[Dame Maria Miller in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered persecution of Christians and freedom of religion or belief.
I am pleased to make a contribution in Westminster Hall any time, but I am especially pleased to speak on this matter today. The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and I, with the support of other Members, approached the Backbench Business Committee to ask for a debate around this time, because we wanted it to tie in with Red Wednesday, which is next Wednesday. We were pleased to get the debate, and I am pleased to see right hon. and hon. Members here to contribute to it.
I start by declaring an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. In that capacity, I regularly voice, as other Members do in and outside the Chamber, the plight of Christians, those of other faiths and those of no faith who suffer on the grounds of their faith or belief. In my work with the APPG, I am regularly edified and encouraged by seeing all faiths and beliefs work together to advance FORB issues. Whether it is Christians advocating for humanists, humanists advocating for Muslims, or Muslims advocating for Sikhs, cross-belief support is a remarkable driver of change and solidarity in the face of persecution. I believe that human rights and religious belief walk hand in hand—they are married.
However, this debate is specifically about persecution of Christians. We should not shy away from the plight of persecuted Christians. I never will, and others in the Chamber never will. Against a backdrop of deteriorating conditions for many faiths and beliefs, we must not and will not dilute the grave challenges Christians face worldwide. In 2015, the largest religious group was those of a Christian faith, who numbered 2.3 billion, or 31% of the global population. In 2022, 360 million Christians experienced high levels of persecution and discrimination, an increase of some 20 million on 2021. In 2019, religious groups—especially Christians—were persecuted in 190 out of 198 countries.
We often look at stats and just take note of them, but the stats prove the issue. That is why this debate is so important. My remarks and those by others today will show that Christians face extreme levels of violent attacks in places such as Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Mali, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, China, Russia, India and North Korea. I could name another 40; those are just 10 out of the more than 50 countries where Christians suffer for their faith today. The scale of oppression means that it is necessary to focus on one group in particular. That is why I gave the stats that I gave, and that is why the debate is so titled. By advocating freedom of religion for Christians, I can be safe in the knowledge that freedom of religion or belief for all will improve. I am a believer in that, Dame Maria; I believe that expressing myself in this debate on behalf of Christians will ensure that those of other beliefs and faiths have the very same rights.
This debate is especially pertinent because next Wednesday, 23 November, is Red Wednesday. That is a Christian initiative, spearheaded by Aid to the Church in Need, to remember our Christian brothers and sisters around the world who are persecuted for their faith. Buildings will be lit up red—the colour of martyrdom, which illustrates the blood of saints killed across the world. Next Wednesday, I hope that more and more people will be made aware of the persecution of Christians.
Yesterday, Aid to the Church in Need launched its latest report, entitled “Persecuted and Forgotten?” I wish I could have attended that event, but the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) brought me a copy of the report during the Westminster Hall debate on Ethiopia and Tigray. The report highlights cases of Christians persecuted due to their faith over the last three years, and it makes for harrowing reading. Some of the contributions to that debate referred to cases in the report, which are harrowing. I always find it incredibly hard to listen to contributions in the Chamber recounting personal stories of what happens to men, women and children because of their faith.
In 75% of the countries surveyed, oppression or persecution of Christians has increased in recent years. Similarly, the Open Doors “World Watch List” report finds year after year that the persecution of Christians is getting worse, not better—it never seems to get better. Last year, 5,898 Christians were murdered for their faith, and thousands more were maimed or injured, or had their places of worship damaged or destroyed. In the age of technological, social and medical advancements, we should ask ourselves why rights for Christians are not advancing. We are here today to make that point and illustrate it in an evidential way with stories.
The hon. Gentleman has set out the statistics about how many Christians have been persecuted for their faith. Does he agree that, as a Christian country with an established Church, we need to do more to protect Christians in the UK and across the world, and use our global influence, especially in the Commonwealth, to help Christians and people of all faiths so that no one has to die in such horrific ways?
I certainly do. I am very pleased that the hon. Gentleman is here to participate in the debate. He and I hold similar Christian views and faith.
My party and I first held a debate on the persecution of Christians back in, I think, 2012. The right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and the hon. Member for Congleton were both there, and there was consensus on both sides of the Chamber. That is when debates on Christianity as a persecuted faith started, and we have continued to hold them. I think they have had a key role.
I am pleased to see the Minister in his place. I spoke to him before the debate and I have great expectations of him, because I know he understands the issue. The hon. Member for Congleton and I were both saying yesterday that we have high expectations of him, and I am sure we will not be disappointed.
Complacency about the ever-worsening conditions for Christians around the world must stop now. The “Persecuted and Forgotten?” report found that the situation for Christians has worsened in all the countries in Africa that were reviewed: Mali, Sudan, Eritrea, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Mozambique. The atrocious conditions are evidenced by a sharp increase in genocidal violence. I use that word on purpose, because it illustrates exactly what is happening: it is genocidal violence from militant non-state actors, including jihadists. It is very clear to me that we need to address this issue.
Over the past two years, I and many other hon. Members have repeatedly highlighted how Christian persecution has only intensified since covid-19. According to the Institute of Development Studies:
“In a significant amount of the nations which have encountered outbreaks of the novel coronavirus, politicians and opinion leaders have openly condemned religious minority populations under the guise of epidemiological containment”.
In other words, it is saying that those of the Christian faith are the subject, in this case, of
“hateful messages on social media, public speeches and official policies.”
One would have hoped that such a diminished standard of treatment of religious minorities during covid-19 would have abated by now, but, disappointingly, that does not seem to have happened. The deteriorating conditions accelerated by the pandemic have not been fleeting or vaccinated away. Instead, the pandemic facilitated the creeping curtailment of Christians’ exercise of their faith. That is now the new normal, with no sign of improvement. That has to be addressed across the world.
There are so many countries I could touch on to exhibit the ever-worsening conditions for Christians around the world, but two in particular stand out to me. I have visited both. I want to speak about Nigeria, which I visited in May 2022, and Pakistan, which I visited in 2018. I hope to go back to Pakistan in February next year, if I am spared until that time. Why do I choose those two countries when so many others are also culprits? It is partly for the sheer scale of their abuses of Christians and other religious groups, but it is also because they are the two largest recipients of UK aid. I want to tie those stories together. I am all for UK aid—I am very supportive of it—but I think there has to be an undertaking from Nigeria and Pakistan to address the issues of Christian persecution, discrimination and abuse.
It is my hope that the UK can make the most difference to those countries, and it has a great responsibility to do so. When this country’s taxpayers are contributing to aid going to countries that allow the perpetrators of persecution to escape with immunity, we must ask ourselves whether we are confident that we are not complicit in any abuses taking place. We need to use the aid that we give to those and other countries as an instrument to change what is happening.
