I beg to move,
That this House has considered religious minorities in Nigeria.
I declare an interest as a chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. The APPG speaks for those of all faiths, and those with no faith, in order to defend freedom of religion or belief for all, everywhere. It is a real pleasure to have the opportunity to speak on this issue, and a special pleasure to see so many hon. Members here to contribute as well. I am, as always, very pleased to see the Minister in her place. I know that she is not responsible for this issue, but she always tries to respond in a positive way and I very much look forward to her correspondence and follow-up on it. It is also nice to see the two shadow Ministers in their place. The shadow Minister for the Labour party, the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown), always comes to any issue with passion and belief, and I very much look forward to what she has to say; and the shadow spokesperson for the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), believes fervently in what we are saying, so I very much look forward to what he has to say as well.
As many hon. Members know, Nigeria is a topic that is very close to my heart. Nigeria is a country that rightly receives a lot of attention from this House and from the other place. It is one of the largest African economies and, by 2050, will be the fourth largest country in the world. That gives an idea of the importance of Nigeria. It is also a country that is facing profound instability, with religious groups suffering targeted attacks.
I visited Nigeria, along with the APPG, in May and June of last year, so we have first-hand knowledge of what was happening out there at that time. In 2020, the APPG published a report entitled “Nigeria: Unfolding Genocide?” That report highlighted extreme levels of violence in northern states and in the middle belt that targeted Christian communities in particular, the main perpetrators being Boko Haram and Fulani herders. In the past three years, the situation has continued to deteriorate, with violence creeping further south. We witnessed that when we were in Nigeria last year. The violence was mostly in the north-east, but it was filtering down into the middle belt and into the south-west as well.
I am very grateful to the hon. Member for tabling this important debate. Does he agree that the situation is so sad because Nigeria has such tremendous potential? In many ways, there has been much success, but the country is still disfigured by those appalling attacks on Christians. I want particularly to highlight the 2022 case of Deborah Yakubu, who was murdered by fellow students. It is a truly shocking case, and illustrative of so many other tragedies in Nigeria.
I thank the right hon. Lady for that intervention. I will mention later the lady to whom she has referred. Like the right hon. Lady, I was particularly annoyed and disturbed by the violence that took place. That is the subject of one of the questions that I will ask the Minister, so I thank the right hon. Lady very much for bringing it up.
The situation to which I was referring before the intervention is the assessment not just from the APPG, but from a wider range of experts. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom states that freedom of religion or belief in Nigeria remains poor and there are widespread instances of violence and kidnapping, of Government inaction and of general criminality that targets religious minority communities, so the right hon. Lady is absolutely right: that is exactly what is happening. Nigeria is a country with so much potential and so much to offer—it is a close contact, of course, of the United Kingdom—so it is really important that this issue is aired.
Persecution of religious minorities is still an issue in many parts of the world and many parts of Nigeria. That includes minorities such as those of the Baha’i faith. Does the hon. Member agree that the UK Government could exert greater influence through their diplomatic routes to pressure Governments such as the Nigerian one to commit to better treatment of minorities?
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. As always, she brings to us her knowledge and a very helpful question. I agree with her. There is a role for our Foreign Office to perhaps be more active, and I think that that is what I am going to ask for as I move through this speech.
Last year the Foreign Affairs Committee released a report entitled “Lagos calling: Nigeria and the Integrated Review”, which urged the Government to focus on priority areas of engagement, including improving the human rights record of the Nigerian security sector, promoting the rule of law, supporting the rights of minority groups in Nigeria, and promoting freedom of religion or belief.
In January of this year, Open Doors launched the 2023 world watch list, which placed Nigeria at No. 6 in the top 50 countries where it is hardest to be a Christian. A country does not want to be in the top 10; Nigeria is sixth. Open Doors describes how Christians in some parts of the country face persecution that is extreme and often brutally violent. Islamic militants and armed bandits attack communities in northern and middle belt states with increasing impunity. The fact that it is happening with, it seems, little done to stop them adds to the issues.
There have been increasing attacks in southern states, too. If violence was the sole factor in the Open Doors world watch list, Nigeria would be at the top. Last year 5,014 Christians were killed in attacks in places of worship in Christian communities in Nigeria. That accounts for 87% of the total number of Christians killed for their faith worldwide in 2022. No one can say that Christians in Nigeria are not targets.
Last year was by no means an outlier. Just last week The Tablet newspaper reported that in the last 14 years at least 52,250 Christians were killed in Nigeria—targeted because of their faith. The trend is escalating. Under the last Government more than 30,250 Christians were killed alongside an estimated 34,000 Muslims. They were killed in attacks that deliberately targeted places of worship or communities because of their religious affiliation. Attacks were primarily carried out by non-state actors, including Boko Haram, Islamic State and the Fulani herders.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I was until relatively recently the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Nigeria. I fully accept what he says about Boko Haram, but there is a difference between the Fulani terrorists and the Christians that they are killing, which is their way of farming. The Fulani tribe are generally herdsmen and the Christians are generally farmers. It was very difficult to tell whether that was the real reason for the killings or whether it was religiously inspired from the beginning. Does he have a feeling about which of the two it is?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his time as envoy. We all recognise his interest in Nigeria. Although he is no longer the envoy, I am not surprised he is here to participate in the debate. I thank him for his knowledge. It is clear to me, and probably others as well, that Islamic State and Daesh are very much in the background. They are using the unrest and perhaps the grievances as well to escalate the violence. The Government and the police and security forces in particular have been accused of deliberately standing by as attacks happen. The impunity must end and our Government—our Minister—should not continue to turn a blind eye when it persists.
In January armed gunmen invaded the home of Father Isaac Achi, a Catholic priest in Niger state, setting his residence ablaze and burning him to death. The attackers also shot his colleague, Father Collins, as he tried to escape. Days later, when the state’s minority Christian community marched to protest security force inaction at the local police station—not in a violent fashion—authorities called in reinforcements and responded with force against peaceful demonstrators. It frustrates me that that is just another example of the Nigerian security forces failing to ensure security for religious minorities and other vulnerable communities.
Many Members will remember the attack during Pentecost Sunday on St Francis Xavier Church in Ondo state. The attack led to the death of 50 worshippers and injured more than 70. Bishop Jude of the Ondo diocese visited Parliament in the months after the attack. I and probably many others met him when he was here. He told Members that despite Government buildings being across the road from the church, the gunmen were able to act with impunity for 20 minutes. Nobody tried to detain them or stop what was happening.
