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.

FCDO publishes 2020 Human Rights and Democracy report

The Human Rights and Democracy: 2020 Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office report was published on 8 July 2021, and announced via a written statement, though it does not seem to have been deemed worthy of a media release from the FCDO.

The 2020 report covers 31 Human Rights Priority Countries. The list is reviewed periodically, taking into account the human rights situation, the trajectory of change, and the UK’s ability to make a positive difference in each country. This year, Burundi and Republic of Maldives have been removed from the list, while Belarus, Mali and Nicaragua have been added.

In the Preface, the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab states “We want to see a world that is safe for open and free societies to thrive, and we are confident and ambitious about our role as a protector of human rights and a beacon of democratic sovereignty. That’s why we are leading campaigns on the freedom of religion or belief…”

The Foreword by the Minister for Human Rights, Lord Tariq Ahmad of Wimbledon, emphasises that “Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) has been another priority throughout the year. The report details how we have built new like-minded alliances and strengthened existing ones. In December, the Prime Minister appointed Fiona Bruce as his new envoy on FoRB.”

“Violations against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang have also been in sharp focus. In June, the UK delivered a ground-breaking joint statement at the Human Rights Council on behalf of 28 countries, urging China to allow access for independent observers, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. We continue to call for this access as a matter of great urgency.”

Freedom of religion or belief

Here is the report’s section on FoRB in full:

Defending freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) for all, and promoting respect between different religious communities, are key priorities for Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and for Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab. Concerns about the denial of FoRB grew in 2020, with some religious minorities blamed for the spread of COVID-19, and being scapegoated or targeted as a result.

Work on this issue was led by the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion of Belief (FoRB), and by the Minister for Human Rights, Lord Tariq Ahmad of Wimbledon. On 20 December, the Prime Minister appointed Fiona Bruce MP as his Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief.

Monitoring developments around the world and raising issues of concern continued to be central to our work on FoRB in 2020. In China, we remained concerned about systematic restrictions on the practice of Islam, especially in Xinjiang. Restrictions remained in place concerning other groups, including Christians, Buddhists, Falun Gong practitioners, and other religious groups across the country. The UK delivered the first joint statement on the plight of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang at the Human Rights Council in June, and raised concerns about the situation in Xinjiang and Tibet alongside 38 other countries in a joint statement at the UN General Assembly Third Committee in October.

In Pakistan, Ahmadi Muslims continued to flee constitutional discrimination and, Christians, Hazaras, Hindus, Shia Muslims and other minorities continued to suffer persecution and violence, including faith-based killings and attacks on places of worship. In Sri Lanka, the government announced a policy of mandating cremations for all COVID-19 deaths, despite WHO guidelines which permit burials. This particularly affected Muslim and some Christian communities, for whom burial is an essential rite. Lord Tariq Ahmad led lobbying on this which saw this policy being overturned. Intercommunal religious violence took place in India, where over 50 people were reported to have been killed. The UK raised concerns with the Indian authorities about the impact of legislative and judicial measures on members of religious minorities.

In north-east Nigeria, terrorist groups, including Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa, sought to undermine the Nigerian constitutional right to FoRB by deliberately attacking both Christian and Muslim communities which did not subscribe to their extremist views. Intercommunal violence in Nigeria’s Middle Belt continued to be of concern. While religious identity was an important factor, the overall causes were more complex, particularly competition over land and resources driven by population growth, climate change and criminality. The FCDO will continue to look at ways to address these factors, to reduce levels of violence and ease tensions.

In Myanmar, legislation continued to favour the Buddhist majority. We encouraged the Government of Myanmar to reform the 1982 citizenship law, used in the 2020 elections to prevent some Muslim candidates from standing. Following damage from violence in 2016 and 2017, many mosques in Myanmar found obtaining permission to undertake restorations challenging. The Rohingya, an ethnic group comprised mostly of Muslims, but also Hindus and a small number of Christians, continued to be denied citizenship. The UK Ambassador called on various ministers in Myanmar to remove religion as a category from state-issued documentation. The UK continued to raise the plight of the Rohingya through multilateral fora, including the UN Security Council.

Provisions on FoRB were maintained in the new constitution in Algeria that came into force in December 2020. We have raised with the Algerian government the importance of supporting legislation being implemented quickly. The UK Ambassador discussed at ministerial level, including with the Minister of Interior in November, our concern that some religious groups in Algeria, including Ahmadi minorities and Christians, had reported difficulties in practising their faith.

In July, Sudan abolished the death penalty for apostasy, a significant step in promoting FoRB. In Eritrea, a number of worshippers, including Pentecostal and Muslim, were released from detention during 2020. However, many remained in detention and arrests continued.

In Yemen, six Baha’is were released from Houthi detention in July, including one who had faced the death sentence. This came after significant lobbying from the international community, including the UK. The six were subsequently forced to leave the country. We continued to follow closely the Houthi persecution of the Baha’i, including through meeting Baha’i representatives in the UK. We also continued to follow the case of Levi Salem Musa Merhavi, a member of Yemen’s small Jewish community, detained since 2016 by the Houthis and subject to serious mistreatment.

In March and July, the UK made statements at the OSCE which called on Russia to end the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and to uphold its commitments on the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief for all individuals.

In Egypt, the number of licences issued under the 2016 Church Building Law continued to increase, with 1,800 church buildings receiving licences by the end of 2020. However, the continued detention of Coptic rights activist Ramy Kamel remained concerning. Sporadic sectarian tensions and the threat of Islamic extremism also continued to present challenges.

Working with like-minded partners remained central to our work, including engaging with the UK FoRB Forum chaired by the Bishop of Truro, bringing together NGO representatives and parliamentarians. At the UN, we joined the new Group of Friends of Victims of Acts of Violence based on Religion or Belief in July. In February, the UK became a founding member of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, a network of countries working together to highlight cases of concern and advocate the rights of individuals around the world being discriminated against or persecuted for their faith or belief. The Prime Minister’s then Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, Rehman Chishti MP, attended the launch event in Washington, and was later appointed Vice-Chair. Highlighting the impact of COVID-19 was a priority for the Alliance, and, in August, the UK joined a statement which recognised the impact of COVID-19 on minority religious and belief communities and called for full respect for FoRB during the COVID-19 pandemic. In November, Lord Tariq Ahmad attended both the first Ministers’ Forum of the Alliance and the Ministerial to Advance Freedom of Religion or Belief, hosted virtually by Poland.

With the creation of the FCDO, we continued to bring our policy and programme work together. Programmes delivered through the Institute of Development Studies and the University of Oxford were designed to empower religiously marginalised groups, counter hate speech, and address the legislative barriers to FoRB.

Delivering the recommendations from the Bishop of Truro’s review of, the then, FCO support for persecuted Christians remained a priority; ten of the 22 recommendations were fully delivered, and we made good progress on a further eight. We supported 15 FoRB research projects through the John Bunyan Fund, and marked the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief in August, and Red Wednesday in November, lighting our site in King Charles Street red. Delivering Religion for International Engagement training to FCDO staff is a priority for 2021.

We will continue to stand up for the right to freedom of religion or belief and promote respect between different religious communities. Our work with the Alliance will remain a priority for 2021, as well as delivery of the Truro Review recommendations to ensure that all 22 will be delivered by the time of the independent review of the report in 2022.


The failure of the report to cite Nigeria as a Priority Country prompted a letter of protest to the Foreign Secretary.

The Effect of the Pandemic on Religious and Ethnic Minority Communities

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
I beg to move, that this House has considered the effect of the covid-19 pandemic on religious and ethnic minority communities throughout the world.

As you rightly say, Sir Christopher, this subject matter is of the utmost importance, to me but to others as well. I know that it is a matter that the Minister is greatly taxed about, and I am pleased to see him in his place. As always, I am sure that the response to the debate will encourage those of us who have a burden in our heart for this issue.

I want to make an apology, if I may, on behalf of the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who, unfortunately for this debate, has a meeting every Tuesday at this time with, I think, officials from Downing Street. She sent me a wee text message to tell me that, because she would love to have been here. Her heart, like mine, has a burden for this issue, but unfortunately she cannot be here, and she wanted me to record that.

Why is this issue important? I often say this when I have these debates, but the fact that I say it often does not lessen its importance. This is a chance to be a voice for the voiceless, to speak up in this place for those who perhaps have no voice, and to ensure that the issue is looked at thoroughly. The motion says it all: the effect of the covid-19 pandemic on religious and ethnic minority groups throughout the world. I will illustrate in my contribution shortly just how important this is and what is happening across the world. I will give a large number of examples to illustrate that it is not specific to one religious or ethnic group, but affects many groups across the world. In particular, I will be speaking of those with a Christian faith, but I will speak for Muslims and others as well.

As covid-19 swept across the globe in 2020, people’s lives almost everywhere were fully upended. Almost overnight the way we live and interact was completely overhauled, thriving economies were suddenly shuttered, our social interactions outlawed and our most basic movements curtailed. Although the pandemic has served as both a reminder of the oneness of humanity and of the interdependence and interconnected nature of the world that we live in, there have been immense inequalities in our experiences of the crisis, as I will illustrate shortly, and I know others will do the same.

Here in the United Kingdom, some of our freedoms were restricted to ensure that our collective right to life was prioritised and protected. It is an unfortunate reality that in many other parts of the world the pandemic has been used as a smokescreen to further restrict marginalised and repressed minority groups. At this point I should declare my interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. We speak up for those of a Christian faith, other faiths and no faith. I genuinely believe in the Lord and Saviour that I serve, so I speak up for all religious and ethnic groups across the world.

Many religious and belief groups have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. The spread of covid-19 has exacerbated pre-existing prejudice globally. Some groups have experienced outright violence and hostility, while others have been subjected to discriminatory restrictions imposed by the state. Many more have also suffered disproportionately owing to a range of structural factors that often place religious and belief minorities in the more vulnerable segments of society that more often lack access to social justice.

As chair of the APPG, I am very aware of where in the world those of a Christian faith and other groups find that they are always at the end of the queue when it comes to help for covid-19, and at the end of the queue when it comes to the aid handouts as well. The charity Aid to the Church in Need estimates that in 2020 oppression against vulnerable faith communities increased in 25 of the 26 countries that it identifies as the most oppressive against such groups, so they have oppression to start with and even more oppression because of covid-19. Other religious groups then blame the small religious and ethnic groups for what takes place.

I want to outline the ways in which faith and belief groups have been unfairly impacted by covid-19 and the consequent financial crisis, and will examine the open hostilities, secondary effects and systematic challenges. I implore Her Majesty’s Government and the Minister to commit to using their extensive knowledge and resources to foster a more equitable environment globally.

Minorities are at greater risk of becoming infected with coronavirus and of dying from it if they become infected. As marginalised and more vulnerable segments of society, minority groups often do not have the same level of access to medical treatment as is available to most of the population. The charities and non-governmental organisations warn of the unequal access to medical care within states, both through outright discrimination and service delivery to minority groups and because of entrenched disparities in wealth between groups. For example, in Pakistan, which I have a particular burden in my heart for, and an interest in, we find that when it comes to the allocation of jobs, those of a Christian belief get the more menial jobs. They do the street cleaning, look after latrines and can be in bondage work in factories. Some of these groups are perhaps not educated, but they do not have the ability to rise out of that either, and that happens to a large extent in Pakistan and in other countries as well.

Joy Morrissey (Beaconsfield) (Con)
Thank you, Sir Christopher, for reminding us about interventions. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for highlighting the plight of Christians, particularly minority Christians, during the pandemic, and the inequality that has been wrought. I hope that we will continue to scrutinise the level of vaccinations so that they are given out equally to everyone, because everyone should be equal under the aid and medical support that we give during covid. I hope that we will do that in a very fair and even-handed way, and remember all the repressed minorities, particularly the Christians, who have suffered greatly during the pandemic in many places throughout the world, especially in the middle east and Pakistan, as well as remembering autonomous regions that perhaps are not prioritising certain groups as quickly as others because of their religious background.

Jim Shannon
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight that. It is very obvious in my contribution, and I am pretty sure that it will be obvious in the contributions of others and in the Minister’s response, that there are many examples of Christians being at the end of the line when it comes to the vaccine roll-out and the health systems that are needed. I hope that in our aid structures across the world we would want to see equality and parity in the roll-out.

Minorities are at greater risk both of becoming infected with coronavirus and of dying from it if they become infected. Being marginalised and more vulnerable, these minority groups do not have the same access to medical treatment. We are getting some examples from charities and NGOs, who warn of the unequal access to medical care within states, including through outright discrimination. In other words, if someone is a Christian, they are at the back of the queue or maybe just ignored in service delivery to minority groups, and because of entrenched disparities in wealth.

Overt discrimination on the part of some medical practitioners has been documented in a number of states throughout the pandemic, whereby those belonging to specific religious groups have been refused medical treatment on the grounds of their faith. In India, just to give another example, it is not only Christians who are affected; there have also been widespread reports of Muslims being denied medical attention throughout the pandemic. We are hearing many examples of that coming through. They include claims that some hospitals were denying treatment to Muslims until they received a negative coronavirus test. That requirement is not being placed on non-Muslims in India, so why is it being placed on Muslims there?

This is not only a problem in healthcare provision; NGOs in Pakistan have also reportedly denied food and emergency handouts to Christians and Hindus during the pandemic. Members of religious and belief minority groups have also been subjected to verbal abuse, death threats and physical attacks when attempting to access public services. So it is not just verbal abuse; there is also physical abuse.

More commonly, this inequity of access to medical care is closely correlated to economic disparities; being more economically vulnerable, members of minority groups may not have the resources needed to seek treatment. They may also be more adversely impacted by measures to contain covid-19 and the stopping of economic activity. The World Bank estimates that the number of covid-induced new poor rose by 119 million to 124 million in 2020, and may increase to between 143 million and 163 million this year. That is worrying for me, because if someone does not have a job to feed their wife and children and to keep their head above water, the impact of covid will be greater.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees warns that the pandemic is a force multiplier, amplifying the needs of people of concern, and increasing unemployment and poverty within communities that are already marginalised, for example those in Pakistan that I referred to earlier. It is these systematic economic disparities that are thought to put religious or belief minorities at greater risk of contracting covid-19 in the first place.

Overcrowded housing, poor sanitation, unregulated workplaces and the need to continue to operate in high-risk environments out of economic necessity are all contributing factors. If someone has to work and abide by the conditions of that work because they need the money to survive, when it comes to safety and other issues they perhaps have not focused on them in the way that they normally would.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has noted that these factors cause marginalised communities to be over-exposed to the virus, adding that these precarious work patterns and overcrowding ensure that such groups are less able to self-isolate if they become infected. For example, refugees who have fled religious-based violence and now live in overcrowded refugee camps with unhygienic living conditions have become particularly vulnerable to the virus.

I can think of many such groups. The Rohingyas are a supreme example, but there are many others in Syria and across the middle east, as the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey) mentioned, for whom issues of hygiene are really important. They live in crowded conditions in small areas, and every day the risk of disease is very real to them. Minority groups may also be geographically isolated from state services, after years of underfunding of services in areas that are home to ethnic and religious minorities.

More research is needed on the reasons why these stark inequalities have manifested in a number of wholly different states. The magnitude of the problem can be totally overwhelming—both in my prayer time and in preparing for this debate, I have been very aware of how massive the task is. I know that our Government, and the Minister in particular, have been very responsive and reactive to that, which I appreciate. That is why this debate was requested, and why I look to the Minster and to our Government for a response.

Even within the UK, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has warned of the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on different ethnic minority communities, and made recommendations to the UK Government to lessen those inequalities of experience. While it is right that Her Majesty’s Government research the myriad impacts of the pandemic on British citizens within the UK—the Government’s priorities are still at home first—the devastating consequences for many communities around the globe should not be overlooked.

Many of us in this House have been very keen to ensure that other countries have the same opportunities when it comes to the vaccine roll-out. Rather than ensuring that UK aid is delivered in a manner blind to religion, Her Majesty’s Government should ensure that aid is prioritised for marginalised faith and belief communities to lessen these inequalities of access experienced within states. I would ask the Minister how we can ensure that the aid we give actually gets to the religious groups and small ethnic minority groups so that they have equality in the vaccine roll-out and the healthcare that they need.

