I beg to move,
That this House has considered the UK-hosted International Conference on the Freedom of Religion or Belief.
Colleagues, the world is changing. We cannot be complacent about peace and stability. We need only look to Ukraine to see that. Millions of people today are being denied their freedom of religion or belief. FORB violations are getting worse in severity and scale. Across the world, people are losing their jobs, education, homes, livelihoods, families, freedom and access to justice, and even life itself, simply on account of what they believe. People are being discriminated against, marginalised, beaten, threatened, tortured and killed, and too often by their own Governments—the very Governments with a duty to protect their citizens’ freedom of religion or belief.
Why should that be, in the 21st century? Key exacerbating factors include rising intolerance and oppression by authoritarian regimes such as China, Myanmar and Afghanistan; frequent terrorist attacks by extremist groups, as in Nigeria, which now often function transnationally; the use, or rather misuse, of increasingly sophisticated technology to oppress minority groups; and the increasing FORB abuses during the covid pandemic.
We must actively protect free societies, and FORB is essential to that. When FORB goes, so many other basic human rights fall away too—yes, freedoms of speech, expression and association, but also access to healthcare, food and work, and even liberty and life itself. Discrimination damages democracies. Persecution impedes the development of the skills and talents of all, and impoverishes economies, so religious freedom is not just a benefit to those with religious beliefs; it is a benefit to all.
When President Roosevelt, one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the United Nations, envisioned a world of peaceful coexistence between nations, he stressed the need for four essential freedoms to exist in any stable, secure, democratic society: freedom of expression, freedom from want, freedom from fear and freedom of belief. When FORB is respected, societies are more likely to be stable and secure, and to flourish economically. They are less prone to extremist attacks. So it is not to put too fine a point on it to say that in promoting FORB we are promoting peace. Indeed, promoting FORB is essential to securing global peace, and doing so now is as critical as ever.
The UK Government are deeply concerned about the increase in FORB violations globally and see defending FORB as a human rights priority, as part of what our Foreign Secretary calls the international network of liberty, so the UK is next week hosting a major international conference in central London—the 2022 international ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief.
There is clearly a great deal of interest among parliamentarians about when the independent review—the Truro report—will be published. Will my hon. Friend, who is the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, confirm that publication is at hand? Will she also make it clear that as the Truro review is a manifesto commitment, although there is clearly more work to do on it, there is no question whatever of work on specific recommendations ceasing just because the review is taking place?
I thank my hon. Friend for that important question. Work is indeed in hand, and I concur with his view that work on that manifesto commitment and on the recommendations of the Truro review must continue. It is far from complete.
At the ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief, we will welcome hundreds of delegates from over 60 countries, around half of which will be represented by Government Ministers. We will also welcome faith and belief leaders and representatives, civil society activists, academics and—importantly—FORB abuse survivors with their powerful accounts to tell. On 5 and 6 July, after a keynote speech from the Foreign Secretary, we will hold sessions on promoting FORB in the face of global challenges; early warning, and atrocity prevention; FORB and education; promoting FORB in the digital world; engaging the next generation; the multiple vulnerabilities of women and girls; FORB and the media; inspiring parliamentarians; and much more.
Those of us who have planned this conference could not have worked harder to ensure there is a diversity of participants from all faiths and none and from across the world. As the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, I was involved in setting up a civil society advisory group representing many faith and belief backgrounds to help with the planning of the conference. We cannot afford for that conference to be merely a talking shop; it has to lead to increased global action and help drive forward international efforts to protect and promote FORB for everyone, everywhere.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on having secured this important debate. Two years ago, I had the great privilege of meeting the Bishop of Truro at his official residence down in Feock in Cornwall. Does my hon. Friend agree that this would be an appropriate time for those countries that attend the conference to establish their own Truro review to ensure that they maintain the objectives that are so clearly outlined in the bishop’s report?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. One aim of the conference is to share best practice on how countries can prevent FORB violations and how they can work together to do so. I am firmly convinced that the recommendations of the Truro review set a standard that it is worth other countries looking at and indeed following. However, no one country has all the answers; we need to work together to build the capacity of FORB defenders and persuade violators of the positive case for change.
Freedom of religion or belief needs to be mainstreamed by Governments globally. It is not a side issue for individuals, communities or countries; Governments need to recognise the importance of including FORB in foreign and other policymaking, or we will face increasing challenges to peace across the world. Legal systems need to be strengthened to ensure that when a country has signed up internationally to FORB principles, such as through article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights, that translates into practice on the ground, so that when a young woman who has been so-called forcibly married—that is, raped—goes into a police station, she can expect justice, not to be turned away.
We will be asking questions such as, what best practice can countries share to promote FORB and prevent its violation? How can we better protect the many women and girls from minority groups who suffer double jeopardy on account of their gender and their beliefs? How can we ensure that victims receive better treatment and effective trauma care? How can we address the lack of religious literacy about FORB among policymakers, which was one of the excellent recommendations in the Truro review? And how can FORB, and the reasons why it matters to everyone and to whole societies, not just those with religious beliefs, be introduced into education syllabi to inform young people and, hopefully, to inspire a whole new generation of FORB champions to spread the word about its importance, just as they have about climate change?
Achieving real change will require international collaboration on FORB, involving not only Governments but civil society organisations, which are so often at the forefront of reporting FORB abusers. That is why civil society engagement with our conference is so critical.
Addressing FORB will require political will and enduring commitment from the highest level of Governments if it is to be effective, and that will need to be backed up by real resources. We need to find ways to prevent violations of FORB from occurring, working with religious communities to do so and to discover flashpoints. We must seek to identify and disarm sources of tension. We need to build resilience and to encourage and foster dialogue.
The international community needs to develop mechanisms to help co-ordinate the increasing number of groups concerned about and working on FORB internationally. How can we better monitor FORB violations? Governments need to develop effective early-warning mechanisms to prevent mass atrocities. Countries need to work together to hold perpetrators of FORB violations to account through targeted sanctions, to ensure more follow the lead of the UK and other countries on human rights-based sanctions. Last month, I held a debate about FORB and digital persecution. We need to look at ways to prevent the misuse of technology and at how to use digital mapping to identify and track FORB violations in order to deliver more targeted interventions.
As we have planned the conference, we have deliberately invited a good number of young people. We need to help, support and inspire the next generation of FORB champions and to provide support for FORB defenders, particularly those persecuted for speaking up for this human right. The next generation need education curricula promoting an understanding of FORB, as do the wider public.
