Pew Research report – the facts on FoRB in 2019

Globally, social hostilities related to religion declined in 2019, while government restrictions remained at highest levels; the number of countries with terrorist activity related to religion declined for a fifth consecutive year.

Social hostilities involving religion, including violence and harassment against religious groups by private individuals and groups, declined in 2019, according to Pew Research Center’s 12th annual study of global restrictions on religion, which examines 198 countries and territories.

In 2019 – the most recent year for which data is available, covering a period before the disruptions accompanying the coronavirus pandemic – 43 countries (22% of all those included in the study) had “high” or “very high” levels of social hostilities. That is down from 53 countries (27%) in 2018, and from a peak of 65 countries (33%) in 2012. These figures have fluctuated since the study began in 2007, but the number of countries with at least “high” levels of social hostilities related to religion is now the lowest since 2009.

Social hostilities related to religion declined in 2019

A drop in the number of countries experiencing religion-related terrorism (including deaths, physical abuse, displacement, detentions, destruction of property, and fundraising and recruitment by terrorist groups) is among the factors behind the decrease in social hostilities. In 2019, 49 countries experienced at least one of these types of religion-related terrorism, a record low for the study.

Government restrictions involving religion stayed at the highest level since the study began

In addition to looking at social hostilities relating to religion, this annual study also examines government restrictions on religion – including official laws, policies and actions that impinge on religious beliefs and practices – in 198 countries and territories.

The analysis shows that government restrictions involving religion, which in 2018 had reached the highest point since the start of the study, remained at a similar level in 2019. The global median score on the Government Restrictions Index (GRI), a 10-point index based on 20 indicators, held steady at 2.9. This score has risen markedly since 2007, the first year of the study, when it was 1.8.

Government restrictions on religion match highest level since 2007

Government harassment of religious groups and interference in worship increased

Two specific measures of government restrictions on religion increased globally in 2019: government harassment against religious groups and government interference in worship. More countries had at least one reported incident of government harassment or interference in worship in 2019 than in any other year since the study began in 2007.

180 countries – 91% of all countries in the study – had at least one instance, at some level, of government harassment against religious groups.

Half of countries in Middle East-North Africa had government-imposed online restrictions on religion

Read the complete report

Violence against Christians: Central African Countries

Westminster Hall, 23 September

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of violence against Christians in central African countries.

This issue concerns us greatly. I applied for this debate with the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and others. We have a deep personal interest in the violence against Christians in particular across the world. Those who intend to speak and intervene understand that the issue is close to our hearts. I declare an interest: I am chair of the all-party parliamentary groups on international freedom of religion or belief and on the Pakistani minorities.

In the Chamber today there is a selection of right hon. and hon. Members who also have deep interest in these issues. I am very pleased to see a goodly turnout, especially as it is the last day before we go home. I often call this the graveyard slot because it is the end of the time before recess. It is important that we are all here to discuss this issue.

Across vast and growing swathes of the globe, Christians are no longer free to peacefully practise their faith. For many, threats of abduction, sexual violence and even killing have become a daily reality, and entire communities live under a constant and pressing fear. We hear the stories; I know others will tell them, and I find them quite hard to deal with. They involve my brothers and sisters in the Lord, so they are close to my heart. Those are things I feel deeply, which is why this debate is so important.

In its 2021 report, the charity Open Doors estimated that just in the 50 countries in the world watch list, 309 million Christians face very high or extreme levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith—an increase of a fifth in just one year. It is not getting better; it is actually getting worse. That is the issue.

Kirsten Oswald (East Renfrewshire) (SNP)
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the charity Open Doors. Does he agree that its work is absolutely vital in continuing to shine a light on the situation that many Christians around the world face? It must be commended for that.

Jim Shannon
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I thank her for that intervention, because her words are salient to this debate and underline the issue.

Events in sub-Saharan Africa have accounted for much of that persecution and discrimination. There has been a significant increase in the number of violent attacks against Christians perpetrated by Islamic extremists. In Niger, Mali, the Central African Republic, Sudan and Nigeria—I will focus on Nigeria, as others probably will—the situation has become increasingly worrying. Many of us in this House—everyone who is here today—try to highlight the shocking and rapidly deteriorating situation in Nigeria, where the number of Christians killed last year rose by 60% on the year before. That illustrates the issue that the hon. Lady referred to. Open Doors states that things are getting worse, not better, because the number of people being murdered because of their faith has increased greatly. The stories of what is happening on the ground are horrifying. More Christians are being killed in Nigeria than anywhere else in the world. That is worrying for us all.

Margaret Ferrier (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Ind)
Sudan recently abolished the death penalty for apostacy—a step forward in the region, which I hope we will see in more countries in the near future. Although there has been resistance to such huge changes, it has been considerably less in recent years. Does the hon. Gentleman have any thoughts about how tolerance of religion can be built upon?

Jim Shannon
Over the last few days, the hon. Lady and I seem to have followed each other in each debate. I thank her for coming along and for her intervention. The APPG that I am very privileged to chair speaks up for those with Christian faith, those with other faiths and those with no faith. That is what we try to promote. It is about tolerance and understanding people of other faiths, but it is also about accepting other faiths and people of different religious viewpoints. That is something that we all need to take on board.

The hon. Lady referred to Sudan. There have certainly been some stories in the press recently about an attempted coup that was thwarted. I welcome the steps that Sudan took, but what they have done needs to be replicated elsewhere in the region.

Violence is increasingly bleeding—and I use the word intentionally—over the borders into an already destabilised central Africa. This region, in the shadow of its more powerful neighbours, has all too often been overlooked, both by—I say it respectfully—the UK Parliament and by the wider international community. We must not let the displacement and killing of hundreds of thousands of Christians go almost unchallenged by parliamentarians. That is why we are having this debate, and I am very grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting time for it.

Dr Lisa Cameron (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (SNP)
The hon. Gentleman mentioned Nigeria, and I wanted to raise the plight of people there, which is extreme. This week, speaking to some of the agencies that work there, I heard that it is now commonplace for gunmen to go into schools, abduct young children—particularly those who have Christian beliefs—and hold them captive. Given that the Bring Back Our Girls campaign had such cross-party support, does he think that we should be doing more in this House? We could ask the Minister to think about what more we could do to bring back those children.

Jim Shannon
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I remember the abduction of the children. I think of Leah Sharibu. She is still missing—a young Christian girl who had never converted and was therefore kidnapped and imprisoned. Her mum, Rebecca, would love to see her back. A day does not pass that I do not pray for the return of Leah Sharibu back to her mum. Perhaps the Minister could give some indication—this is one of the questions that I wanted to ask, so I thank the hon. Lady for it—of what we can do in conjunction with the Nigerian Government to ensure that young boys and girls are not abducted from school.

Some countries in central Africa are in the unenviable position of being among the poorest in the world. I understand those issues: poverty often becomes violence, because there are people prepared to take advantage of it. Several of these states have spent much of the past decade trapped in violent conflict, governed by people who exert little or no control over vast swathes of their countries.

Increasingly, Islamic groups such as Boko Haram and Islamic State’s west African arm are expanding their terrorist campaigns against Christians eastwards, even into areas that have in the past been considered peaceful. Analysts warn that the region’s widespread poverty greatly increases the risk of the radicalisation—Islamist or otherwise—of these youthful and rapidly expanding populations. The region is an example of the fact that it is not only minority religious and belief groups that face persecution for their peacefully held beliefs; those belonging to dominant faith groups can also become the victims.

To return to the matter raised by the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire, more than 95% of people living in the Democratic Republic of Congo are Christian, yet Open Doors warns of soaring violence against Christians in that country, with DRC rising 17 places up the charity’s world watch list this year. That is the one league table that one does not want to rise up—one wants to be at the bottom of it. The Christian population in the DRC and their churches are said to be at huge risk of violence in the east of the country, where the Islamic extremist rebel group that calls itself the Allied Democratic Forces operates—its name itself is wrong.

Violence has left more than 1 million people internally displaced and has seen countless Christians become the victims of killings, kidnappings, forced labour and torture. Christian men are forcibly recruited into militia groups, while women often face rape and sexual slavery. It causes me great angst to recall that my brothers and sisters are subjected to this. Sometimes we become desensitised to the horror of rape and sexual slavery until we hear a story such as that of the young woman raped at the age of 13, passed on to be married to bring her into a “true faith”, according to her abductor, or passed on to be used—these are the words used by her family—as a pair of shoes to be tried on by whoever wants to try them on. These are not simply words: words are the way in which we try to explain such experiences, experiences that children suffer through, and while words in this Chamber cannot change those experiences, perhaps they can lead to change that will prevent them from happening again. That is what I would like to see.

Over the northern border lies the Central African Republic, which has been occupied by various armed militia groups since 2013. Many of those militias specifically target Christians, leading to mass displacement of people. There was a shocking surge in sectarian violence in the run-up to parliamentary and presidential elections last December, which led to a further 120,000 people fleeing home. Armed groups are responsible for the vast majority of human rights violations being perpetrated in the Central African Republic, including violating people’s right to freedom of religion or belief. Those groups continue to operate across the country without any restraint whatever, so we need a concerted plan by the Governments of all these countries for how we can help Christians in these areas, but also a plan from our Government and our Minister, to whom we look for support and leadership. I am quite sure that that will be forthcoming.

Margaret Ferrier
Lockdown saw an increase in domestic violence rates across the world, even here in the UK, but for vulnerable Christian women in central African countries, the danger has intensified, with increased reports of kidnappings and forced marriages—a devastating removal of any autonomy. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there need to be aid efforts focused specifically on women and girls?

Jim Shannon
I absolutely agree. I know that the Government intend to address the issue of violence against women and children, and if domestic abuse has risen in this country throughout the coronavirus pandemic, that is even more the case in countries such as the Central African Republic, Nigeria, Niger, Mali and Sudan.

Christian converts in the Central African Republic are ostracised by their local community and even face persecution from their immediate family members, who often force them to renounce their Christian faith through violence. They are not just asked to renounce their Christian faith: they are physically abused to make it happen. Christian leaders who have publicly denounced the violence have been threatened, and churches have been repeatedly attacked, ransacked and burned down.

Across Nigeria, there has been a significant number of attacks on church buildings and others. Aid to the Church in Need has said that displaced people are sheltering in monasteries and mission stations, where priests and religious leaders risk their own lives to try to protect others from persecution. I commend all the aid charities that are helping out, including Open Doors—to which the shadow spokesperson for the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire, referred—and many others such as Release International, the Barnabas Fund, and Aid to the Church in Need.

It is important to stress that Muslims and other faith groups also suffer greatly as a result of this violence, and in some regions are even the primary victims. A significant percentage of the Central African Republic’s minority Muslim population has also fled across the borders: more than a quarter of a million refugees have fled to neighbouring Cameroon, for example. The problem starts in the Central African Republic, but it rapidly spreads, and Cameroon now becomes part of it. Cameroon itself faces an increased threat from Boko Haram, which is active in the north of the country, killing and kidnapping Christians for their faith with remarkable ease.

Security injunctions in the region have set heavy restrictions on churches that have already seen much of their congregations flee. Female converts from Islam are often forced into marriage with non-Christians there, and Christian women are threatened with abduction by Boko Haram. Religious leaders in the anglophone regions, some of whom are accused of supporting separatists, repeatedly accuse security forces of burning churches and desecrating religious spaces.

I believe there are actions to be taken; there are questions to be asked, and answers to be given by some of those security forces, who seem to be using their positions to enforce those illegal and criminal activities against Christians—all this despite Cameroon’s constitution, which prohibits religious harassment and guarantees freedom of religion and worship. That is a question for Cameroon to answer.

The international community must work to end the culture of impunity surrounding such attacks. People in the region have grown weary of the near-continuous conflict and the lack of law and order. They often have no trust in the institutions that claim to govern them. Those failing states then become the breeding grounds for further radicalisation.

I implore my Minister and my Government to provide support to the region’s Governments to fully investigate reports of kidnapping, violence and killings, and to bring those responsible to justice. The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) referred to the groups already there. The non-governmental organisations, Christian churches and charities, those who stand up for persecuted Christians and those involved in human rights issues are all there, and they would be able to provide an evidential base that would fully justify actions taken against those responsible.

Those administering UK aid in the region face stark choices. In central Africa, we see the intersection of great need, staggering volumes of people displaced by violence and severe cuts to official development assistance. My position on aid—like that of many others in this Chamber, I suspect—is clear: we did not want to see the aid being cut, because we felt it would have a detrimental effect on those who need it most, but none the less we need to make that point very clearly.

Dr Cameron
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the aid budget should not have been cut at this critical time, but, given that it has, does he agree that it is important that it is channelled towards those most in need, and that much of the aid money could be focused not only on ensuring equality of access to education for young girls and those with disabilities as well as boys, but on community safety, particularly supporting Governments to ensure community safety and equality for minority groups?

Jim Shannon
The hon. Lady is right. If the money is going to be cut, and it is, the question is how we perhaps use it more wisely. She is correct to say that we must face the reality of where we are, so how do we use that money better and ensure that that happens? Again, when the Minister has a chance to reply, perhaps she can tell us what can be done to ensure that that happens.

It is also important to understand the great diversity of experiences in the region. According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, the Central African Republic had almost no previous history at all of sectarian violence prior to 2012, when fighting broke out between the Bozizé Government and the Séléka rebel alliance. It was during the ensuing violence that human rights began to be violated on such a vast scale, and the Christian population then became targets.

It is important to remember that these conflicts are neither perpetual nor inevitable. Despite having been a target of many attacks, for example, Chad’s diverse religious communities are said to remain relatively free of significant conflict, both between groups and from extremist movements. As the Lake Chad region is under significant threat from Islamic terrorist groups, we should look to further our support for countries’ efforts to maintain peace. Where a country is trying hard and hopefully succeeding in containing the violence, what are we doing to ensure that that violence does not boil over into adjoining countries and have an impact on them?

The Lake Chad regional stabilisation facility, which the UK—our Government and our Minister—currently helps to fund is a great example of how the UK can help to strengthen community security, provide basic services and support livelihoods in the region. Perhaps that example of proactivity ties in with what the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow referred to. If we can do it there, we can do it elsewhere. Do Her Majesty’s Government support similar programmes elsewhere in the region? We should embrace this depth of experience and champion much of Chad’s cross-border efforts.

