Freedom of Religion or Belief: Westminster Hall debate

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

That this House has considered freedom of religion or belief.

I put on record my thanks to all the hon. Members who are here today, as well as to the Minister—who I spoke to yesterday, and has spoken to me before—for their interest in the vital right of freedom of religion or belief. That right is close to my heart, and I am sure it is close to the heart of all those who are present. Many other Members would have liked to have been here, but we took this date when it was offered to us on short notice, and that unfortunately meant a clash in the diary of many other right hon. and hon. Members who wished to be here. Those of us who are present will carry the flag and speak out. I declare an interest: I have the privilege to chair both the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief and the all-party parliamentary group for the Pakistani minorities.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for having granted this important debate. I initially applied for this debate back at the end of October so that it would coincide with international freedom of religion or belief day, but it had to be postponed due to the general election, so I thank the Committee for having persevered and found time for it today. Unfortunately, the problems we were to discuss back in November have not gone away, and in some cases they have gotten even worse.

For example, in January, I had the privilege of attending the launch of Open Doors’ “World Watch List” report, which highlights the persecution faced by Christians around the world. That report paints a grim picture of a worsening situation for Christians, with 260 million—an increase of 15 million since 2019—living in countries where there is a risk of high, very high or extreme levels of persecution. The report cites many other concerning statistics, such as 5,500 churches shut down in China over the past year, and at least 1,445 physical attacks and death threats against Christians in India during 2019.

That terrible state of affairs is why I welcome the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s commitment to supporting persecuted Christians. I put on record my thanks to the Minister and his Department, as well as previous Ministers, for that commitment. I also thank the Minister, the special envoy for freedom of religion and belief, the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), and the FORB team for all they are doing to improve the situation. Many of us recognise that the Government have given that commitment, and we all welcome their generosity, commitment and time. Can the Minister update us on that work?

Will the Minister also inform hon. Members about the progress being made in implementing the recommendations of the Bishop of Truro’s report? In particular, I would like to know what progress has been made to improve training on FORB, and to make that training mandatory for Government officials working in countries with high levels of FORB violations. After all, how can we say sincerely that we care about freedom of religion or belief, that we recognise the tremendous suffering that people are experiencing because of denial of that freedom, and that we understand that FORB violations can cause and exacerbate conflict, but then turn around and say that we still do not know whether it is important enough to have mandatory training? We need to know that that mandatory training is in place and is having an impact. I urge the Minister to ensure that this training and the other helpful recommendations made in the Bishop of Truro’s report are implemented for the benefit of persecuted Christians the world over.

I will first speak about one particular case. This debate is about freedom of religion or belief, so I will talk about a number of faiths across the world, but I will begin with Christians, specifically Christians in Nigeria. Earlier today, I had the opportunity to meet some people from the International Organization for Peace Building and Social Justice, including Pastor Ayo and his private secretary, a fellow called John Candia. They gave me some details and information about what is happening in Nigeria. I pray; I am a committed Christian, and I have deep Christian beliefs, which focus my attention and my life on where we go. However, I also believe that as a Christian I have a duty and a love for all people of all religions in this world, and with that in mind I will speak up for each and every one of them.

John Howell (Henley) (Con)
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point about Nigeria, where as he will remember, I am the Prime Minister’s trade envoy. I wonder whether he is clear—quite frankly, I am not—on the distinction between the persecution of Christians for their Christianity and the persecution of people for other reasons, such as climate change impacts? In Nigeria, for example, the things that are happening with the Fulani herdsmen could quite easily be associated with climate change, rather than Christianity.

Jim Shannon
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. We spoke about this beforehand; he and I participate in many debates in this House, and often come forward with the same ideas, thoughts and deliberations. Yes, what is happening in Nigeria is perhaps a wee bit uncertain. The conflict involving the Fulani herdsmen, they would say, is to do with land and climate change. However, with respect to the hon. Gentleman, there are indications that there are more attacks on Christians than on anyone else. That does not lessen what is happening, but it indicates to me that there are many attacks on Christians across the whole of Nigeria.

To mention just a few of those attacks, there were five major attacks against Nigerian Christians in Kaduna state between January and November 2019, resulting in an estimated 500 deaths. There were at least another five attacks in Bassa and Riyom local government areas, as well as many attacks in Taraba state. Boko Haram remains in power around the Chad border region, including parts of Borno state. Some 1,000 Christians have been slaughtered in north-eastern Nigeria since January 2019, in addition to the over 6,000 deaths since 2015. I will talk about some of those attacks to illustrate how horrific they are.

Veronica, 35, from Dogon Noma recounted some of the awful attacks inflicted on her family. Her home was attacked by Fulani militia, and only she and three others survived; 13 of her friends and family were killed. Naomi, 54, from Karamai lost limbs in a brutal attack on her home, in which her elderly and fragile father was shot in his bed. In Ta’aziya’s village, almost 50 people were killed and only two homes were not burnt down. Pastors and leaders have said:

“Boko Haram might launch an attack at any time…this morning at 4am, they arrived with bombs. They focus their attacks on Christians.”

Whatever the other reasons may be, that is clearly what they are about.

“They kill farmers. They destroy our homes and churches. They kidnap and rape women. Some women are forced to marry Muslims. Boko Haram also attack Government properties and the police. No one can go beyond five kilometres from town.”

I want to ask five questions of the Minister, if I can. First, in the light of the Nigerian Government’s admission that Christians are being targeted in northern Nigeria, will the British Government move a UN resolution to send in peacekeeping forces to protect vulnerable communities and citizens in Nigeria? Secondly, will the UK renew its offer to assist in the search and rescue of Leah Sharibu, an ISIS captive for two years now, and others abducted and enslaved in Nigeria? Alongside Baroness Cox from the other place, my colleague the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and others, I had the pleasure of meeting Leah Sharibu’s mother Rebecca and her friend Gloria in this House, so I know how important this is for her.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con)
I thank the hon. Gentleman for having pushed for this debate, and for all the fantastic work he has done on religious freedom in his time in Parliament. When I as the special envoy met Rebecca Sharibu, Leah’s mother, we as the Government made it very clear to our Nigerian counterparts that everything that can be done to ensure Leah’s safe release should be done. We will continue to make that clear, as I did when we met with other members of the International Religious Freedom Alliance to say that, working with our Nigerian counterparts and across the globe, the United Kingdom will do everything it can to ensure Leah is released.

Jim Shannon
I am deeply indebted to the hon. Gentleman for his work. This is not a self-congratulation society, but I greatly appreciate what he does and the role that he plays, and the energy, interest and commitment that he shows. We are pleased that he is in place and we hope that there will be a fruitful conclusion to his endeavours and those of the Government.