In the months running up to the conference, I and my deputy special envoy, David Burrowes, have toured the UK with a roadshow, speaking to community groups in about 25 towns and cities and raising awareness of FORB. This is a typical reaction:
“I had no idea that this amount of persecution is happening in the world today.”
More information about our tour is on the website endthepersecution.uk, including free toolkits for places of worship, schools and communities to help spread the word about FORB and its importance.
We are looking for more countries to sign up in support of FORB, to develop coalitions of the willing. This year, I chair the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance—or IRFBA. I have been pleased to see more countries become members—there are now 36. We work to ensure that FORB is championed across the world and that FORB violations are called out.
The work of IRFBA is strengthening. In the past year we have issued statements on Afghanistan, Myanmar, Ukraine and Nigeria, and in support of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Ahmadiyya and the Baha’i. Most pleasing has been the action that has followed these statements, such as in Afghanistan. IRFBA helped trigger one of our countries to provide visas for targeted religious minorities, and another country to provide a plane so that 190 people from Afghanistan, threatened on account of their beliefs, were flown out to safety. Many of them would almost certainly be dead now had IRFBA not intervened.
Our IRFBA education working group has informed the ministerial conference session, as has our deep dive into protecting religious heritage. The sight of the hugely significant UNESCO religious sites in Ukraine being destroyed by Russian forces has been appalling and is an affront to the people of Ukraine and the world. We at IRFBA now look forward to being a key vehicle to help deliver on the outcomes of the ministerial conference and to further galvanise multilateral efforts.
Working internationally on FORB, I have come to realise how our Parliament’s cross-party work on FORB is pre-eminent across the globe. The UK has a unique, good story to tell about our cross-party work, and the impact of our all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. I have no doubt that the ministerial conference would not be happening next week but for the work of our APPG over the past 10 years. It is now the largest APPG in Parliament, with almost 160 parliamentarians as members. I pay tribute to our current chairs—in the Commons, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and in the Lords, Baroness Cox.
Next week, in addition to the UK Government hosting the ministerial conference, we will have a superb range of more than 100 FORB fringe events, co-ordinated by the APPG and the growing UK Freedom of Religion or Belief Forum of civil society groups. Some of those fringe events will be in the QEII centre, where the ministerial meeting is being hosted, but others will be in Parliament, elsewhere around Westminster and across the country, with most needing no pass to attend—see the website www.londonforbfringe.com for details. For anyone who cannot travel, the ministerial event will be livestreamed—see the FORB ministerial section on the gov.uk website. Together, let us ensure that the right to FORB is shared across the globe and reaches those parts where freedoms are dimmed or darkened today—places such as China, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and many others.
I will finish where I started, in Ukraine, and with the wording of the statement on Ukraine, which I issued as chair of IRFBA:
“As members of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, we commend the courage, dignity and determination of the people of Ukraine and their leadership. We stand in solidarity with them, including religious communities throughout the country. We condemn Russia’s premeditated, unprovoked and unjustified attack on Ukraine, our fellow IRFBA member.
Ukraine is a strong democracy whose diverse population includes Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, non-believers, and members of other religious groups. With its multiplicity of faith perspectives, Ukraine has been a strong and active defender of the human right to freedom of religion or belief, and was one of the earliest countries to commit to membership of the IRFBA and its principles. Its legislation guarantees the equal rights of people of all religions or beliefs.
We denounce President Putin’s cynical attempt to misuse, for his own ends, the history and suffering of people during the Holocaust and World War II, including Ukrainian Jews. His baseless claim that Ukraine is a hotbed for neo-Nazism is just one of the many pretexts fabricated for his war of choice. This is not the first time the Kremlin has falsely accused its neighbours of neo-Nazism and fascism as a cover for its own provocations and human rights abuses.
We urge the Kremlin and Russia’s military to cease its illegal invasion and respect the safety of the civilian population of Ukraine, including all religious communities, and to respect the individually held human right to freedom of religion or belief at all times.
We call on all Russians, whatever their religion or belief, to stand up for peace.”
I congratulate the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on bringing forward the debate. She is a dear friend and colleague, and I am pleased to see her in such a prominent role for our Government and those with Christian and other beliefs across the world. It is very pleasurable for me to be involved in a debate alongside the hon. Lady. The debate will be a milestone for the UK, as we look forward to the international conference, to which the hon. Lady referred.
As chair of the APPG for international freedom of religion or belief, I declare a keen interest in this issue, and it will probably be no surprise that the matter is very close to my heart. Indeed, every Thursday in the main Chamber—if God spares me—I ask the Leader of the House a question that relates to religious belief. He always responds in a positive fashion, and it is encouraging to have a response like that from the Leader of the House. We stand up for those with Christian beliefs, those with other beliefs and those with no belief.
The hon. Lady referred to some of the visits that the APPG has made in the past few years, including to Pakistan, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt. Last week, we went to Nigeria. Also present is the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara), who is another dear friend of mine, because we share many of the same interests in human rights and protecting religious beliefs. He, I and other Members recently visited Nigeria, which I will speak about as I progress through my speech. It is a pleasure to speak up.
The hon. Lady referred to Ukrainians. The APPG visited Poland a wee while ago to encourage the Polish Government and people to continue to help Ukrainian refugees, but also to reiterate our support for them. In many cases, Ukrainian refugees have been put out of their homes, victimised and brutalised, and their relatives have been murdered. Those things are real for us, and we speak up for the Muslims, the Sikhs, the Hindus, the Shi’as, the Sunnis, the Baha’is, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia—where they are persecuted—and on behalf of our stakeholders as well.
Hosting the conference is a privilege. Does the hon. Member agree that if we are to continue being a role model in freedom of religion or belief, we should be doing more to recognise and help the persecuted elsewhere, such as the Uyghurs, who are facing genocide by the People’s Republic of China?
I certainly do. The hon. Lady always makes very pertinent points in her interventions, and I thank her. I will speak about the Uyghurs shortly.
I am a Christian and, in this country, I have the right to go to church as and when I like. That should not be a privilege; it should be a right, but for some it is not. We are all born with a capacity to have a relationship with God, and we should be free to exercise or choose not to exercise that ability accordingly. That is at the heart of who we are as humans, but that freedom and birth right is not the reality for millions of people around the world, which is why the hon. Member for Congleton secured today’s debate. Many of us are motivated to be here on behalf of those people and their right to hold a faith, practise it, and freely change it if they wish to do so.
In a world of increasing division and hostility, I am glad to say that those of us who work to promote freedom of religion or belief in this House work across political divides and from a host of different faith and belief backgrounds. We put differences aside to recognise the similarities that unite us—similarities that are unfortunately disregarded and derided by extremists in other countries, and sometimes by extremists in this country. Yesterday I talked to one of my fellow MPs, who told me that she had been at a family event in the United Kingdom just this week and had been surrounded by a number of activists who publicly derided her and her staff in a way that was completely unacceptable. I feel for her.
