Foreign Office Questions: persecution of Christians overseas

14 May: Commons Chamber, Oral Answers to Questions, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Persecution of Christians Overseas

Luke Hall (Thornbury and Yate) (Con)
9. What steps his Department is taking to help tackle the persecution of Christians overseas.

Sir David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con)
13. What steps his Department is taking to help tackle the persecution of Christians overseas.

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr Jeremy Hunt)
I think that today the whole House will want to remember the six people killed on Sunday at mass in a Catholic church in Burkina Faso when a gunman arrived, stormed the church, killed the priest and then set fire to the church. That shows why this is such an important issue to address.

Luke Hall
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer and associate myself with his comments. I further thank him for the work that he has done by personally raising on his recent travels abroad the appalling persecution of Christians abroad, especially in countries like Nigeria. What has he learned from those trips about what more we can do, as a Government, to tackle the appalling persecution of Christians in the region?

Mr Hunt
I had a roundtable of faith leaders at the British high commissioner’s residence in Nigeria, and we had a very good discussion on this issue. The main thing that I took away from that discussion is the immensely important role that politicians have in developing countries in not fanning populism and hatred between religions in election campaigns, which is a very easy route to go down but can have immensely damaging consequences.

Sir David Evennett
I welcome the recent publication of the Bishop of Truro’s interim report on the persecution of Christians. Does my right hon. Friend feel that there is now a strong case, based on the bishop’s early findings, for the Government to be even more public and more forceful in calling out persecution where it is identified?

Mr Hunt
I think there is. We will obviously await the bishop’s final report. The concern we had, and the reason that we commissioned the report, was a sense that while we have, rightly, called out persecution of people of other religions—the Rohingya in Burma, for example—we have been more reticent in doing that when it is Christians, yet 80% of all the religious persecution in the world happens to Christians.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)
Will the Foreign Secretary pay tribute to the work that Christian Churches do in helping, across Africa and across the world, countries that need help? This is Christian Aid Week. Christian Aid does wonderful things, working in clinics and so on. Perhaps we could use our soft power to widen the perception of that work.

Mr Hunt
I had the privilege, the week before last, of seeing the work done by a Catholic charity in the slums of Kenya. I know that former Prime Minister Gordon Brown was incredibly moved by the work of the Churches when he did his big trip to Africa, so in Christian Aid Week, along with everyone in this House, I salute the tremendous work of the Churches in poorer countries.

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab)
According to the recent report by Open Doors UK, 3,731 Christians were killed in Nigeria last year—the highest number in any country. This is a matter of huge concern for all of us, and it has an impact on community relations within the UK as well. What specific steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that that there are not negative consequences for community relations—for example, within the Nigerian diaspora? What steps is he taking with the Home Office to ensure that it is aware of this when considering applications for asylum from Nigerian Christians?

Mr Hunt
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. The best the UK can do is to try to address that problem at source. I visited Maiduguri in north-east Nigeria the week before last. There is a big security issue and a big poverty issue, and because of organisations such as Islamic State West Africa and Boko Haram, there is an enormous amount of fear in local populations. We are working with the Nigerian Government and have offered them more help to try to resolve those problems, so that we do not face problems back here.

Oman: Shihuh Tribe

Brendan O’Hara (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)
4. What discussions he has had with his Omani counterpart on the treatment of the minority Shihuh tribe in the Musandam region.

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr Andrew Murrison)
The Government are aware of the concern surrounding the imprisonment of members of the Shihuh tribe in Oman. Her Majesty’s ambassador has raised this with the Omani Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Muscat. We continue to monitor the matter closely and are exploring the allegations further. Discussions on human rights form part of our bilateral exchanges with our close ally and partner Oman, including at the recent joint working group on 25 April. I look forward to meeting the Omani ambassador for the first time next week to discuss a wide range of issues.

Brendan O’Hara
I welcome the Minister to his place for his first Question Time. I am glad he is aware of the case of the Shihuh tribesmen from Musandam who have been given life sentences for something as trivial as communicating with human rights groups. Amnesty International has said that the convictions are “grossly unfair,” with credible claims that torture has been used to extract confessions. Will he undertake to speak to his Omani counterpart about this particular case and make it clear that the UK expects to see all citizens of Oman treated equally and fairly?

Dr Murrison
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. This Government take their obligations in respect of human rights extremely seriously. When speaking to our friends and allies, we make this point and share best practice all the time. As I said, I will be seeing the Omani ambassador shortly and have no doubt that we will discuss a range of issues. I suspect this case may form part of that discussion.

Topical Questions

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab)
T3. What representations have Ministers made regarding the persecution and mistreatment of members of the Baha’i faith by the Iran-backed Houthi authorities in Yemen, in particular on getting Hamed bin Haydara’s death sentence from January 2018 overturned and getting him and other detainees released?

Mr Hunt
We have not had good relations with the Houthis since the start of the Yemen conflict. I have met them twice, most recently on 1 March and before that on 13 December, and we are establishing a sort of relationship. We can start to raise that issue.