The scale of religious-based violence in central Africa is truly overwhelming, but I am greatly encouraged by the commitment of Her Majesty’s Government to making international freedom of religion or belief a priority for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Government as a whole. We are thankful for that and want to welcome it. In accepting all 22 of the Bishop of Truro’s thorough recommendations from his independent review of the persecution of Christians across the globe, the UK Government—our Government—have demonstrated commitment to becoming a world leader in defending our values on the global stage.

The hon. Member for Congleton will refer to next year’s conference and how we MPs will check that the bishop’s recommendations are all delivered. We have set a target and I look forward to hearing the hon. Lady refer to that. Ahead of that independent review next year, I urge the UK Government to encourage our allies to carry out their own evaluations of their practices in defending freedom of religion or belief, both at home and abroad. The staggering scale of the displacement caused by religious-based violence in the region speaks to the urgency of the intervention needed now to halt the rapidly rising persecution of Christians—and, indeed, people of all faith groups—in central Africa.

Other global powers may have closer ties to parts of the region than the United Kingdom. What are other countries doing to help? We need to develop a partnership or team effort. We cannot afford to take a back seat on this issue. As aid groups have warned, extremism thrives on such conflict. As we watch the horror of the violence in central Africa, we recognise that the longer the international community continues to turn a blind eye to the suffering in the region, the greater the risk that the millions of refugees will never be able to return safely home. Many wish to, but they need the security, knowledge and confidence to do so.

In conclusion, I am thankful for the steps that the Government take to work in partnership with the NGOs and the Churches to provide support. I understand that there is not an unlimited supply of funding, but we are surely able to do more and do better. That is what I seek today. We recognise that the Government have a project and strategy for Chad, which they are helping to fund; perhaps we can emulate that in all the other countries concerned as well.

We talk a lot about what needs to be done, but we must also follow that with action. As the hon. Member for Congleton knows, I always have a scriptural quotation for these debates because it is important that people recognise that we as Christians are speaking up for Christians in other parts of the world—we are speaking up for our brothers and sisters who, unlike us, do not have the liberty to go to church and cannot socialise spiritually. They have not the right to prayer, their churches are burned and they are attacked. They do not have the job opportunities, education or healthcare because they happen to be Christians. Then they are directly targeted by Islamic terrorists and other groups, and sometimes by Government.

I love this verse, from 1 John 3:18, which reminds us:

“let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”

The issue is quite simple. It is time to make sure that we are walking the walk—taking action and not just speaking words. That is my final word. I look forward to what the Minister and other Members have to say. We are looking for positive action.

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con)
It is a pleasure to speak as vice-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief. I thank our chairman, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) not only for securing this debate and for an excellent, passionate speech but for his enduring commitment to freedom of religion or belief.

I, too, want to focus on Nigeria. There are multiple drivers of the deeply concerning and increasing causes of violence there, including issues that are specific to a local area’s history, politics and ethno-linguistic make-up, and resource competition. However, we must call out the reality that, today, is this: extremist Islamist ideology is the key driver of violence across Nigeria. The victims are Christians, Muslims and those of other faiths or of no faith at all. I visited Nigeria in 2016 and took the then head of the Christian Association of Nigeria to meet UK Department for International Development representatives to convey to them that the root of so much violence then was religious tensions. As the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, I am mandated to lead on the full implementation of the recommendations of the Bishop of Truro’s 2019 review by July 2022. That review describes perpetrators of atrocities in Nigeria as “militant Fulani Islamist herdsmen” and concludes:

“Fulani attacks have repeatedly demonstrated a clear intent to target Christians, and potent symbols of Christian identity.”

In June 2020, the all-party parliamentary group published its report, “Nigeria: Unfolding Genocide?” That two-year in-depth inquiry described in detail violations of freedom of religion or belief. The report was taken extremely seriously by the US State Department. I have been told that it contributed to the US designating Nigeria as a country of particular concern. I know from meetings that I held earlier this year, from elected parliamentarians in Nigeria, from a governor there and from NGOs how much that report was appreciated by them in Nigeria. It is cited it as shining a light on the grievous violations of FORB in that country.

Robin Millar (Aberconwy) (Con)
I thank my hon. Friend for drawing out the point about ideology because that was the question that was forming in my mind after the speech of the hon. Member for Strangford as to what was driving this. My particular interest is in the report and the impact that she describes. Could she elaborate on whether anything is said about the impact of this terrible state of affairs on children?

Fiona Bruce
My hon. Friend raises a very pertinent point. The impact of this violence on the young and the upcoming generation is acute. Indeed, a recent UNICEF report stated that 1 million Nigerian children are missing school due to mass kidnappings. Their parents are now too frightened to send them to school. The knock-on effects of that on their loss of education and their ability to earn a livelihood are acute.

I welcome the new Minister to her post. I have had the pleasure of working with her and seeing how effectively she worked in her previous role. When she responds to this debate, I hope that she will agree to meet me, the hon. Member for Strangford and other officers of the APPG about our 2020 report and subsequent concerns. Since that report, those concerns have been exacerbated and are even more pressing. Dr Obadiah Mailafia, a former Nigerian presidential candidate and former deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, who provided oral and written submissions to our all-party parliamentary group inquiry, sadly died on 19 September 2021 after allegedly receiving poor treatment. In a speech that he delivered just a few days before he died, at a symposium entitled “The role of the Church in nation-building”, Dr Mailafia had warned that the country was

“certainly exhibiting the features of a failing state in terms of the kind of violence we are seeing, widespread insecurity, terrorism, the abuse of humanity, criminality, rape, killing, maiming and destruction. We are a failing state.”

He goes on:

“Rival groups control territory. Boko Haram is in control over half of Niger State and if they successfully take over Niger, Abuja will be a walkover. Government cannot provide security for the people. Nowhere is safe in the country. The forests have been taken over by foreign invaders. The economy is collapsing. There is the collapse of the institution. Police, university’s standards are low. Corruption has taken over in the country.”

On 4 August 2021, Intersociety-Nigeria released figures compiled from documented cases of violence that are deeply disturbing. The statistics reveal that in the past 12 years, 43,000 Christians have been killed by Islamist Fulani militia, 18,500 have disappeared—many, I have no doubt, also killed—and 17,500 churches have been attacked. Ten million people uprooted in the north, 6 million forced to flee, 4 million displaced and 2,000 Christian schools have been lost. Within that timeframe, 29,000 Muslims were also killed. The report states that moderate Muslims are targeted for several reasons,

“as collateral mistakes or punishment for those collaborating with the ‘unbelievers’ or in revenge for state actor attacks against their targets, or for purpose of enforcement”

of extreme interpretations of Islamic sharia law.

Earlier this year, I read a well-evidenced report on the impact of covid from testimonies on the ground in Plateau state and Kaduna state. I will pass details of that well-evidenced, authoritative and lengthy report onto the Minister. I quote briefly from it:

“In Nigeria, the attacks on Christian villages during the pandemic were religiously motivated. Local politicians are perceived to deploy security forces and distribute aid along ethno-religious lines. Participants reported”—

that is, participants of the research for the report—

“that soldiers appear indifferent to their communities and fail to pre-empt or repel attacks.

In Nigeria, the lack of protection and security for Christian villages in Kaduna and Plateau exacerbates the impact of covid-19.”

It goes on to say:

“The loss of access to schooling for children is universal, across all the groups. It is exacerbated in Nigeria by the attacks on Christian villages, where schools and churches have been burnt down, and teachers have fled.”

Looking at the Christians, even in their facial outlook, the research team talks of them being

“emotionally broken, psychologically demoralised”.

They were

“representing anxiety of an ambiguous future caused by the loss of husbands, children, wives, relatives and their sources of livelihood.”

Christian men in Plateau state spoke of attacks, which in Kujeni took place during Sunday mass. They felt the response from the Government was inadequate and that the attacks were religiously motivated, as they targeted Christian villages, not neighbouring Muslim villages. One said:

“Yes, yes because I know this has everything to do with my faith, why burning my church, why burning my church?”

The critical deficit of governance is evident in the lack of security services provided by the state.

This morning, I had the privilege of speaking with an individual who has direct knowledge of what is happening in Nigeria now. He is an authority on the issue. I want to quote his words. They are lengthy. Just a few hours ago, he told me this:

“The violence is getting worse by the day. It is affecting the whole country. ISWAP”—

that is, Islamic State West Africa—

“has taken over the command of Boko Haram and have joined forces with the Fulani militants. The Governor of Niger State has declared that Boko Haram and ISWAP have planted a flag just 2 hours from Abuja. Just 2 weeks ago they have new headquarters set up in Southern Kaduna. With the developments in Afghanistan they have become emboldened. If Nigeria collapses it’s a fragile area surrounding it—there is an impending implosion—Chad, Niger, Cameroon, Mali, Ghana, Central African Republic.

In the NWest there is Muslim on Muslim violence—Sokoto, Kebbi and Katsina. The Governor of Katsina has said that people doing the violence are Muslims, Fulani and some foreigners. People cannot send their children to school for fear of violence and abductions. No reasonable parent can send their child to school…People dare not farm their land. The situation of Christians is pathetic.

Recently, a bus carrying Muslims was attacked, and there was anger across the country. This does not happen when Christians die.

Muslims are dying at the hands of fellow Muslims, however, the attacks are incessantly on the Christian communities, whilst the federal government remains silent.”

He continued:

“If only the British Government would regularly call out this violence against Christians, and ask the Nigerian Government to do something.”

I asked him what he wanted the Nigerian Government to do. He said:

“I want them to guarantee security. When schools and villages are attacked. The army and police don’t take action. I want them to take action.”

He added:

“People are being attacked with AK47s and machetes and more recently the Islamic jihadists showed they have the capacity to shoot down an aircraft—they did so. Two weeks ago, they attacked the Nigerian Defence Academy in Kaduna and killed two officers and took one captive, released three days ago. What they want is to take over Africa.”

I will close with this: we need to acknowledge the scale of ethno-religious violence, and to urge the Nigerian Government to hold those responsible to account. Security and stability need to be ensured for all communities, especially in the north and middle belt regions, and the Yoruba and Igbo people urgently need to be provided with the help and protection that they are crying out for.

As fellow parliamentarians in our all-party group, such as the noble Baroness Cox and Lord Alton, have said previously, for the sake of all the people in Nigeria, and for the sake of security across the continent and beyond, we urge the UK Government to press the Nigerian Government swiftly to address this violence, and to ensure protection, justice and recompense for victims of all ethnicities, without bias.

Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the second time this week, Ms Ali. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for speaking on this incredibly important issue. It is so important that we keep giving the issue the attention that it deserves. I do not think it is nearly widely enough reported on, and consequently, it is not taken as seriously as it should be by the British people.

In Somalia, we know that Christians are referred to as high-value targets. Indeed, all minority religions in that country are heavily persecuted. The tiny populations of Christians in the country are also in danger from al-Shabaab, who have often murdered believers on the spot—especially if they are from a Muslim background. In the Central African Republic, in the year up until 30 September 2020, there were at least 56 attacks on churches, with at least 35 Christians killed for faith-related reasons. Open Doors reports that the destruction of churches has become common, something that is hard for us to understand here in the United Kingdom.

There is a urgent need for reconciliation between Christians and Muslims. The Archbishop of Canterbury is right to call for a much greater focus on the need for reconciliation globally, and for the United Kingdom to be at the forefront of promoting that, which I am sure we all agree with.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the most serious threat to Christians is that the eastern part of the country has become a safe haven for the Islamist group, the Allied Democratic Forces. That group seeks to create an Islamic state in Uganda and has been targeting churches and Christians in the north-east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo for several years, since its attempt to overthrow the Ugandan Government failed.

These issues are current, as less than a month ago, on 29 August, suspected ADF militants killed 19 civilians in North Kivu using machetes and firearms, and 13 houses were set on fire. On 1 September, four people were killed in the same area, when a convoy was ambushed and dozens of people were abducted. The Government blamed the ADF for the incident. In July 2020, a United Nations report suggested that the crimes committed by the ADF might amount to war crimes.

In Cameroon, 53 Christians were killed for faith-related reasons in the year to 30 September 2020, including on 6 November 2019, when suspected Boko Haram fighters killed retired pastor David Mokoni. The following month, Boko Haram began a series of attacks on Cameroon’s Christians, including opening fire on a funeral, something that is almost impossible for us to understand, and there were homes looted, with seven Christians killed. In South Sudan, the dean of St Luke’s Cathedral and 32 worshippers were shot in September 2020.

The Church of England continues to support reconciliation efforts and to work with its international partners to end the protracted conflict. Tragically, on 16 August this year, two Catholic nuns were among those murdered on a bus, and no perpetrators have yet been held to account.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton said, Nigeria faces the greatest challenges in this part of Africa. The number of Christians killed is truly shocking. Open Doors estimates that in the year to 30 September 2020, at least 3,530 Christians and 1,020 Muslims were killed. Practitioners of African traditional religions have also been violated. The United Kingdom and Nigeria have particularly close relations, and Nigeria is an important member of the Commonwealth. Many Nigerians in the United Kingdom view the atrocities in their homeland with horror.

The murder of George Floyd last year was truly shocking and the global outrage that followed was entirely justified. However, I have sympathy for the headline I saw recently, referring to the thousands of Nigerians killed for their faith this year, which asked:

“Do these black lives matter?”

I am grateful for the opportunity of today’s debate, to put these matters on the record and to express my concern about the seriousness of these issues. There is an ongoing need for reconciliation and the acceptance of diverse minorities, and their right to practise their religion or belief without fear in Africa, and around the world. As the hon. Member for Strangford said, there are 300 million Christians being persecuted globally, which is a very large number.

Looking back at Nigeria, I am shocked that in the last decade it is estimated that 37,500 Christians have been killed; my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton used a slightly higher figure. That is the equivalent of the population of a fair-sized British market town, such as Dunstable in my constituency. Where is the press? Where is the media focus on this issue? It needs to be there, and it is not always.

As the hon. Member for Strangford said, we have become desensitised. All these numbers and figures sometimes get a bit numbing, which is why it is important to mention some individual names. Leah Sharibu was mentioned earlier, and she is one of the 276 Nigerian schoolgirls abducted on 14 April 2014. She is still in captivity and her mother does not know what has happened to her: we continue to hope and pray for her release.

I commend the Government for taking this issue seriously; I have no doubt that they do. I am pleased that they are committed to implementing all 22 of the Bishop of Truro’s recommendations, and that they will host an international ministerial conference next year on freedom of religion or belief. That is absolutely right, but as the Minister has heard today, this issue has never been more important. Never has there been a greater need for the United Kingdom to take a lead in this area.