To that end, this Government must continue to seek answers about where their aid is going, who it is reaching, and whether religious groups in need are benefiting from that assistance. I ask the question of others on many occasions. Like others, I hear the stories of religious groups not getting the assistance they should when it comes to humanitarian aid and direct UK aid to those countries. Without significant transparency about the aid that is distributed, we cannot be sure that it is not simply fuelling the oppression of Christians. That is a big statement to make, but it is how we feel. Others will illustrate that clearly.
Gender-specific religious-based persecution is a serious problem in Pakistan, with some reports listing it as one of the worst offenders worldwide. When we were in Pakistan back in 2018, we had discussions with the high commissioner about the blasphemy law, which I will comment on later. We chose to adopt a certain attitude on that visit to Pakistan, because we thought that if we condemned the blasphemy law outright, we probably would not get the opportunity to speak to the judges we needed to speak to. Instead, we illustrated to them evidentially that—and it is true—accusations of blasphemy are often malicious, vindictive and untrue. That is what happened in the case of Asia Bibi. Two of the three judges we met agreed; they were of the opinion that it was malicious, vindictive and dishonest, and they said that Asia Bibi would be released. There was an appeal and she was released; she now lives in Canada with her family. But there are other Asia Bibis in Pakistan, and it is very clear from ongoing cases that blasphemy laws are being used in a vindictive fashion.
Aid to the Church in Need’s “Hear Her Cries” report recorded that in the Sindh province in 2018 there were more than 1,000 cases of Christian or Hindu women suffering forced conversion—almost three a day. More often than not, they are just young girls. Women also suffer so-called forced marriage, which is not marriage at all—not as you, Dame Maria, and I would see marriage. It is the rape of non-Muslim women, who are often under age, too.
One high-profile case is that of Maira Shahbaz. I am pretty sure that the right hon. Member for Gainsborough will speak about this, too. In 2020, aged just 14, she was abducted, raped, and forced to marry her abductor and convert. Her birth certificate showed that she was under age, but Lahore High Court judged her to be legally wed, even though the law of the land said that that was impossible. Since Maira escaped from her captor, she has been forced to stay in hiding. Despite repeated requests that the Home Office in this country grant her asylum, she is still waiting. I know that that is not the responsibility of this Minister, but I make a plea, as others will, for Maira Shahbaz to have her asylum request processed so that she can settle in this country, with the freedom that she deserves to have. Hers is a worthy asylum case and a very clear one, given the violence and the loss of freedom that she has suffered.
Sadly, gender-specific persecution is not unique to Pakistan. According to gender-specific research released last year, there was a 31% increase in violence, be that sexual, physical or psychological, against Christian women and girls compared with the previous year. The latter two forms of violence saw the biggest increase in incidents. According to Open Doors:
“Sexual violence can be overt, such as Christian women being abducted by Boko Haram and used as sex slaves, or it can be covert, under the guise of forced marriage, for example. Given the honour culture of many societies, sexual violence is often used to intentionally shame and stigmatise victims as well as their families and communities.”
The impact on all the families is quite large and quite significant.
Moreover, in honour/shame cultures, such as those found in India, many of the methods used to persecute Christian women and girls result in stigma—indeed, that is often a key reason behind the attacks. For example, rape victims are often viewed by society as sexually impure, making them vulnerable to rejection and limiting their prospects. This only serves to perpetuate a cycle of violence against Christians, making it increasingly taboo to be a follower of Christ in this world, which is something that I and many in this Chamber adhere to.
In Pakistan, gender-specific persecution is not the only challenge that Christians face. The ever present threat of allegations under blasphemy law and subsequent imprisonment or death has been used as a weapon against the Christians in Pakistan. Pakistan’s infamous blasphemy laws continue to be leveraged to accuse Christians and other non-Muslims of insulting the Prophet Mohammed or the Koran. Those false accusations are slurs, but they are also malicious, vindictive and dishonest, and they are often made in order to target Christians after a non-related dispute. Many of the cases that I have been aware of have had something to do with land disputes, property disputes, or fallouts. Even a false accusation can lead to mob violence. Once again, such allegations can lead to Christians living in hiding for years afterwards—as Maira Shahbaz is—with little hope of escape, and closed avenues of asylum in the UK. Those avenues of asylum should be open and available to those who have been persecuted and discriminated against because of their faith.
I visited Nigeria in May, and I am very sad to say that the situation in Nigeria has not changed at all. We had hoped that it would. We had some indications from Government officials that things were advancing. But the reality is very different. In Nigeria, abductions, particularly of women and girls, are rife. Many of us will know—indeed, we will all know—of the kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls in 2014. It made headlines when 276 mostly Christian girls were abducted by Boko Haram from their school. What has not made the headlines is the reality of that. Eight years later, more than 100 of those girls are still missing. How hard that must be on their mums, dads, brothers, sisters and all the family members who want to know what has happened to their sisters and daughters.
Regrettably, there are many cases of similar, albeit smaller-scale, abductions, with girls still missing after years. We think of the wee lady Leah Sharibu as well. She has been missing for four years. We had hoped that something might come out of our visit in May in relation to Leah Sharibu, but it has not been forthcoming as of this moment. As long as these girls remain missing, we must ask our Government—my Government—what they are doing to tackle impunity in Nigeria, and how they can be sure that the aid given to Nigeria does not fall into the wrong hands.
I and others have great concerns that Nigeria is the cockpit of Africa and that if it goes wrong in Nigeria, with its massive population, it can go very wrong for the rest of Africa. I know that is something the Minister takes particular interest in, and I am sure that he will give us an update in his response.
In May, earlier this year, I visited Nigeria along with other members of the APPG for international freedom of religion or belief. A main takeaway was that young people were ripe for radicalisation, facilitated largely by Government corruption and a culture of impunity. If more is not done to stem the spread of jihad, we will, without a doubt, witness genocide in Nigeria.
Earlier, I mentioned that some 5,898 Christians were killed last year, for simply believing that Jesus is their Lord. I find that almost incomprehensible. Of those, 4,650 were in Nigeria. That gives us an idea of the scale of the difficulties in Nigeria; that is why my focus has been on Pakistan and Nigeria. Yet again, that figure means that more Christians were murdered in Nigeria for following Jesus than in the rest of the world combined. That is a big stat to take in.
Yesterday, Bishop Jude, from Ondo State in Nigeria, visited Parliament. He is the bishop in the diocese where earlier this year, on Pentecost Sunday—a mere seven days after we visited the area—Catholics were massacred during a church service at St Francis church. Bishop Jude described how young children were shot through the head by Islamists. The amount of pain and suffering that such attacks inflict upon Nigeria’s population is unimaginable, and yet their faith still remains. It is an incredible test of faith, but it also tells of the faith they have.
What of the international community’s response? In November 2021, the US removed Nigeria from its list of countries of particular concern, and it has still yet to redesignate it as such. I ask that the Minister has discussions with the United States about reinstating Nigeria on that list, where it should be. The US of all countries should be doing that. The reasons for removing the designation remain somewhat unclear, especially in the light of such severe violations of freedom of religion or belief.