Misinformation about the virus, its origins and methods of contagion, alongside entrenched distrust between many communities around the world, has led to mass discrimination against peoples on grounds of ethnicity and religion. The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, has warned that faith communities have suffered a tsunami of hate and xenophobia during the pandemic, and the evidence points to that—real, factual evidence—in many countries across the world. One of the most shocking ways that belief communities have been targeted has been by being falsely blamed for spreading the virus. How disheartening that must be, for any religious or ethnic group to find themselves being blamed for the spread of the virus when they are affected by it just as much as other groups.

In a number of western countries, the Jewish community came under attack during the first wave after claims that their religious practices were fuelling the spread of the virus. In Iran and Turkey, there were widespread claims that covid-19 was a Jewish conspiracy, while Jewish Orthodox communities in Europe, the United States and the Middle East saw police operations against worshippers.

In Turkey, an Armenian church was set alight over claims that Armenians were responsible for bringing the coronavirus. Christian Solidarity Worldwide, one of those excellent charities that work on behalf of Christians and others across the world, noted a sudden and significant increase in online hostility towards Christians in China after allegations that the January 2021 coronavirus outbreak in Hebei province originated in a church. China is not far behind North Korean when it comes to human rights abuses and suppression of religious beliefs. Online hostility is easy to follow, and anyone online could find themselves on the frontline.

The UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed, condemned the flare-ups and existing religious intolerance in many countries, including the scapegoating of religious or belief communities, as experienced by Christians, Jews and Muslims. In parts of India, coronavirus is widely believed to be an Islamic conspiracy, with Muslims being beaten, prevented from entering certain districts and having their businesses boycotted. Hateful rhetoric, including from Indian Government officials themselves, targets religious minorities, encouraging—if not inciting—intimidation, harassment and violence. It is always important that we, as elected representatives, choose our words with care. It is also important that those in other parts of the world, such as India, pick their words carefully and ensure that they do not inflame the situation.

The Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu in South Korea reports some 4,000 cases of injustice against its congregants since a local outbreak was traced back to the church. These reportedly include termination of employment and domestic persecution, as the church’s parishioners face blame for the covid-19 cases in the country. It is grossly unfair that that should happen—again, it is direct discrimination against those people, who just want to worship their God and their church. Human Rights Watch has called on Governments to work to combat such stigma, and it has said that the virus recognises no distinctions of race, ethnicity, religion or nationality. How true that is, and everybody should realise that that is the case. Covid-19 struck across the world wherever it had the opportunity, and it did not matter what country people were in, what religion they were, or whether they were old, young, male or female. It went everywhere.

The UK Government have committed to counter the spread of hateful misinformation campaigns that have caused, at best, escalating inter-community tensions and, at worst, open conflict, which has been evidenced in some places in India, China, Pakistan and elsewhere in the world. Will Her Majesty’s Government prioritise putting processes in place to tackle such misinformation before it leads to inter-community conflict?

Under the guise of tracking and containing coronavirus outbreaks around the world, a number of already stigmatised groups have been further marginalised from societies and seen disproportionate controls imposed on their lives. Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Jews have found that their religious beliefs put them in a different category. During the imposition of coronavirus restrictions, some religious and belief minorities who had been blamed for the spread of covid-19 had their movements and activities placed under stricter control than those of majority groups. I thank the Lord that we in this country are able to go and worship wherever we like on a Sunday. Nobody is taking our car registration numbers, seeing who is going into the church or sitting in the church and noting what people are saying, but there are parts of the world where that happens all the time.

In Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, Government authorities indicated that Shi’a religious communities were responsible for the spread of coronavirus and subjected some neighbourhoods and localities to stricter lockdown measures. Again, that is disproportionate and over the top, and it directly affects those of religious and ethnic minority groups. The Saudi Government imposed a lockdown on the majority Shi’a province of Qatif, and the Hazara community in Pakistan also had their movements and work restricted in one region before any wider regional lockdown was introduced. The Pakistan Government’s failure to address hate speech and to promote religious harmony is said to have contributed to violence, with attempted mob lynchings in September 2020. It is not hard to incite a mob of people whenever they are minded to do that. Therefore, it is really important that those in positions of power in government at all levels, be they MPs, councillors or community leaders, are there to protect everyone.

As further barriers to international travel were put in place, access to regions was reduced for journalists, international officials and aid organisations. That had a cooling effect on access to information, so we may not know the whole story. We are probably getting parts of it at this moment in time. It may have led to the under-reporting of abuses perpetrated against minority communities. News about the violence in Tigray in Ethiopia—we spoke about this in the main Chamber last week—was slow to reach international attention, and aid groups normally present in the region were unable to confirm the reports of mass killings and widespread rape against Tigray women and children, which began in late 2020.

In the debate on sexual violence in the main Chamber last Thursday, many of us believed that the reports that we were getting downplayed what was actually taking place. In a meeting last week, an official from the Eritrean embassy refuted the claims that atrocities were proved to have taken place. How out of touch are they? The evidence is there and coming from various people, and the numbers are particularly worrying. I personally find it difficult to speak of that because I can almost feel the pain of those who have been abused. It bothers me greatly and it bothers many others. Notwithstanding what the Eritrean embassy said, due to covid-19 restrictions, no outside observers have been allowed to travel to the region. The feedback about what is happening is therefore restricted to those who contact family members outside the region.

Restrictions have also affected the functioning of law and order globally, as police forces redirect resources to managing containment. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has highlighted reports of numerous anti-Hindu incidents in Bangladesh occurring with impunity during coronavirus lockdowns. Again, it is worrying if Governments stand by and do not step in.

The pandemic is said to have created a perfect storm for land rights abuses. I have spoken about that in relation to the Baha’is in Iran. I do not know whether you, Sir Christopher, have had the chance to meet people from the Baha’i faith. I have had the opportunity over the years to meet quite a few. They are the gentlest, nicest, kindest, most well-mannered people I have met. They are certainly not aggressive or abusive. They are just so gentle, yet their gentleness seems to be trampled on by people in Iran. I am not sure whether I can use the clear terminology that has been used in the press in the past few days to refer to the new leader in Iran. I worry greatly that, given that that person is in charge, the abuse against the Baha’is will escalate. They have experienced forced evictions and land confiscation.

The UK Government previously said that they will use UK aid to support protections against forcible evictions and claimed that they were deeply troubled by the deterioration in the land rights of religious minorities in Iran. That burdens my heart, and I know that it burdens the Minister’s heart and the hearts of other speakers. Is there still such a commitment from Her Majesty’s Government, given the extensive cuts to official development assistance? I do not want to harp on about the aid cut because it is not fair to keep at it all the time, but I want to make sure that the aid that goes through gets to the right people.

Measures to stop the spread of covid-19 have included severely limiting religious gatherings around the world, profoundly impacting individuals’ and communities’ ability to manifest their religion or belief. For much of the pandemic, the right to health and freedom of religion or belief have been deemed almost mutually exclusive. Where activities have been allowed to resume, some regions have continued to restrict particular religious activities under the auspices of preventing the spread of covid-19, even when other comparable activities have been allowed to resume.

The Algerian Government, for example, granted mosques and Catholic churches permission to reopen last August, but the evangelical churches remained closed throughout the remainder of 2020. Why that disparity? Why was it okay for one group but not for the others? I do not understand that.

In Malaysia, Hindu temples and Christian churches face different reopening schedules from mosques. Last year, Malaysian officials temporarily banned refugees and migrants from mosques as they reopened. The imbalance and the inequality of treatment is real.

Alongside particular faith and belief groups being subjected to additional restrictions, seemingly equal policies have violated freedom of religion or belief. For example, in Sri Lanka, authorities insisted on the cremation of all those who died from covid-19, including Muslims, despite the fact that the practice is prohibited under Islam. We welcome the fact that the requirement was lifted in early 2021, due to the pressure that our Government and our Minister exerted and also to raising awareness of the issue across the globe.

As I said earlier, as a result of the pandemic, many faith and belief groups have moved their worship online. For those with internet access, that could have enabled greater engagement with religious services, particularly for those who are geographically isolated, those with disabilities or those with age issues. That rapid move to online worship in many parts of the globe has also led to growing concern that hostile state authorities might use this technology, because it is easier to get that, for increased surveillance and monitoring of minority religious communities. The rise in surveillance has been documented against religious groups across China, where unfortunately everything seems to be under the control of Government and suppression of human rights and religious beliefs is rampant.

With much of the world now just beginning their national vaccination programmes, it is important that we learn from the inequalities in access that the covid-19 crisis has exposed and work to lessen those disparities going forward. By doing that, we can work to ensure that local roll-out is distributed justly and that the human rights of minority groups are upheld in the process. How important it is to get that.

The same problems in accessing healthcare have proved to be the very same barriers to minority groups in accessing covid-19 vaccines. I have implored the UK Government to take a multi-pronged approach to tackling those inequalities, both to prevent outright discrimination against religious and belief groups and to support aid programmes that work to tackle the systematic marginalisation of those communities globally.

I welcome the UK Government’s allocation of healthcare as a key aid priority in the integrated review. That is good news. However, having heard many of the specific and distinct ways in which religious and belief communities are affected by the crisis in mine and others’ contributions today, will the Minister agree to ensure that such programmes, specifically access and the needs of religious and belief minorities, are being prioritised, redistributing such aid to lessen the inequalities? If our Government and our Minister could do that or give that assurance, that would help a great deal. Can the Minister also tell us how the cuts to official development assistance are predicted to affect Her Majesty’s Government’s commitment to global health? Again, knowing what is going on would give us that reassurance, not only for covid-19 and the vaccination roll-out, but for all the other health issues.

Joy Morrissey
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important debate. On the issue of making sure that healthcare is available for all, I also think the issue of detention of minority groups is important, not only because of the quality of healthcare but because their human rights are being violated. I thank the Government for the things they have done to work with international partners to investigate those matters, and even going further on how can we prevent human rights abuses from happening to minority groups, whether they be Muslim or Christian, but specifically Muslim minority groups where there have been accounts of them being detained and used for vaccine testing. There are some quite alarming human rights abuses being reported. I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising those concerns and the Government for what they have done to work with international partners to make sure we are raising those concerns, both with the United Nations and in our covid vaccine roll-out across the world.

Jim Shannon
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. Again, they are very wise words and I wholeheartedly agree with what she has said. We are impressed by what the Government have done so far. We are highlighting some of the issues across the world where there are anomalies and where we need to focus. That is what we wish to do. We in the western world have a responsibility to reach out for those who have no one to speak for them. We will probably never meet some of the people the hon. Member for Beaconsfield has referred to, and of whom I shall speak today, in this world, but perhaps we will speak to them in the next.

Finally, I also want to use this opportunity to congratulate the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. I also want to put on record all its work in implementing the recommendations made by the Bishop of Truro’s report in the independent review of the FCO’s work to support persecuted Christians. I have been greatly heartened by that. I have also been greatly heartened by the hon. Member for Congleton, who has been made the special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. We had a chance just a few weeks ago to hear her speak at the annual general meeting of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, and it was not just her smiling face but her words that encouraged us all. The hon. Lady is a good person with a passionate belief and interest in the issue. I do not believe there is anyone better to champion it at that level.

As we approach the deadline for an independent review of how the 22 recommendations have been carried out, I ask the Minister, what plans have been put in place for the review to be conducted? Would he consider asking the Foreign Affairs Committee to conduct that review? This time next year or thereabouts, there will be an international conference that coincides with that. I know that some of those recommendations have already been secured, and some have yet to be secured. This time next year, we will have the chance to review all of them. Perhaps at that stage we will be able to look honestly and truthfully at what we have achieved and what we need to achieve in the next period.

I have said quite a lot, because I need to have it on the record for all those who have contacted us. As I said earlier, as chair of the APPG for international freedom of religious belief, I speak up for those with Christian faith, those with other faiths and those with no faith. Today has been an opportunity to speak for those of all faiths and no faith, and those with Christian belief as well, which is very close to my heart. I have put the case for them across the world, so that our Government can focus their attention on helping those people where we can. Covid-19 has been horrific for the whole world. It has been horrific for those who are probably well off and have a good standard of living, but for those with Christian belief who are ethnic minorities across the world, the effect has been disastrous. Today we highlight that for those people across the world. I look forward to other contributions, and to the Minister’s response in particular, as I always do.

Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (SNP)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He does not secure these 90-minute debates by accident; it has to be demonstrated that there other Back Benchers and cross-party support across the House for the topic, so even if some colleagues have not been able to make it here today, for unavoidable reasons, he is undoubtedly representing a consensus across the House on the importance of these issues. He has given us a comprehensive demonstration of his own tireless commitment to freedom of religion and belief around the world.

The hon. Gentleman is right in particular to highlight the work of the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who is the Prime Minister’s new envoy on these matters. All of us in his APPG warmly welcome that appointment; she met with us recently and we look forward to going forward. The APPG has produced a detailed report on the state of freedom of religion and belief around the world, which includes a chapter specifically on the impact of covid. Although she was unable to catch your eye to make a speech, Sir Christopher, the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey) made a number of valuable points, particularly about the detention of minorities and the importance of access to healthcare.

The debate has been an important opportunity to recognise what the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights described as the “disproportionate toll of covid-19” on marginalised and discriminated groups around the world. As the hon. Member for Strangford said, the high commissioner described covid as a “force multiplier” of existing inequalities and discriminations. The pandemic seems to be having a dual effect, exacerbating existing inequalities, which are also exacerbating the impact of the pandemic among minority communities.

In the limited time available, I want to look at the covid challenges facing religious groups and ethnic minorities and at how existing discriminations are being exacerbated. As the debate is about religious and ethnic minority communities throughout the world, that includes this country, and I want to make a few brief comments about the domestic situation of those communities.

Throughout the world, including here at home, ethnic minority groups have been hit the hardest by the pandemic. Minority groups have experienced higher rates of infection and mortality and deeper and more difficult impacts from all the challenges that have come with the pandemic. Those include the financial impacts and the barriers caused by illness, as well as the difficult choices that those people have to make. People who are a part of a minority group and who are already living in difficult financial circumstances have to make incredibly difficult choices about whether to self-isolate or to continue to go to their places of work to make an income and support their families. That increases the risks to their families and communities. The hon. Member spoke about people living in overcrowded situations in different parts of the world, which of course has an impact on transmission.

A related issue is access to vaccines. There are accounts throughout the world, which are highlighted in some of the reports the hon. Member referred to, of Governments—particularly, oppressive regimes—prioritising some groups over others for access to vaccines. As we know, there is also vaccine hesitancy here at home among some minority groups, for a whole range of reasons. Faith and community leaders and faith-based organisations have an important role in helping to address those challenges and perhaps misunderstandings over vaccines. Where faith leaders around the world have stepped up to speak about the importance of vaccines, it has encouraged people to get one where they can.

Access to worship, and particularly funeral rituals, has been a challenge. The hon. Member spoke about the situation in Sri Lanka, where Muslim communities were forced to take part in cremations, which will have been particularly distressing. I remember being in this room more than a year ago, when we discussed the very early stages of the Coronavirus Act 2020 and the issue of cremations and how, even in our own domestic law, we could respect religions that require the dead to be buried rather than cremated. These have been very difficult and challenging decisions for Governments around the world to make.

One of the biggest challenges the hon. Member spoke of was scapegoating and blame, when dominant groups blame minorities. He highlighted that in some countries the majority religion is blaming the minority one, and in another country, where that minority and majority are reversed, the blame goes in the other direction. He gave the example of Muslims being blamed in Cambodia. Sadly, we also see the ugly head of antisemitism appearing on social media and elsewhere, and that always has to be challenged and called out. As he said, the virus does not recognise borders or boundaries, or ethnic groups or religions. We are all human beings—we all carry the same kind of blood, and we all breathe the same air—and that is how the virus is transmitted, not because of someone’s particular ethnic background or religious belief.

That scapegoating is also an example of how covid has acted as an exacerbating factor of existing discriminations, and the hon. Member was right to highlight how Governments and oppressive regimes around the world have been using the cover of covid restrictions and the distractions of the pandemic to increase persecution or discrimination. He quoted statistics from Aid to the Church in Need—I pay tribute to its important work around the world—from Open Doors’ World Watch List 2021, which highlights religious discrimination, and from the report by his APPG for international freedom of religion or belief, which referenced the expression from the UN Secretary-General that covid is fuelling a “tsunami” of xenophobia, with all the disastrous consequences that come with that.

