the family.
This is a useful debate. I applaud the progress that we have made with the Foreign Office. I applaud what my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton is doing and I want her to be given more resources by the Foreign Office. We have to call out persecution where we find it and stop Christians being considered second-class citizens.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh).
The speeches in this debate have been insightful and have shone a light on the challenges that people face across the globe when attempting to freely practise their religion or belief. Members are rightly criticising various regimes for not allowing their citizens to freely practise their religion or belief. We also need to ensure that we are self-reflecting in examining what is happening here, across the four nations, and that is what I wish to talk about. This was not going to be the content of my speech, but yesterday during a Westminster Hall debate on Islamophobia I was shocked at some of the contributions—although I want to put on record, as I did yesterday, that the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) was very reasoned in his remarks.
I would like everyone to take a moment to think of a memory: a memory that you think changed your life. Most of us can think of one, whether it was the day you got married, when you had a child, or even when you were elected to this House. For me, a particular memory stands out: my ninth birthday. As a child I loved my birthday because it meant presents. To be honest, I still quite like the presents aspect. I was getting off the school bus and going back home. I saw my cousin’s car outside my house and I knew that that meant I was getting a load of presents. I walked into the house and no one gave me any attention. I was a bit of a diva as a child—some people would argue that I still am—and I was annoyed that no one gave me any attention, because it was my ninth birthday. My mum was watching the TV screen: a news channel was on. That was normal in our household because we were always told to keep up to date with current affairs, which makes sense now that I am a Member of Parliament. I turned round to look—it was Sky News or BBC News; I cannot remember which—and there was a clip, on a loop, of two planes crashing into towers.
My birthday is 11 September 1992 and I turned nine on the day the twin towers were attacked. That, for me, is the memory that I will never forget, because my life changed after that. I was always aware that as woman of colour and a practising Muslim I was a little bit different from my peers—they had church on Sunday; I had Koran lessons—but that difference was never really noted. However, the next day when I went to the school bus stop I was asked if my parents were terrorists. I was told that my skin colour was dirty. There are other memories as well. My dad was racially profiled at airports. My mosque was petrol-bombed just a couple of months after 9/11. This all happened in Scotland.
I am acutely aware of the privilege I hold in comparison with my Muslim sisters who wear the hijab, because I do not wear one. I am not identifiably Muslim. That does “protect” me, to an extent. But I do speak about my faith very often. Something remarkable since my election to this House is the number of people—in this House, in fact—who have said to me: “You are such an empowered Muslim woman.” What does that even mean? My religion gives me courage and empowers me to stand here.
Religious intolerance is sadly becoming more prevalent in the United Kingdom, especially on social media—but I do not have time to talk about that. In a recent survey conducted by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, more than 70% of Muslims said they had experienced some form of abuse in the past year. After Muslims, Jewish people are most targeted with religious hate crimes—19% of these crimes impact them—and the number of anti-Sikh hate crimes reported increased by 70% between 2017 and 2020. It is scary to think that religious hate crimes are under-reported and that the figures are inaccurate. There is a lack of faith—pardon the pun—in the judicial system that crimes will be sufficiently investigated. There is no doubt that more must be done across all four nations—Scotland is no exception—to address that.
The Scottish Government recently passed legislation that expanded the definition of hate speech, making it easier to hold to account those who express prejudice in a threatening or abusive way. That is a step in the right direction, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister what the UK Government will do.
My name is Anum Qaisar and I am the Member of Parliament elected to the House of Commons by the people of Airdrie and Shotts. I am a Muslim. The reality is that I have posted social media stuff about Islamophobia today and already had abuse. After the debate, I will go online to check my social media and emails to see if anything merits police awareness. I can stay quiet. No one forces me to speak in these debates. But I do, for people of all faith and belief across the four nations and across the world so that they can practise their faith openly. I also speak out for nine-year-old Anum, because although back then I did not have a voice, I do now.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for the role she plays in bringing attention to this issue not just in this place but across the country and around the world. I also express my thanks to the Foreign Secretary for this week saying:
“I want all people, everywhere, to be free from discrimination and persecution regardless of their opinions and beliefs. We have used our G7 Presidency this year to defend and advance these fundamental freedoms and will build on that next year when we host friends and partners from across the world.”
It is nearly eight years since The Times published an editorial entitled “Spectators at the Carnage”. It began in these terms:
“Across the globe, in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, Christians are being bullied, arrested, jailed, expelled and executed. Christianity is by most calculations the most persecuted religion of modern times. Yet Western politicians until now have been reluctant to speak out in support of Christians in peril.”
That is changing, which is good to know, but that editorial captures exactly the work referred to by my hon. Friend of the independent review established by the Former Foreign Secretary—my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt)—and ably undertaken by my friend the Bishop of Truro, the right Rev. Philip Mounstephen. His task was to map the extent and nature of the global persecution of Christians, to assess the quality of the Foreign Office’s response and to make recommendations for changes in both policy and practice. When we in Cornwall heard that our bishop was to lead the review, we were proud, delighted and pleased that he was to be charged with such important work, which sends such a clear message to us and to the world.