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con)
I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for once again ensuring we have a debate on these matters. I have been taking part in these debates for the best part of two decades. At first, the position of our Government was studiously neutral, but I am glad to say that progress has been made.

This debate is part of a process of drawing attention to what is happening and trying to shine a spotlight on these matters. I will go through a few cases. We have heard about the situation in South Sudan. In April, there was a violent attack against the then Father—now Bishop—Christian Carlassare, the Italian missionary appointed as Catholic bishop of Rumbek in South Sudan. The Government invaded his residence and fired 13 bullets, injuring the bishop-elect, who had to be airlifted to hospital in Nairobi. South Sudan is, of course, a majority Christian country but is still plagued with violence, as groups have been jockeying for power for the 10 years since independence.

In 2021, an Anglican priest, Rev. Daniel Garang Ayuen, was murdered. In 2018, a Jesuit priest, Father Victor Luka Odhiambo, was murdered. In 2017, the Pentecostal leader, Joel Mwendwa, was murdered.

I hope the United Kingdom Government have been quietly proactive—I am afraid it probably is only quietly—in trying to bring peace and security to South Sudan. I recently met our former ambassador to South Sudan, Chris Trott, in the context of his becoming the ambassador to the Holy See. He assured me that our Government took the situation in South Sudan seriously, and that he was trying to work with Church leaders of all denominations to resolve it. It seems to me that working with the Churches is key to all this and to understanding what is happening on the ground.

In South Sudan, Auxiliary Bishop Daniel Adwok of Khartoum told Aid to the Church in Need, which is a Catholic charity I work with closely, that

“Terror reigns in South Sudan, with warriors, government and politicians grappling for power, positions and not minding the fate of the ordinary Southern Sudanese. The fact that until today no one knows—the government itself does not know—how many people died in South Sudan since the start of the war in December 2013 is indicative of how the value of the human person has become of no worth in South Sudan.”

One of the reasons for this sort of debate—my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) rightly articulated the point of view that black lives matter—is that there is precious little interest in this in the media and among the general population in Europe. These places are considered to be faraway places of which we know little. Perhaps the general view is that life there is not of such importance, as it is in Europe. Although we will mention a whole series of cases, names, figures and facts, as my hon. Friend said, the fact is that every one of these murders is a human life. All these children have mothers and fathers, and all these mothers and fathers have children. It does not matter that it is happening in a very poor, remote and faraway place. Every single one of these massacres and incidents of horrible violence is tearing a family apart. It is cruel and horrible. Once again, the hon. Member for Strangford is to be congratulated on trying to draw attention to this, even if only here and not in the main Chamber.

Let us look at other countries we have heard about. The so-called Allied Democratic Forces—the ADF—is a Ugandan violent Islamist group that is being forced slowly out Uganda, we hope. It now operates in the North Kivu province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and beyond. In December last year, 17 people in the village of Mwenda were killed in a machete attack. Weeks later, on 4 January, 22 more were killed in the same village. Simultaneously, 25 were murdered in the village of Tingwe. This is all in the past 12 months.

Members will have noticed that I started speeding up when I read those out—22 murdered here, 25 here, 35 there. These are all individual human beings. Imagine if it was going on in Europe or America. In 2016 the United Nations estimated that ADF had killed 645 people since 2014. Five years later, that number has hugely increased. The ADF is hardly the only group involved, either. There is a group calling itself the Islamic State Central Africa Province, affiliated to ISIL in Iraq and Syria. It has been operating in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and infiltrating neighbouring states. In June this year it claimed responsibility for an attack on a Catholic church in Beni in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as well as a suicide attack at an intersection at the same time.

In Mozambique, Islamic State militants have linked up with a pre-existing local group, Ansar al-Sunna, to expand the insurgency in the Cabo Delgado province. Illia Djadi from the charity Open Doors has said,

“These predominantly Christian communities are attacked by an Islamic extremist group with a clear Islamic expansionist agenda”.

He pointed out that, while different groups with different origins are involved, there is a common agenda. Militants want to create an extreme Islamic state, stretching from the Sahel, where French soldiers have been hugely successful in fighting rebels, all the way through central Africa, Kenya and Somalia.

Fiona Bruce
My right hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, as he always does. He talks about a common agenda. Does he share my concern that not only do these individual groups have a common agenda, but they are now linking up? That is what is really concerning, because there is serious danger across a wide range of countries in a continent.

Sir Edward Leigh
I think we should take that extremely seriously, in terms of western geopolitical interest. We are not talking about uncoordinated local attacks, terrible as they might be in terms of human lives. We are talking about whole provinces in danger of being lost by the central state. We have seen what has happened in Afghanistan. If anybody thinks this will not come back to bite us in terms of terrorism being exported, that may be a rather sanguine point of view.

Let me finish with a comment from Bishop Paluku Sikuli Melchisédech of Butembo-Beni in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He has given a harrowing account to Aid to the Church in Need of the Islamist insurgence in the country, saying that

“The number of incidents is particularly high in the northern part of our diocese. Armed groups are destroying schools and hospitals. Teachers and pupils are being killed. They are even killing the sick as they lie in their hospital beds. Not a day goes by without people being killed.”

He added:

“We need centres where people can go for therapy. Many people are traumatised. Many have watched as their parents were killed. There are many orphans and widows. Villages have been burned to the ground. We are in a state of utter misery.”

The bishop implied that the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are complicit in the violence. He said that

“The state as such does not exist.”

I have been to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and it is a failed state. There is no doubt about it. The Bishop said:

“The reach of the government does not extend into the east, be it out of weakness or complicity.”

Responding to the growing threat of extremist Islamisation, the Bishop said:

“Islam is being forced on us. Mosques are being built everywhere, even though no one needs them. The mosques do not look like the traditional ones we are familiar with.”

He added that

“anyone who has been kidnapped by these terrorist groups and managed to escape from them alive has told the same story. They were given the choice between death and converting to Islam.”

What about the UK response? We have the Minister here. What can we do? The evidence is overwhelming and appalling in terms of human dignity, rights and peace, and also a danger to us. I have said the Government, and the previous Government, were too reticent in these matters, but we have had progress. We welcome the changes we have seen in recent years, particularly the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s review chaired by the Bishop of Truro into Government support for persecuted Christians. The review issued its report in July 2019 and we received a solid commitment from Ministers to implement its recommendations.

The situation in central Africa shows the Government need to do more. In particular, the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, needs to have—I say this directly to the Minister—a properly dedicated civil service resource. She cannot say this herself; she is an absolutely committed lady, but she has not been given the support she needs from our Government in terms of support from senior Ministers, such as the Foreign Secretary, or in terms of resources given to her. Too often in Government, hon. Members are appointed as envoys to keep them quiet, but this lady is not going to be quiet. All right, Minister?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs (Vicky Ford)
indicated assent.

Sir Edward Leigh
Give her proper support because she is literally working every day of the week on these issues, and she is not going to give up or go away.

Is there any frontline role for the UK to be more proactive in defeating violent extremists in central Africa? When the Minister replies, I very much hope she will not just say, “This is terrible” and all that, which we all agree with, but she will say what we can do. The French are very good in all this. I declare an interest: I am well-known for my belief in the importance of strategic co-operation with our French allies, who are our closest neighbours. We depend on them in many ways. They have been extremely effective in the use of their special forces, and one of the reasons why we want to improve our relationship with France is we want to work more closely on that.

The Minister will not be able to comment on how our special forces have been involved, but I believe special forces are crucial in dealing with terrorism. These people are bullies, and what they do not like is some Special Air Service person lying in wait for them and shooting them in the back when they are on their way to murder people. It is one thing that bullying terrorists and murderers do not like. I believe that co-operation—I accept the Minister cannot comment on this part of my speech—and special forces are crucial.

Perhaps the Minister can comment on the support she is giving to friendly Governments, such as Nigeria. There is a huge amount of belief in these areas that central Government is either weak, corrupt, complicit or totally ineffective. I went to a conference organised by the British Government last year where we had people coming from all over central Africa and relating their experiences, and the common theme was the ineffectiveness of central Government. I do not know exactly what the state of our aid programmes is, but I would have thought, given we are such a major aid donor, that we have a lot of influence, and we should not be afraid to exert that influence on Governments that are weak, corrupt, complicit or ineffective.

In conclusion, is there more that our Government can do to help national, regional and local government officials in this part of central Africa that is plagued by violence? We cannot just walk by on the other side of the road. We have a duty to protect others, prevent further catastrophes, and help to secure peace and stability in the region. The United Kingdom must do more. We must do our bit and pull our weight.

Robin Millar (Aberconwy) (Con)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing the debate. It has been said by others better than I can, but this is clearly an important issue that we need to give due attention to. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ali. I must confess that I had not intended to speak—I had some questions and made interventions accordingly—but I am moved by what I have heard. I think that there are some important points to add to what has been said.

I would like to make two key observations, and both draw on my own experience. I was an engineer before I came here, many years ago. I went through university and learned the ways of an engineer. As an engineer, one is taught to look at problems and seek their causes before jumping to solutions and answers. I was particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for talking about the cause of this problem: militant Islamic extremism. We have to acknowledge that. Those were not her words but the words of reports that she cited. It may be uncomfortable, but we have to look at it. If an engineer is building a bridge, they cannot say, “I would really rather this foundation sprang from a rock instead of a sandy riverbank.” They have to deal with the situation that is there to successfully deliver a solution. We have to deal with reality.

Let us face it: in a secular western society, that is uncomfortable for two reasons. First, we have lost some of the fluency of the language of faith that would allow us to apprehend these issues and understand the motives and behaviours involved in them. Secondly, that lack of fluency has flowed through into our policies, our institutions and the way in which we deliver these things. These are institutions that have built up over decades. That is the reality of the situation. If one is an engineer trying to build a bridge, one has to deal with the conditions. If the bridge is a long way from supplies of concrete and steel and from roads, one still has to get those supplies there. We have to deal with the situation as it is.

In her speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton talked very effectively about the impact and consequences. I asked about children in part because my sense from her speech was that there is a much wider impact than simply, as the title of the debate has it, “violence against Christians”. It is clear that this militant extremism is displacing people. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) listed a litany of displaced peoples and nations: refugees who have moved as a consequence of this behaviour. Again, we have lost some of that fluency—understanding what impact beliefs and ideologically driven behaviour can have. Perhaps it is because we approach things with our western, rational, secular mindset. We say, “This does not make sense,” or “I cannot understand or explain.” For other peoples in other parts of the world, this may seem like reasonable, sensible, logical and acceptable behaviour.

I was very interested in the choice of words of the hon. Member for Strangford at the end of his speech: “in deed and in truth”. I will come back to this at the end, when I address comments to the Minister. We must take action—in deed—but that action must be in truth: it must be in proper cognisance of the challenge that we face and of our capacity to deal with it. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) for making his points about the civil service and the capacity that we have to deliver these things. There are others more experienced in these matters than I am and will know better what Government have done and can do. I would only add my own name, voice and weight to that plea for the necessary resource to do this work. From what has been said this afternoon, there can be no doubt that we are of one mind and intent in seeking to alleviate and resolve this problem.

My second point might seem small and inconsequential; again, it occurred to me when I was listening to the earlier speeches in this debate. They brought to mind a report that I heard recently of the return of some of the Chibok girls who had been kidnapped by Boko Haram some while ago. I understand that recently the girls have started to be released. Again, I am not an expert in these matters, but my understanding is that the Nigerian Government have a programme of deradicalisation, rehabilitation and reintegration, which is encouraging some of Boko Haram’s terrorists to put down their weapons, and to come out of the wilderness—literally—and back into civilisation.

However, the reports were talking about one or two girls who are coming with their family: with their children and husband. That concerned me, because they did not go with a husband; they did not have a family when they were kidnapped. I am concerned that in some of this reporting we are losing sight of something else that happens alongside this conflict and terror. An important part of the conflict and terror is the violence perpetuated against women in these situations; I think we all know what I am referring to.

The kind of man described in the report is not the “husband” of one of those girls, as we would understand it in a normal, consensual marriage—or even perhaps in an arranged marriage, as might be normal in a different culture. We have to be sure and somehow, in addressing this problem, to address the violence perpetuated against women, and not simply accept or allow such casual reporting of an abuser as a “husband”.

Fiona Bruce
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, particularly as he had not intended to speak in this debate. Does he agree that we need to stop using the terms “forced marriage” and “forced conversion”, because they simply are not acceptable terms? Marriage should be a relationship entered into freely; when one makes a declaration of faith, or a decision about faith, that is something that one does individually from one’s heart. Neither marriage nor faith should be “forced” on someone else. We need to start talking about such situations for what they are—the most dreadful abuse, often of young women, including rape.

Robin Millar
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention; she is absolutely correct.

I try to read around subjects and understand them, having entered politics—with a splash, I suppose, here in Parliament. Reading some essays about freedoms in society, one that really struck me was about exactly this point: about how freedom of thought, freedom of speech and freedom of action follow on from each other. What we have seen in this case is an obliteration of each one of those: the freedom of belief is removed through coercion; the freedom of speech, including the freedom to consent to a marriage, is also removed through coercion; and then the freedom of action is removed through rape.

I will draw my remarks to a conclusion, but I will make one further comment. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough really made a compelling argument for us to be interested in this subject. If it is not enough for us to recognise that people and groups are displaced, to recognise the damage that does to geopolitics and to recognise that such instability eventually laps against these shores as well, then it is enough to say that this is about human lives and that we are connected to them. That connection is much greater than any division by colour, race or distance. That is why we must take an interest in this issue and pay attention to it.

I will stop there, but first I thank the Minister for her interest; I know that she has a keen interest in these issues. Secondly, I thank the Government for what they have already done, and I urge them to address the point that the hon. Member for Strangford made at the start of the debate about acting in deed and in truth. There must be full acknowledgement of this problem, including its scale.

Kirsten Oswald (East Renfrewshire) (SNP)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Ali. I commend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and the others who secured this important debate on a topic that should be of deep concern to us all. Today’s speeches have been particularly thoughtful.

I am fortunate to represent East Renfrewshire, which is one of the most religiously diverse areas in Scotland. The issue of freedom of religion and belief, particularly for religious minorities—including Christians in some areas of the world—is of significant concern to many of my constituents, although the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) made the very good point that the topic is not given a wider airing. I am very grateful to my constituents for their continued engagement on this issue. I know that the ability of Christians to practise their religion freely and fairly across the world is a matter of real significance, and should be of concern to people across Scotland, the UK and the world.