Oppressive practices have continued even when restrictions should be in place—whether that is the destruction of Uyghur mosques and shrines by the Chinese Government or of Hindu temples in Pakistan, the eviction of the Baha’i communities in Iran, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, or the growing ethnic and regional conflict in the horn of Africa. All are being exacerbated by the pandemic and, in many cases, the pandemic is being used by Governments as an excuse or a distraction. We cannot turn a blind eye. Even if this debate is not the busiest that Westminster Hall has been recently, it is an important opportunity to speak out and draw attention to such matters. The hon. Member spoke of the Eritrean embassy, for example, and we know that Governments around the world pay attention to what is said in this place. Hopefully the Minister will join others in calling out such behaviours when he responds.

There has been a particular impact on refugees and displaced peoples around the world. The refugee and displacement crisis has been growing over many years, and the pandemic is serving only to exacerbate it. It does not take a lot of imagination to understand the impact of overcrowded accommodation in refugee camps on the increased risk of transmission and then, if someone does contract covid, the impact of a lack of healthcare facilities, such as ventilators, and access to treatment—things we take for granted in this part of the world. Uganda is named in the House of Commons Library’s exceptional briefing for this debate as a country in which people need identity cards to access healthcare services, and a displaced person or a migrant who has come across the border will not have an identity card and cannot access the healthcare system, further exacerbating the challenges.

Domestically, in my own city of Glasgow, refugees and asylum seekers were forced out of apartments and other residential accommodation and into hotels under some guise that few of us could understand, with all the attendant impacts on both physical and mental health. I will touch briefly on a few domestic considerations, because these global problems are reflected to a greater or lesser extent in some of the challenges we experience at home. For example, we know that rates of transmission and mortality are higher among black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, particularly among refugees and asylum seekers.

The restrictions on worship have been particularly difficult. It has been a challenge both around the world and here at home. Funerals and farewells have not been possible in the usual way under these challenging circumstances. Even in our community here we have lost good friends and colleagues. I think of Jimmy Gordon, Lord Gordon of Strathblane, who was a very good friend to the APPG and faith communities. He succumbed very early, and I suspect that, in normal times, his funeral would have been standing room only, with people outside the packed church. The late Archbishop of Glasgow, Philip Tartaglia, led the way in some respects in Glasgow, celebrating mass livestreamed from his empty cathedral by himself every Sunday of the pandemic after the churches were closed, until he himself succumbed to covid and his own funeral had to be livestreamed with no more than 20 or 30 people in the cathedral. It has been a very painful and difficult experience for a lot of friends and families and all those who have lost loved ones. I want pay tribute to them and to everyone who has, sadly, lost their life to this disease.

Worship is not something that can always be replicated online. There have been many fruits of these changes, and religious communities have been able to take part in religious services around the world. Last year, I took part in Easter services live from the Vatican from the comfort of home. But that is not the same as a community or in-person worship, and that was recognised in the judgment of Lord Braid in the Court of Session in Scotland in response to a case brought by Christian ministers, including my friend, Canon Thomas White, who is the parish priest of St Mary’s, in Calton, Glasgow. That was an important judgment, which Governments will have to take account of if we find ourselves in similar situations in the future.

The Scottish Government have recognised the impact of the difficult decision to close places of worship. Everyone who has an interest in these matters welcomes the return to greater numbers and participation as we move forward, and that includes, potentially, singing, although not everyone’s communal singing is to be welcomed in the same way.

In conclusion, the UK Government have an important responsibility in challenging and tackling the discriminations and inequalities faced by religious communities and ethnic minorities, and particularly those that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. They can start here, at home, by looking at the root causes of increased transmission and of vaccine hesitancy among black, Asian, and minority ethnic communities and by supporting faith-based organisations and faith communities. But they also have to lead and support international initiatives to massively scale up access to healthcare, vaccines, personal protective equipment and to take action against violence and discrimination by all the different oppressive regimes that we have heard about in this debate.

Joy Morrissey 

I want to highlight the excellent work of another person from Scotland, the investigator of prisons and detention centres, who has been working for the Council of Europe tirelessly throughout this pandemic. He has been visiting prisons and detention centres across Europe and the world to make sure they are treating their prisoners with respect and decency and not allowing the spread of covid.

Will the Government give further explanations of the work they are doing to investigate the abuse of ethnic and religious minority groups in prisons and detention centres during this pandemic? What are they doing to investigate these claims? There have also been claims of certain Muslim minority groups being forced to participate in unethical vaccine trials. It would be helpful if the Minister could provide further clarification of those claims.

Patrick Grady 

I thank the hon. Lady for that. That clarification would be helpful; the thought of people being forced into vaccination trials is abhorrent. We warmly welcome everyone who has volunteered—tens of thousands of people volunteered around the world, and that has helped to keep us incredibly safe, but it has to be a free choice. It is incredibly distressing to hear what the hon. Lady describes. I am sure the Minister has heard it and will respond shortly.

We welcome the work of all these different envoys and inspectorates—the Government’s envoys on freedom of religion and belief and on girls’ education, as I think the hon. Member for Strangford mentioned. Tackling all these issues and building a safer and more secure world will help us in the future. It might help us to avoid future pandemics and future spread if everybody is brought up to the standard envisaged by the sustainable development goals.

Jim Shannon
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if we can raise the educational standards and abilities of young people we will give them the aspiration to do better? For instance, if they gained the educational standards to start with, they could be teachers or nurses or go into many other jobs. That is why, when it comes to addressing covid-19 and its effect on religious minorities, there is a greater plan, and education is part of that plan. With that, people are given the chance to do better.

Patrick Grady 

I agree entirely. That is what the global agenda of sustainable development goals is for. We can raise standards around the world on education, health, access to water and sanitation, and gender equality, in particular. If we can do those things, the world will be much more resilient to all these challenges, whether pandemics, natural disasters or the likelihood of oppression and discrimination.

Some of those factors are the root causes: poverty and a lack of understanding and education are among the root causes of the challenges that we face. If we can tackle them, we are building that resilience. That is why we cannot just let go the point about 0.7% and the Government’s commitment to aid. That was world leading; now we are the only G7 country that is cutting our aid budget. The Government have to recognise that. Perhaps the Minister can say when the Government envisage restoring that target, as they have pledged to do.

The Government also need to end arms sales to any regime where there is doubt about how those arms are being used. If arms manufactured and sold from the UK are being used to oppress people and abuse their human rights, that is very dubious under international law, and the Government need to set the highest possible standards.

This comes back to all the global issues that we are not unused to discussing in Westminster Hall. If the Government take the attitude I have described and show leadership, recipient countries and the organisations that deliver aid and support can meet their commitments and plan effectively for the future.

In the context of the pandemic, we often say that nobody is safe until everybody is safe. That safety includes respect for freedom of religious belief and the rights to worship and to practise a faith. As we have said, the virus does not recognise boundaries or religions. We should recognise everyone’s right to identify with and be part of their communities and to practise their religion and belief. I welcome the opportunity we have had to highlight that today.

Sir Christopher Chope (in the Chair)

At this stage, we would normally hear from the spokesperson from the official Opposition. We received notice that the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) would be here physically today. In her absence, and without any explanation of why she is not here, I have no alternative but to move straight to the Minister for his response.

The Minister for Asia (Nigel Adams)

I think we have done rather well, Sir Christopher. Three of us have managed to fill an hour so far. It has been wonderful to hear from hon. Members today, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for not only securing the debate but continuing with his long-standing commitment to freedom of religion or belief for all. He stressed that he is passionate about this subject, including when it comes to those of no faith, which is important to recognise.

We have heard today that the pandemic continues to have a huge impact on countries and communities around the world. Not one of us remains unaffected. My hon. Friend was spot on when he said that the virus does not recognise race, religion, ethnicity, gender or borders. It has put a terrible strain on the enjoyment of the full spectrum of human rights, including the right freely to practise a religion or belief.

I take this opportunity to reaffirm the Government’s unwavering commitment to freedom of religion or belief, to championing that right around the world, and to promoting respect between religious and non-religious communities. I am pleased that my noble Friend and fellow Minister, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, continues to champion this cause in his capacity as the Minister for Human Rights, but I will continue to stand in for him, given the fact that he is not allowed to address this House. I am thrilled that my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion and belief, is working closely with my noble Friend to ensure that no one suffers discrimination, violence or persecution because of their faith or belief, or for not following a faith.

We believe that at least three actions can mitigate the effects of covid-19 on the most vulnerable members of society, irrespective of race, religion and ethnicity. The first is working together through multilateralism. The second is strengthening the evidence base on the effects of covid-19. The third, to which all hon. Members present have referred, is equitable access to vaccines.

Let me turn to the impact of the pandemic on freedom of religion or belief specifically. As we have heard from the hon. Members for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) and for Strangford, we are aware of the potential for crises to reinforce already marginalised positions in society, which increases discrimination, violence and stigma. Like the hon. Gentlemen and my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey), I remain deeply concerned about the incidence of hate speech and conspiracy theories that suggest certain faiths or beliefs are to blame for the pandemic. I am alarmed by reports of attacks aimed at Shi’a Muslims and Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan, and by the worrying rise of anti-Muslim sentiment in Sri Lanka; the rise of antisemitism and other forms of discrimination in the wake of covid-19 is also deeply troubling.

Such incidents of hatred are completely unacceptable, so we will continue to stand up for those whose right to belief or religious practice is curtailed. To ensure that we continue to challenge hatred in the most challenging of times, we have stepped up our engagement with the UN and other multilateral organisations to protect the rights of members of religious and ethnic minority communities. Last week I was in Geneva and met a number of organisations, including the UNHRC, to see what more the United Kingdom can do to assist international bodies in ensuring that the impact on the most vulnerable is mitigated as far as possible. Lord Ahmad has also urged member states to mitigate the impact of covid-19 on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society, including ethnic and belief minorities. That work took place at the 44th session of the UN Human Rights Council.

In November, we demonstrated our concern about the rise of another form of discrimination, antisemitism, in the wake of covid-19 in a statement to the UN General Assembly. Building on that, in the same month, Lord Ahmad attended the ministerial conference to advance freedom of religion or belief, which was held in Warsaw, where he reaffirmed our commitment to this issue, particularly during the pandemic.

When faced with global challenges, we need a global response, so I am especially pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton will be speaking about the exact issues raised today at a UN Human Rights Council side event taking place tomorrow. I welcome her ongoing work and engagement. The event tomorrow will further demonstrate the need to work together and with civil society to confront the challenges that have been created by this dreadful pandemic.

As a complement to our ongoing multilateral work, the Government have kept threats to these freedoms under review around the world, including in west Africa and south Asia. Members of religious minorities living in poverty in the shadow of covid-19 experience intersecting vulnerabilities, and those have worsened during the pandemic—an example is the position of women in religious communities in west Africa. A key response to that is to prioritise girls’ education. I am pleased that, through our programmes and advocacy, we have already helped more girls to access education this year, including in Nigeria. Educating girls is one of the best investments that we can make to lift people out of poverty, save lives and—to coin a phrase—“build back better” from covid-19. I am also pleased that the United Kingdom and G7 partners will invest £10 billion in development finance over the next two years to help women in developing countries to build resilient businesses and recover from the impacts of the pandemic.

Our work in south Asia shows the need for international actors to protect women and encourage them to voice their concerns about domestic violence, rape and sexual abuse, which, sadly, have increased during lockdown. It is deeply saddening that religious justifications for these abuses still persist. Because of this, the United Kingdom ensures that our human rights policies consider the intersectionality of human rights—for example, the importance of addressing the specific issues, such as gender-based violence, experienced by women from religious minority communities. No one should suffer because of their conscience, and no one should suffer twice because of their conscience and their gender.

My hon. Friends the Members for Strangford and for Beaconsfield and the hon. Member for Glasgow North all mentioned the very important issue of equitable access to vaccine programmes. On top of working multilaterally and strengthening our evidence base, we believe that equitable access to vaccines will address some of the effects that have been raised here today. I am pleased that through the G7 we recently pledged 870 million covid-19 vaccine doses, of which at least half are to be delivered by the end of this year. An equitable roll-out across the world will help to ensure that no one is left at risk or left behind, irrespective of their religion, race, ethnicity or gender. That is why the UK was one of the earliest and the largest donors to the COVAX advance market commitment, launched at the global vaccine summit more than a year ago. As a country, we have provided more than half a billion pounds to that programme, which has now delivered more than 87 million doses across six continents.

Patrick Grady
You encouraged us to intervene on the Minister, Sir Christopher, and I am sure he is delighted that I am doing so, although he might not have the answer to my question immediately to hand.

It is great that the Government are doing these things—increasing their funding to COVAX and the supplies of ventilators to India, for example, and personal protective equipment to other countries—but how is that affecting the overall aid budget? Can the Minister be clear that any of these donations that are being made will be additional? Otherwise, if the Government are going from 0.7% to 0.5% and counting all these commitments for the unforeseen pandemic, that could in effect constitute a diminution of the overall pot that had been available anyway—the 0.5% of GNI. Have the Government started to figure out how these extra contributions of aid will fit in with the overall reduction in official development assistance?

Nigel Adams
The hon. Gentleman raises a very good point, and I thank him for his support for the COVAX commitments that we have already made, which are critical to distribution of the vaccines. More than 130 countries will benefit.

In terms of the broader ODA budget, if we have already committed such big sums as part of the vaccine programme, that potentially would have an impact on ODA, but I will confirm with the hon. Gentleman in writing whether that sits outside the ODA budget, which, as he knows, is temporarily reduced. I am sure he will be pleased to hear that, based on OECD data for 2020, the United Kingdom will still be the third largest donor as a percentage of gross national income in the G7.

The hon. Members for Glasgow North and for Strangford raised other points that I will try to address. I am conscious that I have to give the hon. Member for Strangford two or three minutes at the end, but I think we might be all right in that regard and might be able to pad it out, although we are not paid for the time spent speaking. It is good to be able to address some of the issues raised during the debate.

The issue of cremations in Sri Lanka was raised by many of the Sri Lankan diaspora who got in touch with right hon. and hon. Members. Lord Ahmad spoke on numerous occasions to the Sri Lankan authorities and the High Commissioner, and I am pleased that the cremations are no longer going ahead. It is absolutely the case that we need to respect everyone’s beliefs during the pandemic, but I am aware that that process has now stopped in Sri Lanka. We were pleased to be able raise that bilaterally with the Sri Lankan authorities.

The hon. Member for Strangford spoke about the plight of the Baha’is in Iran. We are particularly concerned about the continuing systematic discrimination and targeting and harassment of the Baha’i community. He has met some of them, as have I. We regularly raise human rights at all levels with the Iranians, and with our international partners we continue to press Iran to improve its incredibly poor record on human rights. That includes every opportunity we get at the ongoing UN General Assembly session. The continuing restrictions on freedom of religion or belief are deeply worrying, as is any discrimination against any religious minority.

The hon. Gentleman rightly raised the Bishop of Truro’s review. We are committed to implementing the 22 recommendations in full. The work to implement them continues in a way that can bring real improvement in the lives of those who are persecuted because of their faith or belief. Some 18 recommendations have already been or are in the process of being implemented, and we will implement all of them by July next year, three years from the publication of the report. Also, our mission at the UN in New York is working to determine the best approach to achieve council support.

Jim Shannon
I thank the Minister for giving way. He says that the recommendations in the Bishop of Truro’s report will be implemented by July next year. At that stage, would it be possible to review how those recommendations have been carried out and whether they have been successful? It is important that we look to see whether they have achieved the goals that we hoped they would.

Nigel Adams
I am more than happy to have my ministerial colleague, Lord Ahmad, write to the hon. Gentleman, or he is always welcome to come to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to sit down with him and his team. We are more than happy to lay out where we have got to and what we believe the impact of the recommendations is.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned his concern about persecution of Christians in Pakistan. We continue to urge Pakistan to guarantee the rights of all people in the country, particularly the most vulnerable, including women, minorities and children. That is actually laid down in the constitution of Pakistan and is also in accordance with international standards. It is vital that Pakistan guarantees the rights of all its citizens. Also, we regularly raise at senior level our concerns about the human rights situation with the Government of Pakistan.

Jim Shannon
Regarding Pakistan in particular, one of the things that I have a great concern about—I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey) has the same concern—is the misuse of the blasphemy laws. I am ever mindful that we are not in the business of telling countries what they should do with the law of their land, but we want to raise awareness that the blasphemy laws are being used adversely and maliciously against the Christian minority and certain ethnic groups. Has there been an opportunity, through Lord Ahmad or whoever, to raise this issue?