My next question is: will the UK Government focus more or most of its international development aid on Nigeria to assist the victims and protect the vulnerable from Nigeria’s insecurity crisis? Will they use a large percentage of their aid budget to Nigeria to provide more direct assistance to internally displaced persons who live in poor conditions and to enhance security provision for vulnerable communities and people, including the Christian communities in the north-east and middle belt where they have been particularly targeted, by the Nigerian Government’s own admission?

Finally, given the Prime Minister’s call for increased post-Brexit trade and investments in Nigeria, in which the Prime Minister’s trade envoy, the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), will be interested, what security advice and warnings are the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Trade offering to British investors? Those are all important issues.

In my role as chair of the all-party group on international freedom of religion or belief, I campaign on behalf of all who are persecuted, not just Christians, because I am a Christian and I believe that my God loves everyone. That is why I, and all hon. Members present, believe that it is our duty to speak out not only for those of Christian faith, but for people of any faith and of course, just as important, those who do not profess a faith at all. That is why I now turn to the persecution that other groups, including the non-religious, are facing around the world.

Atheists, agnostics and other non-religious people often face extreme violations of FORB. Indeed, in Saudi Arabia, that great ally of the United Kingdom—questions were asked about that relationship in the Chamber today—atheism is considered a criminal offence, punishable by death. In the eyes of the Saudi Government, therefore, many British people, including some in this House, are the worst criminals and not deserving of life.

According to “The Freedom of Thought Report” published by the International Humanist and Ethical Union,

“even on the most conservative estimates, there are untold millions of de facto humanists, atheists and otherwise religiously unaffiliated people living in countries where they face discrimination or outright persecution, both in society and at the hands of the state. In the most extreme cases, the non-religious are told that…to promote humanist values…is a kind of criminal attack on culture.”

Again, that is simply unacceptable.

Alex Sobel (Leeds North West) (Lab/Co-op)
I praise the hon. Gentleman for his dogged determination in bringing debates on this subject to the House and pursuing these issues. Does he agree that the media abroad and in the UK sometimes fuel the violence against and harassment of people of faith and, as he mentioned, people without faith by misrepresenting who they are and what they think? That can have as much of an effect on people as, for instance, state violence.

Jim Shannon
Yes, I think the media have a lot to answer for, on not just this but many subjects. They influence opinion and focus attention unfairly.

Of course, it is not only the non-religious who are suffering. Just under two weeks ago, on 1 March, the Independent Tribunal into Forced Organ Harvesting from Prisoners of Conscience in China, chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice, QC, released its full judgment. Its interim judgement, released in 2018, declared that forced organ harvesting from religious prisoners of conscience was taking place. The final judgment confirms that view and declares:

“Forced organ harvesting has been committed for years throughout China on a significant scale and that Falun Gong practitioners have been one—and probably the main—source of organ supply. The concerted persecution and medical testing of the Uyghurs is more recent and it may be that evidence of forced organ harvesting of this group may emerge in due course.”

After yesterday’s Westminster Hall debate on that very issue, I am aware that it is emerging. The judgment continues:

“The Tribunal has had no evidence that the significant infrastructure associated with China’s transplantation industry has been dismantled”,

which is disappointing,

“and absent a satisfactory explanation as to the source of readily available organs concludes that forced organ harvesting continues till today.”

I have a nephew back home who had to wait five or six years for a kidney transplant. I understand that the wait it is partly about age and getting older, but it is also about availability. Someone could go to China almost any day, any week, and receive an organ. How can that happen? Even though it is a bigger nation, it poses a question.

Thousands of miles away in Westminster, it is sometimes hard to appreciate the horror of that statement—forced organ harvesting on a commercial scale. It is hard not to wonder how anyone could treat their fellow humans so cruelly. I also wonder how many more will suffer that fate before the UK Government—my Government—take action. I wonder how long the Government will refuse to acknowledge the evidence, which includes admissions from doctors in leading Chinese transplant hospitals. I wonder how history will remember those who ignored what Lord Alton of Liverpool described as a practice comparable with,

“‘the worst atrocities committed in conflicts of the 20th century’, including the gassing of Jews by the Nazis and the Khmer Rouge massacres in Cambodia”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 2 March 2020; Vol. 802, c. 390.]

The Government say that the World Health Organisation has found China’s transplant system to be legitimate. I find that incredible. It is a system in which it takes two to three weeks to get an organ donation, compared with two to three years in the UK. If the system is legitimate, it is the envy of the world and it is a matter of the utmost priority that the NHS should learn from China to save British lives. If it is legitimate, it is an absolute dereliction of responsibility by the UK Government that they have not done everything in their power to understand how China’s system works, so we can replicate its efficiency in the UK.

Indeed, last year, 34 parliamentarians from both Houses wrote a letter to the WHO director general to request that information, but despite chasing it several times with his office, the WHO did not respond. Surely, if the Chinese system is legitimate, the WHO should be begging the Chinese Government to share their medical marvel with the world, but we all know the real reason why organ transplants are available. The Government are not doing that, and the evidence tells us why.

Beyond Falun Gong practitioners, Uighur Muslims are also suffering in China, as we discussed in yesterday’s debate with the same Minister present. I spoke then as well—in this room, probably from this seat—about China’s treatment of its Uighur population. We learned that “hundreds of thousands”, in fact probably between 1 million and 3 million, are imprisoned in China and that many have experienced acts of torture.

Muslims are not just being persecuted in China, however. Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar have suffered what has been described by the United Nations as a

“textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

The Rohingya were stripped of their citizenship in 1982 and suffered systematic persecution by Buddhist nationalists. That culminated in a brutal military offensive in August 2017 that killed thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands more, who were forced into neighbouring Bangladesh. We thank Bangladesh for stepping up and reaching out.

In a worrying parallel, at the end of July 2018, in Assam, the Indian Government effectively stripped 4 million people, mostly Muslims, of their citizenship, and branded them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh amid an atmosphere of rising Hindu nationalism. Muslims in India also claim that they are being persecuted by the Citizenship (Amendment) Act passed by the Indian Parliament in December, which provides a fast track to Indian citizenship for non-Muslim migrants from India’s neighbours. Protests erupted across India in response to the law, which is seen by many as discriminatory against Muslims.

Afzal Khan (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab)
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the work he has done over many years. On what is happening in India, does he agree that it is disappointing, given that we talk about India being the world’s biggest democracy, that it seems to be going downhill with the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the Kashmir issue? I find it shocking that Prime Minister Modi has said to the public that that was only a trailer, so the main film is to yet be seen. How is that acceptable? Should our Government not do more?