The attack on St Francis Xavier Church is nowhere near an isolated incident. During Holy Week there were numerous attacks on Christians across Nigeria. On Palm Sunday, during an early morning prayer vigil at the church in the village of Akenawe in Benue state, gunmen entered the church, killed a young boy and kidnapped three worshippers, including the church leader, Pastor Gwadue Kwaghtyo. Three days later, on April 5, gunmen killed at least 50 people in the village of Umogidi.
On Good Friday gunmen raided an elementary school building in the village of Ngban in Benue state, which serves as a shelter for 100 displaced Christian farmers and their families. The attack left 43 people dead and more than 40 injured. On the same day gunmen abducted at least 80 people, mostly women and children, in Zamfara state. The Catholic diocese of Makurdi reported that 94 Christians were killed during Holy Week in Benue state alone. Where is our Government’s response to that targeted violence? I am respectful to the Minister, but I need answers—I think we all do—to see what exactly has happened.
While violence has historically been concentrated in the northern states in Nigeria and perpetrated by Boko Haram, recent years have seen the middle belt become the epicentre. Benue state in particular has been badly affected. All those examples indicate exactly what is happening. Fulani herders traditionally migrated through pasture lands in the middle belt region. However, the desertification of the Chad basin has led to those groups being forced to migrate further south, bringing them into conflict with settled farms. Fulani militia targeted non-Muslim communities, trying to secure grazing lands. Five hundred churches in Benue state have been destroyed and more than 200 have been abandoned. That is 700 churches with all their congregations affected.
The hon. Member is making a compassionate speech, as ever. Will he, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, join me, as vice-chair, in calling on the President of Nigeria to be similarly compassionate and exercise clemency by granting a pardon to the young Sufi singer, Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, whose situation we have mentioned before in this House and who is in prison, having been sentenced to death by hanging? His case is currently on appeal. He was accused of blasphemy because a song he wrote was circulated, as I understand it, by someone else on social media.
I congratulate the hon. Lady for all she does. Each and every one of us in this House recognise her good work and I join with her in calling on the President to grant a pardon to this young man. It seems to me that he is guilty of no crime and it is only right that he should be released. I hope that will be the case.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom raised concerns about a spate of lethal attacks against Christian communities in Kano and Kaduna states. Central Nigeria is known as the country’s bread basket, but because farmers are being killed in their fields, many are afraid to go out to work. First, we need to recognise that security must be obtained for everyone in Nigeria, and the police and the army must be active in making sure there is peace in the streets and securing peace for people to work, live and not be brutalised by others. That is really important. So often, much of the discussion focuses on Christians in Nigeria, and for many reasons. Attacks on Christians receive more headlines in the western media and often, monitoring groups have links to the global church networks. However, the situation for other religious minorities is precarious: the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) rightly mentioned the Baha’i. For humanists, atheists and non-religious belief groups, discrimination and persecution is a fact of life. Many in those groups are forced to live in hiding, making it hard to estimate the number of people in Nigeria of non-religious belief.
I want to give the example, along with a question for the Minister at the end, of Mubarak Bala, a Nigerian human rights activist and president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria. In April 2022, he was sentenced to 24 years in prison for posting blasphemous content on Facebook. He was originally arrested in 2020 and held without charge for more than a year. He faced charges before the Kano State High Court in connection with Facebook posts that were deemed to have caused a public disturbance because of their blasphemous content. In addition to being arbitrarily detained for more than a year before being charged, there have been several other violations of the rights to a fair trial, which include being denied access to his legal representation. I want to express my thanks to the Minister and to the United Kingdom Government, which have been repeatedly outspoken in support of Mubarak Bala’s release. When we were in Nigeria last year, we met some of the Ministers responsible. At that time, we felt we were moving towards a solution. Can the Minister update us on where that is?
Nigeria is also home to a variety of traditional beliefs and indigenous religions. However, they often face discrimination and have less legal recognition. The majority of the discrimination affects children and is particularly prevalent at school. While students have a legal right to wear headscarves, crosses and other symbols of Christian or Muslim faiths, schools have prohibited students from wearing symbols of traditional faiths, such as prayer beads. Schools are obligated to provide both Christian and Islamic education for students, but have no such requirements for traditional beliefs, leaving members of those communities forced to select either the Christian or Islamic course track against their parents’ wishes. Finally, the Nigerian Government recognise the official holidays of Islam and Christianity, but they have refused to recognise holy days common to traditional African religions. Therefore, when we speak for those of a Christian faith, those of other faiths and those of no faith, we do so for everyone in Nigeria—I want to put that on record.
I will come to the horrific case raised by the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers). On 12 May, Deborah Samuel was murdered by her classmates for blasphemy following a message on WhatsApp. She had passed her exams at Shehu Shagari College of Education in Wamako, Sokoto state, and she posted a voice message in a group WhatsApp saying:
“Jesus Christ is the greatest. He helped me pass my exams.”
Deborah was accused of blasphemy and forcibly taken from the security room. While they were trying to take her from the room to a local police station, she was attacked by a mob, stoned to death and burned beyond recognition.
Many of us in this room have said that Jesus Christ is the greatest and has helped us in our health and jobs, and in all our lives. We have done it and never had any fear; Deborah Samuel did it in Nigeria and lost her life because of it, so the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet is absolutely right. Her killers acted with a sense of impunity. In one video, men with sticks can be seen beating the lifeless, bloody body of a woman reported to be Deborah Samuel. The video also showed young men celebrating, with one man holding up a matchbox and saying he used it to set her on fire and kill her—such gross social media and gross debauchery against an innocent Christian.
Efforts by the authorities to identify and arrest those involved in the murder of Deborah Samuel were met with violent protest. It is nearly one year later, and no one has been prosecuted for her murder. The last statement from the Sokoto state police in August said that they are still looking for the killers.
The horrific case mentioned by my hon. Friend is one of many. Does he agree that, as others have suggested, the Nigerian authorities—hopefully approached by our own Government—need to make it absolutely clear that that type of activity is not only illegal, but unacceptable, and it must be clamped down on? Otherwise, they will become the pariah in Africa.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We know that the Minister and our Government cannot change the security policy in Nigeria, but we need to encourage our colleagues and friends in Nigeria. We have a diaspora here in the UK: we have contacts historically, economically, financially, socially and through families, and we need to use that influence to ensure that these cases are answered.