May I say how pleased I am to see the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) in his place? I look forward to his comments. I am also pleased to see the Minister in her place. We thank her for answering our questions.
As chair of the APPG, I was in Nigeria last month with the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute in order to witness at first hand the devastating impact of living in a country with ongoing FORB violations. We had wanted to visit Nigeria for some time, because it is in the top 10 on the world watch list for those who are persecuted because of their beliefs. It was an emotional trip because it gave us the chance to see the issues at first hand and to understand what needs to be done to help those with Christian and other beliefs in Nigeria. We had a chance to visit some of the camps for internally displaced people. Some people had been there for seven or eight years. We have ideas for how we can progress that, and for how Nigeria needs to progress it too. We wanted to visit the north-east of Nigeria, where most of the persecution from Boko Haram and ISIS is taking place, but we could not because of the security situation—we understood that—so we did probably the next best thing: we brought representatives of the Churches and so on to meet us in Abuja in Nigeria, where we had a chance to hear from them at first hand.
There are lots of things that need to be done. I will make some comments at the end of my speech, and I hope the Minister will respond to them. In Nigeria, an average of 13 Christians are killed each day due to religiously motivated attacks. The Sunday after we returned, 50 of our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters were murdered in an attack, which made our visit to Nigeria all the more poignant. We focused on those issues, but for such a vicious, brutal, violent attack to take place just afterwards was hard to comprehend.
The total death toll among people worldwide persecuted for their faith or belief must be harrowing. Such facts must lead to a renewed commitment to ensure freedom of religion or belief for all, and to implement policies to make the dream of peace a reality. I hope that the international ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief will prompt a sharp shift in the degree of urgency—the hon. Member for Congleton referred to that—and fervour that this Government and others give to promoting to freedom of religion or belief. This is a time for leaders across the world, in all countries, to make real commitments to the wider international community and play their part in promoting freedom of religion or belief for all.
I am keen to hear what the Government will announce at the ministerial conference. Will they finally prioritise in the resettlement scheme those in Afghanistan who are at risk due to their faith or belief, rather than waiting until next year to give them priority and secure their safety? Will they do more to cut their ties with China, which the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) referred to, due to its abhorrent treatment of the Uyghurs? We all deplore that; we can never understand how anyone can hate somebody so much. Will the UK use its relationship with Commonwealth countries to put an end to harmful blasphemy laws that are still in place? I am ever mindful that those countries make the decision, but blasphemy laws are used in a malicious, vindictive and clearly secular way against some people. Or might the Government stipulate, for instance, that aid or trade with a country should be contingent on an improved state of freedom of religion or belief for all? There is so much good that could be done, and so many across the world are waiting from it.
The hon. Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford), who is no longer in his place, asked about the Truro review. We need the three-year progress review, but that does not mean that other work should stop; we need it to continue. We need the focus that the hon. Member for Congleton referred to. We need the manifesto commitment delivered, and we need the Truro report recommendations to be delivered in full. That is the hon. Lady’s ask; it is mine too, and I hope it is that of other hon. Members.
As Ministers and freedom of religion or belief leaders convene across the way at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre for the two-day ministerial conference, I will be praying, as I do every morning, that a positive change comes from those efforts. I also hope that a lot of noise will be made about FORB, and that politicians in this country take note. It cannot go unnoticed that the APPG has 160 members. It is not a numbers game; it is about the interest that MPs and lords individually have in these matters. We are very pleased that our stakeholders represent many religious groups—it is important that they do. We speak up for those with Christian beliefs, those with Muslim beliefs and the Bahaʼis. We do that across the world all the time.
Across the two days there will be a host of events in Parliament as part of the FORB fringe conference. I encourage all my fellow MPs to attend and participate. I come to most of these debates because of my interest in the subject, but I come to other debates to support other Members’ issues, because it is important to encourage each other where we can.
The events, which will be sponsored by a range of non-governmental organisations and charities—I will be meeting Lord Ahmad and the Pakistan religious minorities this week, or certainly next week—will promote freedom of religious belief internationally, and they will cover a range of FORB topics, from country-specific challenges and thematic issues pertaining to FORB to what is being done to ensure FORB for all. We need to look at what needs to be done as well. There will be over 30 events in Parliament altogether, which indicates the interest. If those who have an interest wish to attend, they will have plenty of choice. There is no excuse for Members not to find at least one event that piques their interest. We all have a part to play in promoting FORB for all, and the time to play that part is now.
Many of us in the Chamber will be aware of the biblical reference to the mustard seed. I know that the faith of a mustard seed is enough to move mountains, and I know that so many communities and individuals around the world persevere in their faith or belief in the face of unbelievable brutality. Their ongoing bravery and courage is more impressive than moving mountains.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we—and Governments—need to put what people sometimes call feet to our prayers? I can think of one example a few miles from my constituency office, where the Hebron Free Presbyterian Church opened its doors to fleeing evangelicals from Ukraine who were suffering persecution as well as the murderous onslaught of the Russians. We need those practical examples to be replicated across the country, and we should commend all those who take such endeavours to heart.
I certainly do. I know that group— Don and Jacqueline Fleming, and young Colin Tinsley. Don and Jacqueline live in my constituency, and I know that project and the work that they do, which is an outward expression of what we believe through our prayer time. It is expressed through our practical and physical giving and our ability to help those people from Ukraine. I find that project quite illuminating. We have been able to offer support in Newtownards as well. I am a great believer in the power of prayer. I believe that with prayer we can move mountains. A mustard seed might be small and look like it cannot do very much, but it does make changes, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right.
As the mountains move day by day, as more and more people suffer because of their faith or belief, let us ask what we will do to aid the growth of that small mustard seed. I look forward to other contributions, particularly from the Minister, to understand how the mustard seed can make a difference.
These debates go back a long way—over 20 years—and I have taken part in most of them. I remember a debate when Keith Vaz was sitting in the Minister’s place. I instituted a debate on the persecution of the Karen people in Myanmar, and that persecution is still taking place. The lack of progress can be depressing, although I remember Keith Vaz telling me afterwards, “Who would think a small debate in Westminster Hall could actually make a difference?”, and it has in that case. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for all the work that she does and for ensuring that once again we have a debate on freedom of religion.