The review stated:
“Persecution on grounds of religious faith is a global phenomenon that is growing in scale and intensity. Reports including that of the United Nations…Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief…suggest that religious persecution is on the rise, and it is an ‘ever-growing threat’ to societies around the world.”
We cannot measure the exact numbers of people persecuted for their faith, but reports from NGOs estimate that a third of the world’s population suffers from religious persecution in some form, with Christians the most persecuted group. The fact is that freedom of religion or belief is a fundamental right of every person. That includes the freedom to change or reject one’s own belief system. The UN universal declaration of human rights defines religious humans rights in article 18 as,
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
Bishop Philip’s 2019 report seemed to be a groundbreaking moment in the sense that the UK Government freshly acknowledged the extent of persecution around the world and recognised the need to take global leadership in that area. The report’s recommendations are practical, timely and necessary. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton for giving much more detail about them. In summary, they fall under the following headings: “Make Freedom of Religion or Belief…central to the FCO’s culture, policies and international operations”; “Develop a religiously-literate local operational approach”; and “Strengthen joined up thinking”. The final recommendation is that,
“All of these foreign policy recommendations to the Foreign Secretary should be reviewed independently in three years’ time”,
which is next summer.
I am grateful that this week the Foreign Secretary published the dates of the international ministerial conference, which is a global summit to promote freedom of religion or belief. It will be held in London on 5-6 July next year and is a significant and welcome opportunity for the UK. I agree with and wholeheartedly commend her for saying that religious freedom and belief is a key part of the UK’s foreign policy and development agenda. I lend my wholehearted support to that worthwhile effort.
I welcome the Bishop of Truro’s review, as I have said, and I am grateful to the former Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), for commissioning it. The FCDO asked the question about the extent of persecution around the world, and now that Bishop Philip has answered it by writing the review, the tricky bit is acting on the recommendations. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton set out the considerable progress that has been made but recognised, as I do, that more is needed.
As I said, the last recommendation called for the recommendations’ implementation to be independently reviewed after three years. That time is up next summer, so it is timely to urge the Government to redouble their efforts to ensure that the recommendations are implemented in full, in spirit and in letter, and, more specifically, to name a genuinely independent reviewer to lead the work and publish the terms of reference of that review as soon as possible. I would be glad to hear from the Minister how the Government intend to progress the recommendations further and what plans are in place to review them next year.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing the debate and on all her work as the special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. I echo her comments about the work of the APPG, which is so ably chaired by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is the friend of all hon. Members, and the secretariat.
The golden rule that is common to all major world religions is the ethic of reciprocity—that we should treat others as we wish to be treated. That is a foundational principle but, from the debate so far, it seems to be observed almost as much in its breach as in its practice. In the various reports from the different stakeholders that have been cited, there are many cases where a religious majority is oppressing a religious minority in one country, but across the border, the proportions are reversed and the oppression is happening in reverse. There is a huge challenge for Governments to implement all the recommendations that are being made and for everyone who professes a faith, in which I include myself, to live up to the highest standards of that faith.
During COP26, I was at an event at the University of Glasgow organised by the Global Ethical Finance Initiative in which my good friend Dr Lorna Gold took part. The point was made that 80% of human beings on the planet hold or profess some kind of faith or religious belief in a creator god. When decisions are made about ethical finance, they are not taken in a vacuum or by an atheist minority. A majority of people claim to profess such views, so we have to find a way to play them out in practice, but we often see them compromised or abandoned.
The right to freedom of religion or belief is a huge concern to constituents in Glasgow North, as it is to the constituents of everyone who has spoken today. The situation in China, which we repeatedly hear about, is of particular concern. I have constituents who are very active on the issue of organ harvesting and the treatment of Falun Gong practitioners, and I know that they will be demonstrating outside Downing Street on Human Rights Day in a couple of weeks’ time. There is the situation of the Uyghur Muslims being forced into labour and re-education camps. When we talk about climate change, a lot of Chinese pollution is from manufacturing things that we buy in this country, and how many things do we use in this country, knowingly or otherwise, that have been made by people forced into labour and re-education camps?
In Myanmar, there is the treatment of the Rohingyas, which Aid to the Church in Need has described as one of the most egregious abuses of human rights anywhere in the world. We have heard statistics from the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and others about Christian oppression, and some of the really horrific detail in the Aid to the Church in Need report for Red Wednesday looks at the oppression of women and girls held by Islamic extremists in Nigeria.
On minorities elsewhere, Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan face stigmatisation, and I pay tribute to the great work that the Ahmadi community does in Glasgow and elsewhere, despite all of that. There is the ever-present risk of both antisemitism and Islamophobia, about which my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Ms Qaisar) spoke so powerfully. The challenge facing indigenous beliefs and indigenous religions was particularly brought home to us during COP26. People are cleared off their land to make way for palm oil plantations or to access minerals that we all use in our mobile phones and jewellery. When those lands are sacred to people and they can no longer live and practise their beliefs on them, that is a form of religious oppression.