Deborah’s case is illustrative of the wider violence in Nigeria that targets people for their faith. Often, those who are targeted are women and children, with killings and sexual violence used to prevent that community having a future. Blasphemy allegations are often used as an excuse to justify violence or silence voices from minority communities. The brutality of the case illustrates the appalling violence that these communities face every day. There is a lack of prosecutions or arrests, exactly as my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) said, despite video evidence. It is all there: why have the police not arrested these people and made them accountable? It illustrates the inaction of security forces to protect religious minority communities.
I am very aware of the agreement you and I, Ms Nokes, came to about the timescale of my speech. Let me ask the Minister the following questions. Deborah Samuel’s murder shocked the world, and the video footage went viral on social media. It was widely condemned by everyone in this House and by the wider international community. Despite promises to bring the perpetrators to justice, there have been no recent updates whatsoever. Will the Minister and her Department seek an update from her counterparts and inform them that the case has not been forgotten by UK parliamentarians in this debate or, indeed, outside of this House?
Secondly, will the Minister confirm whether a recent RICKS assessment has been carried out by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and will it be made available in the Libraries of the House of Commons and the House of Lords? It should be. I know the Minister will endeavour to respond to these four questions, and I appreciate that very much.
Thirdly, what assessment has the FCDO made of the impact of cuts to UK aid for internally displaced persons in Nigeria, particularly in the light of the conflict in Ukraine? We visited some of those IDP camps in Nigeria last year, and we are well aware of the pressures on the families who, in some cases, have been there for 10, 12 or 15 years. They want to go back to their land; they are farmers, and other land is available. We need to see action, and that goes beyond words.
Fourthly, have recent representations been made on the case of Mubarak Bala since his sentencing last year? These questions are really important. I believe that we in this House have highlighted the issue for many of the people across Nigeria—for Christians, those with other religions and those with no religion. Nigeria is very much in our thoughts, and this debate gives the chance to ask those questions of the Minister. I want to speak up for my Christian brothers and sisters, and everyone of a different religion. I hope the debate can achieve some of those goals.
It is an absolute pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I congratulate my good friend, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing the debate from the Backbench Business Committee, where it has to be said that he is a fairly regular attender. He is also a regular passionate defender of the right to religious freedom, and he often secures debates that highlight the experience of Christians and religious minorities across the world.
With a population of more than 230 million, Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa and the sixth most populous in the world. That size brings diversity, with more than 250 ethnic groups speaking 500 distinct languages and all identifying with a wide variety of cultures, as the hon. Gentleman highlighted in his opening remarks.
In the context of today’s debate, it is worth noting that despite that range of cultures and backgrounds, the nation is officially divided almost in half when it comes to religion. The Pew Research Center estimated in 2010 that 49.3% of Nigerians were Christian and 48.8% were Muslim, with less than 1% unaffiliated to any religion. Although religious freedom is guaranteed under the Nigerian constitution, as the hon. Gentleman has reflected on, that does not speak to the reality for many, especially in the northern states of Nigeria.
The characterisation of Nigeria as a secular state has been described as simplistic, as religion in the country becomes increasingly politicised and politics is influenced by religion. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we see the same thing across many parts of the world, where the separation of church and state is incredibly difficult to achieve in practice?
The hon. Member is right that in many cases, religious belief is enforced through society, formal political power or state structures. That is particularly true in the northern parts of Nigeria, where some states still have the death penalty for blasphemy, as has been touched on in interventions. Although in theory it is a secular state where freedom of religion is guaranteed, the evidence is that that is not the reality felt or experienced by people living in Nigeria.
Given that Parliament is returning this week after the Easter recess, it is apt to reflect on the situation for Christians. As has been mentioned, 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. However, if the world watch list measured only violence, Nigeria would be at the top. According to Open Doors research, the majority of Christians killed for their faith around the world—79% of the global total—are killed in Nigeria.
Most violence in Nigeria against civilians, especially Christians, occurs in the north, including the middle belt. It is perpetrated by a range of groups, including Boko Haram, the Islamic State West Africa Province, Fulani militants and armed bandits. As a result of the violence, Christians are being dispossessed of their land and means of earning a living, and many end up internally displaced.
Although all civilians are subject to violence and threat, Christians are often specifically targeted because of their faith. Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province, for example, want to eliminate the presence of Christianity in Nigeria—not just demean or persecute it, but eliminate it—with all the dark echoes of history that that brings. That means that men and boys are often specifically targeted by extremist groups, with the aim of destroying livelihoods and stifling Christian population growth.
Christian women and girls in northern Nigeria, and increasingly further south, are vulnerable to persecution for their faith and gender—to being targeted for abduction, sexual assault, and forced marriage by armed groups. In northern states that operate under sharia—Islamic—law, Christians can be treated as second-class citizens. Christians who convert from Islam are at risk of pressure and persecution, and Christians from Muslim backgrounds face rejection from their own families, pressure to give up their faith and, all too often, physical violence.
This debate is not just about those who share my Christian faith. Those who do not have a religious faith are also effectively a religious minority in Nigeria.
It is interesting to note that atheists in Nigeria also complain of persecution. They might otherwise be overlooked, because we often do not think about those with no specific faith when we talk about religious persecution. Does the hon. Gentleman think that that is an important signal that, as is sadly often the case, religion has very little to do with the real reasons behind the persecution? Persecution is most often about the perpetrators’ control.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right: in many ways, it is about control and forcing people to follow a set of beliefs. All too often, religious persecution goes hand in hand with political and other persecution, and with restrictions on freedom of expression. In parts of Nigeria, if a person says they do not have a faith, that is almost the same as expressing a different political or religious faith. Those we would refer to as humanists in the UK—those of non-traditional beliefs—are as ostracised as Christians in parts of the north.
Sadly, Nigeria is one of only 13 countries where blasphemy remains punishable by death. Although laws and treatment differ between states, life for non-religious people in Nigeria remains challenging and dangerous. Given the fear of imprisonment and threats of violence, it is not possible to be openly non-religious in northern Nigeria, and it is very challenging even in the south. It is therefore difficult to calculate what proportion of the population is actually non-religious, as we can do through our census returns, which means that the 1% figure that I cited earlier is likely to be highly unreliable.