Nigel Adams
The hon. Member is right to raise this issue. We regularly raise the issue of blasphemy laws with the authorities in Pakistan at a senior level. These laws have been used to target Muslims and non-Muslims. The United Kingdom Government condemns any instance where the content or application of blasphemy legislation encourages or justifies violence or discrimination, or causes a violation of a person’s human rights. He is right to raise this issue and, as I say, we regularly raise it with the Pakistani authorities.

I will begin to work towards a conclusion. We will continue to champion this work. I am absolutely delighted that the hon. Member for Strangford has brought this subject to the House again. The effects of this pandemic have been incredibly extensive. Many of us have had the virus and been affected that way, and many of us know people who, sadly, lost their lives to it, but just imagine the situation of someone who has to contend with this virus and is living in a camp for internally displaced persons or refugees. The effects of this virus on humanitarian work are horrific, but we are committed to do what we can as a country to help the most vulnerable in those sorts of situations, and coronavirus will have an effect on our lives for some time to come.

As a champion of human rights, the UK has a duty to promote and defend equality, inclusion and respect, at home and abroad, for everyone, so I assure the House that the Government will do just that. Whatever obstacles may lie in our path, we will continue to raise awareness wherever people are persecuted for what they believe in. We will continue to stand up for the rights of minority communities around the world and we will defend the right to freedom of religion or belief for everyone everywhere.

Jim Shannon
First of all, I thank all those who have participated in this debate. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey) made a very valuable contribution, for which I thank her.

I also thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) for his contribution. In all the debates that either one of us has, we are usually side by side, saying the same things, promoting the same ideals and principles, and making the same requests. He referred to minority groups and their higher rates of mortality. I think that is the point of this debate—covid-19 has adversely affected Christians and ethnic minority groups across the world, with greater impact than it has had on others; in addition, there has been a financial impact. All these things are factors, as is the particular role that faith-based groups matters play.

The hon. Gentleman referred to access to vaccines and to problems in the horn of Africa, including in Eritrea, and Uganda, where there are refugees and displaced people. The lack of medical care and treatment for the Baha’is in Iran was referred to by all of us, including the Minister. These are global problems, some of which have been replicated at home, albeit on a smaller scale; there are also painful issues such as restrictions on funerals.

In outlining a number of instances of violence by oppressive regimes across the world, I probably just scraped the surface. There are many countries where this can be seen, and I referred to action against such violence. Had the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) been here, she would have contributed a vast amount of knowledge. While she may not have been here in person, she was here in spirit, and I am very confident that her contribution was here in our thoughts, if not in words.

I especially thank the Minister. I do not say this lightly, but I believe we are very fortunate to have a Minister who has a really deep interest in this subject and who comes here with the belief to give a response that we all wish to hear. The commitment from the Minister and his Department to religious freedom for all people around the world is important. He outlined the role of Lord Ahmed, and those of us who have had the chance to speak to Lord Ahmed know how important his role is. I think we are fortunate to have the right Ministers in the right place at the right time to convey the spirit and the requests from this debate to the Government. When it comes equitable access to vaccines, no one should be left behind.

The hon. Members for Glasgow North and for Beaconsfield and I are all interested in girls’ education. We all want to see education standards lifted. The Minister referred to the amount of money set aside for that purpose. There are more girls being educated this year than there have been for many, many years. That is good news, and it is the sort of response we were seeking. The people who ask us to do these things are very conscious of that as well.

I welcome the Minister’s action to stop what was happening with Muslim cremations in Sri Lanka. That was also good news. He always speaks up for the Baha’is, which is very important.

We discussed Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and at how they are being used in a malicious and misinformed way against Christians and those of other religious beliefs. I very much welcome the fact that the UK is a champion of human rights across the world, because I do believe that we all have a role to play—our Ministers; our Government; our influence through our ambassadors, embassies and staff; our commitment to training staff so that they can respond better and influence countries where there has been an abuse of religious and ethnic groups, so that that we can speak for them.

I always finish with a text from scripture. I think it is important to do so, and I think the Minister and all Members present would expect me to. I have chosen a piece that is appropriate for this debate, for the Minister, for our Government and for all of us here, Proverbs 3:27:

“Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act.”

Today, we have the power to act. Our Minister and our Government have the power to act. I believe that we should not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in our power to do just that.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the effect of the covid-19 pandemic on religious and ethnic minority communities throughout the world.

Sourced from the uncorrected (rolling) version of Hansard and subject to correction

US Releases 2020 International Religious Freedom Report

“This year’s report shows that 2020 witnessed significant government restrictions on religious practice, as well as societal intolerance of, and violence against, individuals on account of their religious beliefs. Anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim hatred, and other forms of bigotry continued to rise, with four out of every five people in the world living in countries with high or very high restrictions on religious freedom.

Governments that safeguarded religious freedom continued to enjoy more stability, economic vibrancy, and peace. Conversely, those that did not continued to foster alienation, radicalization, and violent extremism, undermined economic development, and threatened social cohesion and political stability.”

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, launching the report, said

Today, the State Department is releasing the 2020 International Religious Freedom Report. We’ve produced this document every year for 23 years. It offers a comprehensive review of the state of religious freedom in nearly 200 countries and territories around the world, and it reflects the collective effort of literally hundreds of American diplomats around the world and our Office of International Religious Freedom here in Washington.

Let me just say a few words about why this report matters. Religious freedom is a human right; in fact, it goes to the heart of what it means to be human – to think freely, to follow our conscience, to change our beliefs if our hearts and minds lead us to do so, to express those beliefs in public and in private. This freedom is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights…

Religious freedom, like every human right, is universal. All people, everywhere, are entitled to it no matter where they live, what they believe, or what they don’t believe. Religious freedom is co-equal with other human rights because human rights are indivisible. Religious freedom is not more or less important than the freedom to speak and assemble, to participate in the political life of one’s country, to live free from torture or slavery, or any other human right. Indeed, they’re all interdependent. Religious freedom can’t be fully realized unless other human rights are respected, and when governments violate their people’s right to believe and worship freely, it jeopardizes all the others. And religious freedom is a key element of an open and stable society. Without it, people aren’t able to make their fullest contribution to their country’s success. And whenever human rights are denied, it ignites tension, it breeds division.

As this year’s International Religious Freedom Report indicates, for many people around the world this right is still out of reach. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, 56 countries, encompassing a significant majority of the world’s people, have high or severe restrictions on religious freedom.

To name just a few examples from this year’s report, Iran continues to intimidate, harass, and arrest members of minority faith groups, including Baha’i, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Sunni and Sufi Muslims.

In Burma, the military coup leaders are among those responsible for ethnic cleansing and other atrocities against Rohingya, most of whom are Muslim, and other religious and ethnic minorities around the world.

In Russia, authorities continue to harass, detain, and seize property of Jehovah’s Witnesses as well as members of Muslim minority groups on the pretense of alleged extremism.

In Nigeria, courts continue to convict people of blasphemy, sentencing them to long-term imprisonment or even death. Yet the government has still not brought anyone to justice for the military’s massacre of hundreds of Shia Muslims in 2015.

Saudi Arabia remains the only country in the world without a Christian church, though there are more than a million Christians living in Saudi Arabia. And authorities continue to jail human rights activists like Raif Badawi, who was sentenced in 2014 to a decade in prison and a thousand lashes for speaking about his beliefs.

And China broadly criminalizes religious expression and continues to commit crimes against humanity and genocide against Muslim Uyghurs and members of other religious and ethnic minority groups.

Today, I’m announcing the designation of Yu Hui, former office director of the so-called Central Leading Group Preventing and Dealing with Heretical Religions, of Chengdu, for his involvement in gross violations of human rights, namely, the arbitrary detention of Falun Gong practitioners. Yu Hui and his family are now ineligible for entry into the United States.

More broadly, we’re seeing anti-Semitism on the rise worldwide, including here in the United States as well as across Europe. It’s a dangerous ideology that history has shown is often linked with violence. We must vigorously oppose it wherever it occurs.

Anti-Muslim hatred is still widespread in many countries, and this, too, is a serious problem for the United States as well as in Europe.

We have work to do to ensure that people of all faiths and backgrounds are treated with equal dignity and respect.

As this report notes, some countries have taken positive steps forward, and that, too, deserves comment. Last year, the civilian-led transitional government in Sudan repealed apostasy laws and public order laws that had been used to harass members of religious minority groups. Uzbekistan’s government has released hundreds of people who have been imprisoned because of their beliefs. Just this past Saturday, Turkmenistan released 16 Jehovah’s Witnesses who are conscientious objectors and refused to serve in the military. We understand the authorities will now offer conscientious objectors alternative ways to meet national service requirements.

We want to see more progress like that, and so our promise to the world is that the Biden-Harris administration will protect and defend religious freedom around the world. We will maintain America’s longstanding leadership on this issue. We’re grateful for our partners, including likeminded governments, the UN Human Rights Council, and networks like the International Religious Freedom of Belief Alliance and the International Contact Group of Freedom of Religion or Belief. We’ll continue to work closely with civil society organizations, including human rights advocates and religious communities, to combat all forms of religiously motivated hatred and discrimination around the world.

APPG statement on UK sanctions on China and Burma

The All-Party Parliamentary Group [APPG] for International Freedom of Religion or Belief [FoRB] welcomes the growing pressure the UK is placing on those violating this fundamental human right. APPG Members congratulate the UK Government on its recent imposition of sanctions on FoRB abusers in China and Burma but call on the Foreign Secretary to take further action.

Britain’s parliament has spoken with one voice to unanimously declare the Chinese Communist Party’s persecution of Uighurs in Xinjang a genocide. During the three-hour debate, MPs lined up to recount the long list of abuses being carried out against Uighurs and to wholly condemn the treatment of China’s minority religious groups. MPs highlighted that Uighurs, Christians, Tibetan Buddhists and Falun Gong practitioners have all faced oppressive policies and mass incarceration, with members calling for the UK government to ban the sale of goods made with forced labour in Xinjiang’s network of detention camps to ensure that British consumers are not unwittingly funding this persecution.

These reports from Xinjiang of the systematic and harrowing repression of China’s Uighur Muslim community by Chinese state authorities have shocked the world. Despite continued denials from Chinese government officials, UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab has told Parliament the evidence “is clear as it is sobering”. The independent London-based China Tribunal also concluded “beyond reasonable doubt” that forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience has been practised by state-authorised officials in China “for a substantial period of time”. The UK Government is yet to endorse the Tribunal’s findings and move to bring those responsible for this heinous practice to account. The motion declaring genocide, though non-binding, adds to the pressure building on the UK government to take a harder line, with Foreign Office minister Nigel Adams telling the Commons the government “acknowledged the strength of feeling” on this issue.

This spring, the UK Government stepped up moves against human rights abusers implicated in persecuting their own citizens. Through the Magnitsky Sanctions mechanism, it placed asset freezes and travel bans on both Chinese officials and Burma companies involved in the gross human rights violations witnessed within their respective states. The APPG is greatly encouraged by this important first step. Civil society groups and aid agencies have identified a number of unilateral actions the UK government can take now to further their efforts. Party Secretary Chen Quanguo was notably absent from the UK’s sanctions list, for instance, despite having overseen the human rights violations being carried out in both Xinjiang and Tibet.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief seconds the UK government’s call for Beijing to allow the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights full access to Xinjiang. As the Chinese Communist Party has, however, continued to indicate that such an invitation will not be forthcoming, it is time for the UN to demand such access and assess the ever-growing list of crimes against humanity being perpetrated there. The APPG calls on the UK government to further press for international partners to join Britain in a broad coalition of voices demanding not just access, but also justice.

The APPG also welcomes the UK government’s efforts to lead a coordinated international response to the military coup in Burma. Foreign secretary Raab said the Burma military “has sunk to a new low with the wanton killing of innocent people”. More than 500 people have now been killed protesting against the coup. The UK has been a prominent actor in securing United Nations Human Rights Council Resolutions condemning the military’s actions and calling for enhanced evidence collection on its reported human rights violations.

The response to the coup has prompted the UK government to also impose sanctions on Burma military-linked businesses for their involvement in funding a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya in 2017. While the APPG welcomes such sanctions, four years have passed since hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas were forced to flee across the border into Bangladesh to escape military violence. Bangladesh now hosts more than a million Rohingya refugees, with the vast majority still sheltering in temporary accommodation. One such camp, Kutupalong, has become the largest of its kind in the world, with more than 600,000 people living in just 13 square kilometres. Their situation is both precarious and pressing. Kutupalong stands as a reminder of the failures of the international community. The APPG calls on the UK government to provide asylum for Rohingya refugees and harness the renewed focus on the region to rally the international community to ensure the Rohingya can soon return to their homeland free from fear of persecution.

Church Synod endorses FoRB for all

The Church of England General Synod last week passed a motion supporting Freedom of Religion or Belief for all.

The full text of the motion was: ‘That this Synod, believing that freedom of religion or belief is of importance to everyone, everywhere, and that Christians who enjoy this freedom should be active in advocating the same freedom for others: (a) note with concern that 83% of the global population live in countries where violations to freedom of religion or belief occur; 5 (b) affirm that freedom of religion or belief, as set out in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is a necessary condition for human and societal flourishing; (c) call upon the Mission and Public Affairs Council to use the resources produced by its involvement in the Freedom of Religion and Belief Leadership Network to assist parishes and dioceses to advocate for freedom of religion or belief internationally (d) call upon Her Majesty’s Government to (i) implement the recommendations of the Bishop of Truro’s Independent Review for the UK Foreign Secretary of Foreign and Commonwealth Office Support for Persecuted Christians (2019) and (ii) to strengthen its commitment to upholding and protecting the right to freedom of religion or belief for all in its foreign, international development, defence and trade policy.’

It was reported by the Episcopal News Service that Bishop of Leeds Nick Baines told General Synod that “human dignity and flourishing is diminished” when religious believers and atheists are persecuted.

He also warned the Church of England’s decision-making body that it would be an “act of self-harm” only to speak up for persecuted Christians.

Speaking in a debate on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB), Baines addressed many abuses, including against Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, China, atheists in Saudi Arabia and Christians in Pakistan.

“If human rights mean anything, then the freedom to choose our religion or belief, the freedom to change our religion or belief and the freedom to have no religion or stated belief at all is a right we all have by virtue of being human,” Baines said.

He continued: “Violations are increasing and intensifying, involving not just intolerance and exclusion but active discrimination.

“In its ultimate form this can culminate in genocide, a phenomenon that has sadly been seen with increasing frequency, whether that of Christians and Yazidis at the hands of ISIS in Iraq, Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar or Uighurs in China.

“In today’s interconnected age it is no longer possible to claim ignorance of these terrible events. To quote William Wilberforce: ‘You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know.’”

Baines also highlighted recommendations being made to the government, including providing training on FoRB for diplomats.

Last year, the Mission and Public Affairs department of the Church of England, alongside other partners, was awarded a “substantial” government grant to develop a FoRB learning network.

Bishop of Truro Philip Mounstephen led an independent review on the persecution of Christians for the then-foreign secretary in July 2019.

Baines praised Mounstephen’s report and highlighted that all 22 recommendations have not yet been implemented by the government, although accepted in full.

Archbishop Angaelos, the general bishop in the United Kingdom of the Coptic Orthodox Church, told Synod of the recent killing by the so-called Islamic State of Nabil Habashi Salama, a Coptic Christian, and two other people in North Sinai.

He said ecumenical partners would welcome the motion.

He said: “We ask you to recognize [this] and we commend this to you, so that in this time, at this moment, when we are called we stand for those less fortunate than ourselves, and we place ourselves at their service.”

USCIRF Releases 2021 Annual Report with Recommendations for U.S. Policy

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has released its 2021 Annual Report documenting developments during 2020, including significant progress in countries such as Sudan. Meanwhile, other nations implemented laws and policies that further target religious communities, and in some cases amount to genocide and crimes against humanity. USCIRF’s 2021 Annual Report provides recommendations to enhance the U.S. government’s promotion of freedom of religion or belief abroad.

In its report, USCIRF also monitored public health measures put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and their impact on freedom of religion or belief. In many cases, these measures complied with international human rights standards, but in some countries, already marginalized religious communities faced official and societal stigmatization, harassment, and discrimination for allegedly causing or spreading the virus.