Although this Government condemned the attack, they also expressed the view in response to a written question on the matter that:
“The root causes of violence are complex, and in the case of intercommunal violence, frequently relate to competition over resources, historical grievances and criminality.”
I do not deny for a second that this is a complex issue or that there is a backdrop of compounding difficulties to the insecurity in Nigeria, but we must stop kidding ourselves that competition over resources, commonly attributed to climate change, is a greater cause of such violence and killings than pure unabated, violent hatred of Christians. The Islamic extremists in Nigeria could have massacred people in the street or in a Government building, but they did not. Instead, they shot, killed and maimed Christians, who were specifically targeted. The distinctly religious-based nature of the conflict should not be dismissed. Scarce resources do not shoot worshippers through the head; extremists do.
The rise of extremism is not unique to Nigeria. According to the latest report from Aid to the Church in Need, in June 2021, fighters belonging to Islamic State in the Greater Sahara executed five Christian civilians seized at a roadblock between Gao, Mali and Niamey, Niger. In Mozambique, al-Shabaab stepped up its terror campaign, killing Christians, attacking Christian villages and burning down churches. The group is affiliated to Daesh, which claimed responsibility for the March 2021 attack on Palma in north-east Mozambique. All the while, we as the west seem to do very little in response.
I know the Government are committed to freedom of religion and belief, but we need to perhaps take a more focused approach in relation to aid on where the difficulties are and what we can do to help. What can we do to stem the flow of violence, persecution, oppression and even genocide against Christians? I have some suggestions for the Minister, for His Majesty’s Government—for my Government. First, the FCDO must continue to affirm FORB issues as a priority concern within its human rights agenda, maintain its focus on gender and sexual violence in conflict and its interplay with FORB issues. In short, a mainstreaming of FORB in the FCDO’s approach to other nations would be welcome.
In connection with that, asylum seekers who are fleeing due to being persecuted for their religion or belief must be prioritised, and that is critically important. If that is done, the delayed acceptance of religious minorities from Afghanistan into the resettlement scheme would never be repeated. There are some people in a hotel in North Down who have been there since they were repatriated from Afghanistan. I welcome the scheme—I really do—but they are still there. There needs to be a system where people can get out. They want to work, they want to be settled and have things getting back to some normality as much as possible. Similarly, utmost efforts should be made to enable religious minorities to make asylum applications. Often they face more barriers than others in this process.
The work of the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, currently the hon. Member for Congleton, must be adequately resourced and fully integrated into the FCDO’s work. That is another ask through this debate. I know that she will not ask for it, but I will ask for it for her, because I think it is the right thing to do. Amplifying the concerns of Christians worldwide is all well and good, but we need to be sure that the FCDO is listening and taking action in response. If that work was incorporated within the FCDO, that would be a massive positive step.
I also suggest, as developed in a debate only a few weeks ago, that His Majesty’s Government do more to encourage the abolishment of the death penalty or life sentences for the charges of blasphemy. That is one small change that could make a tangible difference for so many Christians in multiple countries. Encouraging states to ensure the rule of law and not tyranny by sharia courts is fundamental to that aim. It is wholly unacceptable for a state to constitutionally have no state religion and yet have sharia law prevail among its court system, as it does in Nigeria and in other countries.
Finally, returning to Pakistan and Nigeria, I suggest that foreign and development aid be tied to improving FORB conditions. I have said it before in other debates, but saying that again does not lessen the request. It is a different Minister now, and I am always keen to seek the support and the response of the Minister in post. That proposal would not impact on emergency humanitarian aid. We are not saying that aid should not happen; we are saying it needs to be done to improve FORB conditions across the world. It would not impact on the millions of pounds spent by this Government on general development either. Until our Government can be absolutely certain that the recipients of aid are doing all they can to end the persecution, be it state or non-state actors, we should not be complacent about taxpayers’ money going to these countries.
I want to end on a positive note—this is my last word for the moment. In the Gospel of Matthew, it says:
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
If we cannot deliver justice for the oppressed in this life, may we be sure in the knowledge that justice will be theirs in the second? I believe we have a duty, as representatives in this House and as Christians ourselves, to speak up for our brothers and sisters across the world. We ask our Government and Minister—my Government and Minister—to respond in a positive fashion.
I welcome the Minister to his place, particularly knowing as I do his strong personal commitment to humanitarian aid provision over many years, not least from his time as Secretary of State for International Development, when I was privileged to serve on the International Development Committee, but also from our many summer recesses of volunteering when we both enjoyed the Umubano projects in Rwanda and Burundi. I know his commitment is real, and I look forward to working with him equally constructively in my role as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. It is very much with a constructive approach that I look at today’s debate.
My mandate, as stated on the Foreign Office website, is threefold: to bring together UK efforts to promote freedom of religion or belief; to work with the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance to raise awareness of cases of persecuted individuals; and to support the implementation of the Bishop of Truro’s recommendations, which support not just Christians persecuted for their faith, but freedom of religion or belief for all.
It is always with mixed sentiments that I speak at the annual Red Wednesday debate on the persecution of Christians. It is a privilege to thank the dedicated non-governmental organisations that support those who are suffering simply on account of what they believe. However, year on year, global persecution is rising across faiths and beliefs, and Christians are no exception, as we have heard. The report published yesterday by Aid to the Church in Need, “Persecuted and Forgotten?”, highlights the increase in persecution and notes that Christians are the most widely persecuted faith group in the world.
It is encouraging, however, that Governments across the world increasingly recognise the importance of engaging with freedom of religion or belief as a means of promoting world stability and security, and that across the world, more and more people and organisations are working together. Newly appointed envoys from different countries, ambassadors for freedom of religion or belief, academics, experts, NGOs, countries, people at the UN and the special rapporteur are working collaboratively together globally.
For example, this month the countries in the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance are campaigning against blasphemy laws—some involve the death penalty—which penalise people simply for practising their faith. We have timed that to reinforce work at the UN General Assembly on a global moratorium on the death penalty. It is also encouraging that the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, which I have the privilege of chairing this year, has grown to 42 countries. It started formally only in spring 2020, with a handful of countries, and now countries are joining almost every other month. Our collective voice is far louder than each individual voice alone.
It is increasingly recognised that religious differences are the cause of much violence and terror across the world, and in turn of insecurity and poverty. I hope that the Minister, who is new to his post, will also recognise that fact, not least with regard to what is happening in Nigeria today. We must engage with that, including in decisions on humanitarian aid spend.