As we have heard, not least from my hon. Friend, intolerance and sectarianism are still far too common here at home. Many of us had difficulty worshipping as we would normally during the pandemic, when worship moved online, but an important judgment was made in the Court of Session in response to a case brought by Christian ministers, including my friend Canon Tom White, the parish priest of St Mary’s in Calton. It recognised the importance of being to worship in person, and I think that it will set an important precedent in years to come.
Talking of Canon White, he has had first-hand experiences of sectarian violence and witnessed attacks on his church and on his person in modern-day Glasgow. I pay tribute to the work of Interfaith and other ecumenical networks in Glasgow and elsewhere that seek to challenge that.
There was a very powerful COP26 Interfaith demo in George Square. Nine different religions and beliefs offered prayer and reflection in their own traditions, with hundreds of people coming together in the square and thousands of people following online around the world. The work of Interfaith Week has been recognised by the First Minister, and I also support its campaign to save the St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art in Glasgow, which is a world-class facility and must be preserved.
There is a role for the Government. They are cutting their aid spend just at the time when projects need the most faith-based organisations to deliver the most humanitarian aid and response all around the world. We have to welcome people who are fleeing religious intolerance, and yet that is not really what we heard from the Home Secretary at the Dispatch Box during the previous business. There are lessons for all of us, and this has been an important opportunity to raise them in the Chamber.
I am incredibly proud of the UK’s law in relation to freedom of religion and belief. I think that in Wycombe we can be incredibly proud of the number of religions that get along with one another peacefully and in harmony. We have various denominations of Christian faith, various branches of Islam, a Hindu temple and a Sikh temple, and I am sure many other religions are represented. I am very pleased and proud that people get along very peacefully together.
I want to explore why other countries and sometimes places in the UK, as the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Ms Qaisar) said, exhibit Islamophobia. Why does tolerance break down? Before I do so I would like to thank the hon. Lady for her kind words. I am very pleased and proud that she is in this House. I hope she will not mind if I say that I think she is a wonderful champion for modern British Islam. My only regret is that she is not on the Conservative Benches, but I am grateful to her for her kind comments.
Why does intolerance arise? My first observation is that people sometimes seem to forget, as they live out their faith, that it is a faith, They sometimes talk about their religion as if it was a matter of fact. I only wish sometimes that I had their certainty about the Lord in my life, but I am afraid people need to remember that they have a faith, which means matters are disputable, and they get on to very grave territory—very thin ice over very hot water—if they forget that they are holding on to a faith and that the things they believe cannot be proven. Indeed, I think that when atheists look at those of us who profess a faith, they are quite reasonable in thinking sometimes that what we believe is absurd. We all need to remember that we cannot prove those things that we believe, and therefore it is totally unacceptable to impose those beliefs on others.
That brings me on to tolerance. We in the UK have in several areas started to forget what it means to be tolerant: we have started to behave as if to be tolerant is to all agree on a consensus of what goes, but that is not right. To tolerate something is to put up with it despite profoundly disagreeing with it; in other words, it is to live and let live—to agree to disagree. The things we tolerate are things that we do not like, yet we do not proceed against them by force. That is the crucial principle of a free society: it is a crucial principle that allows us to live in peace and harmony with one another that when we disagree we just tolerate; we do not proceed using force, legal or otherwise, against those with whom we disagree.
That brings me on to a sensitive subject. I really lament blasphemy laws around the world. We have heard how Christians are persecuted in several places in the world, and I do not mind saying that occasionally I am asked to support blasphemy laws but my answer is always the same. If somebody says to me, “But prophet Isa would be protected by a blasphemy law”, I always have to say to them, “I’m so sorry, but your prophet Isa is to me the incarnate and risen God, and I know that what I’ve just said is a blasphemy in your religion and I hope you won’t mind my saying that your characterisation of the incarnate and risen God might be characterised as a blasphemy in mine.” For that reason we simply cannot have blasphemy laws: for me, that example is a way of illustrating, in a way people can accept, why blasphemy laws are totally unacceptable, and I have not yet found a single person who has refuted that.
What I am trying to say to my right hon. Friend the Minister is that, as we go about the world trying to promote freedom of religion and belief, can we please not just look at the leaves of this terrible tree of suffering where people are persecuted; can we also please try to get down to the roots? I believe that the roots are that people forget that their faith is just that: a faith that cannot be proven. They forget that one of the most important principles of a free society is that we should tolerate things that are doing no harm.
As a Christian, I believe in the eternal, and I believe therefore that what really matters is what is true in religion, but I accept that I cannot prove it to anyone and I am thoroughly prepared to believe that each one of us is responsible for our own salvation and it is not my problem or responsibility in the end to save the souls of others; it is their problem, much as I might be willing to evangelise. I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister as he goes about the world to try to persuade politicians and indeed electorates elsewhere that what they need to do is learn to be tolerant: to let others go their own way in search of their own salvation in peace, and that way to enjoy freedom of religion or belief.
I commend the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on her presentation. Although she is too modest to mention it herself, I congratulate her on being invited to chair the 33-country International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance for the year from January 2022, which will provide an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the UK’s ambition to be the international champion for freedom of religion or belief that year.