There has been progress with the Foreign Office. When we started all those years ago, the Foreign Office took great care to be completely equidistant and say, “Oh, well, there’s persecution of Christians on the one hand, but on the other hand,” and so on. It is more proactive now, and we have had the Bishop of Truro report and my hon. Friend’s office has been set up, so more work is being done. Gradually, we are raising interest in this subject.
The fact is that more Christians are being persecuted in the world, either through outright persecution, such as in North Korea or parts of north Africa, or by having their human rights severely limited, as in countries such as Saudi Arabia. This is a huge issue. I am not just going to talk about Christians; I am also going to talk about the difficulties faced by Muslims and by religious people around the world.
I want to illustrate the problem with just one case. I have gone on and on about it, but the only way to make any difference in this place is to make yourself a crushing bore on a particular subject. Maira Shahbaz is a Christian girl in Pakistan, who was just 14 years old when she was bundled into a car at gunpoint by three men and then drugged, raped, and filmed and photographed for use as blackmail. She was forcibly converted to Islam and forced into marriage with one of her abductors. Four months later, she managed to escape. She has faced death threats for supposed apostasy and for abandoning her supposed husband. An imam has certified that the wedding was invalid but the case in the civil court still drags on.
On 13 July—almost a year ago—I took a delegation to see the Home Secretary, no less, about the case. I received absolute assurances from the Home Secretary that she was fully cognisant of the case and was going to take action. Lord Forsyth went to see her a year before that and got the same answer. An excellent charity, Aid to the Church in Need, is willing to fly Maira and her family to the UK, help them get on their feet and make sure that they are integrated within the British-Pakistani Christian community here.
If ever in the whole of history there was a case where asylum was justified, here it is, so why has there been no progress? I suspect that there has been no progress—this is an allegation, which may be untrue, but I think I have to make it—because our high commission in Pakistan is not looking at the case with sufficient seriousness. It may be that there are politics involved and that it does not want to irritate the Pakistani Government because of matters of global importance, such as dealing with the Taliban and all the rest of it. I do not know, but this poor girl and her entire family are in one room and nothing happens.
Meanwhile, 60,000 people a year are pouring across the channel. They are already in a safe country; they are not being persecuted in France. They are all very nice people and I have nothing against them individually, but they are obviously economic migrants. They are pouring across while there is one girl who apparently we cannot get into this country, although I would have thought she has a rock-solid asylum case. We go on and on as a Government saying how we have a wonderful record on asylum seekers. Let us give asylum here to people who are genuinely being persecuted, and let us deal with the economic migrant issue. The more economic migrants who are breaking the rules and pouring into the country, the fewer genuine refugees we can take.
Pakistan is a very important issue. Between 2015 and 2019, Pakistan was the largest recipient of direct UK aid, so we must have enormous influence. I really must ask the Minister if we are using it. Last year, we had the report by the International Development Committee on UK aid to Pakistan, which is an important issue. We had a submission from the Institute of Development Studies, which notes that Pakistan requires special attention regarding freedom of religion but reports that
“not many resources have been dedicated to this”
within the then Department for International Development’s work on Pakistan. It adds:
“There is some focus on it through education programmes,”
but that has been
“a very small part of its overall programmes.”
Can the Minister update us on whether that is still the case? When we are doling out so much taxpayers’ money, why are we so supine when it comes to using our influence? What is the point of funding Governments that either run roughshod over freedom of religion or refuse to lift a finger to support it?
I want to be completely fair and deal with persecution of Muslims as well.
Blasphemy laws such as Pakistan’s section 298 persecute people who share the overarching beliefs of the majority but are oppressed because they fall into a different branch of the religion, such as the Muslim Ahmadiyya community, which suffers enormous persecution in Pakistan. Does the right hon. Gentleman think there is anything the international community can do to encourage not just tolerance but respect of beliefs in countries such as Pakistan?
I agree entirely—that is the purpose of these debates. As we are only a group of Back Benchers, we ask our Government to raise the issue up the agenda and talk about all these minorities, wherever they are in the world, and view it as an important part of the Government’s work.
We have seen casual violence against Muslims in India, a country with which we hope to have very close and friendly relations. I hope that our Ministers are raising that issue.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his contribution. I want to draw his attention again to the key matter of the home demolition policy in India, which is destroying Indian Muslims’ foundation for stability and even life. Does he share my outrage at that policy and agree with the all-party parliamentary group on human rights when it says that India is a “diminishing democracy”?
It is obviously a very worrying situation. I do not want to go into too much detail on it, partly because I am not sufficiently briefed. However, the fact is that this casual violence is there. We should be concerned about that, in what is the largest democracy in the world.
The situation in Nigeria is dire. Just this month, a Catholic church in Owo was stormed by militants, leaving 50 dead. Imagine that: 50 people killed in a church. Bureaucrats here and in other western countries try to blame the violence in Nigeria on climate change and the competition for resources. I have heard their excuses again and again—“There are different tribes; there are hunter-gatherers; there are arable farmers.”—but it simply does not wash. However much it departs from our comfortable, western, liberal mentality, the fact is that there is outright genocidal persecution of Christians by extremists in Nigeria. Members do not have to listen to me; the Catholic Bishop of Ondo, in whose diocese the attack took place, clarified that:
“To suggest or make a connection between victims of terror and consequences of climate change is not only misleading but also exactly rubbing salt to the injuries of all who have suffered terrorism in Nigeria.”
We need our Ministers and civil servants to be honest. This is communal hatred and violent persecution. It is not about water supply or irrigation. It does not just affect Christians, although they are the canary in the mine. To be entirely fair, I have also pestered Ministers about Mr Mubarak Bala, the head of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, who is facing 24 years in prison for leaving Islam. That is another case that we should perhaps try to pursue.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for bringing that forward. When he and I were in Nigeria, we had the opportunity to make that very point, and I hope that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), will mention that in his contribution. We were pleased at the response from the Government, so we are hoping that there may be some movement on that.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that very helpful intervention.
We have been very good at isolating Russia. We have heard about the complications in Ukraine, with the appalling violence by Russia against Ukraine and the churches that have been destroyed by bombing. Frankly, we have not been so good at taking on China over the persecution of the Muslim Uyghurs, which has reached dystopian genocidal levels. It is a disgrace. I am all in favour of good relations with China, maximising trade and promoting prosperity. I understand that our influence with the Chinese Government—the Government of a very large, proud country—is limited, but we cannot shirk our duty, despite the economic impact. Perhaps the Minister could comment on that.