Jim Shannon
The Government should. Next week I will present a request to the Backbench Business Committee for a debate specifically on India. The hon. Gentleman, and other hon. Members who have signed that request, will have an opportunity to debate the issue, in Westminster Hall I suspect. I mention that, as I have tried to mention a lot of other things. I agree with him and I thank him for the intervention.

Sectarian violence has caused dozens of deaths, the destruction of religious buildings and physical altercations in the Indian Parliament—even the Parliament has not been above the verbal and physical abuse of people. That conflict and instability illustrates the point that hon. Members have made repeatedly in such debates, which is that FORB violations can cause and exacerbate conflict between communities and must be addressed before they explode into violence.

In 2018, the APPG for FORB wrote that, “Violence and discrimination, combined with arbitrary exclusion from legal institutions, could cause significant grievances among non-Hindus in India, which may lead to domestic conflict and violence.” Unfortunately, that has proven to be the case. It is for that reason that Government Departments such as the Department for International Development must invest greater resources in promoting freedom of religion or belief to prevent conflict, rather than responding to crises only once violence has already erupted, when it is too late.

Similarly, it is vital that the Government recognise how the potential for societal instability and conflict caused by human rights violations can harm economic prosperity and limit hopes for long-term, prosperous trading relationships with countries such as India, as the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) referred to. We have a relationship that we wish to build on, but they have to address the issue of human rights. Will the Minister assure hon. Members that FORB violations will be discussed in the Government’s trade negotiations with relevant countries? Will he assure us that provisions to protect human rights will be included in any such deals?

It is particularly important to address FORB violations quickly whenever they emerge because conflicts can spread and violence between Hindus and Muslims in India can have knock-on effects in Pakistan, where non-Muslim minorities such as Hindus and Christians face severe persecution.

If I am spared, I will be visiting Pakistan with Lord Alton from the other place over the Easter period. Just yesterday I had the privilege of meeting a delegation from Pakistan who described how blasphemy laws are being misused there to persecute religious minorities, and how young women and girls from those communities are being taken from their homes. According to the National Commission for Justice and Peace, the Pakistani authorities prosecuted a total of 1,170 blasphemy cases between 1987 and 2012, with scores of new cases being brought every year.

Rehman Chishti
On the abuse of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan, as envoy I appointed Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester and also a bishop in Pakistan, to the advisory panel. His specific task was to look at how administrative changes can be made to address the abuse of the blasphemy laws. Blasphemy laws are often used against Muslims themselves over land disputes and other economic issues, as well as against minorities. I have specifically asked him to look at administrative changes, so that the abuse of those laws can be stopped. No one should be subject to these laws for practising their freedom of religion or belief.

Jim Shannon
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention. I subscribe to those views as well. He is correct; the blasphemy laws are used maliciously against people. One case that everyone would be aware of is that of Asia Bibi. We were in Pakistan in September 2018 and had an opportunity to meet two of the three judges who were to make the decision on Asia Bibi. We were clear what we were doing when we went there. We were not going to tell the Pakistani Government that they should change everything; we were going to say, “This does not work, because people are maliciously using the law against others for their own reasons.” Our meetings with the judges who were deliberating on Asia Bibi were very helpful and supportive of the case. We were sworn to secrecy and were not able to say that until the case was heard in court, and Asia Bibi was released. I know that there was an appeal after that. Now she is free and living in Canada.

Afzal Khan
I also recently visited Pakistan. First, I found it encouraging how assertive and helpful the judiciary are being. Secondly, the current Government seem to be moving in the right direction of protecting minorities, particularly in what they have been doing in terms of the Sikh community—opening up the gurdwara and so on—which is welcome. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

Jim Shannon
I certainly do. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his knowledge and his participation today, which is most helpful.

We need to see some other changes in Pakistan, particularly around the 5% of jobs that are set aside for Christians. Christians need to have the opportunity of educational advantage, training and opportunity, so that they can apply for jobs other than those that on offer at the minute—cleaning the streets and cleaning the latrines. Christians deserve the same opportunities as everyone else. I know that 5% of jobs are set aside. Let us have the same opportunity for jobs, whether that is as nurses, doctors, teachers or whatever.

Peter Grant (Glenrothes) (SNP)
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on a powerful and well-informed speech. Sometimes what in some cases can look like religious discrimination is very close to racial discrimination, and sometimes religious differences are used as an excuse for racism, just as sometimes racial differences are used as an excuse for religious persecution. Does he agree that religious persecution and racism are often close relatives?

Jim Shannon
I certainly do. They are intertwined and wrapped around each other, and sometimes the situation is used in that way.

No precise figures are available, but Pakistani non-governmental organisations such as the Movement for Solidarity and Peace have estimated that each year around 1,000 Hindu and Christian girls in Pakistan are kidnapped, forced to convert to Islam and forcibly married or sold into prostitution.

I discussed that and other issues during my trip to Pakistan in October 2018. I travelled in a delegation with two other British parliamentarians, the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) and Lord Alton from the other place. We spent five days in total in the wonderful country of Pakistan, having very productive meetings with Government officials, as well as several human rights NGOs. We also met representatives of various minority rights organisation and had the opportunity to visit some Christian communities, including in slum residences in Islamabad.

One thing that left a lasting impression on me and on the whole delegation was visiting those slums and the houses that people live in, and the people who were volunteers. One lady in particular was teaching children, from about five to 16, the rudimentary elements of education. If Christians have the opportunity to educate themselves, they have the opportunity to apply for the jobs. We need that issue to move forward and we will take that up as we go on.

Rehman Chishti
I thank the hon. Gentleman and the delegation for their report, “Religions Minorities of Pakistan: report of a parliamentary visit”. As the Prime Minister’s special envoy, I met the Pakistani high commissioner and asked him to meet the parliamentarians to go through the findings in the report, so that they can work together to address the key issues facing people of all faiths and none, of being able to practise their faith in line with article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights. He is happy to do that.

Jim Shannon
I am also very happy to do that. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. We will make sure that report is available to colleagues if they have not seen it.

I hope to travel again to Pakistan in April to discuss our report with colleagues there, so we can see how we can work together to protect minorities in Pakistan. It would be very much appreciated if the Minister could support that trip and set an example by implementing the recommendations for the British Government that are set out in the report that the hon. Gentleman just referred to.

Before I finish on Pakistan, one group I particularly want to mention is the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. There is a group from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland who invite me to their event in Omagh every year. I was there a short time ago and I was there a few years ago as well. I am very pleased to be invited, and I am very pleased to support them. They have freedom of religion or belief in Ireland, both north and south, but they are a persecuted Muslim group. It is the only religious community to be explicitly targeted by Pakistan’s laws on grounds of faith. Perpetrators are given free rein to attack innocent Ahmadis in the knowledge that they will never face prosecution for their actions. Hundreds of Ahmadis have been murdered and the targeted killing of Ahmadis continues with impunity. Ahmadis cannot call themselves Muslims and are denied the right to vote as Muslims. Ahmadis are openly declared as “deserving to be killed”—I will not try to wrap my Ulster Scots accent around the original words—in the Pakistani media and by religious clerics, with the state unable to stand up for Ahmadis and against the extremists.