There is no doubt that we would be right to remain deeply concerned about the severity and scale of violations and abuses of freedom of religion and belief in central African countries. The hon. Member for Strangford spoke about Open Doors—a fantastic charity that allows us to have information about persecuted Christians around the world that we might not otherwise have access to. The Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Cameroon are all mentioned in information that Open Doors has shared, highlighting the top 50 most dangerous countries in which to be a Christian. We have heard very powerfully, particularly in the speeches made by the hon. Members for Strangford and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), about the situation in Nigeria.

This year, the Democratic Republic of the Congo rose 17 spots in the Open Doors world ranking, mainly due to attacks on Christians by the Islamic extremist group Allied Democratic Forces in the east of the country, with 460 killed in the period 2019-20 and 100 churches attacked or closed down. Christians in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are at risk at all times of kidnapping, torture, murder, forced recruitment into militia groups, forced labour, and having their homes destroyed. Christian women in particular are extremely vulnerable to rape and sexual slavery, as the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) has powerfully expressed.

In the Central African Republic, there has been near-constant conflict and fighting since 2013. Much of the country is occupied by various armed militia groups that are responsible for a range of human rights abuses, and many of those groups—whether Islamic extremists or otherwise—specifically target Christians, so life is constantly uncertain for people in areas under militia control.

Prior to the coup in 2013, there had been no previous history of sectarian violence in the area, but since then, armed groups have regularly manipulated ethnic and religious divisions to realise their aims, as we have heard today. For instance, this February, over 100 homes were destroyed and supplies damaged in an arson attack on a camp located in the Catholic Church compound of Alindao. In Bangassou, 500 Muslims are reported to be sheltering with Christians in the Catholic churches, and in Grimari, churches have also provided shelter to 1,500 Muslims and Christians.

I turn to Cameroon. Dictatorial paranoia and Islamic oppression have led to the targeting of Christian communities there. For instance, as we have already heard, the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram is very active in the north, and has kidnapped and killed Christians for their faith. Christian women also face significant danger of abduction by Boko Haram and forced marriage—the comments we heard about that earlier were absolutely on point. Again, we see that double whammy effect of Christian women and girls being doubly vulnerable, targeted for both their faith and their gender. In addition, country experts indicate that several girls have been forced to act as suicide bombers to further decimate Christian populations. While the Government have been fighting a civil war, Boko Haram has regrouped, and the pandemic has also increased opportunities for action by jihadists, who are likely to make further inroads if a sustainable peace is not achieved.

This UK Government’s progress in implementing the recommendations of the Truro report, which should be a means of trying to make progress in this area, has been too slow. We in the Scottish National party welcomed the Truro report: it was a bit shorter than we would have liked, but it makes robust points, and it is important that we see a commitment to real action in a timely way. I appreciate that the UK Government did say that they would accept the 22 recommendations made by the report in full. However, as of 9 July this year, which is the latest update I can see, only 10 of the recommendations have been fully implemented. As we have heard, an independent review of progress is due to begin next year, but there is nothing that suggests to me that the 22 recommendations will be fully implemented, especially given that work on four of them has yet to start, two years on.

It was somewhat unfortunate that the role of the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief was vacant for a time, although I am very aware that the hon. Member for Congleton is very focused on these matters, which is welcome. We also need to think about the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office Human Rights and Democracy Report. If that report is correct in saying that defending freedom of religion and belief for all is a priority for this Government, as I know it is for the hon. Lady, then more urgency is needed in achieving the implementation of the remaining recommendations, especially given that the number of those being targeted for their faith is certainly not reducing.

Every day 13 Christians are killed worldwide because of their faith. In 2020, 260 million people—approximately 10% of all Christians in the world—were persecuted for their religious beliefs. That is an increase from 245 million in 2019 and approximately 215 million in 2018, according to a report by Open Doors. More can and must be done to provide adequate support, particularly in relation to aid, to persecuted Christians. However, as we know, the UK is in fact cutting bilateral aid to Africa by 66%. Frankly, that is not good enough.

International aid is vital in stemming the spread of religious intolerance, stigma and socioeconomic exclusion, all of which tie together. The UK Government have been warned time and again not to lose sight of the benefits of international aid in tackling these issues, but they are cutting that aid. They are sending no bilateral aid to Cameroon at all this year, for example, although a very small amount has been promised. It is not entirely clear if that will go towards trade purposes rather than humanitarian support.

The Bishop of Truro’s report did draw positive attention to the £12 million freedom of religion or belief programme under the Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development. However, it has not yet been publicly confirmed whether that programme will continue beyond its current schedule. I would welcome any clarity on that.

Last year, the Advocacy Policy Officer at Open Doors at that time, Dr Matthew Rees, said:

“Both the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office must do more to recognise the specific and hidden vulnerabilities of women from minority religious communities and provide tailored and added support through targeted programming.”

I would be keen to hear from the Minister about the commitments made in the report that detail this double vulnerability and the disproportionate impact that Christian women face in many countries because of their gender and faith.

It would also be interesting to hear what the FCDO is intending. How will it look to increase funding in areas of reconciliation mediation, religious persecution survival, trauma care—all really important points, which have been well-aired today—and also places of worship, security funding and rapid response teams globally? Will it make an assessment of the adequacy and effectiveness of aid distribution to persecuted Christians? It is vital that the UK Government’s words and actions marry up, acting, as the hon. Member for Strangford said, in deed and in truth. These deeds really do matter. The Government cannot simultaneously criticise religious persecution abroad and overlook human rights abuses when they are searching for a post-Brexit trade deal with Cameroon, for example.

The UK should have followed the lead of the US and Canada in approving resolutions that call out with great force the brutal campaign of subjugation of minorities in Cameroon. The US Senate’s resolution praised the fact that the US trade representative at the time terminated Cameroon’s access to preferred trade rights due to persistent gross violations of internationally recognised human rights, in order to penalise the Biya Government and urge members of the international community to join the United States in a strategic, collective effort to put pressure on the Government of Cameroon, including the use of all available diplomatic and punitive tools.

On the very same day, the UK Government brought into effect their continuity trade agreement with Cameroon, which still remains unpublished and was subject to negligible parliamentary scrutiny. If it had been subject to due parliamentary consideration, we would have highlighted that it gives no concern to the persistent gross violations of international human rights taking place inside Cameroon. We are yet to see whether it contains the provisions that we would want on human rights, but I remain somewhat sceptical. Perhaps the Minister can clarify that point. The negotiations were a missed opportunity to raise valid concerns about the persecution of Christians. Instead, the UK Government signed an agreement, apparently with no hesitation over the Government of Cameroon’s human rights record and no apparent effort to strengthen human rights provisions.

The issue of freedom of religion and the protection of people’s right to their religious faith should be something we all agree on. We know that Christians in central African countries are routinely persecuted for their faith. We have heard that other groups, including Muslims and those of other faiths, are similarly persecuted. We should be sending a message here, backed up by actions. I sincerely hope the Minister is going to talk us through that. It is very clear that people in these situations can wait no longer.

Catherine West (Hornsey and Wood Green) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Ms Ali, and to contribute to this important debate. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his continued support for this issue in the House, as well as the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who I know well from the all-party parliamentary group on North Korea, and who shares with me a real concern about human rights across the globe. The work of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief looks so interesting. I receive the newsletter, but it is difficult to fit in all the meetings, due to my role. I know the important work that comes out of it feeds into debates like this. It is a delight to be here and to listen to the different thoughts of Members.

The right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) made a very important comment on resources for the role that the Prime Minister has given the hon. Member for Congleton. The resource must be there so that effective scrutiny can take place, not just in country—there is a real need for the hon. Member to travel to, for example, Nigeria, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo—but of the merger of DFID and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and how that sits alongside the trade brief, so that one Department or Minister is not saying one thing while another is saying something else almost simultaneously.

Although the merger is still in its infancy, I do not think that Members who are interested in foreign affairs have really seen the full forcefulness that we could have, given the excellence of the civil service and so on. We cannot really feel the impact of the special envoy, because it has not all quite been brought together yet—the vision has not quite been laid out. I hope we will see more of that vision in the coming months and that the role of the hon. Member for Congleton will be underlined, because it is so important to see where minority religious groups are being persecuted.

Something I appreciate about the APPG is that it defends the rights of those who have no religious beliefs. My constituents often write to me on that issue—I have very well known humanists in my constituency. It is such an important point. In some countries in the world, it is not acceptable to not be a believer, so I am so pleased that the APPG underlines the rights of those with no religious beliefs.

Andrew Selous
Does the hon. Lady take some comfort from the fact that a good Christian friend of mine went to visit an atheist imprisoned in Indonesia to console him? Like me, she would probably like to see rather more of that sort of thing.

Catherine West
I think there is too much hatred between different groups in the world. What we need to do, as debates like this do, is to promote tolerance, understanding and respect.

That brings us back to the point made by the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald): we are all worried about cuts to the DFID programme. With a 66% cut in our aid to the poorest continent in the world, we worry that some of the very long-term, slow-burn work on developing civil society, tolerance and understanding, and education—girls’ education, in particular—might be lost. I suppose the Minister will give me reassurances on that question.

Hon. Members have laid out very well the severity of the persecution, discrimination, abductions, sexual violence and killings that we have unfortunately seen in the countries we have talked about today. South Sudan is obviously a notable one. Seeing the murder of those two nuns on the bus last month was tragic, and something that I know our constituents care deeply about and want us to be talking about.

I also thank hon. Members for raising the Bring Back Our Girls campaign. It was very powerful when Michelle Obama highlighted it, but I think that we did do a lot more in the House at that point, and it would be facile to think that that problem has gone away. We know that if 1 million children were not attending school anywhere else, we would be up in arms about it, so it is important to highlight that.

From my work as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on malaria and neglected tropical diseases, I know that Nigeria has a huge malaria burden. It does seem that the global health security question is often married up with conflict, violence and the persecution of minority faiths.

I put on record the excellent work of Open Doors and Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which do such important work and have fed into the Bishop of Truro’s independent review. My colleague, the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire, has gone into where we are with the review in depth, so I shall not repeat that. However, I would appreciate it if the Minister said where she thinks we are with the 22 recommendations.

We all welcome next year’s ministerial conference—it is important to get people around the table talking about the recommendations and how we can do more, but we need to apply more urgency to the task. As we know, the violence is getting worse. It was good that we had the example of what is happening in south Kaduna. This is not a time to withdraw mentally; we must keep up the focus, even though we have had the 66% cut to the aid budget, which, of course, some of us in this Chamber voted against. We must not lose that focus on education, civil society and the promotion of tolerance.

I commend the right hon. Member for Gainsborough on his comment about working with partners. I share with him the commitment to work with friends in France, across the Sahel and across the region, because it is only by working with all our partners that we can achieve what we want. Where the French have put in a lot of resources, let us work with them, sharing the expertise that they may have in a particular area and complementing it with the UK’s specialities and niche approaches, so that together we offer the most secure environment we can for those African nations.

I want briefly to highlight three other hon. Members. Back in September, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) asked the former Minister, the right hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams), what assessment the FCDO had made of

“the adequacy and effectiveness of the distribution of aid to persecuted Christians.”

We heard at that time that

“the UK will be the third largest donor within the G7 as a percentage of GNI. We will spend more than £10 billion in aid”

in 2020. Will the Minister before us say, in her concluding remarks, whether she feels that the posts across the FCDO network will retain their regular network reporting on local human rights situations, including in relation to the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of religion or belief?

In April 2021, my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) asked the former Minister—again, not the Minister we have here today—about tackling

“religious persecution and gender based violence of Christian women in countries around the world.”

The former Minister replied that the UK was committed to that. Will the Minister before us say what shape her commitment will take to defending freedom of religion or belief for all, and recognising that women and girls from religious minorities often suffer because of both their gender and their faith?

Will the Minister lay out how she will ensure that our human rights policy work considers the intersectionality of human rights, including the importance of addressing the specific vulnerabilities experienced by women and girls in the countries we have talked about today? For example, in the DRC, a project with faith leaders and community action groups halved women’s experience of intimate partner violence from 69% to 29%. These actions and our commitment can make a difference, and the DFID funding is crucial, so I look forward to the Minister’s comments in that regard.

Through UK Aid Connect, will the FCDO continue to support the Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development programme, managed by the Institute of Development Studies, to work with women from religious minorities in the five countries in Africa and Asia that have been pinpointed, to understand the problems that are faced and identity effective approaches to tackle these issues?

We have had a good airing of the issues in this debate. We have talked about security, and specifically about violence against women and girls, and the 1 million girls who are missing from the education system in Nigeria alone. We have also heard about hotspots such as South Sudan and the Central African Republic. We have thanked the NGOs who work tirelessly to bring these matters to the attention of the UK Government. They have high expectations, as do our constituents, that we will focus on the areas that have been outlined today, so that violence can be reduced and we can put in place the civic society model that we have here, which should be expected abroad as well, where women are respected, there is a focus on education, and basic human rights and safety are promoted.

I look forward to hearing from the Minister, who is new to her role. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford and all hon. Members who have participated in the debate on this important topic.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs (Vicky Ford)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing such an important debate. I commend him for his tireless work in defending freedom of religion and belief.

I thank my predecessor as Minister for Africa, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge). He worked tirelessly to build strong relationships across Africa and put great effort into promoting this cause during his time in the role. I am absolutely committed to continuing work on this important issue.

My own interest in bringing people together across religious divides comes from my childhood and teenage years, when I saw the work that my mother did as a volunteer English doctor in Northern Ireland, reaching out to Catholic and Protestant communities, and bringing them together to help in that long journey towards peace. It is also rooted in memories of my grandmother, a theologian, who was one of the people who worked towards and succeeded in setting up the World Council of Churches after the war.

I thank all the members of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief who have come here today. I have taken note of their annual commentary. It provides valuable insights and I would be delighted to meet the group’s members.

Violence against any person because of their religion or belief, or indeed lack of belief, is completely unacceptable. I deeply agree with hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), that it is important that we continue to raise these matters in this place. Although this debate focuses on the plight of persecuted Christians, we must not forget those who have been persecuted for belonging to other religions and holding other beliefs, and those who have no religious belief at all. The Government are committed to championing freedom of religion or belief for all, which is enshrined in the universal declaration of human rights.