This week, Bishop Jude Arogundade is visiting the UK from Owo in Nigeria. It was at the church in his diocese, St Francis Xavier, where 40 were killed on Pentecost Sunday. The youngest was two years old. Yesterday, he described for us the scene of carnage that met him as he entered his church. Tragically, however, that was not an isolated incident. Right across many states in Nigeria today, Fulani jihadists—Islamic extremists —are kidnapping, ransoming and killing clergy, abducting school students, forcibly converting, raping and marrying Christian girls, seizing land and obliterating villages. They are killing whole communities and then renaming their land. They are dispossessing thousands, who flee to live in informal camps for internally displaced people. Those are not camps with UN support; they are often camps supported by NGOs. Hunger, thirst, fear and lack of shelter are rife there. I heard just this week of how two teenage boys who were hungry risked leaving the IDP camp to try to fish for food. Their bodies were returned; their heads had been split open like melons with machetes.
Time precludes me from providing more accounts of the multiple atrocities happening in Nigeria. I will send the Minister documentation that I have received for this debate, including from Dr Richard Ikiebe of the Pan-Atlantic University, ACN, Baroness Cox, Open Doors and the director of advocacy at Open Doors, Dr David Landrum, who visited just two weeks ago. He tells me that atrocities are happening not just daily but hourly. That cannot just be explained by climate change and a fight over grazing land. As Dr Landrum told me, it is happening now in the forests and the jungles. The kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls in 2014 had nothing to do with the fight over land, and nor did the abduction, ransoming or disappearance of thousands of school children, such as Leah Sharibu. Bishop Jude told us:
“The massacre at St Francis Catholic Church Owo has nothing to do with climate change.”
We need to recognise—I implore the Minister to do so today—that religious differences have everything to do with this violence and, indeed, are the key root cause of the atrocities occurring in so many states across Nigeria. Aid to the Church in Need states:
“In Africa the state of Christians has worsened in all countries reviewed amid a sharp rise in genocidal violence from militant non-state actors, including Jihadists.”
Will the Minister meet me and others to discuss how we can address that? Addressing religious differences now needs to be a priority in our decision making. The bilateral official development assistance spend in Nigeria in 2021-22 was more than £100 million.
Other Governments are recognising the importance of promoting religious cohesion and putting real funds behind their commitment. That is why I say that I want to be constructive in making some suggestions. The Netherlands, for example, is funding projects in Nigeria’s Kaduna and Plateau states, whereby young Christians and Muslims have worked collaboratively on projects such as one to get more electricity into their communities—and it has worked. Not only has that joint working promoted understanding and cohesion, but the women and young people who use sewing machines to produce clothes for their livelihoods can now work longer hours because of the available electricity. That is just one of many projects where joint working across religious communities can build trust.
How can the UK engage in such a way? That is vital, because Nigeria is a huge country with more than 200 million people. As a result of the violence there, many young people feel increasingly disengaged and futureless. Time and again, I have warned that if the UK—Bishop Jude tells me that our voice still commands huge respect in Nigeria; indeed, more than that of any other country—does not engage, millions of young people who feel they have no future in Nigeria will seek to travel here. The devastating impact of that flood of potentially millions of migrants will overwhelm the countries in between, such as Niger. That point cannot be overstated, and it was mentioned to me strongly by a Member of Parliament from Niger when I met him here last month.
Providing better understanding between faith and belief groups, and between young people in a young country, as Nigeria is, is just as critical as providing education for them. Projects similar to the one I described involving young people and engaging them on FORB have been funded in other countries in many parts of the world. There are FORB-related projects in Somalia, the Philippines, South Sudan, Kenya and Mali. One project I heard of, which I understand is proving successful, is in the Central African Republic, bringing youth and religious leaders together to reduce hate speech in the digital sphere. Will the Minister discuss with me how the UK can play its part in supporting similar projects? Addressing the importance of freedom of religion or belief is vital today if we are to maintain our leadership role in tackling poverty and improving security across the world.
We cannot start too young. The alliance that I chair is taking forward a project from the London ministerial conference to produce materials for primary schools to help teachers to educate the very youngest children that it is just as important not to discriminate against someone on account of their beliefs as it is if they are disabled. I am delighted that one of the schools piloting this project—it was recently welcomed with interest by the Minister with responsibility for schools, the Minister of State, Department for Education, the right hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb)—is in my own constituency. Our alliance’s aim is to roll out these teaching materials, once they have been piloted, across the 42 countries in our alliance, an idea initiated by one of vice-chairs of the alliance, ambassador Robert Řehák of the Czech Republic. We cannot start too young to help people across the world to understand how critical it is to live peaceably with others of different beliefs, particularly as there is so much friction leading to violence in the world today.
If the Minister is still unpersuaded by reports from NGOs that the root cause of the current horrendous conflict in Nigeria is not climate change but attacks by religious extremists who are intent on genocidal destruction, would he perhaps support an impartial evaluation of what is currently going on in Nigeria and press for a UN commission of inquiry on Nigeria? Will he consider how addressing such freedom of religion or belief issues can be included more strongly in the wording of the revised integrated review, which was announced by the Chancellor today?
The current integrated review commits as a priority action:
“To promote freedom of religion or belief…overseas, taking forward the recommendations of the Bishop of Truro’s 2019 independent review and raising awareness of cases of particular concern - including through collaboration with the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance. In 2022, we will host an international ministerial conference to agree steps to advance FoRB for all.”
The ministerial conference was held in London in July. No fewer than 88 countries sent official delegates, with over 1,000 delegates attending from over 100 countries in total. The Truro review is a manifesto commitment and there are still outstanding elements to be fulfilled. I hope that the Minister will concur with me—indeed, it is in accordance with the Prime Minister’s determination to address outstanding manifesto commitments—that work on the Truro review should be completed. It is about promoting not just freedom of religion for Christians, but freedom of religion or belief for all.
As required under the Truro review, an independent review of progress of the Truro work was carried out this year, commissioned by the FCDO. That independent review was led by three freedom of religion or belief experts, including the UN special rapporteur on FoRB, and it was published in April. Its recommendations were fully accepted by the then Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), in a written statement, and it highlighted that there is outstanding Truro work to be done. It included as a key recommendation the production of a comprehensive operational action plan to aid
“a more integrated policy approach to mainstreaming FoRB”
in the FCDO, and
“informing multilateral and bilateral level engagement.”
That is much needed. The experts highlighted that work on FORB in the FCDO would benefit from
“more connectivity amongst those in the FCDO pursuing FoRB activities”.
I agree with that. It is now well over six months since that expert review was completed, and action on the comprehensive operational action plan needs to be taken forward. A lack of joined-up working within the FCDO on FORB means that resources are not being used as efficiently as they could be, and that needs to change.
I would welcome an opportunity to discuss this matter with the Minister, but that is not to disparage the strong commitment to FORB of our parliamentary colleague, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon. It is about making the best use of FCDO resources in support of our mutual roles, and indeed in support of the Minister who is here today.