Another community whose plight I want to highlight and who face comparable persecution are the Baha’i community of Iran. I speak about them all the time, as many in this House do. Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, the Government of Iran have persecuted Iranian Baha’is, who comprise the country’s largest non-Muslim religious minority, with more than 300,000 members, as a systematic policy of the state. Since Dr Hassan Rouhani assumed the presidency in August 2018, more than 283 Baha’is have been arrested, thousands have been blocked from access to higher education, and there have been at least 645 acts of economic oppression. In addition, more than 26,000 pieces of anti-Baha’i propaganda have been disseminated in the Iranian media.

In an even more alarming development, in the early months of 2020 the Iranian Government have moved to digitise national identity cards. The new identity system restricts applicants to select only one of four religions, according to the 1979 constitution—Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism. Those belonging to other faiths are denied the ID cards. Why should that be? They are therefore deprived of the most basic civil services, such as applying for a loan or buying property, or just having a job or an education.

I have spoken a lot about different groups and now want to highlight the plight of the women of those groups, who are often particularly vulnerable due to the double persecution that they sometimes face, for their gender and their beliefs—for example, the poor young Christian and Hindu girls in Pakistan who I mentioned. The stories of the Yazidi women, some of whom we have met, are horrendous. They suffered unspeakable atrocities at the hands of Daesh because they were of both the wrong gender and the wrong faith. It is of the utmost importance that we highlight the plight of those women, whose stories often go unreported, including the thousands of Muslim and Christian women who have been kidnapped by Boko Haram over the years.

In honour of International Women’s Day on Sunday 8 March, I tabled an early-day motion on International Women’s Day and freedom of religion or belief. The purpose of the EDM is threefold: first, to recognise the intersection between women’s rights and the right to FORB, and to encourage the UK Government to develop targeted programming and aim for women who face double vulnerabilities as members of minority faith communities; secondly, to include religion as a factor of vulnerability in any assessment made in planning and programming; and thirdly, to ensure that sensitivity training related to the international right to freedom of religion or belief is integrated into gender-related and anti-discrimination programmes. I would welcome any information that the Minister can share about how the Government intend to address the specific vulnerabilities that women from minority faith or belief groups face, and I encourage hon. Members to add their name to the EDM if they have not already done so.

I thank hon. Members in advance for their contributions to this important debate, and I very much look forward to the Minister’s response. I am confident that we will get a very good response. I thank hon. Members for making the time to come to the debate.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con)
Thank you, Ms Buck. It is a pleasure to be here today. I have spoken about freedom of religion or belief before. Of course, any decent society believes that freedom of religion is a basic human right. The problem is that I have been to many places where it is not a basic human right.

From the Bishop of Truro’s report, I know that 80% of persecution for religious reasons is against Christians. I am neutral, however, because in Bosnia I saw Roman Catholics attacking Orthodox Christians and Muslims, Muslims attacking Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics, and Orthodox Christians attacking both other sides. What they carried out was often a crime against humanity—it was definitely ethnic cleansing—and it was sometimes genocide. The fact of the matter is that those terms are relative. For the poor devils suffering, it does not matter what it is called: they are dying.

In my experience, I have seen far too many people dying for religion. It is not really about religion, but people often use it as an excuse. Unfortunately, when I was the UN commander in Bosnia, I came across many instances of various sides doing foul deeds to the others. However, there is a good reason—I will come to it later—to refer to what happened on 22 April 1993, when I was in a village called Ahmići. As the British UN commander, I was checking the village for bodies with my soldiers. We came to a house halfway down and could not find any bodies, because people had been killed and thrown into the houses. The houses had been torched and their roofs had fallen down, so we could not get through to the bodies.

In one house that we came to, a soldier said, “Over here, sir.” I was on the road through the village. First, I went to the front door. There was a man’s burned body and a boy’s burned body. They had obviously been shot and then someone had thrown petrol or something over them. We knew they had been shot because we were standing on shell cases. Round the back, however, was worse. When I went into the cellar, I could not really see at first what was in front of me—I just could not believe it. Then my eyes focused and I recognised a head bent back, I suspect in agony. There were other burned bodies. Then the smell came, because this had happened six days earlier. I could not believe it. My men and I rushed out. Some wept; others puked. We could not believe what we were seeing.

The reason I am telling this story is that I received an email this morning from a guy called Thomas Osorio, who was the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights at the time—27 years ago—and who I worked with on the ground. In the email, he tells me that the people whom I had found that day—they have been held in a morgue for 27 years because of a failure to identify them—have now been identified. I will repeat their names: Sabika Naser Ahmic, 30 years old; Husnije Zehnadina Ahmic, 28, who was presumably the mum; Arnaut Zedina Elvis Ahmic, eight; Naser Suhreta Ahmic, six; Naser Sejo Ahmic, three months. Theirs are the bodies I found in that cellar 27 years ago. They were Muslims and had been killed by Croats who were Roman Catholic and who used the excuse of people being Muslim to kill them. It was an excuse.

I have to say that I was in such shock afterwards that I did not really know what to do. After consultation with my second-in-command on the radio, I decided to run a press conference and broadcast it to the world by saying, “This is what I found. In my view, this is a crime against humanity.” Later I discovered that it was actually genocide. By definition, genocide is the deliberate act of clearing out a whole group of people. In this case, it was the Muslims in the village of Ahmići. Other houses were untouched. Guess what? In those houses lived Roman Catholics.

I did not really know what had happened, but my intelligence cell suggested that they had done a cordon-and-sweep operation. In other words, they had made a box around the village using soldiers with machine guns. From the bottom, in a straight line, they had systematically gone through each house. When they had driven people out of the houses, they either killed them there and then by throwing them into the houses, or they let them run into the machine guns.

I do not know how we could have stopped it. One of the questions I might ask the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is how the hell can we stop this sort of thing happening. Our blathering on in Parliament is all very well, but what will the Foreign Office do about it? How will the Minister stop that? He is a very good friend of mine and is looking at me intently, but that question is impossible to answer. How do we do it?

Rehman Chishti
I thank and pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all that he has done over the years to bring people together and to stand up for rule of law. Regarding what the United Kingdom will do on the prevention of genocide, I refer him to one of the Bishop of Truro’s 22 recommendations, which I am taking forward. Recommendation 7 calls for the FCO to

“Ensure that there are mechanisms in place to facilitate an immediate response to atrocity crimes, including genocide, through activities such as setting up early warning mechanisms…diplomacy to help resolve disputes, and…support to help with upstream prevention work…and be willing to make public statements condemning such atrocities.”

