To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking in response to Open Doors’ 2019 World Watch List of the 50 countries where Christians face the greatest persecution.
My Lords, the Government are deeply concerned about the severity of violations of the freedom of religion or belief in many parts of the world. We regularly raise our concerns at ministerial and senior levels. To ensure that the United Kingdom is supporting Christians in the best possible way, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has commissioned an independent global review into additional practical steps the Government can take to support persecuted Christians. The aim is for this review to make an initial report by Easter.
I thank the Minister for his reply and I very much welcome what the Government are doing, particularly through the Foreign Secretary. The right of people to freedom of religion or belief is absolutely fundamental, whether they are Muslim, Hindu or atheist, but does the Minister not agree that there is a particular crisis affecting Christians at the moment, with the number of countries in which Christians are suffering persecution at a very high level, having doubled in the past year? Does he not agree that it is particularly dismaying that India should now appear at number 10 on this list, just below Iran and above Syria? India has a very good constitution and sound laws, but because of the rise of nationalism, these laws are simply not being enforced. Will he convey to the Indian Government our deep dismay that India should appear on this list at all, let alone at number 10?
My Lords, I agree with the noble and right reverend Lord on the issue of persecuted Christians. Around the world today 245 million Christians in 50 countries have been identified as suffering persecution of varying levels. As the noble and right reverend Lord said, that has doubled over the last four or five years. Clearly, action is needed. This does not preclude the fact that we will continue our efforts, and it is right that we stand up for all persecuted communities around the world, including those of no faith. He mentioned India specifically. India is the largest democracy and has an inherent, vibrant and strong rule of law. I assure noble Lords that we will continue to make representations to all countries, including India, to ensure that equality and justice for all citizens in India are upheld according to its own constitution.
My Lords, I too welcome the inquiry and the acknowledgment of the scale of the persecution. One practical step that the Government took was to create the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme to enable people to come to this country. However, the recent figures released show that in the second quarter of last year, only 0.08% of the people who came to the UK from Syria were Christians, despite over 11% of that population pre-civil war being Christians and being targeted by IS. Will my noble friend the Minister please meet with his colleagues at the Home Office to investigate the reason for this apparent disparity in the figures? Will he then communicate the reason clearly to the UK Christian community, who are left with reports from NGOs and even the Times saying that the Government are operating a discriminatory policy against Christians?
First, I assure my noble friend that there is no discrimination against Christians or indeed anyone of any faith. However, she does bring to light an important issue about the situation in Syria. I am acutely aware of the challenges being faced by Christians in Syria and which continue to be faced in Iraq. We have seen appalling crimes committed against the Christian communities, as well as others. The major challenge that remains for Syrian Christians is the exodus of anyone from Syria who is of the Christian faith. My noble friend raises an important point about the Home Office scheme. I will certainly raise that with Home Office colleagues. But I assure my noble friend, and, indeed, all noble Lords, that we remain absolutely committed to ensuring that we stand up for the rights of people of all faiths and none, be it domestically or internationally.
My Lords, in order to develop an appropriate policy to help persecuted Christians and other religious or belief groups, it is vital to have accurate data about them. Can the Minister say whether Her Majesty’s Government have made any progress in developing a database across government that tracks violations of freedom of religion and belief, and other important data about religion or belief minorities?
My Lords, the noble Baroness raises a very important point. It is certainly something that I have been looking at very closely since my appointment last summer as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief. There are many sources that we currently utilise to determine the level of persecution of different communities around the world. Equally, we have strong partnerships with representatives and leaders of different communities around the world. But her case for having a comprehensive database is a valid one, and certainly we will be looking to see how we can validate data that is provided by communities and organisations such as Open Doors, to ensure that it is verifiable and that we can share it with key partners to ensure that the issues of persecution can be addressed.
The Minister will know that the Burmese army responsible for the Rohingya genocide is also targeting other ethnic communities, including the 1.6 million Christians in Kachin State, as outlined in the watch list. The International Development Select Committee report stated that,
“there may be a fundamental problem with the peace process that the UK is supporting”.
Will the Minister say how government support for UK-Burma trade takes into account these deeply held concerns about the Burmese military’s involvement in these human rights abuses, which surely amount to crimes against humanity?
My Lords, we are all acutely aware of the tragic plight of the Rohingya community, and the noble Baroness rightly points out other persecuted minorities in Burma. I assure her that not just bilaterally but with key partners and most clearly through international co-operation at the United Nations, we have raised this issue consistently. I believe we have seen progress, at least in the framework of MoUs which have now been signed between the Burmese Government, the Bangladeshi Government and organisations including the United Nations. On the specific actions that have been taken, the noble Baroness will be aware that the United Kingdom, working with European partners, has raised the issue of targeted sanctions against leaders of the military, and they have been extended to other members of the Burmese military. We continue to look at this. Ultimately, we hope for the safe, secure and voluntary return of the Rohingya community and other persecuted minorities, but we are a long way from that being a reality.