You will be pleased to hear, Dame Maria, that I will be concluding shortly. We also need to be bolder and better at raising awareness of specific cases of concern. The whole point of advancing freedom of religion or belief is to make lives better. Where individuals are suffering and there is an opportunity for us to make their lives better, we should, in my view, be braver. Of course, this complies with my own mandate, which I touched on at the start of my speech.
We should be braver in raising particular cases of concern, so I will close by highlighting two. In the debate on this topic two years ago, I highlighted the case of Maira Shahbaz. Will the Minister look at how the UK can give safe haven to that poor girl? Two years on, she remains in hiding and in fear of oppressors, and she is living in one room with a sink. Will the Minister meet me to discuss not only her case, but the case of Sawan Masih, who is also from Pakistan? That case, which the hon. Member for Strangford has mentioned previously, involves a man who lives in hiding with his family because he fears being killed by the mob, having been acquitted by the court after being sentenced to death for blasphemy. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
Order. I plan to move to the Front-Bench winding-up speeches at 3.58 pm, so if the final two speakers split the remaining time between them, we will get both of you in. You have about five or six minutes each.
I was trying to do the maths in my head, Dame Maria, so you have helped me out. I congratulate the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing the debate, which is becoming something of an annual tie-in with the Red Wednesday commemorations. That is extremely fitting and a real tribute to their work. It is so important to so many of our constituents that we speak up for people who are being denied their right to freedom of religion or belief all around the world, regardless of whether they are Christian, are practising any other belief, or are of no belief.
As the title of the debate suggests, we are focusing on Christians. As the hon. Member for Strangford said, Christians remain one of the most persecuted—in fact, probably the most persecuted and discriminated against—religious group in the world. Perhaps that is to some extent because Christians remain the largest community group in the world, but the statistics demonstrate the significance of their persecution. It is worth bearing in mind, though, that the vast majority of human beings in the world adhere to some kind of religion and profess a belief in a creator god. The majority of them believe in the God revealed to the patriarch Abraham, and most believe in the same God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. On a global scale, religion is therefore not a minority sport, and neither is Christianity.
I pay tribute to organisations, such as Open Doors, Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Aid to the Church in Need, that do so much work to draw attention to these issues. Red Wednesday is a way for everybody to become more aware of the challenges faced by Christians and others who are persecuted for their religious beliefs.
I will briefly echo some of what has been said about specific countries. Nigeria is seventh on the Open Doors 2022 world watch list of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian, but the statistics show that if it were only measuring violence, Nigeria would be at the top of the list, and we have heard some very powerful and, frankly, horrific testimony from the hon. Members for Strangford and for Congleton. The call to bring to justice those responsible for genocidal attacks, such as the Pentecost Sunday 2022 massacre in Nigeria, is the focus of Aid to the Church in Need’s petition this year, and I hope that there are things the Government can do and that they will listen to the calls that have been made—for example, to address the question of designating Nigeria as a country of concern.
The Christian community in Iran is not always spoken of, but it is a very real and persecuted minority. The Open Doors world watch list says:
“It is risky for Christians, especially converts, to express their faith publicly (such as in blogs or on social media) since the internet is monitored and this can be used as evidence prior to an arrest.”
When the Prime Minister gave his statement on the G20 earlier today, I asked him what support the UK, the G20 and the global community more widely are offering to everyone in Iran who is now campaigning for democracy and freedom. Perhaps the Minister can address some of that as well.
Then there is the situation in China, where members of many religious minorities—not least the Uyghur Muslims—face persecution on a daily basis, but I want to draw particular attention to the situation of Cardinal Joseph Zen, who is one of Asia’s highest-ranking Catholic clerics. In May, he and fellow campaigners were arrested in Hong Kong for what the Government said was collusion with foreign forces, because they were trustees of a humanitarian relief fund. Together with the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), several of us raised our concerns with the Government in early-day motion 36 on 12 May, in which we agreed with Human Rights Watch’s comments that the arrest of the 90-year-old Cardinal for peaceful activities was a shocking new low for the Hong Kong Administration, and that it illustrates the city’s freefall in human rights over the past couple of years.
The Government must continue to work to tackle those issues in different countries around the world, as they have committed to. They also have to ensure that they are doing what they can on a domestic level to protect freedom of religion and belief and promote tolerance at home. In my part of world, Glasgow and the west of Scotland, we are not immune to religious intolerance. Sectarianism is still a real challenge. The root of it is, ironically, a divide between different Christian denominations; the golden rule of that religion is to “love one another as you love yourself”.
I want to pay tribute to the late Archbishop Mario Conti, the emeritus Archbishop of Glasgow, because among his many achievements was a renewed dedication to ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. Just yesterday, the Catholic Church in Scotland and the Presbyterian Church of Scotland signed the St Margaret declaration, a statement of ecumenical friendship. It was signed by the moderator of the Church of Scotland and the Archbishop of Edinburgh in the presence of the Princess Royal at Dunfermline Abbey. That is a very good example of what is possible from dialogue and the search for common ground. Hopefully it is the kind of thing that elsewhere in the world can learn from.
Many people who come to the United Kingdom seeking asylum do so because of religious persecution, whether they are Christian or otherwise. The language demonising people arriving on these shores in small boats in extremely unhelpful, and not a way to promote tolerance. The Government need to bear that in mind. I am still aware of ongoing challenges for very simple things, such as access to visas for supply ministers and religious leaders when they want to come to the United Kingdom in the summer to supply for Christian parishes or other faith communities. None of that necessarily speaks to a welcoming attitude.
The Government have to take all of that into account, and, if they are going to continue to cut the aid budget, they have to explain how they are going to make that work smarter and harder, so that progress can be continued in those areas, particularly towards the Truro report recommendations, as the hon. Member for Congleton said. She has been the Prime Minister’s envoy under three Prime Ministers, which shows how seriously she takes her role. We all support her in taking that role seriously, and I hope the Government will continue to do so too.
I hope these debates make some difference. I think I have spoken in all of them over the years, and the situation just seems to get worse and worse, but I suppose we cannot keep silent. The situation in Nigeria that we have heard so much about is truly appalling. Within the period we have been talking about, perhaps 7,000 Christians have been murdered. We keep referring to it, and I suppose there is a degree of hopelessness about what we can do, but should we feel hopeless? We have a Minister here who has spent a lifetime committed to helping people in the developing world. We do have influence because of our very large aid budget. I sometimes wonder whether we are using that influence to the greatest effect, particularly with countries such as Nigeria.
There is a suspicion that the Nigerian authorities are not as zealous as they should be in cracking down on this violence, which is little less than genocide. There is very little publicity about the loss of black lives in Africa, but black lives matter everywhere. They do not just matter in the west; as I have said before, they matter equally in Africa. When people are being murdered simply for their faith, we should call that out, and our Government should call it out in their relations with Nigeria. I am sure the Minister will say that we do that, but we must use our influence.