The Government have accepted recommendation 7 of Bishop of Truro’s report. That is one of our long-term projects, because it is absolutely crucial that we get prevention right. As a Government, we are committed to doing so, and work on that has begun.

Bob Stewart
I am jolly pleased to hear it, but I want to see that happen on the ground. Trying to stop it is very, very difficult.

I know the reality of what happened in that village— I was not there but I had an eyewitness. A few days later, I was having dinner with a BBC journalist called Martin Bell, when a woman walked into my house and said, “You have got rooms in this house. I want you to put up some children in it.” I said, “You must be joking. I am the British UN commander. How the heck am I going to look after kids in my house?” She said, “Can I remind you of your mission, colonel? Your mission is to save lives. I’ve got some children here whose lives need saving. I hope you will understand that you have no choice.”

I went weak at the knees at that because she then turned to my two bodyguards—who, I have to say, were big soppy soldiers—and said, “Boys, you’ll look after a little girl aged six who needs a home, won’t you?” Of course, they said, “Yes, ma’am.” Many people in this room know that woman—particularly the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), for whom she has rather an attachment—because she is my wife, Claire. She was the International Committee of the Red Cross delegate for central Bosnia. She embarrassed me into taking a child—a six-year-old girl called Melissa Mekis—whom she said she would bring the next day. I did not believe that she would, but she bloody well did! She walked out of the prison camp where the girl was, holding her by the hand, and was stopped by the camp commandant, who said, “What do you think you’re doing?” She replied, “Get the hell out of my way. I am a delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Do you make war on children? Is that your way of dealing with things?” The commandant moved aside.

Claire walked into my house with the kid, who was filthy as she had been in the camp for about 10 days. The two soppy soldiers took her away, boiled up a billycan of water, took her clothes off, bathed her, went to Save the Children nearby, got her some clothes, put a little bed between their camp cots and looked after her. When Claire came two days later, to reunite Melissa Mekis with her family, the girl did not want to leave those boys.

Melissa told us what happened. Early one morning—I know that the time was 0500 because we heard this happening—soldiers came to her house in a box truck. Her parents told her to dress quickly and come downstairs. The soldiers grabbed Melissa, her mother, her father and her brother, and threw them all outside, where they killed the parents and shot the boy. Someone could not kill Melissa, so she ended up in a prison camp. When I was back in Bosnia last year, a boy came up to me—well, he is not a boy anymore, but middle-aged—and he said, “I was Melissa’s brother. Can I thank you and your soldiers? Your soldiers found me severely wounded nearby, picked me up, took me to a medical centre and saved my life.”

I do not really know where my speech is going because I have lost my script, but I will say one thing. I have given evidence about those events in four war crimes trials, after which four people were found guilty and did very long sentences. I care very much about freedom of religion. Who in this room does not? Of course we do. But what the heck can we do about it? The Prime Minister’s representative, my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) is here, and we can all put lovely words on paper—I had lots of lovely words on paper when I was in Bosnia. I was aghast at what I saw. To this day, I still wonder what the heck we can do when people are determined to act in that way, because words will not stop it.

After the genocide in Ahmići, Claire and I buried more than 104 people in a mass grave—women, children and some babies. We did not know how to do that—I was never trained as an undertaker—but Claire came along and insisted that we took the bodies out of the bags. Did you know that people cannot be buried in plastic bags? I did not. All those bodies were taken out of the bags and buried. Those people were Muslim, but I also found Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians dead. I was technically neutral because I was attacked by all three sides, who shot the hell out of me. We have got to find a way to move quickly when we see signs of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity—it is difficult. Crimes against humanity quite quickly become genocide.

Colleagues, what a ramble. What a load of twaddle; how unstructured. Please, let us believe. Although we in this place at least shout about it, what I would really like is more action from the United Nations and other international bodies to send troops in to stop such things as soon as they start. That is what our soldiers did in 1992 and 1993. We took more than 2,500 men and women out of Srebrenica in April 1993, and their lives were saved. If we had not, most of them would have been dead two years later. Colleagues, I am sorry that this has been a ramble. Thank you.

Peter Grant (Glenrothes) (SNP)
I really do not know how to follow that speech. The hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) may think that it was a ramble, but I think we have just had difficult privilege of hearing one of the great speeches in this place, for which I thank him. I am a practising Roman Catholic, so it was not easy to listen to, because sadly my religion, like many others—as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) will know only too well—is used by people who claim to be of the same faith to justify deeds that would never have been condoned by the one we call our saviour. I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate and thank both previous speakers for their speeches.

It saddens me greatly that this debate is necessary, but the sad fact is that persecution based on what people believe or do not believe is probably as big a problem now as it has ever been. How can that be? The world in so many ways is getting smaller, and it is much easier for us to understand what other people are about and to get to know the basis of so many beliefs and cultures. When that is happening, how can it be that almost every religious or faith group in the world is, somewhere, being persecuted, with people losing their lives because of what they believe, and that almost every faith group in the world participates in that persecution? I cannot begin to understand it.

We can look at the horror of Daesh murdering Muslims, Christians and other religious minorities with complete impunity; at the terror attacks such as the one on Easter Sunday last year in Sri Lanka, when people were murdered simply for celebrating the most important day of their religious year; at 1 million people in China being supposedly “re-educated”, as the hon. Member for Strangford mentioned, to strip them of their cultural, religious and ethnic identity, just because they are Muslims; or at the genocide of the Rohingya Muslims. We can look at countless other atrocities. Individually, they might often not be important enough to get a mention on the UK news or in the newspapers but, collectively, they add up to an estimated 2 billion people possibly daily risking persecution and even their lives simply because of what they believe.

The hon. Member for Beckenham rightly said that freedom of religion and belief is a fundamental human right. International organisations have said for years that everyone has the right to believe or not believe what they believe to be right for them. There can be no let-up in international efforts to safeguard freedom of religion and to prevent the persecution of religious minorities anywhere. This principle was adopted in 1966:

“Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law”—

I was five when the world agreed to that, and I turn 60 later this year. But the world, having agreed to that, far too often seems to turn away, or decides to act far too late.

The Rabat plan of action launched by the United Nations in 2013 sets out the kinds of comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation that all nations should adopt, but as the hon. Member for Strangford so rightly said, having legislation in place is one thing; making it happen in reality is a very different thing. The international community has the tools it needs to tackle religious persecution. It is up to Governments everywhere, working together, to use all the diplomatic, political and economic means at their disposal to ensure that no Government feel that they can ignore, condone or actively participate in religious persecution.