“This past year was challenging for most nations trying to balance public health concerns alongside the fundamental right to freedom of religion or belief. Though some governments took advantage of the restrictions to target specific religious communities, we were encouraged by the positive steps various countries took. For example, as a result of COVID-19 outbreaks, many prisoners of conscience were furloughed or released, such as in Eritrea,” USCIRF Chair Gayle Manchin said. “USCIRF will continue to monitor how countries respond to and recover from COVID-19, and whether the loosening of restrictions is fair to people of all faiths and nonbelievers.”

In the 2021 Annual Report, USCIRF recommends 14 countries to the State Department for designation as “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) because their governments engage in or tolerate “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations.” These include 10 that the State Department designated as CPCs in December 2020—Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan—as well as four others—India, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam. For the first time ever, the State Department designated Nigeria as a CPC in 2020, which USCIRF had been recommending since 2009.

The 2021 Annual Report also recommends 12 countries for placement on the State Department’s Special Watch List (SWL) based on their governments’ perpetration or toleration of severe violations. These include two that the State Department placed on that list in December 2020—Cuba and Nicaragua—as well as 10 others—Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Turkey, and Uzbekistan. In 2021, USCIRF is not recommending SWL placement for Bahrain, the Central African Republic (CAR), and Sudan, which were among its SWL recommendations in its 2020 Annual Report. USCIRF has concluded that, although religious freedom concerns remain in all three countries, conditions last year did not meet the high threshold required to recommend SWL status.

The 2021 Annual Report further recommends to the State Department seven non-state actors for redesignation as “entities of particular concern” (EPCs) for systematic, ongoing, egregious violations. The State Department designated all seven of these groups as EPCs in December 2020—al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, the Houthis, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), and the Taliban.

“In 2020, the Trump administration continued to prioritize international religious freedom. Much progress was made, and our 2021 Annual Report makes recommendations about how Congress and the Executive Branch, now under President Biden, can further advance the U.S. commitment to freedom of religion abroad,” USCIRF Vice Chair Tony Perkins stated. “In order to maintain the crucial momentum of international religious freedom as a U.S. foreign policy priority, USCIRF strongly urges the Biden administration to take a unique action for each country designated as a CPC to provide accountability for religious freedom abuses and to implement the other recommendations contained in our report.”

In addition to chapters with key findings and U.S. policy recommendations for these 26 countries, the annual report describes and assesses U.S. international religious freedom policy overall. The report also highlights important global developments and trends related to religious freedom during 2020, including in countries that do not meet the criteria for CPC or SWL recommendations. These include: COVID-19 and religious freedom; attacks on houses of worship; political unrest leading to religious freedom violations; blasphemy laws; global antisemitism; and China’s international influence on religious freedom and human rights.

“USCIRF’s 2021 Annual Report documents both the deepening of religious divides, and intensified religious persecution and violence during the global pandemics; and the swift and significant progress that can and has been made, as in Sudan, to support and strengthen religious communities of all faiths,” USCIRF Vice Chair Anurima Bhargava added. “We urge the Biden administration and Congress to champion religious freedom and to center the safety and dignity of religious communities as foreign policy priorities. USCIRF recommends that the administration should immediately increase the annual ceiling for refugees; and definitively and publicly conclude that the atrocities committed against the Rohingya people by the Burmese military constitute genocide and take action accordingly; as the State Department recently determined regarding China’s genocide against Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims.”

The report includes two new sections, one highlighting key USCIRF recommendations that the U.S. government has implemented from USCIRF 2020 annual report, and the other addressing human rights violations perpetrated based on the coercive enforcement of interpretations of religion.

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The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is an independent, bipartisan federal government entity established by the U.S. Congress to monitor, analyze, and report on religious freedom abroad. USCIRF makes foreign policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State and Congress intended to deter religious persecution and promote freedom of religion and belief.

Read the report

APPG LAUNCHES COMMENTARY on the Current State of FoRB

The All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief has today published its latest Commentary on the Current State of International Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB). This coincides with the current meeting of the UN Human Rights Council – the Commentary is partly intended to inform UK policy on FoRB as articulated at the HRC.

There is a particular emphasis on the impact that the global pandemic has had on FoRB. The Foreword, written by three eminent authorities on FoRB, states “The Commentary recalls the UN Secretary General’s observation that there has been a ‘tsunami of hate and xenophobia’. Religion and belief communities have been blamed for the virus; made scapegoat for the outbreaks; castigated as irresponsible ‘super-spreaders’; accused of being resistant to implement public health measures, of peddling ‘phoney’ remedies, of opposing vaccinations – etc, etc. Whilst freedom of conscience must of course be respected, many of these attacks, which have made some religion or belief groups the target of conspiracy theories and of hate speech have amounted to little more than self-serving attempts to deflect attention from the failure of the authorities in relation to these matters.”

There is also a focus on the issue of gender and FoRB – “This year in particular, in which the UN Special Rapporteur has placed a special focus on the impact of gender on the enjoyment of the freedom of religion or belief, it is shocking to note the extent to which issues concerning gender discriminations have once again risen to the fore. The longstanding impacts of gender-based discrimination continue to be damningly negative, exacerbating the dehumanisation, inequalities and violations which were already being suffered.”

In July 2020, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) published the 2019 Human Rights and Democracy Report. The report “provided an assessment of the global human rights situation, and set out the UK Government’s thematic, consular, and programme work to advance human rights throughout the world. It focused on 30 countries where we are particularly concerned about human rights issues, and where we consider that the UK can make a real difference.”

This APPG commentary is primarily intended to offer the staff at the newly-reorganised Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) the reliable, detailed, evidence-based monitoring and analysis of FoRB violations that is essential for formulating, implementing and evaluating realistic policies and actions to address FoRB and interlinked human rights violations. The Commentary includes 24 profiles of countries with significant FoRB violations.

The Commentary offers recommendations for action at the FCDO – including the proposals “That the FCDO continues to affirm FoRB as a priority concern within its human rights agenda, and ensures that it is actively recognised as a key dimension of COVID-19 pandemic responses, and maintains its focus on gender and sexual violence in conflict; that at a time of reorganisation, and serious budget cuts, the FCDO takes every care to maximise the potential opportunities of its reorganisation by mainstreaming FoRB considerations into its new processes at every level.”

Gender and FoRB

This is published today as part of the APPG Commentary om International Freedom of Religion or Belief 2020. The APPG wishes to acknowledge with thanks the contributions and advice of the director and staff of Gender and Religious Freedom, an international NGO working at the intersection of gender equality and freedom of religion or belief.

Stakeholders of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief have reported concerns at the intersection between freedom of religion or belief and gender in several countries. This section offers a precis of some of the key issues of concern and several salient examples.

The COVID-19 global pandemic has had catastrophic consequences for vulnerable populations around the globe. At the intersection of gender and FoRB is a compounding of vulnerabilities which in ‘normal’ times is systematically exploited by antagonists of FoRB. This produces a global pattern of abuse including ‘forced marriage’ and ‘sexual assault’ as the two most common tactics used against Christian women in 50 countries. COVID-19 restrictions have further exacerbated these complex vulnerabilities whilst simultaneously increasing impunity for aggressors. Governments, civil society actors and fragile national infrastructures struggle to deliver a COVID-19 response resulting in greater impunity for perpetrators of gender-specific religious persecution.

Gender-based violence targeting minorities merely blends in with the increased domestic violence or honour killings. Many of these abuses and violations are hidden and under-reported or, at worst, known and yet dismissed in pandemic times. A senior leader in India has stated they have lost significant ground in protecting religious minority women against gender-based violence (GBV) as there has been a significant increase in targeted trafficking of vulnerable communities facing economic hardship and lack of food security due to lockdowns.

A report published last year by The Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development (CREID) stated, “The evidence gathered suggests that across contexts and religions, there is a pattern of girls and women being targeted for sexual grooming, not only out of sexual predation, but a wider political project to hurt the religious minority and create a religiously homogenous society.”

Country content:
In India, Dalit women experience double marginalisation due to their gender and caste. In October 2020, the BBC reported on a Dalit woman who was gang-raped in Uttar Pradesh. The situation in India is a microcosm representative of other regions. FoRB violations here have been exacerbated during COVID-19. Furthermore, evidence suggests that government restrictions and violence are gender specific.

In Nepal, some women and girls convert to Christianity. However, it is dangerous for them to reveal their faith, so they quietly or secretly take part in church services. When known, they are discriminated against by their peers, socially ostracized and severely beaten by family members. Immediate family of ‘convert’ Christians may lock them up. After isolation, they are often deprived of basic survival needs, educational support, parental possessions and basic legal rights. Physical violence comes gradually after emotional and mental torture.

In some rural areas, Christians are socially boycotted and are not allowed to use community resources. In one instance, the Buddhists living in a post-earthquake IDP camp did not allow Christians to share water from the same supply system, and two separate supplies had to be installed. As it is women who use community resources more often than men, this denial of resources affects them more.

In Malaysia, legal rights of women and girls are undermined by provisions that make exceptions for sharia. Civil society organizations stated in a Feb 2018 CEDAW report “Muslim women now enjoy far less rights in marriage, divorce, guardianship of their children and inheritance than their non-Muslim counterparts.” It also stated: “Other areas of gross discrimination against women under the Islamic Family Laws include divorce, polygamy and child marriage.”

These laws open avenues of vulnerability for female converts from Islam to Christianity, the most prevalent being the threat of rape and/or forced marriage to a Muslim. The minimum legal age for marriage in the Islamic family laws (16 for female) can be lowered with the consent of a sharia judge. This law increases the vulnerability of girls who convert to Christianity. The federal government tried to act against child marriages but encountered the bitter resistance of conservative Muslim federal states. In some cases, young Christian women are abducted, never to be heard of again. This is an effective tactic because once they are ‘registered’ as Muslims there is no mechanism for reversing this, even in the event of divorce. Additionally, all children born because of the so-called “marriage” are also legally considered Muslim. A small number of converts are thought to have fled or gone into hiding to avoid this kind of religiously motivated family retribution.

In Iraq, some 2,800 Yazidi women are still missing and both Yazidis and Christians are subject to regular violence and often blamed for the spread of COVID-19.

Concerns were raised by minority faith groups in August 2019 that proposals to include four Islamic clerics among the Federal Supreme Court’s 13 members could mean that sharia would always take precedence. Opponents claimed it would end attempts to overturn legislation such as that which prevents Christian men from marrying Muslim women without converting to Islam.

Iraqi women are guaranteed equal rights in the Iraqi Provisional Constitution, ensuring their right to vote, run for political office, own property, and for girls to attend school. However, there are still existing provisions that discriminate against women in the Iraqi Constitution, the Personal Status Law, and the Penal Code. There has not been significant progress in this since the launch of the Iraqi National Action Plan (INAP) for Women, Peace and Security (WPS) to implement the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (1325) on Women, Peace and Security in 2014. While this was a promise of enabling women’s participation and protection in the processes of conflict resolution and peacebuilding in Iraq there has been little progress in a country experiencing continued economic instability, popular protests, and security problems. While the constitution requires 25 per cent of MPs to be women, they remain side-lined from making a positive contribution to peace and security initiatives and reconciliation efforts.

The reality for Iraqi women is that the impact of war and sectarian conflict has left many as widows, who can quickly fall victim to poverty.

The impact of freedom of religion and belief violations has further disempowered women from religious minorities.

The Daesh conflict, early marriage, exclusion from school, domestic violence, and lack of knowledge of their social and legal rights means that their interests are unrepresented, particularly in the Nineveh Plains area of northern Iraq, which lacks a security framework and federal government commitment to lasting change. Representation continues to be made for a concerted effort to empower Iraqi religious and ethnic minorities, particularly women, through local civic representatives. For Iraqi women from religious minorities, it is also virtually impossible for them to secure jobs in the public sector or even in the private sector outside their own communities as they do not have full citizenship rights. The combination of a lack of legal rights, opportunities for employment, violence from within their own communities and the threat of violence from militia groups, and now the COVID-19 pandemic, means that some minorities may leave Iraq permanently, pushing Iraq into further economic destabilisation and its religious minorities into extinction. Women are particularly vulnerable within these destabilising circumstances.

A report by Open Doors USA makes the point that there are gendered differences in how men and women in religious minority communities face pressures at the intersection of gender and religious identity. It observes that men in religious minorities face greater risk of physical violence, economic harassment and incarceration, women face greater risk of sexual violence, forced marriage and forced divorce.

In Pakistan, the Hazara Shia community had to face the consequences of the provincial government’s mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis, as the community was blamed for the spread of the virus. Hazara women in particular bore the brunt. Most of the Hazara women who were forced to quarantine had to spend 44 days in the quarantine camp in Quetta, Balochistan. The quarantine camps had sub-standard facilities such as a lack of washrooms and water. Hazara women even had to face difficulties due to the racial profiling of the community in the post-quarantine scenario. According to one report, some local doctors in Quetta refused to treat Hazara women fearing that they will spread the virus. Similarly, women from Hindu Christian faiths in Pakistan continued to face persecution such as forced conversions and forced marriages during 2020 (details in the Pakistan country section).

DEBATE: the persecution of minority groups in India

UK Parliament Hansard 12 January 2021 Westminster Hall India: Persecution of Minority Groups

This debate is sourced from the uncorrected (rolling) version of Hansard and is subject to correction.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of persecution of Muslims, Christians and minority groups in India.

The right hon. Members for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), for East Ham (Stephen Timms), the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), and my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Paul Girvan) and I applied to the Backbench Business Committee to have this debate almost eight months ago, so we are very pleased that it has now arrived. I note that debates in Westminster Hall will be suspended for a period of time, so this will be one of the last debates in here until we get to the other side of the pandemic.

I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have come here today to discuss the important issue of the persecution of Muslims, Christians and other minority groups in India. The issue has been in my heart for a long time. Given the correspondence that we have had, there is a need for this debate, so I am pleased to be here to promote it. I am my party’s spokesperson for human rights issues and I register an interest as chair of the all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief. I remind this House that the Republic of India is the world’s largest democracy. These facts are not in dispute. India has a freely elected Government and is not run by a nightmarish authoritarian regime such as China’s, which arbitrarily imprisons millions from religious minorities and sponsors forced organ harvesting on an industrial scale, as we all know. Today in the main Chamber there will be a statement by the Minister in relation to the Uyghur Muslims.

India has a rich and unparalleled history of religious plurality and co-existence. The United Kingdom has always had a good relationship with India. Even today, hundreds of millions of people from different religions and backgrounds live together peacefully in modern-day India. However, the reason for this debate is clear. India is not perfect in terms of freedom of religion or belief, and there has been a concerning trend when it comes to FORB violations over the past several years. Of course, this is not unique to India. Even in the UK we have recently seen record highs for incidents of antisemitism, Islamophobia and discrimination against Sikhs and other minority groups. Still, the scale and trajectory of the persecution currently being experienced in India by non-Hindus is very worrying and disturbing.

I talked beforehand to my friend and colleague from the Scots Nats party, the hon. Member for Glasgow East, and I said that those from India have to be able to take constructive criticism that is made in a friendly way but none the less highlights the issues that are the reason for this debate. Our debate will be in the spirit of that. I hope that through this debate and the Minister’s, shadow Minister’s and others’ contributions we will be able to highlight the issues that we need India to address.

Despite Prime Minister Modi’s pledge to commit to “complete freedom of faith”, since his election in 2014 there has been a significant increase in anti-minority rhetoric—the complete opposite of what was said in 2014—from Bharatiya Janata party politicians, and I will quote some of the comments. India has also seen the rise of religious nationalist vigilante groups, growing mob violence, the spread of anti-conversion laws, worsening social discrimination, the stripping of citizenship rights and—increasingly—many other actions against religious or belief minorities. That is totally unreal and unacceptable, which is why we have to highlight it here in Westminster Hall today.

According to IndiaSpend’s analysis of Indian Home Ministry data, there was a 28% rise in communal violence between 2014 and 2017, with 822 “incidents” being reported in 2017, which resulted in the deaths of 111 people and wounding of 2,384 people. A recent Pew Research Center report claimed that India had the highest level of social hostility and violence based on religion or belief of any country in the world. That is quite a statement to make, but when we look at the facts of the case, which is why this debate is being held, we see that India does rank as highly as that; the social hostility and violence based on religion or belief is the worst of any country in the world.