There are a couple of new countries that we have not talked about before where things are getting very difficult. For instance, in Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front is increasingly cracking down on civil society and local churches. Bishop Declan Lang commented:
“Over recent years the people of Nicaragua have endured deepening repression and violations of human dignity. Many have been unjustly imprisoned…or killed for defending their basic rights. Others have been forced to flee… Among them, bishops, priests, seminarians.”
Another country we have not dealt with much in these debates in the past is Myanmar, where civil society is under threat. Cardinal Maung Bo, the Archbishop of Yangon, is pleading for protection from violence by military junta troops. In November 2021, 200 troops invaded the Christ the King Cathedral in Loikaw and evicted health workers. The bishops of Myanmar have appealed for humanitarian corridors and sanctuary for their places of worship.
In these debates I and others have repeated referred to the case of Maira Shahbaz, who was raped and is still virtually under house arrest. We have a Foreign Office Minister here now, and I do not understand why we cannot do more to get this girl out. We have had meetings with the Home Secretary, as have other colleagues. What is the Foreign Office doing about this case? Is there something we are not being told? Many, many migrants are coming to this country, and many of them are not genuine asylum seekers, but Maira Shahbaz is obviously a genuine asylum seeker. We have repeatedly raised her case, but she is still stuck in Pakistan.
The truth is that the position of Christians is very dangerous indeed. What is so sad is the decline of Christianity in the middle east, the home—or first home—of Christianity. It is most marked in Syria where, within a decade, numbers of Christians have plummeted from 1.5 million—10% of the population in 2011 before the war began—to 300,000, which is less than 2% of the population. In the aftermath of the 4 August 2020 Beirut explosions, where the greatest impact was felt in the Christian quarter, Lebanon’s church leaders questioned the community’s long-term survival. In Iraq, the rate of exodus is much slower, with the community down from some 300,000 before the 2014 Daesh invasion to as few as 150,000 today in 2022.
It is so sad that the original home of Christianity is seeing a mass exodus of Christians. The situation is not much better in the west bank of Palestine, Israel. Nearly 75 years on from the creation of the state of Israel, Christians in the west bank have declined from 18% to less than 1% of the population today.
We have heard lots about China and new approaches to China in recent days. I want to comment on the false accusations against Cardinal Zen. Here is a man who is 90 years old, and he has been accused of colluding with foreign forces. It is an absolutely ridiculous allegation. He was associated with the now-defunct 612 humanitarian relief fund, which helped protestors in financial need. This is an old man who has done absolutely nothing wrong. Hong Kong is a place where we have a long history. We made a treaty with China to try to ensure freedom of expression. I raised this matter when we went to Rome with Cardinal Gallagher recently, who is the Foreign Minister of the Holy See. He expressed hope that the Hong Kong authorities would draw back from the most serious charges, which unbelievably carry the possibility of life imprisonment. If we have any influence with the Chinese authorities, can we please raise the case of Cardinal Zen and the totally unjust persecution of this very old, very distinguished and very holy man?
I am delighted to once again participate in a debate on the freedom of religion or belief, specifically the persecution of Christians and the importance of people being allowed to worship their God, however they perceive Him or Her to be. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing this debate. I know that he cares very much about this issue and often raises it in the Chamber. As others have said, it is important that this issue continues to be on the radar of not only this House but the international community.
It is a fundamental, basic freedom to worship your God, however you perceive Him or Her to be. The freedom to choose who you worship and how you worship is a fundamental human right. We have to remember that those nations that persecute Christians and anyone else who follows a religion to which their leaders are hostile—nations that turn a blind eye to the persecution of a number of their citizens based on their faith—also tend to impose and sanction other breaches of human rights.
Persecution on the basis of faith does not happen in isolation, but it is insidious, cruel, repressive and unacceptable. It often goes hand in hand with the repression and subjugation of women. Forcing people to adhere to a particular set of religious beliefs is often little more than a means of control, which is why those who choose to subscribe to a minority religion in repressive states are considered by those leaders to be dangerous and are subject to persecution—if not carried out by the state directly, then sanctioned by the state.
The means of control often include forcing people to subscribe—even if only outwardly—to a particular religion; making it an offence to insult the dominant religion, as we have heard happens in Nigeria; and making blasphemy a crime punishable by death. The days of preaching to convert people the old-fashioned way is clearly not used in such states. As the hon. Member told us, blasphemy laws are too often manipulated to settle petty scores. Alternatively, people are forced to subscribe and defer to a particular religion or die as a result of some perceived act of blasphemy. That seems to be the choice that many face in such regimes.
In this day and age, we can scarcely imagine from the comfort of the west how horrific living in such a place must be if you are a Christian—the most persecuted religion in the world. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom reported 732 blasphemy-related incidents across 41 countries in the short time between 2014 and 2018. Four of the 41 countries accounted for nearly 80% of all reported incidents of mob activity: Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria and Egypt. Any international engagement by the west with such states takes place under the shadow of the violence and oppression that they perpetrate. It is on that basis that free nations must make it clear that they will not tolerate religious oppression of any kind, and they must use every lever at their disposal—diplomatic or otherwise—to challenge and counter persecution wherever it exists.
I note the comments made by others that Nigeria tops the list of countries with the most violent persecution of Christians. All free and democratic members of the international community must have that information in the forefront of their mind in any dealings with Nigeria or any such state. They must take concentrated and concerted action to challenge and tackle this matter, because hand-wringing and finger-wagging is not working. From Myanmar to Nigeria, Kashmir to Ethiopia, Afghanistan to Somalia, India to Pakistan, and from Saudi Arabia to Iran, at least 360 million Christians have experienced high levels of persecution and discrimination this year alone—20 million more than in 2021. Persecution of Christians is growing, not decreasing.
Every day, around 13 Christians are killed because of their faith. Every day, 12 churches or Christian buildings are attacked. Every day, 12 Christians are unjustly arrested or imprisoned, and another five are abducted. The problem is getting worse. I pay particular tribute to the hugely important work of the charity Open Doors, which works tirelessly to support persecuted Christians around the world. It shines a much-needed light on this persecution on the international stage, so that this horror is not forgotten by members of the international community who value freedom. Open Doors reminds us that its world watch list—the annual accounting of countries that are guilty of most persecution of Christians—is not a compilation list of oppression. Perhaps upliftingly, it lists the resilience of those who hold true to their faith in the face of the greatest and gravest of danger.
Freedom of religion or belief is codified in international law: 41 years ago, in 1981, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming the declaration on the elimination of all forms of intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief. Despite that declaration, much more needs to be done by the whole international community—of course, I include the UK Government in that—to support freedom of religion or belief around the world. There must be no more important missed opportunities. Sadly, the 2022 international ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief, which took place in July in London, has a legacy of diplomatic fall-outs but not much more than that on what we have been pushing for today.