I fully support much of the hon. Gentleman said when he asked the Foreign and Commonwealth Office what it will do in trade deals and diplomatic relations to ensure that human rights and rights of religious freedom are always at the top of any agenda. Personally, I believe that there are some countries with which the United Kingdom has strong diplomatic and economic ties that we should simply isolate ourselves from, because their persecution of people has got to the stage where they are no longer the kind of country that we should be proud to have as a friend anymore.

The large-scale persecution of religious or racial minorities does not happen overnight. As with racism—a very close cousin of religious sectarianism, as the hon. Gentleman said—such persecution needs to be fostered over a longer period. It starts with verbal insults and racist or sectarian language, which is first ignored and tolerated, then actively promoted and celebrated by those in positions of power in the media or in politics. It grows through deliberate attempts to isolate a targeted group and to vilify anyone who speaks in their defence, denouncing them all—those being targeted and those who would stand alongside them—as somehow disloyal to the country of residence, a threat to national security, or even terrorists, simply because of the peaceful practice of their religion.

Once a country has allowed that attitude to become embedded, the next step forward is easy: the violence, the abductions and the wholescale sexual abuse of women and children become much easier. At the moment, we would all say that we in the United Kingdom are among the 17% of the population of the world who do not suffer from religious persecution—it is a shocking statistic that almost 85% of the world’s population live in countries where one religious minority or another is actively persecuted—but if we took a hard, honest look at where the United Kingdom is now, we would see some worrying signs that the first steps in that process are happening. That does not mean we will see wholescale violence in the next week or so, but we have to be aware of what is happening on our streets and in our communities, and we have to be prepared to stop it.

For example—I am not taking sides on this one—did political processes come out with much credibility after the accusations and counter-accusations of antisemitism and Islamophobia over the past year or so? They have been such a feature of our political debate, but does anyone think that the political establishment came out well when a response to an accusation of antisemitism was a counter-accusation of Islamophobia? Instead, everyone should have said, “You know what? All of us have a problem with some kind of racial or religious bigotry within our organisations or our culture. Let’s sit down to talk about how we can tackle it all together.” We have to recognise that a large percentage of the world’s refugee population are only refugees because of religious persecution. The less we are able to prevent religious persecution, the greater the moral responsibility we have to take our share of the responsibility for looking after the refugees who inevitably come here.

This is a difficult topic to talk about—I seem to be pinching an awful lot of the hon. Gentleman’s speech, because he said much of what I wanted to say, more eloquently—but I feel that it is important when we talk about freedom of religious belief to acknowledge as an equal right the right to not believe. I have real concerns about what is happening in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. He is trying to change the constitution so that believing in God becomes compulsory. As someone who believes in God, that worries me greatly, because a fundamental part of my faith is that that is my decision, and that I will answer for it when my time comes.

Sometimes, I have taken decisions that have surprised some of my close friends and family who thought that as a practising Catholic I might take a different decision on same-sex marriage, for example,. However, following a faith that has a particular set of teachings on human sexuality gives me no right to pass laws to prevent someone else from, first, following a different faith or, secondly, having a different view of what is acceptable or not, or right or wrong, for them in their private or family life.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con)
Is the real problem not so much the religion itself but fundamentalism? When people get so absorbed in their religion that they can only interpret it literally, extremism and persecution take root.

Peter Grant
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very valid point, whether that is a political or a religious view. I have to make a distinction between being fundamental or extreme and how firmly we believe something. Being fundamental or extreme can be an unwillingness to accept that other people are equally sincere and passionate about a completely contrary view. When it comes to being extreme and the steps that people take to promote a particular set of beliefs, it becomes a problem.

I do not speak from a position of great authority, but on the occasions when I have engaged actively in dialogue with someone whose behaviour was blatantly racist, sectarian or religiously intolerant, it is surprising how often, on getting down to it, such people are deeply insecure in their own religious or political beliefs. It is almost as if they had never stopped to think about what they believe, and cannot allow anyone to suggest anything different, rather than accept that someone might challenge them. They hide in a shell, to come out fighting. That might present itself as Christianity, but it is so mired in hatred and intolerance that I can see no connection with what is happening or, certainly, with the teachings of the version of Christianity that I seek to follow.

I will finish with one statistic that should concern us all. In 2018, the British social attitudes survey found that almost two thirds—63%—of people in the United Kingdom believed that religions bring more conflict than peace. In my religion, we worship one who has the title “Prince of Peace”; and the word “Islam” can translate as “peace”. Every religion that I have any knowledge of is founded on peace, on respect for human beings of all kinds and on living together in peace and harmony. In this collection of countries, we think freedom of religion and belief is established, but almost two thirds of the population think religion is the problem rather than the answer. I suggest that it is not only the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that needs to change the way it does things. Perhaps the Church establishments, including my own, have a job to do in persuading that 63% not necessarily to follow a particular religion, but at least to understand that any true religion is about making things better for the whole of humanity.

I have spoken for longer than I expected to, so I will sit down to allow other hon. Members to speak.

Fabian Hamilton (Leeds North East) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. Let me start by congratulating the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who brings us these debates frequently, and more credit to him for doing so, because we need to air this issue regularly and ensure that fellow hon. Members are fully informed. It is a pleasure to follow the contribution of the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant).

I have appeared as the Opposition spokesperson on a number of occasions. The hon. Member for Glenrothes said something important; he talked about peace and about how every world religion believes in peace. Amazingly, I am the shadow Minister for peace. I am not sure how long that will continue to be a position, but we need one in Government, so I would have somebody to shadow.

The hon. Member for Strangford made an excellent contribution, as he always does. He told us about the all-party parliamentary groups that he chairs: the APPG for international freedom of religion or belief and the APPG for the Pakistani minorities, which I did not know existed until this afternoon. He talked about the churches that have been shut down in China and the 2019 attacks on Christians in India, and he asked the Minister for progress on the Bishop of Truro’s report; I will come on to that in a minute, and I am sure the Minister will want to respond to it in full.

We had a number of very appropriate interventions from the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) and my hon. Friends the Members for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) and for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan), who made at least two interventions, as a fellow member of the shadow Foreign Office team. The Prime Minister’s envoy for religious belief, the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), made three, or perhaps four, excellent interventions.

Rehman Chishti
There was a question about progress on implementing the Truro review, which I lead on for the Prime Minister and the Government. When I came into post in September, those 22 different recommendations were divided into short-term, medium-term and long-term. Eleven of those recommendations, which I shared with Bishop Philip of Truro on Monday, have now been taken forward. Some of those are about ongoing data collection, but 11 of the 22 recommendations have now been, or are in the process of being, taken forward.