In the same way that Open Doors chronicles the persecution of Christians, every year Humanists International compiles “The Freedom of Thought Report”—a global report on discrimination against humanists, atheists and the non-religious. It lists a number of areas where those without a religious faith face extreme persecution, and potentially threats of death, simply for wanting to say that they do not follow the faith that others do. Highlighting these issues is itself a way of encouraging those who face persecution to literally keep the faith. It enables them to know that others hear them, are praying for them and are raising their cases.
I have some points on which it would be interesting to hear the Minister’s thoughts. First, what engagement are the Government having with the Nigerian Government on the removal of the death penalty for blasphemy in all parts of their territory? I appreciate that the UK Government’s long-standing position is to oppose the death penalty in all cases, but where it is unlikely to be abolished immediately, as is the case in Nigeria, the focus is often on reducing its scope. Is that happening in Nigeria? Secondly, what international development work is being undertaken to support religious minorities in Nigeria? Thirdly, how will the UK Government support those who do not have a religious faith to express that opinion in Nigeria?
This has been a welcome opportunity to speak up on behalf of those who often feel voiceless, and who are unable to express their faith or view for fear of being called out, persecuted or even executed. If this debate makes one person who faces persecution for their faith feel more hopeful or inspired, it is worth holding it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Nokes. I pay tribute to the omnipresent Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing this important debate, which close to our hearts; we often speak about Nigeria. As many Members know, my family heritage is from Nigeria. This subject is also close to the hearts of my constituents in Vauxhall. The Nigerian diaspora in the UK continues to grow its large community. The last figures from the Office for National Statistics estimated that there are 215,000 Nigerian-born people living in the UK. I am sure the real figure is much higher, so it will be interesting to see what the 2021 census highlights.
I declare an interest: I am an officer of the all-party parliamentary group on Nigeria. Two weeks ago, I joined many Christians across the world in celebrating Easter. I am very active in my church, and I read on Easter Sunday. Easter is the most important weekend in the Christian calendar; it symbolises rebirth, forgiveness and redemption. When I attended mass on Easter Sunday, it was not lost on me that I am blessed to be able to practise my religion and beliefs freely, as a number of people are able to do. It was not lost on me that it is not just Nigerians who face persecution, but a lot of people across many areas of the world.
I look back to my election in 2019. One of the first things I did as the new MP for Vauxhall in January 2020 was to respond to some really disgraceful anti-Islamic graffiti that was spray-painted on one of the mosques in central Brixton. I remember speaking to residents and people from the mosque, which showed me how devastating these cowardly attacks are—not just for individuals who want to freely practise their faith, but for the wider communities, who all feel targeted when issues like this arise. It is important that we look at the issue of people not being able to celebrate and practise their faith.
I have been appalled by the stories of religiously motivated persecution and violence in Nigeria. Members have mentioned the Open Doors report, which is concerning. I think a lot of Members were present at the Open Doors reception in January, and at that reception it struck me that Nigeria was in the top 10—it was No. 7—on the organisation’s world watch list of countries where Christians face persecution.
It is really disturbing to see frequent reports of kidnappings targeted at the Christian community. Last May, Samuel Kanu, the head of the Methodist Church in Nigeria, was kidnapped after being abducted on a highway in Abia. In September, dozens of members of the Cherubim and Seraphim Church were kidnapped while attending an all-night service in Magani. We have to be honest: these attacks have a clear religious aspect, and they are a terrifying reminder of incidents such as the kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls by Boko Haram. Kidnapping continues to happen. The Chibok kidnapping happened in 2014, but not all of those girls are free yet; some of them remain kidnapped.
Whether in conflict or persecution, women and girls are always the main targets. They are the ones who suffer. Throughout history, we have seen how unchecked religious persecution and violence does not dissipate. Instead, all too often it builds among the perpetrators and makes it harder to build the fair and free society we all deserve.
I commend the hon. Lady for her contribution. Her knowledge of Nigeria comes through in what she says, and we look forward to whatever else she will mention. Does she share my and others’ concern that the Nigerian police and army seem unable or unwilling to be involved in stopping such crimes taking place? All the reports that she and others have mentioned indicate that the security forces have sat by and done nothing. Does that worry her, just as it worries me?
I thank the hon. Member for making that really valid point. One thing that we in the all-party parliamentary group on Nigeria did was to meet the high commissioner, His Excellency the honourable Tunji Isola, last November. At that meeting, we highlighted issues with policing and security, and we spoke about what he was doing as the ambassador to the UK to work with the British Government. I will be honest: the reports I get from family members are quite disturbing. In the recent presidential elections, there were some incidents of violence at polling stations, and we have to look at how we can help and work with the new, incoming President—the inauguration will take place in May—to make sure that there is the stability that Nigeria desperately needs. It is not right that many citizens still feel fearful, yet they cannot report it to the police. I thank the hon. Member for highlighting that really important point.
It is important that the Minister considers how we can work with our counterparts to help bring stability to Nigeria. We would all like to see an end to the persecution faced by far too many people in Nigeria, but we know that it is not going to happen overnight. These situations have to be handled with diplomacy and tact, because we know that people will face reprisals on the ground if we go in too hard, so it is important that we use our soft powers to work with our counterparts and look at how the Government can help to secure freedom for believers and non-believers.
Hon. Members have highlighted the case of Mubarak Bala, who was sentenced to 24 years in prison. Nigeria is one of only 13 countries where breaking blasphemy laws remains punishable by death. That should not be right in 2023. We need to work with the international community to help to bring an end to that barbaric rule. People are still being killed, and that should not be happening. The Government have made their feelings clear to Nigerian Ministers on the subject. I would welcome an update from the Minister on that, especially in the light of the presidential elections that have just happened. I echo all hon. Members’ comments and concerns. What meaningful dialogue will we take part in to ensure that Nigerians can be safe and continue to be safe?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Ms Nokes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this important debate. Many of the facts have already been set out by people who have much more knowledge, involvement and understanding of the situation than I do, but freedom of religious belief, or none, is a fundamental right. We all know that, and those of us who believe it need to do more to ensure that it is spread across the world. People, no matter where they are, should not be persecuted for their beliefs.