I talked about the project of creating education materials for primary schools, which was one of the issues talked about at the ministerial conference. That is actually one of about seven streams of works that the alliance is taking forward following ministerial conference, after we analysed the ideas and suggestions. Obviously, it will take some time to bring forward the fruit of that work, but I hope that in 2023 it will become apparent.
I thank the hon. Lady for pointing that out.
The push for greater recognition of the freedom of religion or belief will never be solved by one conference—we all recognise that the problem is too ingrained and too great—but it could have been a more significant step on that important path. But I take the hon. Lady’s point: small steps are steps, none the less.
To make sustained and meaningful progress on this important issue, we need the international community in the west, where we believe in freedom, to engage in an ongoing and evolving mission. We need to be braver about challenging repressive nations that persecute their own people for worshipping their own God. We need to be willing to confront them on the international stage at every opportunity. It is unacceptable for any state, any Government or any person to attempt to interfere with someone or persecute them on the basis of what God they choose to worship. Every nation that believes in freedom should say so and be unafraid to stand up for those who are oppressed. That is their moral obligation and duty. If we do not stand up for freedom, what will we stand up for?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Maria. We have had an excellent debate, as always. This very important debate has drawn attention to the persecution of not just Christians but other minorities. Today we are concentrating on the world’s largest faith, the Christian community. The contribution from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) was, as always, excellent and very well informed. He is passionate about this subject.
We also heard from the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). She and I have worked on many causes relating to international development and freedom of religion or belief over the years, and she is a champion for Christian beliefs and freedom of religion. She does an excellent job. I hope that if there is ever a change of Government, she can serve under the Labour Government, because she is so good at what she does. That is not a job offer, by the way—I do not have the right to do that—but she really is a credit to this institution.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) made a typically excellent contribution. We also heard from the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), who is a champion for this cause, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) for winding up on behalf of the Scottish National party.
As always, it is excellent that the hon. Member for Strangford has secured this timely debate. I also praise his tireless work on the issue. The persecution of Christians contributes a huge amount to the overall religious oppression that we sadly still see across the world today.
Some 360 million Christians—at least, that is the number that I retrieved—face extreme levels of persecution. That is the greatest ever number on record, as the hon. Member for Strangford pointed out. While that oppression impacts on everyone in Christian communities, it also includes gender-specific religious persecution—as the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran, and, indeed, the hon. Member for Congleton pointed out—because the persecutors often particularly target women from Christian minorities in a bid to destabilise the whole of their community.
As we approach White Ribbon Day, which aims to draw attention to the ongoing violence against women and girls, it is vital that we work within the international community, using our diplomatic influence, to tackle those countries that view Christian women and girls simply as sexual objects and vehicles of shame. It is also deeply disturbing that incidents of sexual violence against Christian women and girls were reported in 90% of countries in the top 50 of the Open Doors world watch list in 2022. Will the Minister tell us what the UK is doing on the international stage to tackle such vile persecution?
London will host a conference of the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative on 28 and 29 November, and I hope that it will highlight the double jeopardy for women who are persecuted for their gender as well as their faith or belief. Does the hon. Member agree that that is very important?
Yes, and I thank the hon. Member for her intervention. I absolutely agree, because the two are not separable. It is tragic that that should be the case.
Today, we have heard of many horrific experiences of Christians across the world. However, I would like to turn my attention to another case study of persecution against Christians, which the right hon. Member for Gainsborough mentioned. As my regional brief on Labour’s Front Bench covers Latin America, I am well aware of the issues facing democracy and the freedom of expression in Nicaragua. Sadly, as the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, that has had a huge impact on Christians who do not fully conform to the will of the Ortega regime—or should I say dictatorship?
In August, a Roman Catholic bishop was put under house arrest, and four priests, two seminarians and a cameraman were also imprisoned. In the middle of the night, Nicaraguan security forces stormed the property where Bishop Rolando Álvarez and 11 others had been confined for 15 days. Bishop Álvarez was forcibly taken and placed under house arrest while the other priests, seminarians and the cameraman were held in detention.
In addition to those shocking and unjustified arrests, the Nicaraguan Government shut down all radio stations associated with the bishop that were critical of the Ortega regime. Everyone arrested should be released and the persecution of Roman Catholics’ freedom of expression in Nicaragua must be brought to an end. What are the Government doing to challenge the Nicaraguan Government, and have they considered further sanctions against that country?
On a more positive note, I visited Colombia in May, six months ago, to look at the election situation and to consider the attacks on trade unionists and religious and indigenous people in that country. I saw the brilliant work of the Roman Catholic Church’s Justice and Peace Commission, which took me to the suburb of Usme to meet the youth collective there. The commission sponsored and supported them, helped to build the community centre, and underpinned the security of that organisation, which was, at the time, under attack from the police.
Red Wednesday, on 23 November, is an opportunity for all of us across this House to reaffirm our support for Christians as well as freedom of religious belief across the world, just as we have done during this debate. Christians contribute so much to our society, but they must be allowed to contribute as much in the many other countries where they are still being targeted solely for their faith and their belief.
I am proud to represent Leeds North East, where we have an extremely diverse community, made up of Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and atheists, as well as other minority religions. We are culturally, morally and spiritually richer for this mix, so it is only right that we play our part in trying to ensure that communities in other countries across the world can exist in such great harmony.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Maria. I should tell you that in the 35 years I have been in this House and in my three stints in Government, this is only the second time I have responded to a debate in this Chamber—but it is the second time in two days. It is a bit like buses: I wait for 35 years and then two come along almost immediately.
I am in effect standing in for Lord Ahmad—it is obvious why—who, as a number of people said, is the Minister who has considerable knowledge of this issue and worked extremely hard on it. He will read our debate with the greatest possible interest.
I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing the debate and I commend him for his long-standing commitment to freedom of religion or belief for all. His speech today was littered with the wisdom and authority that he commands in the House. He is much respected across the House for what he has to say. He ended his remarks by looking at the Gospel according to St Matthew, and our debate was enriched by that contribution.
I also thank the all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief, which continues to raise awareness of this human right among parliamentarians and the public alike. The shared passion across the House to protect freedom of religion or belief is clear, warranted and to be warmly welcomed. I will try to respond to the various points that have been made during the debate and to highlight the UK action in respect of that.
I will come to the comments of the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) later in my remarks, but I thought he spoke for the entire House today. He praised my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce)—he did not quite offer her a job, but he nearly did—and saluted her ecumenical approach politically. The whole House will agree with that. He urged us to use our diplomatic influence to stop persecution—we most certainly are, and will—and on his point about Colombia, one of the other Foreign Office Ministers will shortly be there to amplify and emphasise the cross-party approach that we are taking.
It is fitting that this debate falls just ahead of Red Wednesday, a day to stand in solidarity with persecuted Christians. The Foreign Office will demonstrate our support by lighting our building in red. We have noted the report from Aid to the Church in Need, released yesterday, and we will study its findings closely.