Earlier this afternoon, in my first week in this role, I met the African heads of mission based in London. I strongly emphasised that democracy, human rights and the rule of law are core UK values, and that they include the freedom of religion or belief. I also emphasised the UK’s support for 12 years of quality education. All boys and girls must be able to go to school safety. Our Prime Minister continues to be passionate about championing the right of all girls across the world to get those first 12 years of education, and we chaired an education summit on that in July.

When I met the heads of mission, I also took the opportunity to emphasise my interest, and that of so many Members, in the rights of women and girls. Women and girls should have the right to make the decisions about what affects their lives. That means that they need access to education, healthcare and employment opportunities, and that they must know that they can live their lives safely and securely.

We want everyone, everywhere to be able to live in accordance with their own conscience, to practise their own choice of faith or belief, or to hold none. They must be able to do so free from persecution, prejudice and harm.

When countries protect and promote freedom of religion or belief, they tend to be more stable, more prosperous and safer from violent extremism. The Minister responsible for human rights, Lord Tariq Ahmad, continues to work closely with the Prime Minister’s special envoy, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), whom we are honoured to have here today, in delivering those goals.

As we have heard, challenges to freedom of religion or belief sadly persist in central Africa—especially in countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic—and countries such as Nigeria. We are particularly concerned about human rights in those countries. Christians make up the majority of the populations of many central and southern African countries. However, those of minority religions, such as Islam, face frequent difficulties in exercising their rights. That can include violent attacks by armed groups, and converts often face additional pressures, such as being ostracised by their communities because religion is so closely tied to culture and heritage.

As the APPG report highlights, violence in the region is often triggered by inter-communal disputes. Although victims may not be targeted specifically because of their religion, the intersection of identity rights and religion cannot be ignored.

Catherine West
The Minister is making a very good start to her speech by talking about the role of women and intersectionality. In her assessment of her role, which I understand is in its infancy, how does she see the envoy, the resources and the reorganisation within the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, with trade off to the side, coming together, so that we can better understand, as parliamentarians, how we can scrutinise the arrangements?

Vicky Ford
Let me deal with the first of those points, as clearly we can scrutinise arrangements in many different ways in this place, including being able to intervene in Westminster Hall debates on the newly appointed Minister for Africa on a Thursday afternoon. As we all know, there are many ways to ask questions of the Government. I also point the hon. Lady to the integrated review, which is worth reading, because it sets out in great detail how different Departments will work together not only to support British interests across the globe, but to help build partnerships with other countries.

We recognise that women and girls from religious minorities can often suffer because of both their gender and their faith. That is why our human rights policy looks at the intersectionality of human rights: for example, the importance of addressing specific interests such as gender-based violence, which may be experienced by women from religious minority communities. The Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion and belief, my fantastic hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, has spoken about that double vulnerability that many women from religious minorities face, including at an International Women’s Day event organised by the UK Freedom of Religion or Belief Forum this March. I thank her for the effort that she puts into this work, because having that additional voice on those sorts of platforms really helps in continuing to reiterate these important messages.

The hon. Member for Strangford spoke very powerfully about incidents of violence and abuse in the DRC. The UK is deeply concerned about the violence against civilians in the DRC, including the recent attacks by the armed group Allied Democratic Forces. Back in April, the British embassy in Kinshasa issued a joint statement with international partners condemning the attacks perpetrated by the ADF in Beni and North Kivu, and we continue to urge the DRC Government and the UN to work together to protect civilians from ongoing violence and address the root causes of conflict. The previous Minister for Africa, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East, raised this issue with the President on multiple occasions. We are committed to ensuring that the UN peacekeeping mission MONUSCO remains focused on delivering its mandate to protect civilians, and that vulnerable communities remain central to the UN’s work in the DRC.

In the Central African Republic, there are long-standing concerns about violence along religious lines. I am grateful for the APPG’s explorations of the nuances of the conflict and the religious tensions in that country, which will further enrich the Government’s understanding and help to inform our approach. Sadly, hate speech and inter-communal tensions remain prominent in the CAR, and disinformation can be used to drive divisions for political and economic gain, so while the current conflict is not predominantly religious in nature, the lack of formal justice and reconciliation mechanisms mean that tensions could become defined along religious and ideological lines. We will continue to monitor this issue very closely, and FCDO officials are working with researchers in the CAR to understand more about the role that disinformation is playing in fuelling this conflict. We continue to shape the peacekeeping mission mandate in both countries to protect vulnerable communities and promote inclusive dialogue.

Turning to Nigeria, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton and many others spoke passionately about the violence and, indeed, the increase in violence in Nigeria. We are very troubled by the rising insecurity in that country, including terrorism in the north-east, where insurgents from Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province are responsible for regular attacks on both Christians and Muslims. Both groups regularly attack Nigerians of all faiths who do not subscribe to their extremist views, causing immense suffering in both Christian and Muslim communities. Separately, there is inter-communal conflict and banditry occurring across multiple states; again, that continues to blight both Christian and Muslim groups. The drivers of those conflicts are deeply complex; they can be highly localised and relate to a number of different factors.

We really welcome the APPG report on Nigeria. It analysed inter-communal violence in the middle belt, and acts of terrorism committed by Boko Haram and ISWA in the northeast. A full response was issued by my predecessor as Minister for Africa, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East, which emphasised our support for solutions that get to the root causes of the conflict—addressing the root cause is so important if the violence is to be reduced. My predecessor visited Nigeria in April, and discussed the increasing of security across the country with the Government and community leaders. During the Nigerian delegation’s visit to the Global Education Summit in London in July, he also discussed the impact of insecurity, potential religious dynamics, and issues such as school kidnapping with the Nigerian Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister of State for Education.

We totally condemn the devastating impact that this violence has had, and is having, on people in Nigeria. We continue to make clear to the Nigerian authorities, at the highest levels, the importance of protecting civilians—including all ethnic and religious groups—and protecting human rights for all.

Fiona Bruce
I have been listening very carefully to the Minister, and I thank her for much of what she has said. However, when a Minister talks about the fact that they have mentioned something when visiting a country, it is often the case that that has been done quietly and in private. What many of us are now sensing is that there needs to be a clear and public calling out of what is happening in Nigeria, and a call to the Nigerian Government to tackle it in the way that I have previously spoken about. Private discussions will no longer cut it.

Vicky Ford
I know that my hon. Friend thinks about this matter very deeply, and I am looking forward to discussing it with her in more detail. What I am hearing from groups that are expert in this area is that it is really important that we look at the different things that are happening in different parts of the country, and that we try to avoid conflating the north-east conflicts with the inter-communal violence that is occurring, for example, between farmers and herders. We do not want to risk exacerbating ethnic tensions. These are incredibly complex matters, but I hear what my hon. Friend is saying. We do not want the ideology that can be seen in the north-east extending into broader inter-communal violence. These are complicated issues, but issues that we are right to discuss and to tackle.

The hon. Member for Strangford outlined the UK’s support for the Lake Chad basin regional stabilisation facility. I can confirm that the UK is committed to security and stability in the wider Sahel region. We have currently deployed 300 troops to the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, as part of a long-range reconnaissance group. We are providing further conflict, security and stability programming to support the reduction of violent conflict and promote long-term stability in the region. There is an investment of approximately £12 million a year in that programme. It includes local stabilisation projects in Mali, strengthening civilian-military co-ordination to facilitate humanitarian access, for example, and improving the participation of women from all communities in stabilisation projects and the peace process in Mali.

Jim Shannon
As I said earlier, the scheme that the UK Government have introduced is excellent. It is really proactive and positive, and I would ask whether we could roll it out in some of other areas.

Vicky Ford
I will very much look into what the hon. Gentleman says, and I thank him for his praise of the project.

I want to come back to Sudan, as it was mentioned in one of the earlier interventions. I spoke to the Prime Minister of Sudan, Abdalla Hamdok, yesterday. We totally condemn the attempted coup and strongly support the civilian-led Government in the country’s transition to democracy. Standing up for democracy is a core value of our country.

In Cameroon, we engage with faith actors of all kinds and the Government. We are deeply concerned about the upsurge of Islamic State and note that it is targeting security forces—including, sadly, some security forces trained by Her Majesty’s Government.

Kirsten Oswald
I am glad that the Minister mentions Cameroon, but I would not like her to move away from that subject just yet. Is she able to answer some of the questions that I posed about Cameroon and trade? It would be helpful to Members across the House to hear a bit more about what lies beneath the agreement that has been reached.

Vicky Ford
I will get back to the hon. Lady separately on that topic, if I may.

There have been some questions about the implementation of the recommendations in the Bishop of Truro’s report. I am pleased to hear many colleagues draw attention to the Bishop of Truro’s independent review on the persecution of Christians. I was personally delighted when I heard that he was going to do the review. It was at a time when I was the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Foreign Secretary’s team and to Foreign Office Ministers, and I know how important it was to Members across the House. I was really pleased to see the report come out and the conclusions that it had reached. The Government are committed to implementing the bishop’s 22 recommendations in full, to drive real improvements in the lives of those who are persecuted. Eighteen of the recommendations have already been implemented or are in the process of being implemented, and we are on track to deliver all 22 recommendations by July 2022—so 22 by ’22.

As a long-standing champion of human rights and freedoms, the UK has a duty to promote and defend our values of equality, inclusion and respect, both at home and abroad. I can assure right hon. and hon. Members that this Government will continue to do just that.

Jim Shannon
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions. I will start with the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who is a dear friend. She referred to the psychological pressure on Christians, which is sometimes missed because we focus on the physical side. She also referred to the combination of Boko Haram and ISWAP in relation to the destabilisation of Nigeria. It is a very important issue, which we have to address.

I thank the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) . He referred to something very appropriate: Black Lives Matter. Across the world, Black Lives Matter ran a great campaign, but here is a campaign for Black Lives Matter that does not seem to have caught the attention of the world. It should have done so, which is what the hon. Gentleman said.

The right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) is someone with whom I have had many discussions. I never realised that this was a matter that he has been bringing up in this place for 20 years. I can recall very well, and the right hon. Gentleman will remember, the debate we had in 2012. I have never forgotten his contribution that day. That is the truth. I felt it swung that debate, which was on the persecution of Christians, in the main Chamber. I have always remembered that.

I thank the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) for his late arrival—not his late arrival, he was here from the beginning. Rather, his late arrival to speak. His contribution was really appropriate and we thank him for that.

The Scottish National party spokesperson, the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), and I are together on so many of these issues and I was pleased to see her coming down to participate and refer to the aid cuts. Also—I hope I caught this right—she said that sometimes, when Christian children are kidnapped and abducted, they are then converted and used as suicide bombers. I was not aware of that. It is incredibly worrying.

The Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), as always, delivered on so many issues. She reminded us of the Bring Back Our Girls campaign, which I can recall very well. I thank her for her massive contribution on these issues.

I should have said at the beginning—it was remiss of me not to do so, but I am going to do it now—how pleased I am, and I mean it, to see the Minister in her place. She knows that she and I were born in the same town, in Omagh, County Tyrone in Northern Ireland. She is a lot younger than I am, of course, but I am very pleased to see her in her place. I am also pleased that in reply to the hon. Member for Congleton the Minister kindly agreed to have a meeting. The two of us and other officers who are also Members of Parliament will be happy to follow our engagement further.

On the rights of women and girls and the human rights of many, I see—and I thank all right hon. Members and hon. Members for their contributions—that this House is united, on behalf of our Christian brothers and sisters but also on behalf of those of other faiths across the world. We have the great privilege in this House and in Westminster Hall today of putting forward our requests on their behalf. Everyone who spoke has a burden on their heart for those people across the world, and we wish to see our Government as they do and as they have—sometimes we need to recognise the good work that our Government do and I recognise that. I thank them all and look forward to working with the Minister over the next period of time. Two people from County Tyrone—along with others—working on these issues, because they are so important.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of violence against Christians in central African countries.

Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief

In May 2019, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution establishing The International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief, to be observed on 22 August each year. The Coalition for Genocide Response hosted a webinar to mark the third anniversary of this event this year. It was chaired by Fiona Bruce MP, Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Dr Ewelina Ochab, co-founder of the Coalition for Genocide Response and author of the initiative to establish the UN day.

This event provided expert testimony from FoRB leaders in the UK, Netherlands and the USA, and included survivor testimony from Helen Berhane who was imprisoned because of her faith in Eritrea. During the meeting speakers highlighted the growing global support for protecting FoRB, emphasised what has been achieved so far and reviewed the challenges faced in the future. While there has been a growing coalition for promoting the right to believe there has also been increase in the number of FoRB violations in recent years. This meeting focused on the importance of building alliances in the international community, upcoming developments and a call for action. As Dr Ewelina Ochab said, opening the meeting, that today is “not just as an act of remembrance for victims of violence but a springboard for action.”

Dr Ewelina Ochab
Opening the meeting Dr Ochab gave a history of the day commemorating the victims of acts of violence based on religion or belief. This day was established not only as a remembrance but to help the international community to act in an environment of ever-increasing FoRB violations. There was a focus on the escalating situation in Afghanistan and the impact that the Taliban government may have on the Hazara community and other religious minorities. Additionally, Dr Ochab highlighted the situation in Nigeria with sexual violence and rape being used as a weapon against women from religious minorities. Challenging the international community to treat these situations as emergencies she called for governments to provide immediate support rather than implementing policies over the next four or five years. Concluding she summarised the impact of this meeting was to focus on how to help individuals and communities after violence, share ideas on prevention and to hear survivors’ stories.

Fiona Bruce MP
Fiona Bruce, Prime Ministers’ Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief, highlighted recent developments in FoRB with the establishment of UK FoRB Forum, the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance and the impact of the Truro Review. These recent changes are helping equip the FCDO to respond to the “growing phenomenon” of religious persecution. However, her main message was that there is still much to do and that governments, NGOs and religious organisations all have a part to play challenging violence and FoRB violations wherever it occurs. Mrs Bruce highlighted the importance of working together with other members of the international community and the growing international coalition to tackle FoRB abuses.

Despite a growing international voice challenging FoRB abuses Fiona Bruce challenged the community by stating that words needed to be backed up with actions. To this effect she highlighted the UK role in hosting an international ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief in the summer of 2022. This conference will bring policy makers, activists, NGO and survivors together to champion freedom of religion or belief globally. Mrs Bruce concluded by highlighting a new initiative launched by this APPG pairing prisoners of conscience with parliamentarians to advocate directly for them.