I chair the all-party group on international freedom of religion or belief. I speak for those with a Christian faith, those with other faiths and indeed those with no faith, because I believe that is what my Lord and Saviour tells me to do. He loves everyone; he is a God of love but he is a God of justice as well. It is a big honour to chair the all-party group and I am pleased to say that those present and contributing in the Chamber today demonstrate the all-party nature of the all-party group. It should not be a matter of politics whether someone believes freedom of religion or belief to be a fundamental human right. Everyone has the right to freedom of religion or belief, and that includes the right to change that religion or belief.
Open Doors sent some interesting facts, and in the short time that I have, I will give some examples from across the world. Some 340 million Christians suffer high levels of persecution and discrimination. For the first time ever, all the top 50 countries on the Open Doors list score “very high” or worse for levels of persecution. At least one in eight Christians worldwide is affected by very high or high levels of persecution, and the total number of Christians killed for their faith rose last year by 60% to 4,761. Again, that illustrates to me just how serious the situation is.
The right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) referred to Maira Shahbaz. I mentioned her in my question to the Leader of the House today, and I hope to receive a response from the Department responsible. I chair the Pakistani minorities APPG, and just today we launched a report to highlight the abduction and kidnapping of young Christian and Hindu girls in Pakistan. What is happening is horrendous. At a Red Wednesday event yesterday, we watched video testimony from a Christian girl in Pakistan called Neha Parvaiz. What has happened to her is horrendous. She was abducted by her aunt, forcibly converted and married to her uncle—her own flesh and blood—who then abused her. We must highlight these things. We must highlight this gender-based violence, and the fact that women and girls—Christian and other ethnic minority girls—are subject to sexual violence and, indeed, forced marriage.
I also want to highlight the issue of 41-year-old Pakistani Christian Sawan Masih. He was charged with blasphemy, which the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) referred to. After a court case, he was released, but he had to go into hiding as a result of what happened. Again, that highlights what happens across the world. Steadfast Global, a Scotland-based evangelical Christian ministry working with persecuted Christians, has provided safe-house accommodation for the family. That illustrates to me very clearly what is happening there. It also highlights why it is imperative that the Government recognise minority religious or belief communities as groups that often face increased vulnerabilities and should be prioritised in asylum and refugee schemes.
In China, Christians are facing increased problems from technology for their ability to worship. Reports from counties in Henan and Jiangxi provinces state that there are now cameras in all state-approved religious venues; in the very churches, the Chinese have CCTV cameras, as well as their own people to keep an eye on what is happening.
I will not go over the situation in India again—the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) mentioned it—but I want to highlight the problems that are occurring in Turkey, where society flagrantly fails to recognise that minority groups can have innocent motivations and legitimate concerns. The rights of tens of thousands—if not millions—in Turkey are at risk. Is it not time that we highlighted the issues for the Kurds, the Christians, the Jews, the Armenians and other minorities?
Nigeria is another country where Christians have really bad problems. Churches are burned and destroyed, and Christians are killed and injured; their women are assaulted and kidnapped and sometimes never heard from again. These are countries where we have to do our bit to help.
Let me finish on the situation of the Baha’is across the world. The Minister will remember the debate we had on the Baha’is. They are a lovely people, a gentle people, a religious people, but in Iran, for example, they cannot have jobs—they cannot have employment—and their land is stolen from them. For the Baha’is in Iran, it is cradle-to-grave persecution. Baha’i students are prevented from accessing university or expelled in the course of their studies. All these things, again, illustrate the issue.
Today we have named many religious or belief communities that face denial of the rights enshrined in article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights. In the wider struggle for freedom of religion or belief, it is encouraging at least to witness the cross-party, cross-religion and cross-belief nature of this endeavour. I urge everyone to speak up in this House and to be a voice for the voiceless. I will finish by reading from Scripture psalm 34, verses 4, 5 and 8:
“I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears.
Those who look to him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed…
Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!”
I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing the debate, which has been characterised by a number of very intelligent and very humanitarian speeches on today’s topic. I was particularly struck by the comments from the hon. Members for Airdrie and Shotts (Ms Qaisar) and for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), and my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker).
The previous subject before the House—the events yesterday in the English channel—is one that all of us with an interest in humanitarian issues around the globe will reflect on. Were we to create a Venn diagram of different types of oppression, we would find a high degree of commonality between those places where there is a lack of freedom of religion and religious expression, and those places where there is a lack of freedom to express political, gender and sexual values in the way that we—in what is for the most part a liberal and western democracy—take for granted. As we consider the work of the United Nations, it is enormously important that in this place we can focus on values that are not just those of the great religions of the world but ones that we tend to hold dear as British values, too, which we hold in common and which we can defend robustly.
I was particularly struck by the comments of the hon. Member for Glasgow North, who is no longer in his place. Glasgow is one of those places that has stepped forward as a city of sanctuary for people seeking asylum in the United Kingdom. It stands out in Scotland for having done that. It is a place that has been known for many years for the compassion it has shown; compassion expressed not just as a sentiment but practically in ensuring that there is housing, education and care available for people going through the asylum process.