Nigeria is a wonderful country. It is the most populous country in Africa and a major political and economic force. This century, Nigeria has already seen huge changes, and I have no doubt that there will be huge opportunities over the next few decades, but there are increasing tensions and violence along religious and ethnic lines. Nigeria came sixth in the Open Doors 2023 watch list of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian. If violent persecution was recorded, Nigeria would be No. 1. Some 89% of the Christians killed worldwide for their faith were killed in Nigeria. Nigerians of all faiths suffer at the hands of criminal and extremist groups, but Christians are targeted at a ratio of more than 7:1 compared to Muslims. Nobody of any religion should be targeted for their beliefs.
Only earlier this month, a young boy was killed and three people, including a local pastor, were kidnapped in an attack on a church on Palm Sunday. The young boy was butchered with a machete. That—on Palm Sunday—is barbaric, inhumane and just outrageous. We all remember the notorious kidnapping of the 276 schoolgirls by Boko Haram back in 2014, and many of them remain hostages to this day.
There is growing concern that the persecution will only get worse and that the Nigerian Government are not doing enough to stop it. The international community needs to pressure the Nigerian Government to do more to stamp out religious persecution. Nigeria will not prosper as much as it could if a substantial minority of its citizens are being persecuted.
Nigeria is one of 13 countries where blasphemy is punishable by death, and we in the developed world must do more about that. Mubarak Bala, a prominent human rights activist, was sentenced to 24 years in prison for a blasphemous comment on Facebook. Nigeria is a big recipient of UK aid, and the British Government need to do more to assist Mr Bala and other people who are being punished because of the blasphemy laws. I urge the Government to take more action to make life bearable for those of all faiths in Nigeria.
Our Government need to ensure that these issues are raised directly with their counterparts in Nigeria. Words are not enough; they are not listening. The laws are there, but they are not being enforced. Why not? Why are the police forces getting away with not taking the action that they are paid and employed to take? All of us want a successful and prosperous Nigeria with rising standards of living—a Nigeria that is welcoming to people of all faiths and none, and that provides and protects the basic freedom of belief for all. I am sure that the Minister will do her best to urge the Government to take more action to ensure positive change for people of all faiths and no faith in Nigeria.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this debate, and on his ongoing commitment to the cause of freedom of religion and belief. As the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) pointed out, the hon. Member for Strangford has secured a number of debates on the subject in recent months—both on the global context and on the situation in specific countries and regions, including Nigeria. It is a tribute to his passion for the issue, its importance to our constituents, and the personal interest that many Members take in it that this has been a busy and well-informed debate. That is encouraging, because of late some debates have been quiet; this debate is on the busier end of the scale, which is good.
It is important and right to draw attention to Nigeria at this moment. The right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) was the first to use the word “potential” with regards to Nigeria. It is already Africa’s most populous country, and it is on course to have the world’s fourth-largest population by 2050, but potential can go in different directions.
With genuine peace and stability, Nigeria could be even more of an economic powerhouse. It could make the most of its natural resources and the talents of its people to build sustainable livelihoods, tackle climate change and support development across the region. The potential risk is of spiralling violence and economic decline, which would then give rise to further social, cultural, ethnic and religion tensions; that in turn could lead to the displacement of populations, more political instability and further violence. That has been recognised in the contributions today, and in the detailed and powerful briefings that international observers and non-governmental organisations have supplied in advance of the debate. That is why it is in the interests of the UK Government and the global community to work with the Government in Nigeria to ensure that the rights of all religious minorities are respected.
Briefings and research papers give slightly different statistics on the exact proportion of the population in Nigeria that follow different religions, but clearly by far the largest overall designations are Muslim and Christian.
It is possible to meet Christians who would say that they are Muslim as well. The figures are definitely disputed. On celebrating that diversity, and the fact that so many languages are spoken in Nigeria, does the hon. Gentleman agree that more work should be done to highlight the figures, so that we can work with the relevant communities—be they Christian, Muslim or people of no faith?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Even in our country, people can say that they are Christian or Muslim, and within those wide designations there are more specific doctrines, denominations, practices and branches. In reality, in the UK as in Nigeria, on some definitions, everybody is a religious minority in some way. That plurality and diversity should be celebrated, as she says.
Some groups are larger than others, and unfortunately sometimes religion or belief becomes an excuse for perpetrating violence, abuse and oppression. The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) was right to say that that is about power relationships, not practising a faith, not least because all the faiths we are talking about have in common a golden rule: the ethic of reciprocity. They state that we should do to each other as we would be done by; that is a principal teaching of all the major religions in the world. How is that principle reflected in the stories of one group committing atrocities and violence against another in the name of religion? I find that extremely difficult to believe.
As the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) and the hon. Member for Strangford said, it is important to respect traditional indigenous cultures and diversity. If the state’s constitution is supposed to protect diversity of and freedom of religion and belief, that should be respected. Instead, we have seen the rise of militant factions of different kinds. Boko Haram, which translates as “Western education is forbidden”—an incredibly oppressive ideology just by name—has been described as one of the deadliest terror groups in the world, and its atrocities continue to horrify us. Several years ago, one of my parish priests, who was from Nigeria, powerfully read out the names of the Chibok schoolgirls at a prayer service, which had been organised to allow us to reflect on the situation and to pray for their release and safe homecoming, yet years later, so many of them have not been released.
We have heard other examples of violence by different factions, and of insurgencies; they appear to be getting worse. An example is the Pentecost Sunday attack at St Francis Xavier Catholic Church in the Ondo diocese last year. As the hon. Members for Torbay, and for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer), have said, events of that kind have led Open Doors to conclude that the majority of Christians who are killed for their faith across the world are killed in Nigeria. Other forms of abuse and violence are also taking place: around 100 million people are trafficked, usually within the country. As the Islamic State West Africa Province grows and displaces Boko Haram, there is real concern that it may use its presence in Nigeria as a base for attacks further afield.
I briefly want to echo some of the cases mentioned. A number of hon. Members have raised the serious concerns expressed by Humanists International about the treatment of Mubarak Bala, the atheist activist who was arrested in April 2020 and held without charge for more than a year. He was accused of insulting the Prophet Mohammed on Facebook, but was denied access to legal support. The authorities have been accused of denying him access to adequate medical care. He received a sentence of 24 years for a Facebook post. We have issues with online safety Bills here, and different views on how to regulate social media, but everyone in this part of the world would think that was quite extreme.
