I do realise that the grouping of these questions will make it sound rather like Foreign Office questions for Christianity—but then, the Anglican Communion is the third largest global organisation in the world, after the United Nations and the Catholic Church.
The Church of England has regular discussions with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on freedom of religion and belief. I am pleased to announce to the House that the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Mr Hunt), invited the Bishop of Truro, before Christmas, to lead an independent review of UK Government support for persecuted Christians.
The number of Members who attended the meeting in the House yesterday about the Open Doors report shows just what huge interest there is in this issue. It was very disturbing to hear about the significant increase in the persecution of Christians, and indeed of people of other faiths, in the past year or two. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that as the report is compiled, the bishop will talk with as many Members as possible? We hear from our constituents and from around the world about individual cases of persecution.
I am delighted to give my hon. Friend that assurance. I, too, was really shocked by the report presented in Parliament yesterday, which shows that 40 countries out of the 50 on the Open Doors watch list are places where Christians experience very high or extreme levels of persecution. I shall go from this place to a meeting at the Foreign Office with the Foreign Secretary, as well as the bishop, and I will make that request directly to him.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I echo the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) in welcoming the Open Doors “World Watch List” report, launched here in Parliament yesterday.
With regard to Commonwealth countries on the list, we heard, for example, some very harrowing reports of abuse against Christian communities in Nigeria. What effort can the Commonwealth side of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office make in helping to mitigate such persecution?
Nigeria is high up the Open Doors watch list of countries where Christians suffer persecution. I am sorry to say that in the past year 3,731 Christians were reported killed by the activity of extremists in Nigeria. As it is a former dependency of the United Kingdom, the Government ought to have some way of having greater influence. I know that the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is knowledgeable about Nigeria, uses every endeavour to bring pressure on the Government of Nigeria to better protect the Christians in their country.
What estimate has my right hon. Friend made of the willingness of International Development and Foreign Office Ministers to actually do something about the persecution of Christians and put it at the top of their priorities?
I am delighted to be able to tell the House that since the last set of Church Commissioners questions, the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) and I have paid a joint visit to a Minister of State at the Foreign Office to impress on him the importance of officials in the Foreign Office, the Department for International Development and other Government Departments, such as the Home Office, taking up the course for a better understanding of religious literacy. We were given assurances by the Minister that this would be impressed on officials.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her answers thus far. One area of the world where persecution is at its highest is Pakistan, where there have been a number of high profile cases. What is the Church doing to combat these terrible attacks on Christians, who just want to celebrate their religion?
Pakistan is very high up on the Open Doors watch list of countries where Christians suffer persecution. I am sure that like me, my hon. Friend will have heard the case of Asia Bibi raised with the Prime Minister yesterday in the House. It is important not only that we look for a solution for her and her family that assures her protection, but that we remember that what we do on behalf of Christians in other countries can impact others around the world in the same way. The persecution of Christians in Pakistan is high on our agenda.
As has already been mentioned, yesterday saw the launch of the Open Doors “World Watch List 2019” here in Parliament. Can my right hon. Friend advise me of what use the Church of England makes of the analysis of the trends in the persecution of Christians across the globe in its discussions with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office?
Obviously the watch list is a useful guide to where the focus needs to be. The bishops take special interest in particular countries that are high up on that watch list. Bishops regularly pay visits to countries where Christians are persecuted. In fact, the bishop responsible for the plight of Christians in the middle east and Palestine is currently paying his regular annual visit to look at the decimation of the Christians in that region.
I was interested to hear that the right hon. Lady is about to meet the Secretary of State. He wrote over Christmas in The Daily Telegraph:
“It is not in our national character to turn a blind eye to suffering”,
and that the issue is about
“our deeds as well as our words.”
Will the right hon. Lady say something about the deeds she would like to see from the Foreign Secretary?
The Foreign Secretary has acted by bringing in a bishop—an independent person—to review the work of the Foreign Office in relation to the persecution of Christians abroad. Three areas will be assessed: the level of interaction between Churches and organisations overseas with British or foreign diplomatic missions in the protection of Christians; the experience of staff at the FCO, the Department for International Development and the Home Office, who may have been on the receiving end of approaches from Churches and other organisations seeking help for persecuted Christians; and the feedback of international organisations on British activities and an assessment of the approaches of other countries’ diplomatic missions to the persecution of Christians.