When it comes to challenging institutions, it is important to highlight the need for empathy, which the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts touched on in her comments. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe, I represent an extremely diverse constituency where there are people of faith—there are Muslims, Christians and Jews—who adhere to all the great world religions and many of the smaller ones, too. Navigating things like the planning system can seem enormously challenging. If you want to create a new Islamic education centre and a mosque, it can feel like the odds are against you in a way that would not be the case if you wished to open a new church, for example. We in this country need to recognise that, and when we talk about shared British values we need to ensure that we are genuinely inclusive and that everyone in the United Kingdom who adheres to those values, from whatever faith, has equality of access to our system.
Since becoming a parent, I have been struck by the usefulness of the British values programme in our schools in opening that opportunity up to as many people as we can across our constituencies. For my six-year-old son, pursuing British values has meant the opportunity to go to a church to look at the symbolism of Christianity and to talk about what that means. It has meant making Diya lamps for Diwali and having discussions about what that means for people: why the celebration is taking place and what the overcoming of the darkness by light means. It has meant having people coming in from different local religions to talk about the work they have been doing to support members of their community through the covid pandemic and how faith in the religious institution they are a part of has been so important in making a difference to people of all faiths and none in their area. In a constituency where there are more than 100 first languages spoken, that diversity is something that we recognise as an enormous strength. It is a strength that has been proven in the context of the pandemic and it is a strength that we can see developing in our educational institutions for the future.
I will finish with a request for the Minister to consider. This comes back to what we were discussing earlier and is an issue that many have mentioned: those who come to seek asylum in our country. We know that there is a recognised need to establish safe and legal routes for people to disrupt the business model used by people smugglers—those who were clearly and very directly responsible for the deaths of people in the English channel yesterday. We heard in the contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton and many others, including the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), about people across the globe who find themselves in a position of enormous difficulty and sometimes direct peril to life and limb as a result of adhering to a particularly religion. As the cross-Government discussion develops about what those safe and legal routes look like and what they mean to people in Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and various countries in Africa, I encourage Ministers to ensure that we always recognise the changing perils that adherence to a particular faith and freedom of religion may bring in those places; and that, in putting together those safe and legal routes for those who will find sanctuary in the UK, we think about how that freedom of religion can be protected and how those we are not able to protect can come to find sanctuary in our country legally.
It is a pleasure to speak in this hugely important but sadly still all too relevant debate. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds), who gave an extremely thoughtful and considered contribution to the debate, as have so many others, and I thank the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for securing it. I thank everyone who has taken part; it is good to see that the subject of freedom of religion or belief has such deep and widespread support across the House. I, too, pay tribute to everyone’s hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for all that he does on the all-party group on international freedom of religion or belief.
On this 40 days ago, 25 November 1981, the United Nations made its landmark declaration on the elimination of all forms of intolerance and of discrimination based on religion or belief. As the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) said, article 1 of that declaration states:
“Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”
Article 2 confirms:
“No one shall be subject to discrimination by any State, institution, group of persons, or person on the grounds of religion or belief.”
It is thoroughly depressing to think that in the intervening four decades, the world appears to have gone backwards on ensuring freedom of religion or belief across great swathes of the planet. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) said, all one has to do is look at the Open Doors watch list for 2021 to see that practising one’s Christian faith or expressing a deeply held Christian belief could come at the cost of one’s life.
Of course, religious persecution is not exclusively against Christians—indeed, far from it, and I sincerely thank my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Ms Qaisar) for reminding us that these problems exist very much on our doorstep. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) for highlighting the appalling ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, which, as he said, has been described as
“the most egregious violations of human rights in recent memory”.
I also thank him for raising the treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. That should remind us all that people of all faiths and none are facing persecution and that they all deserve equal protection from those who would seek to do them harm for practising their faith or expressing their belief.
Sadly, the evidence in front of our eyes and ears tells us that right now, across the world, there are hundreds of millions of people living in fear of persecution simply because of the convictions they hold or the faith that they profess. We have heard from Members that there is no typical model for how that manifests itself. It can come in the form of direct state suppression—a heavy-handed state crackdown, as we would recognise in China or North Korea. As we have seen in Myanmar, it can come through state-sponsored terrorism.
Persecution can also manifest in the form of discriminatory laws that favour one group ahead of another, as we are currently seeing in India and Pakistan. Of course, persecution can come in the form of organisations such as Daesh, who set out to eradicate the Yazidi people by murdering men and boys and condemning women to a life of sexual slavery—a despicable and heinous tactic that is now being used in Africa by organisations such as Boko Haram and ISWAP. But wherever it comes from and however it manifests itself, we as individuals, as groups and as Governments have to call it out. We have to be seen to be doing everything we possibly can to stop it. It is incumbent on all Governments to take whatever action they can.
It is fitting that we are having this debate on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Yesterday, to mark Red Wednesday, the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need published a report, “Hear Her Cries: The kidnapping, forced conversion and sexual victimisation of Christian women and girls”. It is a harrowing read, but essential for anyone who wants to understand the day-to-day reality facing too many of our Christian sisters around the world.