An even more serious example is the death penalty being applied for blasphemy. Nobody should face the death penalty anywhere in the world, least of all for what is essentially a prayer. The hon. Member for Strangford raised the case of the young woman who, after passing her exams, wanted to thank Jesus, who is recognised as a prophet in the Koran, for his inspiration and support. To be executed for that is quite incredible.
Attention has been drawn to different parts of the country, and the way that the violence has moved from the north down to the middle and central belt. Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s briefing drew attention to the situation in southern Kaduna; it called the situation a crisis, and documented abductions, physical and psychological torture, sexual violence and militia attacks. It notes that
“Christian leaders, their families, and congregations are particularly targeted for abduction for ransom, and even execution.”
As the hon. Member for Torbay and others have said, today’s debate is an important opportunity to draw attention to these outrages, and to ensure that the Nigerian Government and authorities know that these atrocities are not going unnoticed by the global community. It falls to the UK Government to outline how they will respond. They could, for example, support initiatives to establish a joint United Nations and Nigerian Government commission of inquiry, which would investigate sectarian attacks on civilians and report back to the UN Human Rights Council.
A number of hon. Members have mentioned the important opportunity presented by a change in Government and the outcome of the election. There is an opportunity to look at the blasphemy laws, and the penalties, including the death penalty, associated with them, and to call them out for being inconsistent with international human rights law and conventions to which Nigeria is party.
The hon. Member for Vauxhall rightly said that perhaps we can think about the diaspora community in the UK as well. Glasgow is incredibly proud to welcome the many Nigerians who make our city their home. Many of them come as talented economic migrants, but sadly many come seeking refuge and asylum, precisely because of the kind of oppression that we have been talking about. I hope the Minister will speak with her colleagues in the Home Office to ensure that asylum seekers from Nigeria do not experience a hostile environment when making an application for settlement in the UK. Perhaps the Government could also think about how to work with community groups, so that the Government can better understand the challenges that community groups are aware of back in their homeland, and could think about how to support peace and stability through those different kinds of contact.
No intervention is cost-free, and the reality is that the Government’s decision to dramatically reduce the aid budget has real and ongoing consequences. In April 2021, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office cancelled £12 million-worth of conflict resolution projects in some of the world’s most volatile regions, including Myanmar and Nigeria, which, as we have heard, endure considerable insecurity and violence. In April 2022, CARE International found that the UK Government had cut £120 million from gender equality projects in Nigeria. Now that the FCDO is merging the conflict, stability and security fund into a new UK integrated security fund, how and when will it detail how much money will be earmarked for conflict and atrocity prevention and accountability projects, including in Nigeria?
As we have heard throughout the debate, Nigeria has so much promise and potential, but clearly a tipping point is being reached. For the benefit of the country and its people, but also the wider region and indeed the world, we have to ensure that the positive potential prevails. The UK Government must have a role in achieving that.
It is an absolute and genuine pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Nokes. My thanks go, as ever, to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing this debate. I will echo much of what he said.
Nigeria is an important partner for the UK. We have such vibrant connections through our diaspora communities, thriving trade and cultural links. We have a clear, common interest in reducing insecurity across the Sahel and west Africa, and in supporting democracy in a region where military coups have sadly become frequent. As we heard in the debate last June, the days when religious violence was largely about Boko Haram and concentrated in the north-east are long gone. Violence and kidnappings connected to religious and ethnic differences are now common in the north-west, the middle belt and parts of south Nigeria too.
Much of that violence is utterly horrific, including the attack on St Francis Catholic Church in Ondo state. Today we remember the victims of that terrorist atrocity: 41 innocents killed during a Pentecost mass. We express again our solidarity with the people of Nigeria for those terrible losses. The fact that the church was filled with worshippers again on Easter Sunday demonstrates the inspiring resilience of that community. So many communities right across Nigeria are showing that same resilience, and a true commitment to peace and working together across differences.
Reports suggest that increased activity by Nigeria’s security forces in the run-up to the elections led to a decrease in killings and kidnappings, but clearly the violence has not stopped. Just two weeks ago, on 5 April, at least 46 people were killed in conflict between farming and herding communities in Benue state in the south-east. Many attacks by armed groups are accompanied by mass kidnappings for ransom, with hostages subjected to horrific brutality. Villages are emptied as people flee, putting even more humanitarian pressure on a country where over 3.1 million people are displaced already.
Some of the violence is clearly targeted at Christians, while in other cases the motivation is less clear. It could be financial gain from ransoms, land seizure, revenge or a political dispute. Many victims of violence by armed groups in Nigeria are Muslim and from many ethnic groups. It is a really complex picture. We must be careful, because generalisations could fuel dangerous narratives about a religious war. As we all know, that can only play into the hands of extremists.
In last year’s debate, I made it clear that greater priority and a change in focus is needed for our security partnerships with Nigeria. We need to better complement efforts to provide security to communities across the country, and our partnership needs to work in harmony with regional efforts to tackle the cross-border drivers of insecurity in Nigeria. We need to understand how interlinked security problems have been growing across the wider region, which means the Sahel and, increasingly, other coastal west African states, including our Commonwealth siblings Ghana and Togo, as well as Côte d’Ivoire and Benin. Without concerted action, insecurity may increase further, so I hope that the Minister can tell us today about the work being done across those borders. What are we doing to tackle the supply of weapons to armed groups? How are we supporting peacebuilding between pastoralist and agricultural communities? I would be grateful to know what progress the Minister thinks is being made on the Accra initiative, and whether she knows of any discussions about future Nigerian involvement in the initiative.
The hon. Lady is right to highlight the issue of weapons. My understanding is that that part of middle Africa is awash with illegal weapons, which supply many terrorist organisations across the middle of Africa, as well as in the north and south. Could the Minister say what is being done to try to address that?
I will just say to the Minister that I can only imagine what it is like to sit there and face questions she was not expecting, so I am happy to have written responses to any question to which she does not have the answer at her fingertips.
In the past year, there have been repeated reports of human rights violations by Nigerian armed forces, including extrajudicial killings and mass forced abortions, despite our security partnership’s engagement on human rights. I hope that the Minister will help us to reflect on the lessons that have been learned, and I would be grateful to know if there is a date yet for this year’s security partnership dialogue, and how we are navigating the difficulties caused by the contested election. As we know, religious freedom in Nigeria is not just about armed groups; state institutions can also bear responsibility. Last April, Mubarak Bala, president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, was sentenced to 24 years in prison because of blasphemous posts on Facebook. I hope the Minister can update us on the latest developments in Mr Bala’s appeal.