The covid-19 pandemic has further exacerbated problems for religious minorities in India. Through the APPG, I obviously receive comments and information, but I also receive them from religious groups, such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Release International, the Barnabus Fund and Open Doors; I think that the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet will tomorrow launch the Open Doors strategy after what has happened in the last year. We very much look forward to that, because I believe that it will highlight not just India but other parts of the world where these problems exist.

At the beginning of the covid-19 outbreak, two dozen Muslim missionaries tested positive for the virus after an international event in Delhi. This led to accusations that Muslims were deliberately spreading the virus and to a campaign of Islamophobia in which Muslims were labelled as “bio-terrorists” and “corona-jihadists”, and discriminated against. This scapegoating of Muslims was picked up and supported by political leaders such as the Minister for Minority Affairs of the BJP, who accused the event organisers of a “Talibani crime”. What a play on words that is. In no way had those missionaries ever done such a thing; they went to the event to follow their religious beliefs and worship their God. But they were made a target for doing so. And another BJP leader from Uttar Pradesh told citizens:

“Do not buy from Muslims.”

I mean, where does it all stop? That is my concern about the whole thing.

Furthermore, over 3,000 Muslims were forcibly detained by Government authorities for more than 40 days under the guise of protecting public health. Well, public health is for everyone and we cannot blame one person or one group for it, and those Muslims certainly did not set out to do anything wrong. Nevertheless, as a result of this stigmatisation, countless more instances of violence against Muslims in India have been recorded. So, those 20 or so Muslim missionaries, who were worshipping in a careful way, were then focused on and made the targets of verbal violence, which has now spread to other parts of India.

One attack that was caught on video showed a Muslim being beaten with a bamboo stick by a man asking him about his conspiracy to spread the virus. Really? Because they are a Muslim, they are spreading the virus? No, they are not, and to make such an accusation is completely wrong.

Other minority groups in India have also suffered such violence. For example, on 3 February 2019, a 40-strong mob attacked the church in Karkeli village, near Raipur. Fifteen worshippers were hospitalised after church members were beaten with sticks. Where is religious tolerance in India, when it was said in 2014 that there would be such tolerance? The facts are that it is not happening.

Similarly, on 25 November 2020, an estimated 100 Christians from Singavaram village in India’s Chhattisgarh state were also attacked. Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s sources reported that a mob of around 50 people armed with home-made weapons attacked the Christians during the night while they slept. The mob burnt their Bibles and accused their victims of destroying the local culture by following a foreign religion. Again, I find that greatly disturbing—indeed, I find the whole thing very hard to understand.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP)

I congratulate my hon. Friend and colleagues on their campaigning—we have all campaigned—on matters such as this. As he outlines some of these issues, does he agree that one of the ways we can address this is not just in debates such as this, which are exceptionally worthwhile, but by encouraging others who have influence in the Indian sub-continent also to take these issues seriously; to lobby the Indian Government and campaign to ensure that the progress that the Indian people and Governments have made in recent decades is stepped up and increased and the sort of items that the hon. Gentleman has outlined are clamped down on, so that we do not see them in the future?

Jim Shannon

I wholeheartedly accept my hon. Friend’s intervention. The spokesperson for the Scots Nats Party, the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), will also be doing something similar. I hope to meet the Indian High Commissioner next week, with others from Northern Ireland who have asked to speak to me. When it comes to making changes, we should do so in a constructive fashion. I hope that next week we can reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) and try to influence those in positions of power to make the changes.

When attacks happen in villages across India, they are sanctioned, at least verbally or by non-action, by the police and Army. That sometimes encourages people to go ahead with what they are doing. The 50 people armed with homemade weapons who attacked Christians during the night when they slept and burned their bibles might be able to burn the Holy Bible and the word of God, but they did not in any way stop its teaching of how we should love others and follow its truths. Unfortunately, much of the violence against minorities is not appropriately investigated by Government authorities. It happens all the time and it is so frustrating whenever the police or Army stand back and do not act. When they are told what has happened, they do not investigate to the full extent, catch those involved and have them taken before the courts and imprisoned. Basically, they encourage perpetrators. In 2018, the Indian Supreme Court went so far as to urge the central and state Governments to bring back lynching restrictor laws and had to do so again in 2019, after no substantial action was taken.

In all these debates, we have a verbal commitment to change, but no physical action to prove it. That is what I find incredibly frustrating. In addition, Christian organisations have noted worsening patterns of discrimination against our communities in India. There have been reports of Christians who will not participate in Hindu rituals being denied employment. How often have we seen that, because they do not conform to what the Government want them to do, they are cut off from the water supply and prevented from even burying their dead? These are cruel actions by those in power.

Moreover, 80 year-old Father Stan Swamy, who has been an advocate for the rights of the poor and marginalised in India for 50 years has been unjustly held captive by the National Investigation Agency of India for alleged Maoist links. I hope that the Minister will reply to this point—if not today in the Chamber—and tell all those here who are interested how we can help that gentleman get out of prison.

Another issue is the spread of anti-conversion laws in India, which make me very angry. They are ostensibly designed to protect people, but often restrict the freedom of individuals to freely convert and deny their right to freedom of religion or belief. If you want to be a Christian, you have a right to be a Christian; if you want to be a Muslim, that is your choice; if you want to be a Hindu, that is your choice; if you want to be a Jehovah’s Witness or a Baha’i or a Coptic Christian, it is your right to do that. The anti-conversion laws in India that prevent you from doing that are despicable.

According to the US Commission on International Freedom of Religion or Belief, authorities predominantly arrest Muslims and Christians for conversion activities, whereas mass conversions to Hinduism often take place without any interference from the authorities. They have double standards, powered by the anti-conversion laws and often with the police’s complicity, right-wing groups conduct campaigns of harassment, social exclusion and violence against Christians, Muslims and other religious minorities across the whole country. Worryingly, this law seems to be strengthening. Four more Indian States are planning to introduce anti-conversion laws in 2021, in this year—more stringent laws to deliberately persecute and disenfranchise Christians, Muslims, and other religious groups. If that happens, Muslims as well, arguably the most persecuted minority group in that country.

The Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar have experienced ethnic cleansing and potential genocide at the hands of the Burmese military. How many of us have not been absolutely cut to the heart by what has happened to them? The Indian Government have deported Rohingya refugees rather than seeking to offer them a means to citizenship; a means to better themselves; a means of helping them.

The CAA is particularly concerning when it is considered in conjunction with the National Register of Citizens, the NRC. The NRC requires Indians to prove in court that they came to the state by 24 March 1971, or they will be declared illegal migrants. When the Assam state NRC was released in August 2019, 1.9 million residents were excluded. Why? Because they did not suit the form, the type of people India wanted. Those affected live in fear of statelessness, deportation or prolonged detention. They need protection. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some indication of what is happening in relation to that.

The Indian Government have plans to introduce a nationwide NRC, under which the citizenship of millions would be placed in question. However, with the CAA in place, non-Muslims will have a path to restore their citizenship and avoid detention or deportation, whereas Muslims would have to bear the consequences of potential statelessness. It just cannot be right to have a two-tier focus on those who are Christians, those who are Muslims, and those who are Hindus.

This move bears worrying similarities to the plight of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, who, in 1982, also had their citizenship removed and were labelled illegal immigrants before being demonised and then eventually attacked by the Burmese military. The stories that we heard of the Rohingyas and what they had to go through were outrageous. I think they worried every one of us and probably brought tears to our eyes. People were killed and butchered or abused, their homes burnt, just because they were Rohingyas.

If this sounds like an extreme comparison, I point hon. Members to the words of Amit Shah, the Indian Home Minister, who, in 2019, described people considered to be illegal immigrants as “termites”, and said that,

“A Bharatiya Janata Party government will pick up infiltrators one by one and throw them into the Bay of Bengal.”

If that is not inflamed rhetoric, if that does not inflame the situation, if that is not a hate crime in the very words of a person in power, I don’t know what is. I feel greatly disturbed, greatly annoyed, angered even, that any person in a position of power, but especially the Indian Home Minister, should say anything like that.

To conclude, I reiterate that India is a great ally of the UK, but it must be possible to have constructive criticism among allies and friends. We must come to Westminster Hall and this House and say the things that are factual on behalf of those who have no voice. Great Britain, our Government and our Minister work extremely hard to put forward the case on behalf of those across the world who do not have someone to speak for them: those who, in their own country, where they have lived for many years, do not have the rights that we have—and they do not have those rights as immigrants, either. It is our responsibility to raise those concerns not just on behalf of the minorities who are persecuted but for the benefit of all Indian and British people.

The large majority of people in India believe in fair play and the right to religious belief, but there are those—some in positions of power—who are not prepared to allow that. Violations of freedom of religious belief lead to domestic conflict, which is good neither for India’s economic prosperity, nor for the chances of a stable, long-term trading relationship between India and the UK. We want to have that relationship, but we also want human rights to be protected. Those of different religions should have the opportunity to worship their God and to work, have houses and businesses and live a normal life without being persecuted because they happen to be of a different religion.

I urge the Minister to support his Indian counterparts to realise the political, strategic and economic benefits of guaranteeing the rule of law and human rights. I also call on him—I believe he is a Minister who wants to help, and his response will reflect that—to ensure that robust human rights provisions are included in any future trade and investment agreements with India. If we are to have a relationship with India—we do want that relationship—it is important that that is reflected. We in this country have high regard for human rights, the right to worship a God and the religious freedom that we have, and that should be had in India, too. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for coming; I have left them plenty of time to participate.

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con)

We should congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on ensuring that we had the debate and on the comprehensive way in which he moved it. I suppose we started having such debates—some instituted by him and others by me—20 years ago, and I think we have made progress in ensuring that the Government take a more active role in such matters. When we started off, Governments were, frankly, careful to be equidistant: they said, “On the one hand, there is persecution of Christians, but on the other hand, that.” The truth is that, although in India the victims of persecution are overwhelmingly Muslims, the victims of persecution worldwide are overwhelmingly Christian. Actually, in recent years the Government have had the courage to stand up more and more for human rights, the right of Christians to profess their faith and the rights of people of other faiths to convert to Christianity. These Westminster Hall debates may not seem important in the great scheme of things, but they are all part of a pressure on the Government, and our Government has a moral duty to speak out as for centuries—certainly for the last century—Governments have spoken out in favour of human rights throughout the world.

I hesitated to take part in the debate because India is an incredibly complex country with an amazing history. Hinduism is integral to India—80% of the population are Hindus—and it is the most wonderful religion. Those who go to India, as I have, realise that it is part of the country’s DNA. I do not condone Hindu nationalism in any way, but we need to understand how Hindus feel that theirs is the religion of India. That said, there have been Muslims in India for many hundreds of years, so presumably they were living there when they originally converted to Islam. The same applies to Christianity. Christianity is also integral to India. There have been Christians in India for the best part of 2,000 years. It is the third largest religion. There are 200 million Muslims, but there are still 30 million Christians—a huge number—in the country. According to legend and, undoubtedly, in fact, India was one of the first lands reached by early Christians. In Kerala, they date their Christianity back to the Apostle Thomas himself. And parts of north-eastern India even have a Christian majority.

Despite the electoral success of Modi and the BJP, it has to be said that although Hindus are still the overwhelming part of the population, their proportion of the population has been declining. No doubt that engenders a feeling of threat, but, dare I say it—I am not here to lecture anybody else’s country—nobody needs to feel under threat from Islam or Christianity in India. Hinduism will always be an absolutely integral part of the nation and overwhelmingly the majority religion.

Despite that and perhaps for political reasons—this is where nationalism is extremely dangerous—politicians around the world feel that they can use religion quite wrongly to promote themselves, get into office and stir up their followers. We just have to accept this, and our Government, in their dealings with the Modi Government, have to accept that the BJP has sharpened its tone against India’s religious minorities. There is absolutely no doubt about that; it is on the record.

Between 1967 and 2020, six states introduced laws or ordinances aiming to stop conversions. It is a dangerous thing to convert to Christianity in India, but there has to be some equivalence drawn, too. Let us make it absolutely clear that it is even more dangerous to convert to Christianity in Pakistan. We have to condemn absolutely this feeling in many countries of the world that it is wrong to convert or change religion, in any direction. Those ordinances and laws are often made, perversely, in the guise of protecting freedom of religion. In 2015, Rajnath Singh, India’s then Minister of Home Affairs, called for a national debate on anti-conversion laws and said that one was needed at national level. However, although the Indian Government undoubtedly set an antichristian and anti-Muslim tone, I am afraid—well, I am not afraid; it is just a fact—that the fact is that violent intimidation at street level does the most harm, and much more harm than the Government or what they say.

As reported by Aid to the Church in Need—by the way, I am closely connected with Aid to the Church in Need; it does wonderful work throughout the world and should be congratulated on its very detailed reports—there was

“no sign of anti-Christian violence abating during India’s COVID-19 lockdown. In the first six months of 2020 one Indian NGO recorded 293 cases of persecution.”

Bishop Gerald Almeida of Jabalpur says:

“It is a cause of concern with the Church because Christians are being killed and beaten…There are much more attacks than ten years ago. Fundamentalism is a real problem.”

The Indian Government’s own figures, released in 2018, show an upward trend in inter-religious violence, and one has to ask why there is an upward trend. Is the tone being set by Government themselves? In 2016, 86 people were killed in sectarian violence and 2,321 were injured in 703 incidents. The following year, that rose to 111 people killed and 2,384 injured; there were 822 incidents in 2017. Between 2017 and the end of March 2019, there were more than 1,000 individual attacks on Christians.

The attacks are also widespread. In recent years, they have taken place in 24 out of India’s 29 states. In Odisha state in May 2019, local officials sent a team of 50 workers to demolish a Christian school and children’s hostel near Lichapeta. The school’s application for recognition of land tenure was suspiciously lost. Hindutva nationalism is pervading the actions of many officials in the Indian Government, from the Ministers at the top to local government bureaucrats.

Before I sit down, it would be quite wrong not to mention—as I think I have already said once, but I now emphasise—that the overwhelming victims of violence and discrimination in India are Muslims, and this follows decades of discrimination. Riots in north-east Delhi last year resulted in Muslim homes and businesses being destroyed; of the 53 dead from six days of violence, two thirds were Muslims—who had been shot, slashed or set on fire.

India is the world’s largest functioning democracy, and we should be proud of that. We are inextricably linked to India through our shared history, not all of which has been happy or peaceful. With more than 1 billion people, it is the largest Commonwealth country by a huge margin. On a number of fronts, India is a friend of Britain and a country we want to trade with more, deal with more, and visit. However, true friendship requires not turning a blind eye to each other’s faults, and we must protest the violence and persecution in India today. I hope that this debate is a small step in the right direction.

Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab)

Before I begin, I want to say that I resent having to come here this morning. I also resent the fact that this will be one of the last debates that we are able to have in Westminster Hall. Scrutiny is very important, and the scrutiny we do in this Chamber is important, but we should be able to do it remotely and observe the guidance that the Government have given to others.

Imagine when the Windrush scandal broke in the UK if there had been a debate in the Indian Parliament about the persecution of black people in Britain. Or, in 2011, when the London riots broke out after the police shooting of Mark Duggan, that there had been questions asked in the Indian Parliament about the impartiality of the Metropolitan police, and how it was that they stood by and did not use force to stop the rioters for four days before those riots were brought under control. Imagine that there had been debates in the Indian Parliament all through the troubles in Northern Ireland, accusing the British Government of persecuting the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland.

I say this, not to minimise the subject that hon. Members have brought for debate in this Chamber today—injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere—but to give ourselves a sense of humility and a little perspective about how we might feel, as parliamentarians, if legislators in India were to pronounce on our institutions from afar, putting us under the microscope in the same way that colleagues are doing for their Indian counterparts today.

Add to that the fact that the UK is the former colonial power, whose influence in what is now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh was not entirely beneficent, and certainly not above pitting one religious or ethnic group against the other. In this light, it is not beyond ordinary powers of imagination to conceive that people in India might not regard our intervention as either wholly welcome or appropriate.

Many of my own constituents—British citizens whose families were originally from India—have written to me, outraged by the very fact that we are holding this debate at all. One of my constituents’ letters says:

“It is a very difficult time in the UK due to the severe impact of the coronavirus pandemic. It is surprising to know that elected British Members of Parliament are debating subjects attacking the Government of India, rather than focusing on UK priorities.”