Fabian Hamilton
I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing us up to date on such an important issue. I will briefly mention the Bishop of Truro’s report later, but obviously we all want to hear from the Minister, too.

The hon. Member for Strangford mentioned the plight of Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan, and I will say a few words about that in a moment. Of the many contributions I have heard from him, the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), whom I am honoured to call a friend, gave one of the most powerful I have heard. He talked about his first-hand experience of religious fanaticism and violence in Bosnia, and told us horrific stories of death and destruction. This time he had the names of those people—I think he said he had just received them today.

Bob Stewart
I would like to place on the record that I have been invited to the funeral on 21 March, but the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority has said no.

Fabian Hamilton
I hope the hon. Gentleman will find a way of getting there. He and his wife did outstanding work in Bosnia, saving so many lives. I thank him for detailing that information and for reminding us of the horrific murder on the basis of ostensible religious belief, which in fact has nothing whatsoever to do with true faith. I thank him for that and for the village of Ahmići.

In 2018 the US State Department issued a declaration stating:

“Among the range of universal, interdependent human rights, the freedom to follow one’s conscience in matters of religion or belief is essential to human dignity and human flourishing”

As we know, the United Kingdom is a signatory to the universal declaration of human rights, which protects freedom of religion or belief. The UK is party to the international covenant on civil and political rights. Article 9 of the European convention on human rights, which is part of the Human Rights Act 1998, protects freedom of religion or belief. But the number of countries that regulate religious symbols, literature or broadcasting has increased over the past 20 years. Religious persecution has increased globally every year since 2000.

In 2020, 260 million people—approximately 10% of all Christians in the world—were persecuted for their religious beliefs, which was an increase from 245 million in 2019, and approximately 215 million in 2018. According to Open Doors, 11 countries now fall in the “extreme” category for levels of persecution of Christians. That is up from just one country, North Korea, in 2014—just six years ago. The World Watch List estimates that last year 2,093 Christians were killed just for being Christian. Christian persecution is more prevalent in Muslim majority countries, especially those governed by some form of sharia law.

Violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief have not diminished over the past 10 years. Indeed, conditions have continued. Many conflicts are rooted in or exacerbated by religious differences around the world. Violations of freedom of religion and belief is a truly global issue. Around 80% of the world’s population live in countries with high or very high levels of restrictions or hostilities towards certain beliefs. Let me briefly detail some of those. We have mentioned Myanmar and the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims. There have been sporadic waves of violence against the Rohingya since 1978. The Rohingya are the world’s most persecuted minority. Those Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar are not even considered one of that country’s 135 ethnic groups. They have been denied citizenship in their country since 1982, and thus are effectively stateless. More than half the Rohingya population of Myanmar, a total of 1.2 million, have fled the country during the current wave of violence, mostly to Bangladesh.

Let me move on to China. Article 36 of the Chinese constitution states that Chinese citizens

“enjoy freedom of religious belief.”

It bans discrimination based on religion and forbids state organs or individuals from compelling citizens to believe or not in any particular faith. However, the state recognises only five religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Taoism, Islam and Protestantism—interestingly, separated from Catholicism. The Chinese authorities tightly control religious activity in the majority Turkic-Uighur province of Xinjiang. Beijing has, as we have heard, allegedly incarcerated more than 1 million Uighurs in re-education camps. The state monitors what Tibetan Buddhists do, to quell dissent in what it regards as a province of mainland China.

Let me move to Iran. The Iranian authorities continue to persecute the Baha’i minority, who number about 300,000. Iran’s supreme leader issued a fatwa in 2013, calling on all Iranians to avoid dealings with the Baha’i, and labelled the group “deviant and misleading”. In March 2014 a United Nations report said:

“Under the law, religious minorities, including recognised Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians also face discrimination in the judicial system, such as harsher punishments”.

We know about Saudi Arabia’s persecution of Shi’a Muslims. Shi’a often have little access to Government services, and state employment continues to be limited for them.

Let me deal finally with Pakistan. As has been mentioned, Pakistan is affected by the experience of chronic sectarian violence targeting Shi’a Muslims, Christians, Ahmadi Muslims and Hindus.

Imran Ahmad Khan (Wakefield) (Con)
I am an Ahmadi Muslim. Ahmadis are a peace-loving community whose motto is, “Love for all and hatred for none.” At the core of Islam is a belief that if we wish to love and serve God, we must love and serve his creation. To that end, Ahmadis focus on humanitarian activities, such as providing healthcare, education and clean drinking water for those who need them. Ahmadis work to foster understanding between faith groups and support charities throughout the United Kingdom and, indeed, the world. Sadly, however, as both the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned, Ahmadis suffer vicious persecution around the world. The main source of fuel for that persecution is in Pakistan, but what happens in Pakistan does not stay in Pakistan.

I know that from my experience in the Yorkshire market town of Batley. In August 1985, when I was 11 years old, my parents organised an inter-faith meeting in the town hall. It was interrupted and disturbed when, according to West Yorkshire police, more than 1,000 extremists, led by Pakistani hate preachers funded by the Pakistani state, were bused in from around the country. The mob brutally attacked my English mother and my father, a dermatologist; my eldest brother and I; and a Welsh Ahmadi schoolteacher who was with us. My first cousin, a GP, was by chance driving through the market town that day. He saw the mob and saw his family and friends being attacked, so he stopped. He was recognised, pulled from his vehicle and savagely beaten up.

With the help of riot police, we somehow managed to find sanctuary in the local police station, which was adjacent to the town hall on the market square. Many fanatics continued to pour in, and they besieged the police station. The stand-off lasted hours. Finally, the police were able to secure our release from what was in essence a hostage situation by releasing the violent fanatics they had arrested for attacking us, the stallholders and police officers. Those peddlers of hate were released to allow us to go under armed escort to Pinderfields Hospital, where my father was still practising and my mother and grandmother had been nurses, to receive hospital treatment.

That targeted attack against my family in ’85 was inspired by the President of Pakistan, Zia. He had sent his hate preachers to the United Kingdom that month, asking them to rid the UK of the cancer of Ahmadis. Our MP at the time—the Member for Batley and Spen, Elizabeth Peacock—spoke with the Home Secretary frequently, but nothing was done. From that moment in the ’80s, Muslim extremists seemed to get a feeling that they had an exceptional status above the law in the United Kingdom, which began to pervade.

These things have consequences; like an infection, they jump over species. We saw that in what followed. On 7/7 we had attacks related to the West Yorkshire area, and in June 2016 we had the awful murder of Jo Cox.

Does the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) agree that violent extremism jumps species and places, that it must be attacked and combated at home as well as abroad, and that one of its great roots is in places where there is a poverty of freedom of expression and confession?