Sadly, the massive cuts to international development funding will have had an impact, and will limit support for new programmes where the Nigerian people need them most. Bilateral aid to western and southern Africa has fallen from £1.12 billion in 2019 to just £345 million in the last financial year. It is a scandal. Thanks to incompetent and uncontrolled Home Office spending, our aid budgets will fall even further to just £256 million across the whole of western and southern Africa. A cut of almost 80% in just five years will clearly block our ability to respond.
But let us face it: the problem is not just the lack of international aid. Sorting this out requires governance that responds to the Nigerian people’s needs and demands. Sadly, turnout in February’s presidential election hit a new low, and with legal challenges ongoing, the process is not yet complete. I strongly welcome the commitment of the candidates who are challenging the presidential result to rely on only the courts. While that legal process continues, we need to engage with all political forces and civil society to inform priorities for our partnership over the next years.
In February, this Opposition joined the Government in supporting sanctions against anyone who organised to disrupt peaceful, fair and free elections. There have been credible reports of violations, both in the presidential election on 25 February and the gubernational elections on 18 March. There were several documented incidents of violence around polling stations during the presidential vote and still more reports of violence and intimidation aimed at voter suppression on 18 March.
The issue is wider still: the technologies that were supposed to provide transparency and credibility failed on a huge scale. That has understandably led to even greater distrust in the electoral system from Nigerian voters. The UK provided support for these systems, so, surely, there are questions to be answered about why they failed.
On sanctions, I say very gently that the Government’s record on the killings at Lekki, where no action was taken despite calls from across this House, does not inspire huge confidence. Although I know the Minister cannot comment on any specific sanction designations, I hope she will confirm that the Government are prepared to back their words with action, because what happened in the Nigerian election matters for religious freedom and for security in Nigeria. It matters because incitement to hatred and violence based on identity was used as a political tool, but equally, if the Nigerian people lose trust in their Government, I fear the violations we are discussing will only worsen. It is clearly in the UK’s interest to support security, human rights for all and an inclusive, prosperous and sustainable economy in Nigeria.
Nigeria’s path forward is critical for the future of the region, so I hope that the Minister will set out how she will secure the stronger partnership, backed by long-term commitment and resources, that the UK and the people of Nigeria so urgently need.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing this vital debate and, as ever, I commend him for his long-standing commitment to highlighting and championing freedom of religion and belief for all.
I also welcome the passion to protect the rights of religious minorities that has been demonstrated by all Members who have spoken. If I am unable to answer all Members’ questions, as the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown), has rightly identified, I will ensure that officials respond fully after the debate. In particular, there are whole debates to be had on the question of the weapons awash across Africa and the issue of sanctions, for which I have responsibility within the FCDO. I would be happy to pick that up, but as she rightly pointed out, we do not discuss potential sanctions because that could reduce their impact. However, we will swiftly pick up those areas separately, and I am happy to do that.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), who is our Minister with responsibility for Africa and development, is disappointed not to be able to be here. This area is of real importance to him, but he is covering other ministerial duties. However, I will ensure that we cover off the much wider issues as best we can after the debate.
Promoting the right to freedom of religion or belief is one of the UK’s long-standing human rights priorities. The UK Government are committed to defending that freedom for all and promoting respect between different religious and non-religious communities. Our special envoy, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who was present earlier, chairs the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, which is an important part of our toolbox in helping to bolster joint international action in this important arena.
In July last year, we hosted the ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief, which brought together more than 100 Government delegations and 800 faith and belief group leaders. The conference was attended by delegates who work on peace building, social justice and relations between faith groups across Nigeria. The high commissioner for Nigeria in London reiterated at that event his Government’s commitment to freedom of religion or belief.
As hon. Members may know, Nigeria has an even balance of Muslims and Christians, and we welcome Nigeria’s constitutional commitment to protecting religious freedom for all groups to ensure that all can live peacefully together. Sadly, that commitment is not shared by every Nigerian and, in some places, it is under violent attack. Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa, which operate predominantly in north-east Nigeria and the Lake Chad basin, undermine the rights of anyone who does not subscribe to their extremist ideologies. The region’s predominantly Muslim population have borne the brunt of this insurgency, but Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa have also specifically targeted Christians.
My hon. Friend the Member for Strangford and others raised the case of Mubarak Bala. The UK Government continue to monitor that case closely, following his sentencing by Kano state courts to 24 years in prison for blasphemy in a Facebook post. Most recently, our officials raised Mr Bala’s case with the deputy governor of Kano state on 19 January, and in April, the British high commissioner joined a meeting with Mr Bala’s humanist organisational associates, along with other international partners, to continue to raise our disquiet about the situation.
Other specific cases have been raised. The shocking murder of Deborah Samuel last year following an allegation of blasphemy was a barbarous and heinous act. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield, the Minister with responsibility for Africa, expressed public condemnation, and in May, our deputy high commissioner raised the case with the President’s chief of staff. This is not a forgotten situation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) asked about death penalty laws more widely. Of course, the UK Government regularly raise human rights issues with the Nigerian authorities, including calling for the removal of the death penalty. Most recently, these issues were raised by officials in January in Kano state in relation to the blasphemy case.
The strong calls from parliamentarians here in Westminster Hall today really have been heard. I know that my officials will take away the strength of feeling about these issues, so that Ministers and officials, who have regular contact with Nigerian authorities at lots of levels, will be able to raise them.
I thank the Minister for her commitment to pass the comments on to other Ministers. Will she highlight to them the scarcity of cash in Nigeria? The outgoing President recently announced that Nigeria is withdrawing the 1,000, 200 and 500 naira notes in a bid to curb money laundering and fraud, but that has caused real situations and issues and violence on the ground in Nigeria, where a number of people still rely on cash. Will she raise that and get other Ministers to raise it as well?
The hon. Lady raises an important issue. We have seen this done in other countries, possibly for good reasons, but that does create disputes, so I will ensure that it is picked up and that the high commissioner can discuss it with officials, as required.