There is of course a debate on covid in the Commons Chamber today, and I do not think that we must confine our debates only to immediate to domestic priorities, so perhaps I should have begun my remarks by declaring my interests. I am a Christian and I therefore have an interest to prevent the persecution of my fellow Christians; but, then, I am also a human being and I have never understood how anyone can feel themselves honoured by the humiliation, let alone the persecution, of a fellow being. I am also the founding chair of Labour Friends of India, and as one of India’s longest-standing friends in the UK Parliament, I am keen to see that the true nature of Indian democracy is properly represented and not distorted.

Sir Edward Leigh

Will the hon. Gentleman allow me?

Barry Gardiner

I shall refer to the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks later, but at this point I will continue to make some progress. I represent the constituency of Brent North, which only Newham, which includes the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), might be able to rival for diversity of ethnicity and religious faith. Perhaps 40% of the families in my constituency are originally from the Indian subcontinent. Many are Hindu and many are Muslim and I am equally at home visiting the mosque or the mandir.

As a Christian, I remember the appalling murder of the Christian missionary Graham Staines in Odisha. He was burned to death with his two little boys, aged 10 and six, when Dara Singh led a group of Hindu militants who set light to the van that they were sleeping in. I think I was the first person in this Parliament to raise the matter with the then high commissioner, my good friend Lalit Mansingh. As a human being, I also remember that Dara Singh murdered the Muslim trader Sheikh Rehman, chopping off his hands before setting him alight too. Psychopaths and murderers exist in all countries, but when talking of persecution it is important to examine how the authorities in those countries respond to such atrocities. The Indian constitution is, importantly, a secular constitution and it provides for protections of minority communities including Sikhs, Muslims, Jains, Buddhists and Christians. Though different political parties have formed the Government since its independence, all have respected the constitution and worked within its boundaries, so it is important to say that 21 years later, Dara Singh is still serving a life sentence for his crimes. It is also important that he was convicted in the year 2000 when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister, at the head of a Hindu nationalist BJP Government.

In June 2017, in response to the growing violence of Hindu mobs known as cow vigilantes, it was the current Hindu nationalist Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, who spoke out against that violence and proclaimed that killing people in the name of protecting cows was criminal, illogical and unacceptable. When the Muslim trader Alimuddin Ansari was later lynched by a Hindu mob for allegedly transporting beef, 11 people were sentenced to life imprisonment, including one local BJP worker. That justice was meted out by a fast-track court and was the first case ever successfully prosecuted against such religious extremists in India. The state acted. It did not sanction the atrocities. Are there atrocities in India? Yes, there are. Are they often perpetrated against religious minorities? Yes, they are. Do they represent persecution by the state? No, they do not. Islam is the second largest religion in India. There are 40 million Muslims in Uttar Pradesh alone. As the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) said, there are 1.4 billion people in India and the second largest population is Muslim. He spoke of 1,000 attacks on minorities.

Jim Shannon

I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is trying to make, but what has unfortunately not come across yet—I ask him to reflect on this—is the fact that, in the legal system in India, four more Indian states are to introduce anti-conversion laws. That means that 1.3 billion people will be under specific state law and state changes that disadvantage them, and 1.9 million Rohingyas do not have the right of citizenship. I understand the points that the hon. Gentleman is making, but I have to say this: we are here to speak on behalf of those who have no voice. We should be their voice in this Chamber.

Barry Gardiner

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making his points so clearly. Let me try to address them. He spoke of Muslims being stripped of their citizenship rights—no. Actually, they are not stripped of rights that they ever had. They were not citizens; they were classed as illegal migrants into the country.

It is very important when talking about India and religious persecution to consider the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019. India is one of the world’s top destinations for illegal migrants. Most are Muslims who come from the neighbouring countries of Bangladesh and Pakistan. The Pew Research Center estimates that they number 3.2 million and 1.1 million from Bangladesh and Pakistan respectively. The Act provided a pathway for illegal migrants to become citizens of India where they had been victims of religious persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh or Afghanistan. It established the important legal principle of non-refoulement by offering shelter to refugees who fled those countries due to discrimination based on religion. It gave that right to Christians, Parsis, Jains and Buddhists.

The Act was passed in both the Lok Sabha, where the BJP Government hold a majority, and the upper Rajya Sabha, where they do not. It sparked riots and outrage because the pathway was not open to Muslims. The argument applied by the Indian Government is that those are Muslim countries, and therefore Muslims coming to India as migrants could not be persecuted religious minorities.

The right hon. Member for Gainsborough spoke about Ahmadiyya Muslims, and I entirely agree with him. The Indian Government say that the legislation discriminates not against Muslims per se, but only against illegal immigrants who do not have a well-founded fear of persecution in their country of origin. There is a basic logic to that argument, and I disagree with it. It is clear to me that if someone is an Ahmadiyya Muslim or a gay Muslim, it is perfectly possible—indeed, highly probable—that they have suffered religious persecution in one of those countries. It is also possible that Christians or Parsis have come without actually having a well-founded fear of being persecuted. They may simply be an illegal migrant, rather than a genuine refugee. Better, in my view, that the law should seek not to treat illegal immigrants on the basis of broad religious categories at all, but to consider each individual case on its merit. However, India is a sovereign country with an established democracy, and I respect its right to enact legislation whether or not I think it clumsy or ill-framed.

As people criticise India for legislation that is giving citizenship to tens of thousands of illegal immigrants, perhaps we should recall that just in December, a British Home Office Minister complained to the Home Affairs Committee that we had been unable to get the French to agree to a policy of turning back migrant boats in the channel. As India enacts the principle of non-refoulement, we are busy trying to do the opposite. Sometimes, as a Christian, I think we would do better to cast out the beam from our own eye, and then we might see clearly to case out the mote from our neighbour’s.

Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this important debate, Mr Robertson. India is a vibrant, pluralist and secular democracy. Its constitution declares clearly that freedom of religion is a fundamental right. Article 15 outlaws discrimination on the grounds of religion, and a series of other articles provide further protections, including in relation to schools. Those rights are safeguarded by respect for the rule of law and an independent judiciary, supported by bodies such as the National Commission for Minorities and the National Human Rights Commission. An enduring goal of the Indian state has been diversity and inclusion, and a national minorities rights day is observed on 18 December every year.

The size of India’s minority populations has been growing in recent years, and India is, for example, home to 16% of the world’s Muslim population. Members of minority faiths have played a prominent part in India’s history and they continue to hold leading roles in Indian politics and public life, in science and universities, in the law and other professions, in business and culture, and across the Indian economy. Let us just take one, symbolic example. In 2004, a Catholic, Sonia Gandhi, facilitated the handover of power to a Sikh, Manmohan Singh, enabling him to become Prime Minister, with his oath of office overseen by a Muslim President, A. P. J. Abdul Kalam.

As Members present will know, I take seriously matters related to freedom of religion, whether it is Islam or Christianity. I have raised those matters in this House many times and will continue to do so. Sadly, in a country as huge as India, there will be lawbreakers who attack others, including members of minority communities and faiths. Sadly, no state can prevent all such crimes and tragedies, no matter how seriously they take policing and justice. Of course, there are hard-line individuals in India who promote hate speech and division, just as there are in this country. Again, no democracy that allows freedom of speech can shut that down either.

However, I argue that India’s record on minority faiths stands up to scrutiny. I do not accept that there is evidence of systemic or state-sponsored persecution of religious minorities. When it comes to protection of freedom of religion and belief, the more important focus of this House should be on places such as Pakistan, where forced marriage and forced conversion of young Hindu and Christian women is a serious problem, and from where Asia Bibi had to flee for her life after years of imprisonment, and China, where incarceration and oppression of Uyghur Muslims is, quite frankly, a disgrace.

Mr Modi’s Government has embarked on a huge reform agenda, tackling issues that his predecessors ducked because they were just too difficult. Change on this scale inevitably causes controversy and conflict in India, just as it would elsewhere. All such crimes must be fully investigated to bring anyone responsible to justice. In any democracy, there is further work to be done to safeguard and protect human rights, and bring to justice those who commit crimes of violence against others, including religious minorities. It will be important for some of the serious matters raised in this debate to be considered in India. No doubt, they debate similar matters in their Parliament, in the same way that we do, and the concerns raised by Open Doors and Christian Solidarity Worldwide must be carefully considered. In a country as vast as India, with so many different communities, ethnicities and faiths, there are some unavoidable tensions and it is a matter of massive regret that, sometimes, that can spill over into conflict and violence. However, the principles of unity and diversity have been a core aspiration and value of the Indian state ever since its creation.

India is a stable and increasingly prosperous home to around 200 million Muslims and 32 million Christians. While, like any country, its record on law and order and security cannot always be 100% perfect, it is still a huge democratic success story. Rapid economic development and Government action are also starting to bring many millions of people out of poverty. If we are considering some worrying points raised in this debate, let us also at the same time remember the hugely positive progress in India, which is benefiting so many of its citizens, including millions from India’s minority and minority faith communities.

Naz Shah (Bradford West) (Lab)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this debate.

“It’s time the Modi government learned they cannot promote ‘Make in India’ abroad while condoning the propagation of ‘Hate in India’ at home.”

Those are not my words but those of Shashi Tharoor, an author and Indian politician, highlighting the reality of India under a BJP Government.

With the rise of nationalist politics all over the world, we have seen the threat to minority rights. With Trump 2.0 in charge in India, in the form of Narendra Modi, we are witnessing before our eyes the scaling down of the secular, liberal rights for which Indian democracy once hailed itself. Power politics has an interesting link with the legitimacy of an individual, especially in the case of Narendra Modi, a man once barred from the US because of his alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat massacre, which saw more than 2,000 Muslims murdered and some newspapers giving him the title, “the butcher of Gujarat”. Today he is invited on to red carpets across the globe, including in Britain.

Narendra Modi does not just attract a nationalist crowd with his populist rhetoric; he is directly involved. He is a life member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which is inspired by the likes of Adolf Hitler and Mussolini and the ideas of an Aryan race. The RSS is built on an ideology of the superiority of Hindus, and the group’s mission statement calls for change to the policy of

“endless appeasement of the Muslim population”.

In reality, what they see as the ending of appeasement towards Muslims is seen by the world as the ending of equality towards Muslims in India. Over the years, mob attacks on Muslim communities in India have risen. Only last year, five Muslim men, severely beaten by police officers, were forced to sing the national anthem. Two days later, one of the men, a 23-year-old Muslim, was murdered. Later, we witnessed a nationalist mob launch riots in New Delhi. More than 52 people were killed, hundreds injured, places of worship and property destroyed, with the majority of victims being Muslims.

It is not just extremist mobs that are changing the landscape in India. It is directly ingrained in the policies pursued by the BJP Government. The controversial citizenship law and the national registration of citizenship directly discriminate against Muslims. The citizenship law ensures that Hindus and people of other faiths who live in India have an automatic right to citizenship, whereas Muslims do not. In 2019, the Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah said,

“I today want to assure Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist and Christian refugees, that you will not be forced to leave India”.

That outrightly left out Muslims.

A New York Times investigation in Assam province found Muslims, who have lived their entire lives in India with voter ID, birth certificates and marriage certificates, being sent to foreigners tribunals to prove their citizenship. One man, Asbahar Ali, due to a spelling error by the authorities on his documentation, was sent to prison for four years. His family sold the house to pay for legal costs and his wife committed suicide. The same investigation found five officials of the foreigners tribunals, such as Mamoni Rajkumari, claimed they were dismissed from their posts because they accepted the citizenship of too many Muslims.

If one believed that the discrimination against Muslims is India is just hearsay, consider the words of an MP and BJP leader, Dr Swamy. In defence of controversial citizenship laws in an interview, he stated,

“We know where the Muslim population is large and there’s always trouble…If Muslims become more than 30%, that country is in danger.”

When challenged for his hateful comments, he asserted he was being kind to Muslims by not letting them into India, because equality does not apply to them, as they fit into a completely different category.

The Bishop of Truro’s independent review for the Foreign Secretary in 2019 found rising levels of hate and attacks on Christians in India. The report mentions 750 reported cases of Christian persecution in India in 2017 alone. Recently, we have witnessed the use of brute force with water cannon on Indian farmers, who are mainly Sikhs. Other marginalised groups such as Dalits, those of lower caste or even non-religious groups such as humanists have often been at the forefront of hate and discrimination in India.

India is at a pivotal point. While its economic advance is set to lead it to become the third biggest economy by 2035, its political advance is set to eradicate the legacy of Gandhism based on a pluralist India. The world is also at a pivotal point because nations likes ours need to make a choice between turning a blind eye to the Nazi-inspired ideology taking charge in the ruling party of India in favour of economic trade, or standing by persecuted minorities and the very values of Gandhism.

If our words fall on deaf ears, then the world should not be shocked if minorities in India push towards a path of ethnic cleansing in the future. India has a choice to make, but so does the rest of the world.

Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab)

There is an indivisible historic bond that we have been reminded of between the UK and India. India is rightly admired as the world’s biggest democracy, and its economic achievements have been staggering. My hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) rightly paid tribute to the constitution of India drawn up under the leadership of Dr B. R. Ambedkar, which says

“all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion.”

It is a model for such a vast and richly diverse nation. However, India is seeing growing violence against religious minorities.

As the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) said, the latest Open Doors’ World Watch List will be launched tomorrow. For the last two years, India has been in 10th place on that list of the worst countries for the persecution of Christians, and the position is not going to improve, as I understand it, in the list being published tomorrow. Now that would once have been unconceivable; 10 years ago it was down at number 32. The current Indian Government was elected in 2014 and in 2016, Open Doors put India for the first time among the world’s worst 20 countries and the report that year referred to

“a surge of militant Hindu pressure on religious minorities, most frequently Muslims and Christians.”

In 2019, India entered the worst 10 countries. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended that year that India be designated a country of particular concern. Human Rights Watch reported in 2019:

“The government failed to properly enforce Supreme Court directives to prevent and investigate mob attacks”.

India remained in the top 10 last year. Open Doors reports four religiously-motivated murders of Christians in the first half of 2020 and eight just in the third quarter.

We have been reminded that Christians and Muslims account for 20% of India’s population. I paid a wonderful visit to Kerala in 2017 where the location of churches established by the Apostle Thomas were pointed out to me. Islam arrived between the 12th and 16th centuries. Both religions have been very significant in India’s development. The problem is, and this point has rightly been made, that it is not that the state is perpetrating violence against minority religions but, to quote Christian Solidarity Worldwide:

“Right-wing groups are emboldened by a culture of impunity due to state negligence or complicity.”

Government inaction has meant that mob lynching against Muslims and Dalits and violence against Christians and humanists are increasing. The Government are not always negligent, but they have often been negligent.

A report from the London School of Economics published at the end of 2019 entitled “WhatsApp vigilantes” refers to more than a hundred lynchings since 2015, many against Dalits, Muslims, Christians and Adivasis, carried out by

“mobs of vigilantes who use peer-to-peer messaging applications such as WhatsApp to spread lies about the victims, and use misinformation to mobilise, defend, and in some cases to document and circulate images of their violence.”

We have been reminded that covid-19 seems to have increased the problems. When our Prime Minister visits India, he must raise this issue.

When Ministers such as the one who is with us this morning visit India, I hope they will meet religious minorities. That will be a huge source of encouragement.

Meeting in the USA and in India, Donald Trump and Narendra Modi have heaped praise on each other. At the moment, we are seeing where America-first politics leads playing out in the US. Every community needs to feel protected; it is not enough to protect only the majority, and the authorities in India need to act against those who perpetrate violence towards Muslims, Christians, Dalits, humanists and other religious minorities.

David Linden (Glasgow East) (SNP)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for leading today’s debate on behalf of the APPG for freedom of religion or belief. In paying tribute to fellow APPG members, I also congratulate the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on her appointment as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. I know that she has a personal passion for this subject, and I do not doubt at all that she will be an outstanding envoy for the Government, so I wish her well on behalf of my party.

In the run-up to this morning’s debate, I have to say that I have been fascinated—indeed, quite perplexed—by the knee-jerk reaction to the debate. That extends to the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner): if I followed the logic of his remarks that we should not be interfering in the domestic politics of other countries, particularly countries that the UK once ruled over, surely the same would be true of the United States of America, but I recall that fairly recently he had lots to say about George Floyd. The reality is that foreign affairs is a reserved matter for this Parliament, and it is entirely right for Members of this House to comment on it.