The Government could help UK business and industry to pivot away from China, even if it takes years, if progress is not made on the persecution of the Uyghurs. If a business’s factory is in China, move it to Malaysia, Indonesia or Africa. If its research and development is in China, move it to Israel or Singapore, or perhaps even to Manchester, Dundee or Belfast. Our influence is limited, and my point is also directed at our own companies that are sourcing products from the area where the Uyghurs are being persecuted. What is going on there is a disgrace. Although our influence is limited, what influence we have we should use. We should not be afraid to speak out, whatever the impact on trade might be.
Freedom of religion or belief is one of the most essential human rights. It is under enormous threat all over the world. Our Government should be the leader in the world in speaking out in favour of religious minorities and their rights. The Government should expand the office of the special envoy for freedom of religion or belief and resource it properly. I welcome the appointment of David Burrowes as deputy to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton. I hope that, just as we have acted with so much vigour in Ukraine, we can act with equal vigour to protect religious minorities of whatever faith, wherever they are in the world.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I commend the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for securing this debate. Let me take this opportunity to thank her for her ongoing work as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief—I can think of no one better suited to fulfil that role. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his ongoing work in the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. He is always a strong voice on this issue.
The freedoms we enjoy here in the United Kingdom came at a high price. For those who fought and died to secure our freedoms, we are forever in their debt. But having received that gift of freedom, we have a duty to do what we can to ensure that others, whoever they may be, who are living in fear under surveillance, threatened with imprisonment or death, are moving towards freedom, not further persecution. On a regular basis I raise that persecution with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. Sadly, all too often it follows an attack on or slaughter of believers.
In the short time available, I want to mention two places where I urge the Government to do more, and which I hope will be a focus in the forthcoming ministerial conference. The first is Nigeria. My hon. Friend the Member for Strangford eloquently outlined some of the points already. Open Doors, which we all know does an amazing job as a voice for the persecuted church, reports that in the first three months of 2022, 896 Nigerian civilians were killed in violent attacks, including hundreds of Christians who were murdered because of their faith by extremist Islamic militants.
Nigeria is No. 7 on the Open Doors world watch list. More Christians are killed for their faith in Nigeria than in the rest of the world combined. The situation in Nigeria for those who follow Jesus is becoming increasingly dangerous, as greater collaboration emerges among Islamic militants. I urge the Foreign Office to do more to highlight what is happening in Nigeria and to work with the international community to address this horrific situation.
Secondly, I want to mention Myanmar. It is a matter of regret, but all too often the reality, that the international community move on to the next crisis and forget the one that went before. Myanmar remains in turmoil. The junta are still in control. With that control they are targeting religious minorities, including many Christians, who are often targeted by the Buddhist national military to suppress opposition. Majority Christian villages are being bombed and churches have been targeted. It is not only Christians who have been persecuted in Myanmar, however. Notably, thousands of Rohingya Muslims have been driven out of the country as well.
While there is so much focus on Ukraine, which is right, let the international community not forget Myanmar. Indeed, let there be a redoubling of efforts to restore democracy in that land, for the protection of all. Let me take the opportunity to mention a church in my constituency, Newmills Presbyterian church, which is doing amazing work with the Myanmar people. The church has a great feeling for those who are caught up in the turmoil.
My speaking time has almost run out, but let me conclude by urging those attending the conference to focus on outcomes and on acting to protect Christians in those places of persecution. Let the conference also focus on ensuring that those who wish to go there to spread the good news of Christ, evangelistically or practically, are safe to do so.
I shall now call the Front Benchers, starting with the Scottish National party spokesperson, Brendan O’Hara.
Thank you, Mr McCabe; it is good to see you in the Chair this morning. I, too, thank the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for securing this important debate, and I thank everyone who has taken part. The debate has been extremely useful and thoughtful, and we have discussed not just what we can expect from next week’s conference, but the wider challenges of protecting people’s right to worship how, when and with whom they want, as well as defending the rights of those who have no faith or belief.
I am here primarily as the SNP’s international human rights spokesperson, but I am also taking part because I am an active member—indeed, I am secretary—of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. The APPG is led ably, as we have heard, by the formidable and ever impressive hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I am an active member of the group because I believe that how a country, or a regime, treats an issue of freedom of religion or belief is usually an accurate indicator of how it views the importance of the human rights of its citizens more generally. For me, the APPG is a human rights groups and an important part of the wider community of human rights defenders.
As we have heard all too often this morning, the need for groups such as ours to shine a light on FORB abuses has never been greater, which is why we in the SNP are delighted that next week’s ministerial conference in London is taking place. We will support any moves to push for greater global action to support FORB, and we stand in solidarity with those beleaguered communities and those brave individuals whose fundamental human right to worship, or not, as they wish is under sustained attack. It is critical that, while we all get behind the call for greater global action, arrangements are put in place to ensure that the delegates to the conference get to hear directly from those religious groups, those humanist organisations and others that are, day in and day out, directly affected by the violence being perpetrated on them on the basis of their religion or belief.
I hope that the policymakers who gather in London next week are able to hear at first hand from the people in Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Myanmar, Xinjiang, Iran and elsewhere in the world who do not enjoy the freedoms that we take for granted. I thank the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) for raising once again the case of Maira Shahbaz. I hope the Minister will remind the Home Secretary of the extreme importance of the case and the commitments that were made almost exactly a year ago.
Hundreds of millions of people are living in fear of persecution simply because of the convictions they hold or the faith they profess, and we have a great deal of work to do to protect them from those who would do them harm simply for practising their faith. As we have heard from several Members, there is no typical model of how that persecution manifests itself. It can come in the form of direct suppression or state suppression, or a heavy-handed crackdown, as we would recognise in China and its disgraceful treatment of the Uyghur Muslim population. They have been subjected to the most awful systematic and widespread abuses imaginable, at a scale and ferocity that is almost unparalleled in modern times.
The suppression of the 350,000-strong Baha’i community in Iran is another example of a state using its power to persecute and discriminate against a community because of religious belief and to deny people’s fundamental right to practise their faith. In 2019 the United Nations recognised the Baha’i community as one of the most persecuted religious minorities in the world.
Of course, religious persecution can come from well-organised, well-armed and well-funded terrorist organisations, such as Daesh. Its attacks on the Yazidi people have been recognised by many, including many in this Parliament, as genocide. The attack on Sinjar by Daesh killed thousands. We do not know how many thousands because, to this day, the graves of men and boys are being discovered. We are well aware of the barbaric treatment suffered by Yazidi women, who suffered rape, torture, sexual enslavement, forced sterilisation and all manner of inhumane and degrading treatment by their captors. I take the opportunity to remind the House that, despite the military defeat of Daesh, 2,700 Yazidi women and girls are still missing and unaccounted for after all these years.