“Hear Her Cries” comes in response to the Bishop of Truro’s 2019 independent review, particularly its recommendation 5, which set out the need for further research on how issues of freedom of religion or belief intersect with basic human rights issues such as people trafficking, gender equality, gender-based violence, kidnapping, forced conversion and the forced marriage of young women and girls. On that point, I think that it is appropriate to mention the case of Leah Sharibu, who has been held captive by Boko Haram in Nigeria since February 2018. I urge the Government to do everything they possibly can to help to secure Leah’s release.
One of the main findings in Aid to the Church in Need’s 2021 report on religious freedom in the world is that crimes against women and girls, including abduction and rape, are happening in a growing number of countries. However, we have to accept that even that reported increase is the tip of the iceberg: the abduction, rape, forced conversion and marriage of young, mainly Christian girls remain chronically under-reported, as the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) said. That was recognised by the Nigerian Government, who admitted that last year’s officially recorded figure of 210 cases of conflict-related sexual violence did not reflect the reality of the situation on the ground.
Similarly, one report said that 1,000 Christian and Hindu girls were victims of abduction, rape, torture and forced conversion across the whole of Pakistan last year, while another equally important report said that the same figure represented just one province in Pakistan. It really should not come as a great surprise that these awful crimes are chronically under-reported. The United Nations recognises that in Nigeria, as elsewhere in the world, the under-reporting is due to people’s fear of being stigmatised within their community and their fear of bringing shame on themselves or their family.
In 2019, the charity International Alert reported that when many of the thousands of women and girls who escaped from Boko Haram managed to return home, they faced rejection, marginalisation and stigmatisation from their friends, their family and the wider community. In Iraq, Archbishop Semaan of the Syriac Catholic Church recognised the same problem among women and girls from minority faith communities who had been abducted by Daesh, saying that they will not talk about it because they are ashamed. As wrong as that is, it is the sad reality.
Those who do have the courage to speak up are all too often met with indifference or open hostility from the authorities. We have seen too many examples of the judiciary siding with the perpetrator and sometimes sending very young girls back to the home of their abductor and rapist because a court chooses to recognise a false marriage certificate. Even if they escape, report the crime and actually win the court case, those young girls and their families have to live in constant fear of reprisal from the perpetrators and their religious supporters.
That point brings me to the awful case of Maira Shahbaz, a Pakistani girl aged 14 who was kidnapped by a gang of men. She was raped, tortured and forced to marry one of her rapists before falsely claiming to have converted. Maira’s mother went to the police, but when the case came to court, Maira was sent back to the man who had raped her. She escaped and they are now living in hiding, while the men who raped her go door to door hunting for them. They are understandably terrified. She has effectively swapped one form of imprisonment for another. In the foreword to “Hear Her Cries”, Maira asks, on behalf of thousands of girls:
“Who will help us? Who will speak up for us? Who cares about our situation?”
I know that the hon. Member for Congleton and others have lobbied the UK Government, and I hope and pray that the UK Government will be able to step in. They are aware of Maira’s situation because of these interventions. In response to a letter that I wrote in September, the Home Secretary said that her officials were “exploring all possible options”. I should be hugely grateful if, when he replies to the debate, the Minister could update the House on the progress of the application for asylum for Maira and her family.
We have had a very serious and sober debate, and one that is appropriate for the 40th anniversary of the UN declaration. I want to add my thanks to the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce)—whom I also want to call my hon. Friend, as we served together on the International Development Committee—for once again securing such an important debate, and also to thank the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, of which she is a deputy chair and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is the chair. The APPG has been instrumental in briefing Members throughout the House.
This afternoon we have heard important and often moving contributions. We heard, of course, from the promoter of the debate, the hon. Member for Congleton. We heard from the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), who talked about the work of Open Doors, and the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), who expressed concern about our own occasional religious intolerance in the UK and suggested that many groups on the edge of some of our faiths should also be allowed space.
We heard a very touching contribution from the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Ms Qaisar): I found it moving and personal, coming from a Muslim woman living in Scotland who is now a Member of Parliament. We also heard from the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas). He is rightly proud of his local bishop, the Bishop of Truro, who led the review that instigated some of the actions that have been taken and made clear to the hon. Member for Congleton the kind of work that she needs to pursue. We heard from the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), who is always very articulate. He mentioned Falun Gong and the organ harvesting, and the beliefs of indigenous peoples, which we must never forget. The hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) spoke about the diverse nature of his constituency. Mine is also diverse. Why, he asked, does intolerance arise? He talked movingly about his own personal beliefs, and about the principles of a free society.
Then, of course, there was everybody’s good friend, the hon. Member for Strangford, who is always present at these debates and always keeps us well informed about such matters. As I said earlier, he is the chair of the APPG, and he mentioned problems in Turkey and Iran.
I found the final Back-Bench contribution, from the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds), extremely well informed. He expressed many views articulately, including his views on the practical ways in which asylum seekers are helped up and down the country, but especially in the city of Glasgow. He also said that we must have consistency in our values in the United Kingdom.