Archbishop Angaelos
Archbishop Angaelos’ address highlighted how respecting freedom of religion or belief is about respecting fundamental humanity, about the dignity of every human being, and how we need to work together to make a difference. The Archbishop underlined that FoRB violations are not sudden but “a very slow and meticulous process of alienation, marginalisation and persecution”. Left unchecked and unchallenged by the international community this can lead to genocide and ethnic cleansing. As such, the international community cannot turn a blind eye to laws being broken or put political interests before humanitarian considerations. Archbishop Angaelos concluded by praising the impact of the Truro Review, stating that it has been “pivotal in the landscape of freedom of belief”, and the establishment of the International Alliance for Freedom of Belief.

Baroness Helena Kennedy, QC
Baroness Kennedy opened her address by looking at the history of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 18; that freedom of belief is a fundamental part of what it means to be human. She went on to highlight the increase in FoRB abuses in recent years and the disproportionate impact this had had on women. Baroness Kennedy highlighted the atrocities committed against the Yazidi community by ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the attacks against Rohingya in Myanmar and China’s oppression of Uyghur Muslims and that often rape and sexual violence is used as a deliberate weapon targeting women from religious minorities. She highlighted efforts in the UN to create a permanent investigatory mechanism with the UN for FoRB violations. This is needed as there is a “failure to truly understand the depth of the crimes against women in this context of denying religious freedom”. This effort would create a cohort of investigators and lawyers who can specifically investigate FoRB violations against women and provide specialist support to victims.

Jos Douma
Jos Douma, chair of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, highlighted the work of the governments of the Netherlands, UK and US in promoting religious freedom and supporting victims of FoRB violations. Highlighting specific projects which focused on providing psychological and emotional support Jos Douma emphasised that “we should never forget that behind the figures in the reports are hundreds of millions of individuals”. He highlighted the impact that Covid 19 had on religious minorities with many communities being blamed for the spread of the pandemic or denied access to healthcare. He also highlighted the impact of laws that seem non-discriminatory but have a disproportionate effect on religious minorities.

Concluding, Mr Douma highlighted recent reports: from Open Doors, on the impact of gender and FoRB, and Humanists International. Emphasising the need to work in alliance and the role that national human rights institutions, non-governmental organisations, religious bodies, the media and civil society have to play in promoting tolerance and respect for religious diversity.

Nadine Maenza
Nadine Maenza, Chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, highlighted the increasing risk of atrocities from FoRB violations and how these undermine democracies around the world. Nadine also highlighted the importance to build coalitions to strengthen freedom of religion or belief globally and to hold perpetrators to account by bringing people to justice. Mentioning the situations in Nigeria, China, Turkey and Myanmar, Nadine challenged the international community to do more. Speaking specifically about Turkey she mentioned countries have remained silent because of “complexities of their relationship with Turkey, meaning this violence will likely continue”. Concluding she summarised that ignoring such crimes should not be acceptable on the international stage and that FoRB violations not only violates international law and undermines legal norms but threatens international security, global democracies and strengthens authoritarian regimes.

Adam Phillips
Adam Phillips, director of the Local faith and transformative partnership at USAID highlighted the bi-partisan support in the USA to protect freedom of belief around the world. Often FoRB and other issues collide having a double effect on members of religious minorities. Adam specifically mentioned the impact of the climate emergency, Covid 19 and the economic downturn over the last 18 months have all coincided to exacerbate FoRB abuses in many countries around the world. Giving the examples of Tigray in Ethiopia and an escalation of violence in Northern Nigeria FoRB abuses not only harm religious minorities but also cause damage to democracies and strengthen authoritarianism regimes.

Helen Berhane
The most powerful address of the meeting came from Helen Berhane, a survivor of FoRB violence in Eritrea. Helen spent more than two years imprisoned for her faith facing targeted violence from prison guards and being locked in a shipping container during the heat of the day. Explaining that the Eritrean government only recognised four religious groups Orthodox Catholic, Evangelical, Lutheran and Islam, members of other religious communities face arbitrary arrest and violence at the hands of the government. Though Helen is now free and no longer in Eritrea she reminded the meeting that there are many more like her still imprisoned and facing violence in Eritrea because of their faith. Her testimony highlighted the very real reason why protecting FoRB is a priority and the important role governments, NGOs and faith-based organisations have in protecting this fundamental right.

UN International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief

The UN General Assembly designated 22 August as the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief. It stated that acts of intolerance and violence based on religion or belief against individuals, and the number and intensity of such incidents, which are often of a criminal nature and may have international characteristics, are increasing.

It also highlighted that “By proclaiming an International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief, the General Assembly recalled that States have the primary responsibility to promote and protect human rights, including the human rights of persons belonging to religious minorities, including their right to exercise their religion or belief freely.”

Lord Alton, APPG Vice-Chair, says “The last few days have been dominated by the appalling news from Afghanistan and the ever-growing fear of what this will mean for women and girls, religious minorities and countless others. That fear is grounded in our knowledge of what they have done before – by the horrific legacy of the atrocities perpetrated by the Taliban. We need to find solutions to help all those at risk. But even while we are focused on Afghanistan, we must remember that elsewhere in the world atrocities based on religion or belief have not stopped. We just do not hear about them.

On this International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief, we must remember all these victims, whether known or not, whether their stories have reached the news or not. We must remember their pain and suffering and never tire of shining a light on such horrendous atrocities.”

In recognition of this day the APPG is supporting Prisoners of Conscience, a new initiative, the beginning of a long term programme which will be launched in Parliament, to link individuals imprisoned because of their religion or belief to individual parliamentarians who will advocate on their behalf.

The first small tranche of prisoners highlighted can be seen here; it is intended that more will follow, from all faiths and none, representing the hundreds who are detained for their faith or belief across the world.

The APPG is pleased to host this important FoRB initiative on its website. APPG Chair Jim Shannon explains: “It has been my honour to be the Chair of APPG FORB and none more so than today when we are taking these steps to advocate on behalf of these prisoners that are individuals who are imprisoned specifically for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief.

To encourage parliamentarians and, through this, our government to take action to speak for the voiceless and stand for the oppressed has always been my goal since my election to the House of Commons in 2010 and today is the next step in seeing Freedom of Religion and Belief becoming a priority for Members of this House.

The individual targeting that is taking place is not designed to attribute importance to one case over another but is simply doing what we can to help individuals in parallel with working on policy changes that will help the many. This APPG seeks to help in a practical and policy driven manner and I grateful to be a cog in mechanics of making religious freedom a reality.

I urge my fellow MP’s to work with us as we seek to use the position granted to us by our constituents to make a difference throughout the world and I thank you for your interest. I take seriously the call in Hebrews 13 to “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters.  Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers… Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”

Today we take the next step in this journey of doing what we are able to show love, help others and simply to do what is right.”

Fiona Bruce MP in the Afghanistan debate

Fiona Bruce
(Congleton) (Con)
I thank the Government for proposing a bespoke refugee scheme focusing on the most vulnerable in Afghanistan. I am glad that, as the Home Secretary said today, it will include persecuted minorities—those who are persecuted simply on account of their religion or belief. That is absolutely in accord with our Government’s commitment to promoting and defending freedom of religion or belief for all as a key human rights priority.

As the Prime Minister’s special envoy on FORB, I welcome that, but I offer a word of caution. We have heard that the scheme will be similar to the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, but for some minority groups who were targeted for their beliefs, including Yazidis, Christians and Shi’as, that scheme was not as effective as was intended.

Those groups were disproportionately under-represented in refugee referrals to the UK—indeed, substantially so. One reason was that the scheme outsourced the selection of refugees to the UNHCR, whose vulnerability criteria did not include people who were being targeted for their faith. Another factor was that many, particularly Christians, were too afraid to enter the refugee camps where selection took place because they feared that within those camps, they would face the very persecution that they had experienced outside. I hope that we can learn from that.

Persecution in Afghanistan is extreme. As the US Commission on International Religious Freedom reports, groups such as Hindus, Christians and Sikhs remain endangered minorities. Many have fled the country, and many of their community leaders who remained have been killed. Yesterday, I spoke virtually with an Afghan Christian, and he confirmed that the Taliban are already knocking on doors in Kabul, requiring people to go to worship in the mosques and identifying those who refuse. Those so identified fear the worst for their lives. That is particularly true of publicly known faith leaders and house church leaders in local neighbourhoods. Their neighbours know them, and I am told that they fear being outed by their own neighbours.

It is vital that there is urgent international co-ordination to help the religious minorities in Afghanistan who face persecution. The UK should not have to tackle this alone, but nor does it need to. Offers of help with international co-ordination are available, as I heard yesterday from an international NGO with which I spoke. I thank the Home Secretary and her staff for how, even overnight, they are actively engaging with me on this issue. She has said:

“I want to ensure that as a nation we do everything possible to provide support to the most vulnerable”,


“The UK is…doing all it can to encourage other countries to help…we want to lead by example”.

That is right, which is why I have welcomed plans for the G7 virtual meeting next week. It is also why I have welcomed all that our Foreign Secretary has done, not only to initiate this but more widely to show international leadership on FORB. In May this year in London, at the Foreign and Development Ministers’ meeting, a communiqué was issued—I can only quote a fraction—confirming:

“We commit to co-ordinated action…and targeted support…to defend freedom of religion or belief for all…and combatting all forms of hatred and discrimination…the G7 will enhance efforts toward the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief globally.”

This is the moment to translate those words into action, and I am confident that under our presidency of the G7, our Foreign Secretary will have freedom of religion or belief at the forefront of his mind next week. It is also our opportunity to show the world the reality of the words in chapter 2 of our new immigration plan—to ensure support for those, such as persecuted Christians, who need emergency resettlement.

Afghanistan: the consequences for Afghan Christians of the Taliban takeover

Minorities in Afghanistan

Whilst no accurate numerical data exist on the exact size of religious minorities, estimates have long suggested that Afghanistan consists of 10-20% Shi’a and Ismaili (predominantly ethnic Hazaras who were specifically targeted when the Taliban were last in power); small numbers (less than 1%) of Hindus and Sikhs; and Christians. Christians are predominantly first or second generation converts from Islam. Although there was historically a small Armenian Christian community in Afghanistan, this is thought to have died out at some point in the twentieth century. The present Afghan church grew from a handful of Afghan Christians in the 1970s to possibly 3,000 by the time of the first Taliban takeover in 1995-1996. The number of Afghan Christians may now be significantly more than this. Prior to the Taliban takeover in 1996 there was also small Jewish community, although the synagogue was largely destroyed and by 2005 only a single Jew was thought to remain.

The vulnerability of Afghan religious minorities

Jihadist groups threating religious minorities
As well as the Taliban, other jihadist groups exist, those which are believed to have carried out attacks on Christians either in Afghanistan or elsewhere. These include Hezb-i-Islami (Gulbaddin faction), al Qaeda and Islamic State.

Increasing vulnerability
The position of religious in minorities including Christians had been deteriorating in recent years. In its 2019 Annual Report the US Commission for International Religious Freedom reported that “2018 was one of the most fatal in Afghanistan for all civilians – and particularly for religious minorities – due to terrorist activity and the government was often unable to protect civilians from attacks. Also, during the reporting period, non-Muslim groups like Hindus, Christians and Sikhs remained endangered minorities – many fled the country and many of their community leaders who remained were killed in a large scale July 2018 terrorist attack…”

It goes on to state that “Sikhs and Hindus have been driven underground without the ability to publicly practice their religious traditions for fear of reprisal by terrorist groups or society at large.”

Christians are particularly vulnerable as, unlike Hindus and Sikhs, their existence has never been recognised either in Afghan society, or by the Afghan government. However, since the July 2018 bomb attack which occurred when Hindu and Sikh leaders were awaiting a meeting with President Ashraf Ghani, they too have been forced to keep their faith out of public view in a similar manner to Afghan Christians.

The 2004 Afghanistan constitution
Afghan Christians are particularly vulnerable as the new constitution adopted after the eviction of the Taliban maintained the existing penal code, article 1 of which states “This law regulates the Ta’zeri law and penalties. Those committing crimes of Hudud, Qisas or Diyat shall be punished in accordance with the Islamic religious law (The Hanafi religious jurisprudence)

In other words, the Penal Code only deals with matters which are NOT covered by existing Islamic law (termed ta’zir) and so allows discretion as to what penalty should be applied. Hudud laws by contrast have a specific penalty set out in the Qur’an or Hadith and include not only murder, theft and sexual offences, but also apostasy i.e. leaving Islam for another religion, for which the penalty is execution.

The failure to change the Penal Code after 2001 and embed at least some aspect of religious liberty in the Afghan legal system was clearly a major missed opportunity. That failure left Afghan Christians extremely vulnerable as it meant many only avoided being charged with apostasy through the good will and general ethos of the Afghan government. The replacement of the that government by the Taliban therefore leaves them immediately extremely vulnerable to execution for apostasy.

The failure to change the Penal Code after 2001 and embed at least some aspect of religious liberty in the Afghan legal system was clearly a major missed opportunity.

Taliban ideology

The actions of the Taliban are predictable to a greater extent than that of many other actors because they have a clear ideology. That is primarily based on i) Hanafi Sunni Islam as it has been interpreted in Pushtun culture; and ii) Pushtunwali – the Pushtun tribal code, as the Taliban are predominantly ethnically Pushtun. At certain points Pushtunwali is severer than Hanafi shari’a, as anything deemed to threaten tribal or family honour leads to killing.