As the hon. Member for Strangford mentioned, I was on the APPG’s visit to Nigeria with him and Baroness Cox. We went there to speak with Christian and Muslim religious leaders, civil society activists, people who had been displaced by ethnic and religious violence, and Nigerian politicians. We were also there to highlight the case of Mubarak Bala, the president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, who in April was sentenced to 24 years in jail for blasphemy. I assure the right hon. Member for Gainsborough that we raised the issue directly with the Nigerian Government, and indeed one of our group had a lengthy meeting with a member of Mubarak’s family, so it is an issue that we are aware of and will not let go.
As the hon. Member for Strangford said, it was a challenging visit, particularly when we were told by almost everyone we met that everything in Nigeria is seen through the prism of religion. All too often people are excluded and abandoned and the cleric, however radical, has replaced the Government as the voice of authority. We saw that for ourselves where we were there. The head of the Methodist Church and two other clerics were kidnapped. Just a week after we came back, 50 Nigerians were murdered in an appalling terrorist attack at St Francis Catholic church in Owo in the hitherto relatively peaceful state of Ondo. That was another worrying indicator that the violence usually seen in the north and the middle belt is spreading to the south of the country.
As the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) said, Nigeria is seventh on the Open Doors watch list of places where it is most dangerous to be a Christian. If that watch list was done purely on levels of violence experienced, Nigeria would be at the top. These are incredibly dangerous times for Nigeria. Given the history that the United Kingdom has with Nigeria, we have a particular responsibility to help the people there and do all we can to bring peace, stability and security to that country.
However, there is hope. There is a civil society that is desperate to build a new country and there are religious leaders, both Muslim and Christian, who are doing great work in bringing communities together, but their efforts are being hampered by the endemic corruption that exists in Nigeria. I remember one meeting in which a woman told us that corruption has left people, particularly the young, without hope, and that feeling of exclusion is one of the main drivers of increasing conflict. She told us that politics is so divided in Nigeria that politicians have nothing left to sell other than division, and they stand on a platform of not being a Muslim or not being a Christian because they have no other vision to sell.
There are signs of hope, because people do not want to live in a country ridden with religious division and appalling acts of religion-based violence. Supporting civil society and bringing an end to endemic corruption is a prerequisite if Nigeria is to pull itself back from the brink, and we have to be part of making that happen. That includes supporting the rights of people such as Mubarak Bala and other humanists to hold the beliefs that they do.
One of the organisations we joined with in Nigeria was Bellwether International, a non-governmental organisation that works in pre-genocide and post-genocide communities and has a significant presence in the internally displaced persons camps. Bellwether’s founder and chief executive officer, Rachel Miner, came with us to Abuja and observed:
“The importance of Freedom of Religion or Belief cannot be underestimated. It has the power to bridge the gap between the very worst of society and the very best. Together we can bring the best of society to the world and preserve human rights and human dignity at the same time.”
That is what we should be looking for from next week’s ministerial conference.
We have a fantastic opportunity to use the powers we have to bring the international community together and to highlight and call out abuses of freedom of religion and belief when we see them, without fear or favour, even when it is our own friends who are doing it and it is not perceived to be in our economic interest to do so. I sincerely hope that the UK Government take this unique opportunity to lay out their long-term strategy for tackling religious persecution around the world.
As always, Mr McCabe, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), whom I would like to call my hon. Friend, on securing this debate. She and I served together for three years on the International Development Committee nine years ago, and I saw then, as I do now, her complete commitment to an issue that is so important to humanity, human rights and civilisation. I thank her for her consistent championing of freedom of religion or belief in this place.
The hon. Lady opened the debate by saying that we can never be complacent about peace and stability—and hasn’t that come true in today’s world? Freedom of religion or belief is under threat, especially from people’s own Governments, which is something we should be deeply concerned about. She mentioned the rising levels of intolerance and oppression by authoritarian Governments throughout the world, the increasing use of technology for repression of freedom of religion or belief and the discrimination that damages democracies so badly, and she was absolutely right to say that FORB benefits us all. It promotes global peace and wellbeing, and it is as critical now as ever.
Of course, the hon. Lady mentioned the ministerial conference on FORB that will take place in London next week. I have just spoken to the Dutch ambassador about that conference; he will be attending and was delighted that he will be there. Survivors of persecution will be there to give their own testimony, which is vital: there is no substitute for hearing from those people. As the hon. Lady said, achieving real change will require international collaboration on freedom of religion or belief. She praised the UK’s cross-party work in this Parliament, which she said is pre-eminent around the world. That is absolutely true and I agree with her.
We then heard from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—again, my hon. Friend—who is always present at these debates. He is well known for his championing of freedom of religion or belief, especially the freedom of Christians from persecution. As we are all aware, he is chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, and he has made it very clear that this issue is close to his heart. He talked about his recent visit to Poland and, as he says, he speaks out not just for Christians who are oppressed but for all faiths. Thank goodness he does: his voice is a powerful one in this House.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned something that is very important: the freedom to choose not to believe, which is so essential in today’s world and always has been. He mentioned, as did other hon. Members, visiting Nigeria to witness the shocking violations of freedom of religion or belief in person.
Christians face persecution in many parts of the world, and that persecution is on the rise. It is estimated that around 91% of the murders of Christians happen in Africa, despite the continent having the highest number of Christians in the world. What can we achieve with our international partners, through the conference, that can help to relieve the pressure on Governments in countries such as Nigeria to tackle this problem?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. Perhaps that question is better directed at the Minister, but from my point of view we need conferences such as the one being held next week in London. We also need, as I think the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) said, more resources and more authority behind the individuals, such as the hon. Member for Congleton, who do their very best to ensure that freedom of religion and belief is a worldwide human right and that that right is enforced. Perhaps we need the United Nations to intervene as well; I do not know, but I would be happy to hear what the Minister has to say about that.
The hon. Member for Strangford said—I think I have got this right—that on average 13 Christians are killed every day in Nigeria just for being a Christian. That is a shocking statistic and it mounts up to an appalling loss of life. I am sorry to say that it will be the same for other faiths, too. The hon. Gentleman asked whether the Government would prioritise the persecuted minorities in Afghanistan as well, because we know what is happening there. He also said he is a great believer in the power of prayer; long may that continue.
We then heard from the right hon. Member for Gainsborough, who quite rightly said that there is a long history of these debates—I have spoken in many of them. Gradually, we are raising interest in this subject, although I am sure the right hon. Gentleman would agree that doing so is a long haul. More Christians are now persecuted than ever before, but let us not forget the Muslims. He rightly mentioned the Shahbaz case, in which a 14-year-old was forcibly converted to Islam, married off, and then persecuted for leaving a faith that she had never held in the first place. He is right to continue to press the case with the British Government and with anybody who will listen. The Opposition support him in that effort and are willing to do whatever we can to help in that individual case, as well as in many similar cases. The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned casual violence against Muslims in India and said that FORB is, of course, one of the most essential human rights.