As we have said, the debate comes at an important time as we mark the 40th anniversary of the UN declaration on the elimination of religious intolerance, as well as Islamophobia Awareness Month. With persecution still rife across the world, it is more important than ever that we, as parliamentarians on all sides of the House, reaffirm our commitment to the values and principles of that declaration. While we certainly have our own problems at home with several forms of racism—whether it be anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or any other prejudice—freedom of religion or belief must also be at the heart of our international relations. Where we are able to empower and promote individual and collective freedoms we must do so, because it is vital to international peace and stability. However, it is just as important that we challenge those who choose to persecute others on the basis of their belief.
Before I go on to speak about some of the religious groups that are being shockingly persecuted in many parts of the world, let me point out that we must not forget the people who are being persecuted simply for being non-believers. The fact that 13 countries in the world still maintain the death penalty for blasphemy or apostasy is extremely worrying, but many more have seen people murdered just for choosing not to believe.
Just one of the many people in prison for alleged blasphemy is the president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, Mubarak Bala, who has been locked away in prison since 28 April 2020, pending trial for a Facebook post that was deemed to be blasphemous. His arrest followed a pattern of online and physical harassment culminating in a legal petition to the police accusing him of being
“provocative and annoying to Muslims”
on Facebook. If he is convicted, the punishment will be death. I know that all of us across this House oppose the death penalty in any circumstances, but we have to face the fact that Mubarak has, like so many others, been denied access not only to medical care but to a legal team. We must pursue as many diplomatic avenues as possible to deter this kind of behaviour. We all agree that it is totally unacceptable, inhumane and completely wrong.
I would like to turn now to one of the most disturbing cases of religious persecution in the world today, the genocide against the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. The Chinese Government’s persecution of Uyghur and other Turkic minorities in Xinjiang has been widely and credibly reported, dating back to 2017. On this side of the House we will always stand up for human rights everywhere, and against violations wherever they take place, including Xinjiang. The allegations against Chinese Communist party officials are stark, and include the mass surveillance and arbitrary detention of more than 1 million Uyghurs and members of other Turkic Muslim minority groups, torture and inhuman treatment, the enforced separation of children from parents, the denial of people’s right to practise their religion or speak their language, rape, forced sterilisation and forced labour. This is extremely disturbing, and the world simply must not turn a blind eye.
That is why, over the past 18 months, my colleagues the shadow Foreign Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), and the shadow Minister for Asia and the Pacific, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), have met a range of experts, including the World Uyghur Congress, and raised the issue with the Chinese embassy, as well as writing to our own Government Ministers. I would like to hear from the Minister what action he is taking to help to urgently resolve such shocking and vile persecution.
I also urge the Government to apply sanctions to the Chinese Government officials responsible—many more than the four who have already been sanctioned, which I believe is a pitiful number—as well as making clear the Government’s support for UK businesses to ensure that their supply chains do not include workers who are subject to human rights violations in Xinjiang, by co-ordinating work across all Whitehall Departments to bring this about. If we are serious about playing our part in bringing this kind of persecution to an end, the Government must now state unequivocally, as this House has done, that they recognise the oppression in Xinjiang as genocide.
The UK’s role should not, and cannot, end there, especially while other religious groups are being persecuted. As we have heard this afternoon, Christians in Iran are being denied basic human rights and a place of worship, with just four small and heavily monitored churches open in the whole country. We have also heard about the appalling treatment of the Rohingya people in Myanmar. We have to lead by example in standing up for basic religious freedoms.
I will end my remarks by reminding colleagues, who I am sure will be as worried about this fact as I am, that for the first time since 2001, authoritarian regimes now outnumber the world’s democracies. More worryingly still, the number of such regimes is growing. That is bad news not only for freedom of religion and belief but for freedom of the press, freedom of expression and human rights more generally. We on this side of the House are clear that these freedoms—the rule of law, democracy and human rights—are at the very heart of our agenda. We are absolutely clear that religious freedom is a critical right that must be universally upheld, as every speaker this afternoon from across the House has made clear. I would therefore be grateful if the Minister outlined the United Kingdom Government’s commitment to those freedoms today.
I am proud to represent the constituency of Leeds North East, where just last week on Mitzvah Day the Jewish community came together with the Leeds Muslim community to work to prevent the exploitation of women and girls. This is just one example of the togetherness and collaboration that our city’s religious communities have shown, especially throughout the past 18 months, which have been particularly difficult for so many. Whether it is Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs or Hindus, all our religious communities have shown what the kind of freedoms we enjoy in our country can lead to: peace and harmony between us all. That is what we should work towards for the rest of the world too.
I am genuinely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for securing this debate on the anniversary of an incredibly important day. I also pay tribute to her tireless and inspirational work as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, and to the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, which also works so hard. It would be deeply remiss of me not to put on record my thanks, huge respect and admiration for the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who works so tirelessly on this issue, and for the incredibly effective work of the APPG, which he chairs.
It is fitting that this debate falls in the week of Red Wednesday, a day to stand in solidarity with persecuted Christians around the world. This debate marks the 40th anniversary of the declaration on the elimination of religious intolerance. Fittingly, today is also the UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, which I will touch on later.