I pay particular tribute to Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, for his work standing up for persecuted minorities and on development. He speaks with unique authority about our moral duty to the poorest and least well-off. In the same spirit as the hon. Member for Leeds North East, I express my admiration and praise for the faith communities across Birmingham who work so impressively together and to great effect and success. The royal town of Sutton Coldfield makes an enormously constructive contribution to such important issues. In the royal town, we have the Bishop of Aston, who makes a great contribution and resides in my constituency.
Like this House, the Government believe that violence against any person because of their religion or belief is wholly unacceptable. Although this debate particularly highlights the plight of persecuted Christians, we do not forget or in any way diminish the experience of those persecuted for holding other religions, beliefs or no religious beliefs at all. The Government are committed to championing freedom of religion or belief for everyone—something enshrined in the universal declaration of human rights and in our own organisational values. My noble Friend Lord Ahmad, the Minister responsible for human rights, continues to work closely with the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, to deliver precisely on that commitment.
We demonstrated the depth of our commitment this summer by hosting an international ministerial conference that brought together more than 800 faith and belief leaders and human rights actors and 100 Government delegations to agree action to promote and protect these fundamental rights. As a result of the conference, 47 Governments, international organisations and other entities made pledges to take action in support of freedom of religion or belief.
In addition, we are pursuing three broad strands to advance freedom of religion or belief and tackle the associated human rights concerns: first, working through multilateral bodies; secondly, working with states directly to encourage and support them to uphold their human rights obligations; and thirdly, through our continuing work to implement the recommendations of the Bishop of Truro’s 2019 review.
On multilateral action—the first strand—we work with organisations such as the United Nations, Council of Europe, G7 and the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance to promote and protect freedom of religion or belief. Again, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton for her dedicated work as the UK representative and chair of the alliance. Under her leadership, participation has grown to 42 countries. I welcome the joint statements recently issued by the alliance on concerns related to Ahmadi Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baha’is, Ukraine, Nicaragua and Nigeria—on which I will say more in a minute, if time permits.
In September, my noble Friend Lord Ahmad spoke at the United Nations and urged the international community to call out Iran for systematically targeting members of minority communities, to press Afghanistan to protect minorities targeted for their beliefs, to challenge the discriminatory provisions in Myanmar’s citizenship laws and to hold China to account for its egregious human rights violations in Xinjiang.
In our bilateral work, we regularly raise specific issues with other Governments, both in public and in private, where that may result in better outcomes. My noble Friend Lord Ahmad met Pakistan’s Minister for Human Rights in October to raise the persecution of minorities, including the forced conversion of young Christian and Hindu girls. In Iraq, religious and ethnic minority populations have significantly declined since 2003 due to exclusion, sectarianism and conflict. Many of these minority communities continue to face extreme challenges in 2022. We regularly raise the need to protect ethnic and religious minorities with the Government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government—most recently in July 2022, again, by my noble Friend Lord Ahmad with the Kurdistan Regional Government Minister for Religious Affairs.
I am also grateful to those who have raised the issue of Nigeria, where both Christians and Muslims have suffered devastating harm at the hands of violent extremist groups, and separately as a result of intercommunal violence and criminality. We remain committed to supporting peacebuilding initiatives across Nigeria to address the root causes of violence, protect human rights and promote dialogue and respect between different ethnic and religious communities.
Finally, the Bishop of Truro’s review set out the gravity of the issue of Christian persecution, along with practical recommendations for an enhanced Government response to the plight of persecuted Christians and people persecuted for holding other religions, beliefs or no religious belief at all. We welcome the findings of the independent review of our work to take forward the recommendations. That assessment earlier this year concluded that the majority of the recommendations are either at an advanced stage of delivery or in the process of being delivered, while noting that more can always be done.
We will continue to ensure that the changes we have made are embedded, and we will look for opportunities to ensure that freedom of religion or belief is central to wider human rights work. To provide a few examples, we have sent a clear message through our global human rights sanctions regime that the international community will not turn a blind eye to serious and systematic violations of human rights. In December 2021, we sanctioned Furqan Bangalzai for his role in orchestrating the 2017 bombing of a Sufi shrine in Pakistan, which killed over 70 people. In March 2021, Lord Ahmad hosted a meeting at the UN Security Council to raise awareness of persecution of religious minorities in conflict zones. Religion for international engagement training is now available to all civil servants to enhance their understanding of the role of religion and belief in a wide variety of contexts, in order to deliver the UK’s international objectives more effectively.
I now turn to some of the specific contributions, starting with my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton. She does so much good work and speaks so eloquently, as she demonstrated so well today. Across our country, many people in the faith communities will be grateful to her for her leadership. She is going to send information on Nigeria and share it with Lord Ahmad. Of course, it will be a pleasure to have the meeting that she requested. I will look carefully and write if I miss any of her other points. In particular, she raised the issue of the attack on St Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Owo, Ondo state. I want her to know that we condemn that horrific attack and we extend our sympathies to all those affected. We condemn attacks on places of worship. Everybody should be free to practise their religion or belief without fear.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) spoke about a number of organisations that do so much to help. I want to echo his thanks to them. He also raised Iran, whose human rights record continues to be of serious concern to the UK; the Foreign Office has designated it as one of its human rights priority countries. The continued use of the death penalty, weak rule of law and restrictions on freedom of expression and religion or belief are deeply worrying.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) spoke with his great experience, but lugubriously. He asked us to use our influence to greater effect in Nigeria. I will be going there before long, and I will raise directly the points that he made. He also raised the issue of Nicaragua, as did the hon. Member for Leeds North East. Reports of harassment and detention of members of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua are of enormous concern. Freedom of religion or belief is a universal human right, and we have made it clear there that they must be protected.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough also raised the Aid to the Church in Need petition to grant Maira Shahbaz asylum. I am very conscious of that case. I know my right hon. Friend will accept that I must be careful when commenting in public on individual cases where individuals’ or their families’ lives could be put at risk, but I want him to know that I am deeply conscious of his point.
My right hon. Friend also raised a point about Cardinal Zen. We will certainly continue to make representations. We are closely following the cases of pro-democracy figures who face charges in Hong Kong, including Cardinal Zen. Officials from the British consulate general in Hong Kong attend local court hearings related to a number of rights and freedoms issues and will continue to do so. The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) addressed in forthright terms the evil of persecution and the various ways in which that evil is pursued and delivered. She spoke about Open Doors, for which we are extremely grateful.
To conclude, as a long-standing champion of human rights and freedoms, the United Kingdom has not only a duty but a deep desire to promote and defend our values of equality, inclusion and respect at home and abroad. I assure Members here today that the Government will do just that. We will continue to raise awareness of all persecution and we will defend the right to freedom of religion or belief for everyone, everywhere.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered persecution of Christians and freedom of religion or belief.