We then heard from the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart), who talked about the Myanmar Christians being targeted by Buddhists. We all think of Buddhism as a peaceful religion, yet the Buddhist majority in that country is persecuting Christian minorities as well as, of course, the Rohingya Muslim people of that country. That is incomprehensible to most of us—indeed, to all of us in this Chamber. The hon. Lady also urged those of us who are attending the conference next week to focus on those being persecuted.
I have good reason to speak in this debate, not just because I am the appropriate shadow Minister but because my family has experience of religious persecution. My father escaped the increasing persecution of Jews in Europe to come to safety in this country in 1934, as a 12-year-old boy. We know what happened after 1934. His own parents were trapped in occupied Europe. Thankfully, his father was in Spain when France fell to the Nazis, but his mother was in occupied Paris, and it was only thanks to the generosity of the Portuguese authorities that she was able to get a Portuguese passport and therefore escape the persecution that her brothers had to suffer—one of them was murdered during the second world war. So this issue is very close to my heart.
I thank my hon. Friend the shadow Minister for talking about his family’s experience. I want to draw his attention to the issue of racism that exists even today—the antisemitism and Islamophobia that exists in the UK. Does he agree it is vital that all parliamentarians lead by example and reaffirm their commitment to religious tolerance and freedom of belief? Perhaps the Minister can also touch on this issue; maybe it is a good time to accept the definition of Islamophobia. The Government have had three years to adopt the definition that all the other political parties have adopted. Why have they not done that when nearly half of religious hate crimes every year are committed against Muslims?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I have been in this place for 25 years and I have not come across any colleagues, from any part of this House, who believe in religious persecution and who do not try to lead by example. That is really important. I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and I am sure the Minister will reply to the points directed at her.
When we see persecution still rife across the world, it is more important than ever that we, as parliamentarians from all the sides of the House, reaffirm our commitment to the values and principles set out in the 2021 G7 summit communiqué, which specifically referenced freedom of religion or belief for the first time. As my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) pointed out, we have our own problems at home, with several forms of racism throughout society—whether it is antisemitism, Islamophobia or any other prejudice—but freedom of religion or belief must also be at the heart of our foreign policy. Where we are able to empower and promote individual and collective freedoms, we must do so. That is vital to international peace and stability, as so many hon. Members have pointed out.
It is just as important that we challenge those who choose to persecute others on the basis of their belief. As we have heard this morning, almost every religion around the world has been persecuted or subject to repression as a result of an individual’s faith, but we must not forget the people who are being persecuted for being non-believers, as many Members have mentioned. The fact that at least 13 countries still have the death penalty for blasphemy or apostasy is extremely worrying, but in many more countries people have been murdered for simply choosing not to believe. At least 83 countries have blasphemy laws more generally, with 30 countries classified by the Freedom of Thought Report as guilty of grave violations against the non-religious. This must be challenged in the strongest possible terms by the international community.
Just last week, we had the deeply disturbing news that the US Supreme Court had overturned Roe v. Wade. As parliamentarians who believe in a free and equal society, we must make it clear that that ruling was a devastating setback for women’s rights in the United States. The right of women to make their own decisions about their own bodies is a fundamental human right too, and it should not be interfered with in the name of faith or religion. Those who have faith, but also believe that access to abortion is a right that should be protected, will now be in an extremely difficult position and may be forced to choose between their faith and their political belief.
I respect the hon. Member’s opinion on this matter, but I remind him about the baby in the womb and the rights of the unborn child. So often we talk about the rights of women, which is right and correct—as a woman, I want to see rights for women—but in every pregnancy and every journey there are two lives. Both lives matter and I encourage the hon. Gentleman to think about the baby in the womb.
Order. I do not want to interrupt a good debate, but I think we are drifting into quite a different subject. Can we get back to the motion?
I fully respect the hon. Lady’s commitment and belief, but I also respect the right of other women to choose what happens to them and their own bodies. However, as you said, Mr McCabe, we should get back to the issue we are debating today.
The Government say they are
“deeply concerned about the severity and scale of violations and abuses of FoRB in many parts of the world. Persecuting people, or discriminating against them, because of their religion or belief is often closely linked to other foreign and development policy challenges.”
With that in mind, will the Minister outline what measures the Government have taken recently as a result of the abuses of FORB? Will she give us examples of where the UK is tackling this problem?
Finally, I pay tribute to Rodney Ross and Alan Fell for their work in documenting and commemorating the contribution of British Jews during the first world war. Sadly, it is an often forgotten subject and I am delighted that their project will become a permanent record of the lives of the Jewish community in Leeds and throughout the country from 1914 to 1918. I commend their website to anyone interested in the subject.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I start, as others have, by saying how grateful we are to our hon. Friend—we are collectively calling her our hon. Friend—the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), for securing this important debate and for focusing the attention of Members on the Government’s upcoming ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief. I also thank our hon. Friend for all she does to advance freedom of religion or belief, as the Prime Minister’s special envoy and as chair of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance.
I am grateful to Members for their comments and interventions and will try to cover many of the points raised. Let me be clear that the Government are unwavering in our commitment to promote freedom of religion or belief for everyone, everywhere. Next week, we will demonstrate that commitment by hosting the UK’s first ministerial conference on the issue. It will bring together more than 500 delegates from more than 60 countries around the world. Representatives will include Ministers, but also representatives from Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Baha’í and non-religious communities.
As the hon. Member for Congleton so rightly said, involving civil society is vital to championing freedom of religion or belief. The ministerial event will be complemented by a fringe conference organised by parliamentarians and civil society. All countries have an obligation to promote and protect freedom of religion or belief. We will share knowledge and build coalitions to take forward work on important areas, including gender equality, conflict and digital technology.
Many Members who took part in the debate mentioned women in particular. Around the world, millions of women and girls experience discrimination and violence on the grounds of their religion or belief, as well as their gender, and we will use the conference to advocate for them.
In war-torn and insecure places, people are often politically and economically marginalised because of their religion or belief. We will use the conference to stand up for marginalised groups and to advance open societies where tensions are managed peacefully and human rights are protected and promoted.
The internet has given people a new platform to express their beliefs, but it also provides a tool for harassment and persecution. We will use the conference to advance ideas to protect religious belief groups online. Discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief is a global issue that transcends borders. We will use the conference to encourage our international partners to join us in making new commitments around those key policy areas.