The shared passion in this House for protecting the freedom of religion or belief, alongside other human rights, is clear, and it is something of which we can all be proud. Members on both sides of the House have made incredibly thoughtful and, at times, moving contributions. Although time is limited and I cannot attach remarks to them all, I will try to cover at least some of them.
The UK is fiercely committed to defending the freedom of religion or belief for all, and to promoting respect between different religious and non-religious communities. That point was spoken about so well and so characteristically thoughtfully by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), who is a good friend.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, I am pleased that, with the full and enthusiastic support of the Prime Minister, the UK will be hosting an international ministerial conference on FORB on 5 and 6 July 2022 right here in London. Conference planning is well under way, and we expect to engage with stakeholders including religious and non-religious groups. I know that my hon. Friend is playing a key role in supporting the efforts to deliver that conference, and I thank her for her positive comments about the work done by Ministers and, perhaps more importantly, by officials in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, both over the road in King Charles Street and in posts around the world.
In addition to hosting the conference, we are pursuing three broad avenues to advance freedom of religion or belief and to tackle the associated human rights concerns. First, we are working through multilateral bodies. Secondly, we are working directly with states to encourage them to uphold their human rights obligations. And thirdly, we are continuing to take forward the Bishop of Truro’s recommendations to strengthen our support for those persecuted for their faith or belief. My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) is right to be proud of the work he has done.
On multilateralism, we work with organisations such as the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the G7 and the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance. Again, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton for her active representation of the UK at the alliance. I am delighted that she is being considered for the chair. With characteristic humility, she managed not to mention that in her speech, but I think she should have done. I am glad she is being considered for the chair in 2022.
I also congratulate my ministerial colleague Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon on the important role he plays, representing the UK so ably within the alliance and the UN, as well as leading the UK’s human rights advocacy around the world. I welcome the three joint statements issued recently by the alliance, which covered Iraq, Afghanistan and Myanmar.
On Afghanistan, we continue to work with the UN to deliver our FORB objectives. For example, on 7 October we co-sponsored a UN Human Rights Council resolution on Afghanistan that established the mandate of a special rapporteur to monitor and report on the human rights situation, including for religious groups, as well as for non-religious groups. As for other multilateral organisations, in June, alongside G7 members, we urged North Korea to respect human rights for all and engage substantively with the international community on FORB. In May, we secured the inclusion of language on FORB in the G7 communiqué for the first time, demonstrating our strong leadership on this issue and ensuring that FORB remains firmly on the world stage.
On our bilateral work, we regularly raise specific issues with other Governments, both in public and, when we believe it is most effective, in private. For instance, Lord Ahmad raised the issue of reports of discrimination and violence against religious and belief minority communities with Prime Minister Khan during his recent visit to Pakistan.
On the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, let me underline that we condemn forced marriage and the forced conversion of women and girls in the very strongest terms. A particular case has been raised by a number of hon. Members. Although I am often uncomfortable speaking about specific cases for fear that the safety of individuals could be compromised, I can assure Members from across the House that we fund projects in Pakistan to help to address forced marriage and bring up the plight of both communities and individuals where we can. No one should suffer because of their religion or belief, and as many Members from across the House have said, no one should suffer twice because of both their religion and belief, and their gender.
Beyond the concerning issue of forced marriage in Pakistan and elsewhere, I also condemn all the violence in Nigeria. Terrorist attacks in north-east Nigeria and incidents of intercommunal violence across many states in Nigeria have had a devastating effect on both Christian and Muslim communities. Religious identity is a factor in the violence, but the root causes are of course more complex. In July, the former Minister for Africa raised those concerns with the Nigerian Foreign Minister in the margins of the global education summit. We will continue to raise issues and to encourage states to uphold their human rights obligations.
Turning finally to the Bishop of Truro’s review, we are making good progress on all 22 recommendations in the final report, including the recommendation that called for an independent review—again, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton raised that. Just this week, the FCDO estate was lit up to mark Red Wednesday, standing in solidarity with persecuted Christians across the world. That follows specifically from recommendation 19 of the bishop’s report about marking and promoting days in support of FORB for all. Recommendation 5 is about bolstering our research, and I am pleased that the FCDO launched the John Bunyan fund for FORB. We have used it to fund research on intersectioning vulnerabilities experienced by religious minorities living in Nigeria and in India in the shadow of covid-19. As has been highlighted, recommendation 8 concerns the use of sanctions to address FORB issues. In March, alongside the European Union, the United States and Canada, we imposed sanctions on four former Chinese Government officials and one Government entity for the gross human rights violations against the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, which the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) highlighted.
To conclude, the UK has a duty and a drive to promote and defend equality, inclusion and respect, both at home and abroad. I assure the House that that will remain a foundation stone of UK foreign policy and that the Government do not take that duty lightly. We are and will continue to be a voice for the voiceless and defenders of the right to freedom of religion or belief for everyone, everywhere.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered freedom of religion or belief and the 40th anniversary of the UN Declaration on the elimination of religious intolerance.