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Persecution of Christians Overseas

Volume 657: debated on Tuesday 2 April 2019

It is a pleasure to interrupt a mammoth Cabinet meeting to enjoy the harmony and consensus for which the House is famous. [Laughter.]

The United Kingdom has long championed freedom of religion, but I think we should do more for the estimated 240 million Christians who face persecution for their faith around the world. I have therefore asked the Bishop of Truro to conduct a review, which I hope he will deliver in the summer.

The Secretary of State will no doubt be aware of an Open Doors report which predicts a 14% increase in the persecution of Christians this year. It also says that North Korea is the most dangerous place in which to practise Christianity, where it is seen as a threat to the Communist regime. What work are the Government doing with such non-democratic countries to try to ease the persecution of the Christian community?

I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning the Open Doors report, which contains some stark statistics. It states, for example, that 80% of the people who suffer persecution for their religious belief are Christians. The most striking statement is that the vast majority are in the very poorest countries: this is not, on the whole, a problem affecting people who live in affluent countries.

My hon. Friend is right to mention that countries such as North Korea have been singled out. The purpose of the review is to ensure that we use all the UK’s diplomatic leverage to highlight these issues and put pressure on those regimes to change.

The Open Doors report says that about 245 million Christians are suffering high levels of persecution in 73 countries. Where is the UK focusing our help?

I want to ensure that we exercise maximum influence where we have that influence. The striking thing about that report is that, notwithstanding the comments that my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) made about North Korea, some of the worst offenders are in the middle east, notably Afghanistan, Libya, Sudan and Somalia, where the population of Christians has fallen from 20% to around 5%. In many of those countries, we have big aid budgets and a lot of influence.

The UK has a proud history of standing up for the rights of minority faith groups, both in the United Kingdom and overseas. As the Secretary of State says, we have a budget of over £2 billion, which is being allocated to the middle east and Syria, where the situation is particularly appalling. How can we use that budget to protect Christians from the appalling persecution they are facing?

I pay tribute to the Department for International Development, which has allocated £12 million recently specifically to promote freedom of religious belief. The gist of my hon. Friend’s question is right—where we have a large aid budget, with countries such as Afghanistan, it is absolutely essential that we make it clear to the Government in those countries that we are expecting progress on freedom of religious belief. We need to remember that many of the worst conflicts in the world have happened because people of different religions have clashed, so promoting harmony between religions is one of the best long-term ways of promoting peace.

Does the Foreign Secretary share my concern that often the persecution of Christians does not get the attention that it deserves—almost as though there was a bizarre hierarchy of victims, whereby they are not deserving of the same degree of attention as others? If we are serious about tackling freedom of religious belief and expression, we need to ensure that much more attention is given to some of the awful examples of persecution of Christians right around the world, and that the Government are not ashamed to step up and call it out.

My hon. Friend is right. I think it is fair to say that there has been some hesitation in the past in our embracing the issue of persecution of Christians—whether from a misguided concern about our history and the role of missionaries, I do not know—but now is the time when we have to put all that behind us and say that freedom of religious belief is an essential and indivisible part of freedom, full stop. The UK should always be on the right side of that issue.

Christians are among the most persecuted believers in the world, and clearly we have to do more to help. I welcome what the Foreign Secretary has said about the work that he has commissioned. Are Christian women not often doubly persecuted, for both their religion and their gender? That needs looking at very closely as well; there needs to be more work around the world with Governments to tackle that problem.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I would widen the point even further, and say that women from all religions, not just Christian religions, are double victims. Where there is persecution of any religion, often women come off worst. I think the most inspiring example of courage in the face of that persecution is Nadia Murad, the recent Nobel peace prize winner, a Yazidi campaigner who suffered absolutely horrifically but is an inspiration to persecuted women all over the world.

Could the Government go one step further in contesting the persecution of Christians around the world by making it clear that Asia Bibi, who has been persecuted for many years for her faith, will be offered asylum in this country for herself and her family, should she wish to accept it?

I thank the hon. Lady for her interest in the Asia Bibi case, which I know is shared in all parts of this House. I reassure the hon. Lady that making sure that she is safe, and has somewhere safe to go, is a top priority for this Government. We have had numerous private discussions with the Pakistani Government about how to progress this issue. I do not want to go into the details of those discussions, but we are making progress and I am very hopeful that this will have a positive outcome.

Risca in my constituency has a large Egyptian Coptic church, to which many people travel every weekend to worship. Many of their family members and friends are subject to terrible persecution in Egypt and have been, as the Secretary of State knows, subject to terrorist acts. What reassurance can he give my constituents and those who travel to the Coptic church that everything is being done to stamp that out?

The atrocities suffered by the Copts are some of the very worst suffered by Christians anywhere, and there have been several examples of those in Egypt. However, the Egyptians are trying very hard to address these issues. They recently opened a brand-new cathedral, and that is a big step forward for any country in the middle east. We obviously want to encourage them on the journey.

It is good that the Foreign Secretary has come to the peace zone—this Chamber—this morning.

China continues to be one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a Christian. Non-approved churches are being closed down and pastors are being jailed. How does he intend to strike the balance between valuing China as a post-Brexit trade partner and standing up for those people in China whose human rights are being abused because of their religion?

I thank the hon. Lady for asking that question. Of course China is an important country with which we have critical relations in the world, but having those relations means that we have to be able to raise issues of concern when we meet our Chinese counterparts. That is what I did when I visited China in August last year and raised concerns about freedom of religion in Xinjiang province. We had the universal periodic review in November last year, and concerns were also raised at the 40th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. We will continue to raise those concerns with China at every opportunity.