The madrassas (Islamic schools) affiliated to the Taliban, follow the Dars-i-Nizami curriculum, in common with most others in the region. This has remained largely unchanged for more than four centuries and has a set list of books which have to be learnt. These include the Hedaya – the main Hanafi manual of Islamic law (Shar’ia). This stipulates:

a) Christians who have converted from an Islamic family background
i) Any sane adult male deemed to be a convert from Islam should be killed after being given three days to repent and return to Islam.
ii) Any sane adult female deemed to have left Islam is to be imprisoned until she repents
iii) Any child deemed to have left Islam is imprisoned until they reach adulthood, when the adult penalty is applied to them.
iv) In practice, Pushtunwali may lead to even the very limited caveats above being disregarded. For example, in 1996 when the Taliban took over Jalalabad, where I then lived, they were tipped off that a man in a nearby village was a Christian, ordered him to return to Islam and when he refused immediately hanged him.

b) Jihad against non-Muslims
Shari’a divides the world into Dar al Islam (the world which is subject to Islamic government and shari’a enforcement) and Dar al harb (the world of war) where jihad must be engaged in to bring about submission to Islamic government and law. This is fundamental to the Taliban worldview.

c) Non-Muslims
Those who are not regarded as monotheists are given the alternative of either forced conversion or, If, they refuse this, they continue to be treated as harbis (enemies) for which the penalty is execution for men and enslavement for women and children, although sometimes the alternative of permanent exile may be offered as a concession.

d) Dhimmi status
i) Historic communities of Christians and Jews may be granted Dhimmi status. Whilst this is sometimes claimed to be a form of ‘toleration’ it is actually a non-citizen status. Christians and Jews are permitted to live subject to certain strict conditions. Bat Ye’or, the leading authority in the Western world on dhimmitude, observes that:

“The most important of these conditions is payment of poll tax, which represents the sum given to buy back from the umma [i.e. Muslim community] the non-Muslim’s right to life. This poll tax has a compulsory, mandatory value because of its religious origins (Koran 9:29). Refusal to pay it turns the dhimmi into a harbi, subjecting him to the rules of jihad – slavery or death. Certain jurists advocate expulsion from the Islamic community.”

Crucially, dhimmis have no rights and any perceived breach of any single condition in the dhimma contract leads to them being treated as a harbis (i.e. an enemy combatant or outlaw) – who may be killed by any Muslim without consequence. Historically, a number of genocides of Christians in the Middle East have happened precisely because Christians have been perceived to have broken an aspect of the dhimma contract.

ii) In September 2015 Islamic State forced Christians in north-east Syria to sign a Dhimma contract.

iii) However, the Afghan Taliban have never granted dhimmi status to Afghan Christians – simply treating them all as converts from Islam and therefore subject to the death penalty.

iv) Even in Pakistan, which has had a significant Christian church since the nineteenth century, the specific attacks carried out on the Pakistani Christian community, such as the attack on All Saints Church, Peshawar in September 2013 killing 127, suggests that even the Pakistani Taliban does not regard Pakistani Christians as dhimmis. As such Afghan Christians MUST be deemed to be at serious risk of crimes against humanity.

As such Afghan Christians MUST be deemed to be at serious risk of crimes against humanity.

Taliban actions against minorities while in power 1995-2001

The Taliban began taking control of parts of Afghanistan in 1995, taking the capital Kabul in 1996. Their actions included:
i) The religious police (officially the department for the suppression of vice and promotion of virtue) brutally enforced strict sharia on the streets. Even after the Taliban were evicted from power, if someone thought to be a former member of the ‘vice and virtue’ appeared in a public place – everyone would go quiet. People were terrified that they would return.
ii) Large public executions of those deemed to be enemies of the regime, often with summary justice.
iii) Specific targeting of the Hazara minority as they are Shi’a (as many Afghan Christians were Hazara, they were doubly at risk).
iv) The small Hindu and Sikh population, mainly shopkeepers, were forced to wear yellow badges, which drew parallels with the yellow Star of David which the Nazis forced on the Jews.
v) The Taliban would beat people in the streets with plastic hosepipes and sticks to force people to go to the mosque to pray Islamic prayers at the time of prayer. This led to many Afghan Christians becoming ‘secret believers’, hiding their faith in fear of their lives.
vi) Those suspected of being Christians were forced to renounce Christianity and return to Islam. Those who refused were either executed on the spot or in some instances forced to act as human minesweepers – walking through minefields to clear them.
vii) There was also a significant enforcement of a ‘police state’, with vehicles searched at checkpoints every few miles on major roads to search for any articles, deemed to be ‘unislamic’ such as cassette tapes of music. This made it in practice, much harder for Christians to hide their faith from the Taliban.

Changes since 1996 likely to influence Taliban actions

1. When the Taliban were in power in 1995-2001 they showed very little concern for what international bodies or other governments thought of them. Now they clearly wish to present an image to the world which will give them the status of being treated as a legitimate government – whilst at the same time not compromising on their ideology. Withholding international recognition may therefore represent one of the few leverages which western governments have.

2. Crucial to understanding this diplomatic shift is the rise of the internet, which was in its infancy when the Taliban came to power in 1995-96, but now presents an opportunity for them to seek to further their agenda worldwide.

3. Islamic State: The replacement of al Qaeda by Islamic State as the leading global Islamist organisation both a) created a model for the Taliban to follow and b) created a vacuum which the Taliban may now seek to fill – by becoming the ‘model Islamist state’ which others aspire to copy – in the same way that the Iranian revolution did in 1979.

In view of this, it should be noted that the Taliban may seek to follow Islamic State in the following respects:
i) Extending their emirate from simply Afghanistan to other areas as well – Pakistan, particularly the Pashtun majority areas in the north west may be particularly vulnerable.
ii) Specific targeting of religious minorities.
iii) Religious cleansing of whole areas of non-Muslims– as Islamic State did.
iv) Reintroduction of slavery for non-Muslims. This is already set out in the main Hanafi main shari’a texts (hedaya). It was ‘reintroduced’ by Boko Haram in West Africa in March 2013 and followed a few months later by Islamic State. The latter produced a specific slave price list – for female Christian and Yazidi slaves dependent on their ages. This was a major reversal of the trend when Muslim majority countries had followed Britain’s 1833 lead in abolishing slavery with Afghanistan doing so in 1923, the last countries to do so being Saudi Arabia (1961), Oman (1971) and Mauritania (1981). There is therefore a significant risk that the Taliban could ‘re-activate’ those sections of Hanafi shari’a relating to slavery. This is a particular risk for non-Muslim minorities, such as Hindus and Sikhs, but Christian women particularly may also be vulnerable due to the provisions in Hanafi shar’a allowing for the imprisonment of females apostates.

Increased risk to Christian minorities in the wider region

The Afghan Taliban inspired the creation of the Tehrek-i-Taliban-i-Pakistan. Although the two groups have distinct leadership and themselves consist of a range of groups, there is a serious risk of Talban seizure of power in Afghanistan inspiring a similar attempt to seize power in parts of Pakistan, where there are at least 2.6 million Christians. The Pushtun dominated Federally Administered Tribal Areas (est. 12,400 Christians) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province (est. 31,000) in the north west are particularly vulnerable.

Former Soviet Central Asian States (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan)
The rise to power of the Taliban in 1995-2001 came shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Islamist movements exist in each of these countries, whose governments, particularly since 2001 have sought to crack down on with increasingly repressive ‘anti-extremism laws’ which target all religions, including Christians. The regaining of power by the Taliban will almost inevitably empower these Islamist groups as well, which is likely to lead to Christians being targeted both by increasingly aggressive Islamist groups and by an increasingly repressive state.

The US deal with the Taliban

Whilst the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) established in 2011 had as part of its mandate the protection of minorities, the agreement made on 29 February 2020 between the US government and the Taliban makes absolutely no reference to anything even vaguely related to human rights. In exchange for US troop withdrawal and the ending of sanctions it merely committed the Taliban to reduce (but not stop) attacks and not to allow individuals or groups on its soil to threaten the USA or its allies.

the agreement made on 29 February 2020 between the US government and the Taliban makes absolutely no reference to anything even vaguely related to human rights


As the Taliban do not recognise the existence of a Christian church in Afghanistan, they are likely to treat all Afghan Christians, whether first, second or third generation Christians, as those who have abandoned Islam and therefore deserving the shari’a penalty for apostasy i.e. execution. As there are now several thousand Afghan Christians there is therefore a significant risk of crimes against humanity.

Refugee policy

It is really important that the vulnerability of Afghan Christians is specifically recognised in any Afghan refugee scheme which the government establishes.

It is really important that the vulnerability of Afghan Christians is specifically recognised in any Afghan refugee scheme which the government establishes.

It is vital that this does NOT make the same mistakes as the former UK Syrian Refugee Resettlement Scheme did. There were huge flaws in the Syrian scheme because it outsourced the selection refugees to the UNHCR whose vulnerability criteria did NOT include anything related to people being targeted because of their faith – consequently the very groups which were most targeted – Yazidis, Christians and Shi’a (all three groups the US State department officially stated were facing “genocide”) were disproportionately massively underrepresented in UNHCR referrals to the UK. The number of Christian refugees referred to the UK by the UNHCR was consistently less than 0.5 of 1% of all referrals – despite most estimates putting Christians at between 5-10% of the Syrian population and it normally being the case that a specifically targeted population is overrepresented in refugee populations – certainly not under-represented.

It is therefore important i) the criteria this time include those vulnerable to specific targeting because of their faith – and ii) the UK should look at undertaking its own initial selection rather than relying on the UNHCR staff.

Briefing prepared by
©Dr Martin Parsons FRGS, FHEA, MAE Independent Consultant on the Global Persecution of Christians

Author background Dr Martin Parsons did his PhD on Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations in Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. He worked as an aid worker in Afghanistan both during the time of mujahaddin rule; under the Taliban and after the Taliban had been evicted from power. He currently works as an independent consultant on the global persecution of Christians and has acted as an expert witness both on human rights in Afghanistan and wider global persecution of Christians. He is the author of two major books, a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute for British Geographers (FRGS), a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (FHEA) and a practising member of the Academy of Experts (MAE).

18 months ago in a published article he highlighted the risk of the Taliban regaining control in Afghanistan as a result of the US deal with the Taliban.

See also

Exclusion of Nigeria from FCDO report prompts letter to Foreign Secretary

Nigerians are at the mercy of non State actors: Urgent Letter to Dominic Raab from Baroness (Caroline) Cox, Lord (Rowan) Williams, Lord (David) Alton, Mervyn Thomas CMG, Ayo Adedoyin:

Rt Hon Dominic Raab MP
House of Commons
26 July 2021

Dear Dominic,

The recent FCDO Report on Human Rights and Democracy does not list Nigeria as a priority country, despite daily reports of terrorist violence, mass forced displacement, the rise in abductions for ransom and a general backsliding on democratic practices.

Nigerian citizens are currently at the mercy of non-state actors who have been allowed to evolve and now have the capacity to shoot down a fighter jet, as has recently occurred in Kaduna state. Given the scale and depth of suffering, we would be very grateful if you could respond to each of the following urgent concerns.

Violations of freedom of religion or belief
• We are encouraged by your broad commitment to reduce levels of violence in Nigeria. We also share your deep concern over the continuation of terrorist attacks against Muslims and Christians in the north-east.
• We are disappointed, however, by your characterisation of violence in the Middle Belt, which is among the country’s gravest security challenges and deserving of a robust response. We urge the UK to allocate humanitarian aid to the Middle Belt, in addition to UK aid to the north-east.
• While you commit to “continue to look at ways to address” the complex drivers of violence in the Middle Belt, it remains unclear whether this includes addressing the religious dimension – particularly as religious affiliation is instrumentalised increasingly to recruit or inspire violent acts,¹ and predominantly-Christian communities are attacked for reasons connected with their faith.²
• The FCDO report refers to violence by the same non-state actors in the north-east and the Middle Belt, with no mention of targeted attacks largely against Hausa Muslim communities in the north-west, Igbo communities in the south-east and Yoruba communities in the southwest.

The report also fails to cite the seminal two-year-long inquiry by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on International FoRB, published in June 2020, which describes in detail violations of Freedom of Religion or Belief, and which poses the question whether genocide is unfolding in Nigeria.

Case study: #ENDSARS protests
• There are now widespread concerns that human rights violations take place with a degree of official complicity and that the Nigerian Government only occasionally investigate or prosecute those responsible for such crimes. The Government give the unfortunate impression of being as quick to pardon, rehabilitate and release ‘repentant’ terrorists as to harass and shoot protestors who make legitimate calls for justice and reform in a peaceful manner.
• The FCDO report claims that, as the #ENDSARS protests grew in number, “there were some clashes between protesters and the Nigerian security services, including the police and army.”
There were no clashes between #ENDSARS protestors and security services. Rather, thugs appear to have been sent to attack the protestors, while the security forces consistently used excessive force, even prior to the killings at the Lekki Toll Gate.
• Footage showed these thugs damaging property and attacking civilians. There is also video evidence of police shooting at individuals in Sabon Gari, the Christian district of Kano City, to terrorise residents at night.
• You will be aware of efforts within Nigeria to give #ENDSARS protest in the north a religious coloration so as to rally Muslim communities against the protests, who would otherwise have taken part. Northern governors later attempted to rebrand the legitimate protests as insurrections aimed at toppling President Buhari, which he himself recently stated on film.

Other notable omissions
We understand that the FCDO’s annual report can only provide a snapshot of the most grievous violations of human rights, but it is a serious concern that it does not refer to any of the following cases:
• The beheading of eleven Christian hostages by ISWAP on Christmas Day 2019.
• The execution of the chair of the Christian Association of Nigeria in Adamawa state, Reverend Lawan Andimi, by the Abubakar Shekau faction of Boko Haram on 20 January 2020.
• The profiling by ISWAP of travellers who are intercepted in the north-east, targeting Christians, people from Plateau State, members of the security services and humanitarian aid workers.
• The case of Leah Sharibu, who remains in captivity.
• The arbitrary arrest and detention of Professor Richard Solomon Musa Tarfa, co-founder of orphanages for vulnerable children in Kano and Kaduna states, and the removal of these children to a Government-run home in Kano with no access to education or to establishments of the religion or belief of their choice.
• The sentencing of a 13-year-old boy to ten years imprisonment and menial labour on blasphemy charges by a Sharia court in Kano state; and the death sentence handed to a musician who was deemed to commit blasphemy for a song he circulated via WhatsApp.
• The harassment of Dr Obadiah Mailafia, former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, who faced a six-hour interrogation session for sounding the alarm about the violence in Nigeria in general and southern Kaduna in particular, which is evolving in line with his warnings.

We and others have raised many of these urgent concerns with you, Nigel Adams and Catriona Laing on numerous occasions, especially since 2015. Yet we have received no assurance of a shift in UK foreign policy to reflect the urgency of the crisis, while successive FCDO reports have failed to reflect the critical decline in security that is causing seasoned observers increasingly to refer to Nigeria as a failing or failed state.

We therefore urge you to re-consider how the FCDO could shine a light on the erosion of human rights and democracy in Nigeria. We urge you to list Nigeria as a priority country.

We would be very grateful for the opportunity to discuss these matters with you in more detail.