Barry Gardiner

I do not doubt for a moment that we should be engaged in foreign affairs, and we have the right to debate what we wish in this House. I did not suggest otherwise; what I did say was that we should always do so with a sense of humility and appropriateness, and in this particular case, remembering that we were a colonial power that was engaged in pitting one section of the community against the other for over 200 years.

David Linden

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and that is a point that I will echo later in my speech. However, several hon. Members in Westminster Hall today have been recipients of emails from members of the Indian diaspora, the High Commission of India, and even a Member of the House of Lords, all getting their excuses in early and suggesting that the issues raised in today’s debate are overblown or misplaced. Only this morning, a number of us received an email with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards copied in, complaining that by taking part in this debate we were in breach of the MPs’ code of conduct—which is frankly nonsense, and I expect the Commissioner will clarify that.

As a Scottish nationalist MP, I understand the optics of India’s former colonial rulers being seen to lecture them on human rights and democracy; that is an irony that will not be lost on many people. However, as I said earlier, foreign affairs is still very much a matter reserved to this Parliament, and it is therefore right that we comment, whether on India or on other parts of the world. I have no problem whatsoever with other Parliaments commenting on our situation as well.

In an email that we received from the noble Lord Ranger, we were reminded—if not rebuked—that India is the largest working democracy globally. I have to say, being reminded by an unelected peer about India being a democracy was certainly a novel experience, but Lord Ranger went on to say that

“a free trade agreement is on the cards in the not too distant future.”

He is right: it is precisely because India is the world’s largest democracy, and a country with which the UK seeks a free trade agreement, that we are having this debate today and bringing into sharp focus violations of FORB and persecution of minority groups.

Religious persecution in India is a topic that I have been following for several years now, but I want to draw the attention of the House to a report from Open Doors UK, entitled “We’re Indians Too”. That report provided a sobering analysis of the escalating human rights violations against religious minority communities in India. Although religion-based violence has existed for years, analysis of instances since 2014 demonstrate that Hindu extremists have created an environment of hate and intolerance towards India’s religious minorities, primarily its Christian and Muslim communities. This in turn has led to an escalation of violence, social ostracism, property destruction, hate speech, disruption of peaceful non-Hindu religious activities, and false accusations of conversion activities. This has all been compounded yet further by the emergence of covid-19. We have heard alarming testimony of Christians from different states walking hundreds of miles to Madhya Pradesh state, being denied rations and informed that they would not have access to assistance. Indeed, the hon. Member for Strangford has said already that Muslims continue to be targeted as a perceived source of coronavirus and in many cases have been denied medical treatment as a result of that rhetoric.

Just as I have paid tribute to the work of Open Doors, I also want to thank Christian Solidarity Worldwide for all of its advocacy in respect of India. With your forbearance, Mr Robertson, I want to single out Joanne Moore who has been instrumental in briefing me on FORB issues over the years, specifically on but not limited to India. Joanne leaves CSW this month and will be enormously missed by all of us in the House who have appreciated her diligence, passion and expertise.

The South Asia state of minorities report of 2020, published just last month, paints a picture of spiting, oppressive and minority politics, the criminalisation of dissent and a deteriorating humanitarian situation within India. Mary Lawlor, UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, wrote, and I quote:

“In India, human rights defenders and religious minorities protesting discriminatory laws and practices have faced restrictions, violence, criminal defamation, detention and harassment.”

She went on to say:

“Other recent legislation limits freedom of opinion and expression, in the guise of preventing disharmony and disaffection.”

The situation is grave, and the UK has a role to play, I would argue. It is imperative that the Prime Minister’s upcoming trip to India in the first half of 2021 is used to send a signal that an enhanced trade partnership between the UK and India will not be signed until real change is realised. The British Government often comment that the UK has very constructive relations with India. It is precisely for that reason, Mr Robertson, that we should be acting as a critical friend when it comes to advocating for minority groups facing persecution. As with any negotiation there are trade-offs, but turning a blind eye to the persecution of religious minorities should not be one of them. It must be the case that that remains a priority for the British Government and this matter should be a red line in any future trade agreement.

Last night the House had an excellent debate on the concept of global Britain. I made it clear then and I do so again today that global Britain is not the SNP’s project. We wish it well, but we do not wish Scotland to be a part of it for obvious reasons. However, an early first test for global Britain is in confronting the increasingly thuggish Modi regime, which has seen the oppression of religious minorities for far, far too long. The Minister knows this particular caucus of MPs well enough to understand that we always put party and constitutional politics aside to advocate for international freedom of religion and belief. In doing so, though, we will hold the Government’s feet to the fire as the Prime Minister departs for India on his trip this year. The success of the trade mission will not just be measured in the size or scope of a free trade agreement. For me, the real measure will be whether or not Members of this House are still raising concerns about religious persecution later in the year, and I very much hope that we will not be.

Stephen Kinnock (Aberavon) (Lab)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I would like to start by congratulating the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who I thought gave a passionate account of his views on this matter, along with other Members who secured this debate, including the hon. Members for Glasgow East (David Linden) and for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell). I would like to thank hon. Members on these Benches for their contributions. I thought my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) gave a particularly compelling and balanced account of the issues we are facing. Other contributors, not least my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford West (Naz Shah) and for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), made a number of very important points.

I want to stress that those on the Labour Front Bench stand firmly behind the rights of minorities to religious freedom, both in India and across the world. The Labour party’s new foreign policy puts the rule of law, democracy and human rights at the very heart of our agenda, and we are absolutely clear that religious freedom is a critical right that must be universally upheld. However, the wider picture is that, according to recent research by the V-Dem Institute, for the first time since 2001 authoritarian regimes outnumber the world’s democracies, and the number of such regimes is growing. That is why it is essential for democracies, of which India is of course the world’s largest, to stand firm together in defence of universal human rights. We must lead by example in standing up for freedom of expression and freedom of religion. They are the cornerstones of the values that we in the United Kingdom, and particularly the Labour party, hold dear. They should be the values that democrats across the world cherish.

We have consistently stood up for religious freedoms throughout Asia. We have called on the UK Government to take action against the Chinese Government for their persecution of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang by deploying Magnitsky sanctions against senior officials. We also consistently urge Ministers to defend the rights of minorities in Sri Lanka, and to act far more robustly on to the appalling treatment of the Rohingya people in Myanmar.

The Labour party has stood up for human rights in India, including by standing by Amnesty International in India, which was recently forced to discontinue its operations due to what it described as “persistent harassment” by the Indian Government. I also recently expressed our strong belief that the farmers protesting in India must have the right to peaceful protest, and that the Indian authorities must commit to upholding that right. Again, UK Ministers should be engaging far more actively and effectively with their counterparts in New Delhi to convey that message clearly.

The religious rights of minority groups in India are a hugely important issue. In the three years to June 2019, India’s national human rights commission registered 2,008 cases of minorities being harassed. Every one of those events is heartbreaking for those affected, who in some instances lost their lives, for their families and for all of us who wish to see India thrive as a nation.

Religious minorities constitute one fifth of India’s population. Articles 29 and 30 of the constitution protect the rights of those communities, including the right to use their own language and to form their own educational institutions. Article 15 prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion, caste, sex or place of birth. In spite of those constitutional protections, however, in late 2019, the Indian Government’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act caused concern because it failed to state that it would offer a path to fast-track citizenship for Muslim immigrants, while explicitly committing to fast-tracking Hindus, Parsis, Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs and Christians from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

More recently, in late February 2020, New Delhi experienced terrible communal violence. The initial attacks were predominantly by members of the majority Hindu population against Muslim minority groups. The death toll reached 53. The majority of those who died were Muslims, but many Hindus also lost their lives and parts of north-east Delhi were put under lockdown. Every section of the population is profoundly damaged by such violence and strife.

Later in 2020, the persecution of Muslims continued as they were blamed for the spread of covid-19, as many hon. Members have mentioned. Hon. Members have also eloquently pointed out that Christians have suffered some persecution. According to Persecution Relief, between January 2016 and January 2020, there were 2,067 crimes inspired by religious intolerance against Christians in India.

India is the world’s largest democracy. As such, it can and should take its place as a leader in global affairs and a shaper of the global agenda. It is also a hugely diverse rainbow nation. As such, it has an opportunity to be one of the world’s most successful multi-ethnic, multi-faith and multicultural societies. The vast majority of the Indian population, whatever their ethnicity or religion, are rightly proud of their country’s vibrant diversity and are committed to the principles of religious freedom that are important in any healthy democracy. The Indian Government have, of course, made some effort to support minorities through their multi-sector development programme, with the majority of the spend going on education. We are confident that those interventions will yield positive results.

In the light of the above, we call on Ministers to engage actively with their counterparts in New Delhi; to set out the role of the new special envoy on freedom of religion and belief, the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), and what she will do to encourage tolerance and inclusion; to explain the Government’s plan to compensate for the abolition of the Department for International Development, which did some outstanding work promoting religious freedoms across the globe; and to explain the decision to renege on the Government’s manifesto commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on development. Can the Minister tell us which DFID programmes for freedom of religion and belief will survive these swingeing cuts?

It is vital that the Government take a serious and strategic approach to defending religious freedoms, and we look forward to the Minister’s answers on these vital issues.

The Minister for Asia (Nigel Adams)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing the debate and the role he plays on this issue in this House. I pay tribute to all his work as chair of the APPG for international freedom of religion or belief. I am grateful to all hon. Members for their contributions. My right hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), and the hon. Members for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) and for Bradford West (Naz Shah) all made very thoughtful and insightful speeches. Like the hon. Member for Brent North, I am a little surprised to be here. Nevertheless, we are and have the opportunity to recognise and share the feeling in the House on these vital issues. Later in my speech, I will respond to the points hon. Members raised.

The UK is committed to defending freedom of religion or belief for all. It is one of our human rights priorities. Nobody should be excluded because of their religion or belief. Discrimination, as we all know, does terrible damage to societies. Importantly, it holds back economies. A country cannot fully develop or thrive while members of minority communities are oppressed. It is a core message of our diplomacy that communities are stronger, more stable and more prosperous when they embrace their diversity rather than fear it.

In November, my ministerial colleague who is responsible for human rights, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, underlined our commitment to freedom of religion or belief, speaking at the ministerial meeting to advance freedom of religion or belief and the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance Ministers’ forum. All hon. Members present will know that in 2019, the previous Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), commissioned the Bishop of Truro to undertake a review into the Government’s support for persecuted Christians. I want to confirm yet again that this Government remain fully committed to implementing all the Bishop’s recommendation and promoting freedom of religion or belief for all.

I am delighted, as I am sure everyone here will be, that we have confirmed that my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) will continue that implementation, as the Prime Minister’s new special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. The hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) was absolutely right to raise that point, as well as the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), who, in a previous debate, pushed on when that appointment would be made. I am thrilled that it was made before the Christmas break. I am sure that my hon. Friend will do a fantastic job.

Those of us who have had the pleasure of visiting India know that it is a magnificent country. It is one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world. It boasts over 20 official languages, over 1,500 registered dialects—it is very similar to Yorkshire in that regard—and a rich tapestry of religious minorities, alongside its sizable Hindu majority. It is also the birthplace of the other great religions of Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism.

Most notably in the context of this debate, it is also home to the world’s third largest Muslim population—over 195 million people—and approximately 28 million Christians.

Shortly after partition, India’s first Prime Minister, Nehru, said:

“Whatever our religion or creed, we are all one people.”

This is the foundation stone of India. Regardless of religious differences, all citizens can consider themselves Indians.

Indians are rightly proud of their history of inclusive government, and their secular constitution, which hon. Members have referred to. This guarantees citizens equality before the law. We are proud of our diversity and religious pluralism in the UK, and those are shared values, central to the governance of both our countries. They lie at the heart of our partnership, which is further strengthened by the UK’s 1.5 million-strong Indian diaspora—the living bridge between us.

However, as hon. Members have noted, India faces challenges in enforcing its constitutional protections for freedom of religion or belief. The situation for religious minorities across India varies depending on where they live, their socioeconomic background and how their numbers compare to other communities. Some have suggested that the UK turns a blind eye to these challenges, because we do not want to criticise an important partner. I can assure the House that this is not the case. On the contrary, thanks to our close relationship, we are able to discuss the most difficult issues with the Government of India and make clear our concerns, as they do with us, and as one would expect from close partners and friends.

David Linden 

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and have a huge amount of respect for him, but can he put on record that when the Prime Minister sits down with Prime Minister Modi, he will raise this with him in person?

Nigel Adams

Absolutely. The hon. Member is right to raise this. There is a real opportunity, when that trip goes ahead, not just to talk about what is incredibly important in our trading relationship with India, but to put on the table our concerns around these issues. In that vein, I can confirm that during the Foreign Secretary’s visit to India in December, he raised a number of these human rights issues with his Indian counterpart, including the situation in Kashmir and our concern around many consular cases.

Most recently, our acting high commissioner in New Delhi discussed the UK’s parliamentary interest in minorities in India with officials from India’s Ministry of External Affairs on 4 January. Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office officials here in London discussed the situation for India’s religious minorities with the Indian high commissioner on 29 December. Our Minister responsible for human rights and our relations with India, Lord Ahmad, speaks regularly to his opposite number in the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi and with the Indian high commissioner here in the UK. Where we have concerns, he raises them directly with the Indian authorities.

Over the last three years, our high commission has worked with local non-governmental organisations to bring together hundreds of young people of diverse faiths in three cities in India to work together on social action projects in their local communities, thereby promoting a culture of interfaith dialogue. Our diplomatic network across India also regularly meets religious representatives from all faiths to understand their perspectives. We use important milestones such as Inter Faith Week to reach out to these communities. In May, our high commission hosted a virtual Iftar, engaging over 100 Muslim and other faith and civil society contracts across India. There was positive media coverage, reaching around 7 million people.

In September, our high commission hosted a virtual roundtable with faith leaders from the Hindu, Sikh, Muslim and Christian communities to understand how faith groups in India have responded to the pandemic, to celebrate their important contribution to supporting local communities, and to promote joint working between faith leaders. This year, our high commission will support an interfaith leadership programme for a cohort of emerging Indian faith leaders, including Christians and Muslims. Hopefully, this will create an opportunity for: UK-India interfaith dialogue on tackling shared global challenges such as climate change; exchanging expertise on leading modern, inclusive faith communities; and promoting values of tolerance and multiculturalism.

The hon. Member for Strangford raised the case of Father Stan Swamy. Human rights defenders make an essential contribution to the promotion of the rights of their fellow citizens. We acknowledge that they face growing threats, and the UK works with many international partners to support them through our networks of high commissions and embassies. We have directly raised the case of Father Stan Swamy with the Indian authorities, most recently on 12 November. We will continue to monitor such cases and raise them directly with Ministers where appropriate.

With regard to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019, Lord Ahmad has previously raised our concerns about the impact of recent legislative and judicial measures on India’s minorities directly with Ministers. We have not yet received any confirmation from the Government of India on whether an India-wide national register of citizens will be implemented. We keenly await details of any next steps that they take following the NRC in Assam.

I end by saying that we look to the Government of India to address these concerns and protect the rights of people of all religions. That is in keeping with India’s constitution and a proud and inclusive tradition. Our high commission in New Delhi and our network of deputy high commissioners across India will continue to monitor the situation closely. Where we have concerns, we do not hesitate to raise them directly with the Indian authorities.

Jim Shannon

I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their heartfelt contributions, some of which I would not be entirely supportive of, but all were contributions in the right sense of the word, which is the important thing.

It was said that every community needs to be protected; that is so important. Our role in this House and in this debate is to speak up for those who have no voice. We are speaking up for the 1.9 million Rohingya Muslims who have no citizen rights, and for the 1.3 billion citizens in India living under new anti-conversion laws. We speak up on behalf of the Christians, the Muslims, the Shi’as, the Sikhs, and all people who do not conform or do not follow the Hindu religion.

I thank the Minister for his response. He has confirmed what we all wanted to hear: the Government raise the issues with India whenever the opportunity arises. In replying to the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), the Minister gave the answer that we hoped for, and it was said in a constructive and positive way. The right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and the hon. Member for Glasgow East will know that I like to end these debates with a scriptural text. This is from Peter 5, verses 7 to 10.

“Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you…the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore

and

“strengthen you.”

Today, this House, in Westminster Hall, has spoken up for those who have no voice, and for those who have no one to speak for them. We look forward to the Government and the Minister doing just that for each and every one of us.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the matter of persecution of Muslims, Christians and minority groups in India.

 

© UK Parliament 2021

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