The conference is just the latest step in the UK’s leadership on freedom for religion or belief. It coincides with the third anniversary of the Bishop of Truro’s report on the FCDO’s support for persecuted Christians around the world. The bishop has been on the conference’s advisory committee and will speak at the conference.
I pay tribute to my noble Friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon for his work as the first UK envoy for freedom of religion or belief and for his leadership on this agenda as the Minister for human rights, which has involved working closely with ministerial teams across the FCDO, as well as with our hon. Friend the hon. Member for Congleton, who is so relentless in her commitment to promote freedom of religion or belief. Work is continuing to deliver on the Bishop’s review recommendations. I can confirm that an independent review of our progress will be published in the near future.
The Government’s work to promote freedom of religion or belief broadly splits into three strands: action at home, collaboration with international partners and taking action on cases of concern around the world. To have influence abroad, we must set an example at home, so Government-funded programmes in the UK protect the rights of members of all communities to live free from fear, hate and violence. Our Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks programme enables people to report anti-Muslim hate crimes easily. Our support for the Community Security Trust helps to combat racism and antisemitism towards British Jews. Our commitment to turn our Online Safety Bill into law will also help to protect religious and belief groups online.
The second strand of our work is fortifying international efforts to promote freedom of religion or belief, including through the UN, the G7, the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance and the international contact group. Last year, my noble Friend Lord Ahmad chaired a meeting of the UN Security Council to address the persecution of religious minorities in conflict zones, including in Libya, Yemen, Syria and Iraq. The third strand of our work is raising cases of concern and bringing other countries with us on this journey.
The hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) spoke movingly about his family history of overcoming challenges to freedom of religion or belief. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) also spoke movingly. In this place, we say that where Members are from is the place they represent today. The hon. Gentleman was, of course, born in Omagh, County Tyrone, the place of my own birth. As a child born and raised in Omagh, County Tyrone, during the early days of the troubles and as they continued, a lesson I have carried all my life is the importance of listening to others who have a different religious perspective, learning about what they believe in, and doing that with compassion to bring the sides together and reduce conflict. That is what a lot of our work overseas endeavours to do.
The hon. Members for Strangford, for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) and for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) and others mentioned the situation in Nigeria. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) was the first to raise the case of the humanist Mubarak Bala. I thank the hon. Members who raised his case during the recent APPG trip—that was very appreciated—and I also raised it in a call with Nigerian Foreign Minister Onyeama last month. I particularly raised the length of Mr Bala’s sentencing, about which many Members are very concerned. We are following the case closely. Individuals must be able to express their opinions freely.
A number of Members spoke about the situation in Nigeria. We condemn all incidents of intercommunal violence in Nigeria, which continue to have a devastating effect on communities, including Christian and Muslim communities. We recognise that religious identity is a factor in many incidents of violence and that it can form an important part of the identity of the groups affected. However, the underlying drivers are often complex and frequently relate to competition over resources, criminality and historical grievances, so the question is: what do we do about that? We are working on a number of initiatives to promote peace, human rights and freedom of religion or belief across Nigeria. We have funded projects in Kaduna, Plateau and Benue states aimed at promoting tolerance and understanding, and strengthening links and dialogue between civil society groups, religious leaders and religious and non-religious groups. We also advocate for responsible journalism. All that takes place alongside other projects to tackle the other causes driving conflict.
I am particularly pleased that no fewer than 14 delegates from Nigeria have registered for the conference here. That includes groups working on interfaith dialogue. That is a real example of people from challenged areas around the world coming to this global conference, bringing their problems to share with others, and learning from others about how they can better tackle the issue.
A few other parts of the world have been mentioned. Earlier this month, my noble Friend Lord Ahmad spoke to Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs about protecting religious and belief minorities there, as well as about the situation of women and girls in Afghanistan. In March, the Foreign Secretary spoke out about the situation in Xinjiang and Tibet in an address at the UN Human Rights Council. The Prime Minister raised his concern about the human rights situation in China in a phone call with President Xi on 25 March.
The hon. Member for Upper Bann mentioned Myanmar, where we are deeply concerned about the vulnerability of religious minorities and reports of the destruction of places of worship. We regularly condemn the violence on the ground and are funding the independent investigative mechanism for Myanmar to bolster the work of collecting evidence of serious human rights violations. We regularly raise this issue at the UN Security Council.
We have heard from many Members that religious persecution is still rife across the world. It is important that the UK challenges those who choose to persecute others on the basis of their belief, so will the Minister finally commit to sanctioning Chen Quanguo, the chief architect of the Uyghur genocide in Xinjiang?
I cannot commit to that here.
And Maira Shahbaz?
I have to be really careful not to make comments that could put an individual or her family’s life at risk. I am afraid that that is all I can say on the matter right now.
I will comment on the very moving situation in Ukraine, as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton did. It is heart-wrenching to see the destruction of churches, and it is absolutely right that we should condemn all violations of international law pertaining to the protection of places of worship and cultural heritage, especially in Ukraine. She is also absolutely right to commend the bravery of the people of Ukraine—a country that celebrates a huge diversity of religion and a multiplicity of belief. Putin is trying to use disinformation to distract the world from the horrors of his illegal war and the Kremlin’s false statements dishonouring those who fought to defeat Nazism in Europe. Nearly 2,000 years ago, St Paul wrote to the Ephesians and urged them to
“Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist.”
It is absolutely right that, 2,000 years later, we also stand firm for truth and call out Russian mistruths.
I close by repeating the Government’s firm belief that no one should suffer because of what they believe in. I really welcome the enthusiasm for the conference that we have heard today, and I hope that many Members will take part in it, because the Government are looking forward to continuing to work with all interested parties to advance freedom of religion or belief for all.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their powerful speeches and interventions, including the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), the hon. Members for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) and for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara), my hon. Friends the Members for Hendon (Dr Offord) and for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford), the hon. Members for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) and for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier), and others. I also thank the Minister for responding.
Let it never be said that any of us in this place with a particular faith do not speak out on FORB for all those who are persecuted, whatever their faiths or beliefs, and we have seen that today. I thank right hon. and hon. Members for speaking out as they have done, particularly on the Truro review. I can confirm that work will continue on it, because it is part of my mandate to ensure that it does, and it is also a manifesto commitment. That my appointment was made by the Prime Minister provides a signal internationally of the Government’s commitment—right at the very top—to FORB for all, as does the ministerial on FORB that will be held next week in London. I am proud that the UK is demonstrating this global leadership—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).