Yours sincerely,

Baroness Cox, Founder and CEO, Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART)
Lord Alton of Liverpool
Dr Rowan Williams
Mervyn Thomas CMG, Founder President, CSW
Ayo Adedoyin, CEO, International Organisation for Peace & Social Justice (PSJ-UK)

¹ As emphasised by US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback, on 8 December, following the US State Department’s decision to designate Nigeria as a Country of Particular Concern because of FoRB violations and escalating ‘religious-tinged violence’.
² As emphasised in the Bishop of Truro’s review, whose recommendations the UK Government have agreed to implement in full

Written Questions explore the implementation of the Truro Review

Two years on from the publication of the Bishop of Truro’s Independent Review for the UK Foreign Secretary of Foreign and Commonwealth Office Support for Persecuted Christians, a series of written questions have pressed for information on the implementation of the 22 recommendations.

Alexander Stafford; Alexander Stafford; Alexander Stafford; Alexander Stafford; Alexander Stafford; Alexander Stafford; Alexander Stafford; Alexander Stafford

Kirsten Oswald; Kirsten Oswald; Kirsten Oswald; Kirsten Oswald; Kirsten Oswald; Kirsten Oswald; Kirsten Oswald; Kirsten Oswald; Kirsten Oswald; Kirsten Oswald; Kirsten Oswald; Kirsten Oswald; Kirsten Oswald; Kirsten Oswald;

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson; Sir Jeffrey Donaldson; Sir Jeffrey Donaldson;

Progress on the implementation was discussed at a webinar hosted by the Bishop of Truro in July 2021.


The Truro Review – Two Years On

The second anniversary of the Truro Review this month has been marked by a webinar hosted by the Bishop of Truro himself. The Truro Review, commissioned by Jeremy Hunt in 2018 as an independent review into the global persecution of Christians, presented 22 recommendations for the UK Government for changes in policy and practice to protect freedom of religion and belief around the world.

Since its publication, the Government pledged to adopt all 22 recommendations. This anniversary event served as a moment to measure what has already been achieved and to take stock of what remains outstanding before a formal independent review due next year.

The meeting was overwhelmingly positive, with Archbishop Angaelos commenting that the Truro Review was “one of the most historic reviews of our time” and the Bishop of Truro stating the response of the UK Government “wildly exceeded” his expectations. However, there was also criticism of the UK’s response to genocide, recent cuts to UK Aid and the prosecution of Daesh (also known as ISIS) perpetrators of sex crimes against Yazidi and Christian women.

The Bishop of Truro hosted the meeting, laying out why the implementation of the Truro Review matters and highlighted the worsening abuse of FoRB globally. Special mention was given to Uighur Muslims in China, the Rohingya in Burma, the Bahá’í community in Iran and Ahmadi’s in Pakistan.

He stated that the review called for the Government “to make FoRB central to our operations and culture on the world stage. I am proud as a country we have achieved this.”

Fiona Bruce MP

Fiona Bruce, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, reiterated that “defending this right is a priority of the UK government”. In the last two years the FCDO has implemented 18 recommendations and she “felt confident” that all 22 recommendations will be implemented by the time of the independent review next year.

She highlighted the creation of the UK FoRB Forum, the addition of FoRB into the annual Human Rights and Democracy Report, and FoRB being included in the G7 leaders’ communique for the first time. She also highlighted the actions the UK has taken on the world stage with sanctions against China, the recent election to the United Nations Human Rights Council and the work of UK Diplomats around the world. FoRB has also been included within the Foreign Secretary’s Force for Good agenda and was a key theme in the recent Security, Defense, Development and Foreign Policy Review.

The FCDO has also made internal changes following the Truro Review. This includes the creation of a training unit focusing on Religion for International Engagement and the John Bunyan fund.

Lord Alton

During his address, Lord Alton, Vice Chair of the APPG on International FoRB, highlighted the failure to fully adopt Recommendation 7 which focuses on creating a legal route to respond to genocide, a criticism that was also made by Baroness Cox later in the meeting. Lord Alton drew attention to the 1948 Genocide Convention and a ruling in 2007 by the International Court of Justice saying that the UK isn’t doing enough to prevent or act against genocide.

Describing the UK Government’s approach as “too fluffy” Lord Alton stated that there are no national or domestic mechanisms in place for a legal response to genocide and that early warning systems with the FCDO for identifying genocide were secretive and not transparent. Lord Alton re-stated the conclusion from a Foreign Affairs Select Committee that morning, that the persecution of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang needed a stronger response. At the start of the year, Lord Alton championed the Genocide Amendment to the Trade Bill which had overwhelming support from Parliamentarians: in February 2021 the government used parliamentary procedure to prevent a vote on the amendment.

Lord Alton also highlighted failings in upholding Recommendation 21C which calls for the prosecution of Daesh (also known as ISIS) perpetrators of sex crimes against Yazidi and Christian women. In Iraq and the UK, prosecution has focused on terror-related charges and no one has yet faced charges of sexual abuse. This is running the very real risk of justice being delayed or denied to these victims.

He concluded by stating that these two recommendations should be high on the agenda for the independent review in 2022.

Impact of the John Bunyan Fund

The creation of the John Bunyan Fund (Recommendation 9) has funded 15 organisations over the last two years with a focus on FoRB. During the meeting, a panel of two recipients of the fund presented their work. It was also confirmed that the fund will continue to provide grants for research to create country-specific recommendations to promote FoRB.

Andrew Copson, CEO of Humanists UK, highlighted how the fund allowed them to conduct research into the discrimination of Humanists and others of non-religious beliefs. Focusing on eight countries, the fund allowed for the creation of country-specific recommendations for policymakers. Their research also highlighted common themes such as blasphemy and apostasy laws and the lack of separation between state and religion contributing to pressures faced by Humanists.

Archbishop Angaelos had used a grant to research the spread of persecution between minority groups. Key findings showed that attacks on one minority group will spread to others and highlighted the double vulnerability of women, persons with disabilities, IDPs and refugees. Bishop Angaelos stated, “this is one of the most historic reviews of our time”, however, he also criticized the cuts to UK Aid.

Countries of Concern

The meeting concluded with a second panel highlighting three areas of concern with recommendations for the UK Government.

Baroness Cox, Co-Chair of the APPG on International FoRB, highlighted the crisis facing Armenian Christians in Nagorno-Karabakh. Despite the possibility of ethnic cleansing the risk is dismissed or underplayed by the British Government. Baroness Cox called for effective action to safeguard Armenian Christians and protect religious and cultural heritage sites and the need for the UK Government to better respond to genocide.

Padideh Sabeti, director of the Office of Public Affairs of the UK Bahá’í community, spoke about increasing persecution in Iran. Despite the long term targeting of the Bahá’í community, the Iranian state has become more sophisticated in its approach and 2021 has already seen a 44% increase in incidences of persecution.

Fareed Ahmad, National Secretary of External Affairs for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community UK, described the rising pressure Ahmadis face in Pakistan. Ahmadi Muslims have faced generations of persecution but there has been a recent increase in pressure against the community. This has included a spike in attacks from authorities, instead of individuals, with the destruction of mosques. Fareed called on the UK Government to put pressure on Pakistan to restore the right to vote for the Ahmadi community and prevent blasphemy laws from silencing Ahmadi voices online. He also called for greater international pressure on Pakistan to help protect Ahmadiyya Muslims.

View the recording of this event 

House of Lords discuss the APPG report

Lord Singh of Wimbledon
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief Commentary on the Current State of International Freedom of Religion or Belief (2020), published on 1 March.

The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office
(Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con)
My Lords, we have taken note of the APPG’s report. The United Kingdom is committed to defending FoRB for all and we have made this a core element of the integrated review. We readily report on FoRB violations, and I worked closely both on the production of the Human Rights & Democracy report, in which FoRB features, and alongside the special envoy for FoRB, Fiona Bruce MP, on the implementation of the recommendations from the Bishop of Truro’s report on FCDO support for persecuted Christians.

Lord Singh of Wimbledon (CB)
I thank the Minister for his very helpful reply but, as we say in deepest Punjab, fine words butter no parsnips. The report shows that ignorance and exploitation of supposed religious difference is one of the greatest causes of conflict in the world today. The reality is that different faiths share many common ethical teachings. Does the Minister agree that the teaching of RE should focus on commonalities, rather than superficial difference? Does he also agree that the Government are sending out a wrong and shameful message in Dominic Raab’s statement that human rights should be ignored in the pursuit of trade deals?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
My Lords, I first dispute that my right honourable friend has articulated such a statement. What he has made clear is that we will call out human rights abuses irrespective of the trading relationships we have with different countries. Being half-Punjabi myself, I am very conscious of the need for action. Being also a product of a Church of England school, and sending my own children to Catholic school, I am fully aware of the commonality of faith but recognise that each faith brings its own attributes to the diversity and strength of a country such as the United Kingdom. In our actions and our representations, we share those values with other countries in raising issues of FoRB around the world.

The Lord Bishop of Leeds
I thank the Minister for the priority he gives to freedom of religion or belief, but Her Majesty’s Government are reducing aid to many countries and regions prone to serious freedom of religion or belief violations, including an apparent 58% cut in ODA to Nigeria while the country faces immense challenges due to a surge in religious-based violence. Will the Minister describe the anticipated impacts of these aid cuts on violence and stability in Nigeria and indicate how any such impacts might be mitigated?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
My Lords, we work closely with different agencies on the ground, including in Nigeria. I assure the right reverend Prelate that, notwithstanding the challenges and the reductions to the ODA programme, we are working with key partners to ensure that freedom of religion or belief and the persecution of religious minorities remain very much at the forefront of our work, both in development engagement and diplomacy.

Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone
The House will know that the training of Orthodox clergy at the Halki theological seminary near Istanbul is essential for the survival of the Church in Turkey and the ancient Greek Orthodox community. The seminary has now been closed for 50 years. Can the Minister press on the Turkish Government the importance of respect for beliefs, cultural legacy and rights of minorities, and that their continued refusal to allow the reopening of the seminary is at odds with the tolerance shown in the past and constitutes a serious infringement of religious freedom?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
My Lords, I assure my noble friend that we continue to raise freedom of religion or belief issues directly with Turkey. I will certainly follow up directly the matter she raised, both in our representations through the embassy and in any direct contact I have with representatives and Ministers from Turkey.

Baroness Cox (CB)
My Lords, I follow up the important point raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds, focusing on Nigeria. The Government’s decision to cut spending on foreign aid to Nigeria by an apparent 58% is at a time when tens of thousands of civilians experience escalating, grave violations of freedom of religion or belief. Will the Minister describe the anticipated impacts of these aid cuts related to ideological motives? As the right reverend Prelate asked, how do the Government intend to mitigate any such impacts?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
My Lords, as I said, we are working on all levels, including through development and our diplomatic engagements. For example, my colleague the Minister for Africa visited Nigeria in April and discussed the ongoing conflict but also the impact it has on issues in Nigeria, particularly on minority faith groups. I once again assure the noble Baroness that this remains very much at the forefront of not just my engagement, in my broader responsibilities as Human Rights Minister, but the direct engagement of my colleagues across FCDO, including my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary.

Lord Griffiths of Burry Port (Lab)
My Lords, it would be churlish not to recognise the provisions made on the matter before us and the reports that have received such positive responses from the Government. They have said that they will encourage, support and monitor the implementation of the recommendations. The pandemic has created an even greater threat to religious freedoms than hitherto. I ask the Minister to give us an assurance that monitoring of religious freedoms is being undertaken, and perhaps even intensified, while the pandemic still rages. Can he assure us that parsnips are indeed being buttered?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
I assure the noble Lord that I have my buttering knife out. We continue to monitor and report. Undoubtedly, the Covid-19 pandemic has been used as an opportunity to further suppress the rights of minority faiths across the globe, but we stand very firm in ensuring that we raise this issue consistently and monitor it quite closely.

Lord Jones of Cheltenham (LD)
The all-party report shows that the world is a long way from perfect, but did not last night’s display at Wembley show that people of all religions and none, working together, can achieve a lot? Will the Government use that example to challenge intolerance everywhere?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
My Lords, I totally agree with the noble Lord. I assure noble Lords that, as my daughter said, I was “not very Lord-like” in vocalising my support when the second goal went in at Wembley. Nevertheless, it showed the real diversity and strength of our country: we come together for a common purpose. Sport is a living, working example of exactly that.

Baroness Sugg (Con)
My Lords, I welcome the report’s focus on gender. It specifically highlights the plight of girls in Pakistan at risk of forced marriage, violence and slavery. According to the FCDO’s own Development Tracker website, bilateral support to Pakistan is being cut by £175 million compared with what it was in 2019. Can my noble friend the Minister confirm that Development Tracker is accurate and that this is the correct figure?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
There has been a reduction in development support to Pakistan, but my noble friend will acknowledge the important work we are continuing—for example, the AAWAZ programme until 2024, with a specific focus on women and girls. That was part and parcel of my recent diplomatic engagement in Pakistan. When I visited on 22 June to 23 June, there was a reassurance. We are also seeing what practical further steps we can take to ensure that any reductions in support are met through direct diplomatic engagement.

Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
My Lords, the APPG report raises important issues facing religion and belief communities around the globe. The Bishop of Truro’s independent review for the Foreign Secretary on support for persecuted Christians contains many inclusive recommendations. However, they are built on evidence relating to, and focus on, Christian persecution. Will the Minister consider conducting further reviews into religion and belief persecution, including the plight of the non-religious around the globe? Many people have referred to Nigeria, and the Minister knows I have raised the case of the atheist Mubarak Bala in Nigeria. I hope he will consider that action.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
I can give the noble Lord that direct reassurance. We will do exactly that.

Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)
My Lords, I take the Minister back to what he said about the Truro review and specifically to recommendation 7, which asks the Government to put in place effective mechanisms to deal with the crime of genocide against religious and ethnic minorities. In that context, the report published this morning by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons recognises that a genocide is under way against Uighurs in Xinjiang and calls on the Government for a much stronger response. Can the Minister tell us what that response will be?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
My Lords, I have yet to read the report in full, although I am aware of its publication. I have not yet reviewed it. Bearing in mind its publication, I am sure that in due course the FCDO will respond accordingly. I can share with the noble Lord—I am sure he is aware of this—that the United Kingdom has consistently, regularly and directly raised the persecution of the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang in China. We continue to do so. We recently worked through a resolution at the Human Rights Council led by Canada. In the past few weeks, I have met Uighur representatives visiting the UK to hear about their plight. I assure the noble Lord that this remains among our key priorities and will continue to be so.