The UK is the lead in the UN Security Council on the Lake Chad basin issues and we convene the international community to tackle the challenges regarding violent extremism in north-east Nigeria. We contribute to the demobilisation, deradicalisation and reintegration of former group members. Since 2019, we have contributed £16.9 million to the United Nations Development Programme’s regional stabilisation facility, which improves security, services and economic opportunities for people in affected areas.
We are a leading provider of life-saving humanitarian assistance to support Nigerians affected by this conflict, including religious minorities and internally displaced people. Between 2017 and 2022, our £425 million humanitarian programme provided life-saving food assistance to more than 2.1 million Nigerians and supported 660,000 people to resume agricultural livelihoods. We continue to invest in this priority area with our humanitarian and resilience programme, which seeks to protect those at risk of having their rights violated, including religious minorities.
Alongside that conflict, criminal gangs have extended their activities from the north-west of Nigeria into other regions, and tensions between communities across Nigeria have also increased. Together, these issues are resulting in a widespread deterioration in security. Heavy weapons smuggling into Nigeria has increased the deadliness of the violence, which has taken the lives of Muslims and Christians alike, and sadly displaced many communities.
Unlike attacks by violent extremist organisations, differences of religious opinion are often not the key driver of inter-communal conflict; economic disenfranchisement, historical grievances and criminality are stronger factors. Climate degradation has disrupted lives and agricultural income, increasing criminality and forcing nomadic herders to move southwards, where they come into conflict with settled farmers. However, these grievances are easily tied to communities’ religious and ethnic identities, which are closely associated in Nigeria. Conflicts can therefore increasingly take on a religious dimension as tensions build between communities and reprisal attacks take place. We have already seen that religious identity has been a factor in some of those attacks.
Nigeria’s recent elections have brought increased attention to relations between religious and ethnic groups. Across much of the country, people of different faiths live peacefully together. Its political leadership is diverse, reflecting the country’s different communities; however, in some places this is a fragile peace. All parties must promote tolerance and dialogue between communities through their messaging, recognising the complexity of the conflict and ensuring that disinformation is addressed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay asked for more information on how the UK is supporting peace initiatives. In 2021, the FCDO launched a new initiative, strengthening the delivery of peace and security in Nigeria, which fosters dialogue in conflict-affected areas, supports responsible journalism, counters disinformation, and provides evidence-based analysis to support lasting peace. The FCDO has also funded peace-building projects in states such as Kaduna, Plateau, Niger and Benue, aimed at promoting tolerance and understanding between communities impacted by intercommunal violence. Those projects have included work to train peace ambassadors, including faith leaders, to engage with youths who are at risk of radicalisation.
Tackling insecurity and closing the space for criminality and extremists to operate in will be a critical part of creating an environment where religious tolerance can flourish. The UK’s wide-ranging bilateral security and defence partnership with Nigeria provides practical support to defend against all forms of insecurity that threaten the Nigerian people. We look forward to refreshing that partnership to address the ongoing challenges with the new Government. The partnership includes training Nigeria’s police force to work with local communities to tackle criminality and kidnappings, as well as helping them to prioritise the protection of vulnerable groups, such as religious minorities, in their operations and goals.
We are a strategic and technical partner for the multinational joint border taskforce, which has seized weapons intended for use against civilians. Earlier this month, we were pleased to launch our new strengthening peace and resilience in Nigeria programme, which will help Nigeria to tackle the interlinked root causes of intercommunal conflict, including security, justice and natural resource management challenges.
Nigeria is a sovereign and capable state, and addressing the challenges that we have discussed will be key for Nigeria’s incoming Administration. The Minister of State with responsibility for Africa and development raised the impact of insecurity on human rights, such as freedom of religion or belief, with President-elect Bola Tinubu when they met in December. We will continue to raise those challenges after the Government are inaugurated in May. FCDO staff will continue to work closely with state governors, local community and faith leaders and NGOs to promote social cohesion and understanding between communities, including religious minorities.
We will continue to lead the international community on our shared action plan across security, stabilisation and humanitarian agendas in areas affected by violent extremist organisations. Violence against civilians of any kind has an unacceptable impact on human rights, which we will continue to prioritise, including the freedom of religion or belief for all, across all areas of our valued partnership with Nigeria.
Thank you, Ms Nokes. I thank all Members for their contributions. It is a pleasure to lead a debate in which so many right hon. and hon. Members have taken the time to participate. The right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) outlined the issue of Deborah Samuel. None of us was not moved, and the Minister’s response on that was helpful. The evidential base is there, so we should push Nigeria to make that happen.
The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) referred to the Baha’is and others across Nigeria who are being persecuted. The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) is a former envoy to Nigeria, and his interest in Nigeria is well known. The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) asked for the singer Yahaya Sharif-Aminu to be granted a pardon; we hope that that will happen. My hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) referred to multiple attacks on Christians. We all know about that and have referred to it in our contributions.
I thank the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) for coming along. He and I have participated in many debates. Today, as so often, we are on the same side, doing the same thing: speaking up for Christians and our brothers and sisters across the world, in Nigeria in particular, who do not have anyone to speak for them. He rightly highlighted that while we could worship with freedom and liberty at Eastertime, others were unable to do so. He also commented on blasphemy laws.
My friend, the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), made a significant contribution. She also referred to celebrating Easter, where religious belief is important to us, and violence against women and girls in particular. Some people who were kidnapped some time ago have never returned to their families. That needs to be addressed. She also referred to using soft powers. The Minister outlined some of the soft powers that are used to influence the Government.
The hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) is also a good friend. We have been to Pakistan together to speak up for Christians and others. Again, she referred to the fundamental right of freedom of religious belief, and the number of murders of Christians and those with other beliefs across Nigeria. There are still schoolgirls who never got home to their parents.
I always look forward to the contributions of the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady). He and I are very much on the same page on these issues, and his knowledge is significant. He put the focus on the violence in Nigeria that is spiralling out of control. He also referred to Nigeria as—
Thank you, Ms Nokes. I thank the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown), for her passionate contribution. I thank the Minister very much; there were positives in her contribution. Our Government are pushing the cases of Mubarak Bala and Deborah Samuel, and the Minister referred to the new initiatives to promote dialogue for peace and the protection of vulnerable groups.
Thank you, Ms Nokes, for indulging me a wee bit longer than most. I thank everyone for their contributions, and the Minister in particular.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered religious minorities in Nigeria.