Fabian Hamilton
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, lengthy as it was. I appreciate that he did not have the chance to speak as he had hoped. I have had a long dealing with the Ahmadi Muslim community —as he knows, I represent a Leeds constituency—and we have had many debates in this place too. I thank him for informing the House of his personal experience, and I am delighted that we at last have a member of his community as a Member of Parliament. I would rather it was a Labour Member, but I am delighted that he is here at all, which is excellent.

Let me quickly finish the points I was going to make so the Minister can wind up the debate. The founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, said in August 1947:

“We are all equal citizens of one State.”

The experience of the hon. Member for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan) shows that that is not the case. Of course we know the history of Asia Bibi, who was mentioned earlier. It is a great shame that the UK Government denied her asylum, although I am grateful to the Canadian Government for doing so. Ahmadi Muslims are denied citizenship rights in Pakistan and, as we heard at first hand, face persecution in other majority Muslim countries such as Algeria, and of course in the UK in 2016, tragically, Asad Shah was stabbed to death in his Glasgow shop.

I will conclude by quoting Lord Ahmad, the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the other place. He said:

“The persecution of individuals based on their religion or belief remains of profound concern to the United Kingdom. The freedom to practise, change or share one’s faith or belief without discrimination or violent opposition is a fundamental human right, and the UK Government are committed to defending this human right and promoting respect and tolerance between religious communities.”—[Official Report, 17 July 2017; Vol. 627, c. 5P.]

I am delighted that he said that, and the Opposition agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment. I wait to hear what the Minister has to say.

The Minister for Asia (Nigel Adams)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this incredibly important debate, and I commend him for his long-standing commitment to this issue. I also thank the other hon. Members present for their contributions.

I will try to respond to all the points that were raised, but first let me thank my hon. Friends the Members for Henley (John Howell) and for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), and the hon. Members for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) and for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan). I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan) in particular for his personal and touching short intervention regarding the Ahmadi community. I have witnessed at first hand the charity work the community does; I had the pleasure of visiting the Ahmadi mosque in south London, and the Ahmadi community came together in our hour of need during the floods in 2015 and 2016. I am extremely grateful for their support, as are the people of Tadcaster.

Let me start by reaffirming the Government’s unwavering commitment to freedom of religion or belief. The hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) just reaffirmed the words of my colleague Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon. That commitment was further underlined by the Prime Minister’s appointment last year of my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham as his special envoy on this subject. I thank him for his contributions to the debate and for the hard work he puts into that important role; I know the Prime Minister and the whole Government are very appreciative. He succeeded Lord Ahmad, who ably held the role along with his ministerial duties at the FCO and continues to champion the subject in his role as Minister for human rights.

In addition to appointing an envoy, we have demonstrated our strong commitment to defending the right to freedom of religion or belief around the world. In delivering on that commitment, we work closely with like-minded partners such as the United States, Canada and our European friends. By standing together and sending a unified message to those who fail to respect religious freedom, we become stronger agents of change.

We have used our influential voice at the UN, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Council of Europe to raise awareness of the scale and severity of persecution. We have also built strong and lasting relationships with non-governmental organisations, experts, faith leaders and academics, and with grassroots organisations and parliamentarians. That network of allies keeps us closely informed, acts as a critical friend and demonstrates the importance the UK attaches to respect between communities.

That ongoing conversation is important, but does it create the change we need? To evaluate the impact of our work, the then Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), commissioned an independent review of the scale of Christian persecution globally and the support the Foreign and Commonwealth Office offers to persecuted Christians and, indeed, all persecuted religious communities around the world. The review produced a set of challenging recommendations on what more the FCO could do to support people of all faiths and none in every part of the world. The Government accepted all the recommendations. As we have heard, my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham is overseeing their implementation and reported back on progress to the Bishop of Truro a couple of days ago. My hon. Friend asked officials to categorise the recommendations into short, medium and long-term priorities. Under his oversight, 11 recommendations have been implemented or are on their way to being implemented.

To give an example, work is under way to ensure that British diplomats and officials in relevant roles receive enhanced religious literacy training, to help them understand the role that religion plays in many people’s lives and in the decisions they make. We are also working to establish the UK’s first autonomous global human rights sanctions regime, which will aim to deter individuals from committing serious human rights violations or abuses and to hold those who do accountable. Our commitment has also led us to agree to work towards tabling a UN Security Council resolution on the persecution of Christians and people of other faiths or beliefs in the middle east and north Africa region.

Overall, the UK is working harder than ever to support those who are persecuted on account of their religion or belief and this excellent debate highlights why our efforts are so badly—and sadly—needed. As we heard from various hon. Members, in Pakistan, the members of minority communities, including Christians and Ahmadi Muslims, are suffering terrible discrimination and abuse. We continue to urge the Government of Pakistan, both bilaterally and through our partners and international channels, to ensure that all citizens enjoy the full range of human rights as laid down in Pakistan’s own constitution and enshrined in international law.

In India, we are closely monitoring developments following the passing of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, mentioned by the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton. We raised our concerns about the impact of that legislation with the Indian Government. The recent violence in Delhi is concerning, and we trust that the Indian Government will address the concerns of residents of all faiths. We continue to engage with India at all levels, including union and state government.

The Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Leeds North East, rightly raised the situation in China. We are deeply concerned about the persecution of minorities, and particularly of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. We have repeatedly raised our concerns, including in a statement by my colleague Lord Ahmad at the last UN General Assembly and at the most recent Human Rights Council. We had an opportunity yesterday to debate the plight of Uighur Muslims in this Chamber.

In Nigeria, where I know my hon. Friend the Member for Henley has great experience as one of our envoys, we are encouraging the Government to do more to reduce conflict. Last month, the FCO hosted a conference on fostering social cohesion, which looked at the complex drivers of conflict in Nigeria. We began to identify solutions that meet the needs of all communities.

In Iran, which again was raised by the Opposition spokesman, we remain deeply concerned about the treatment of minorities, including the Baha’i community. We continue to take action within the international community to press Iran to improve its poor record on human rights. We did so most recently this month at the UN Human Rights Council.

I will take this opportunity to respond to right hon. and hon. Members’ contributions. The hon. Member for Strangford asked about progress on the Truro review recommendations. We have heard about some of that from my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham. We have accepted the 22 recommendations and work is ongoing to ensure that we implement them. We are committed to implementing the recommendations in full.

The hon. Member for Strangford also asked about progress on the recommendation to ensure that mandatory religious literacy training is available to staff. We are working to ensure that such training is available to all staff and, indeed, across Government. He also asked about tabling a UN resolution to send peacekeeping forces to Nigeria. As he knows, for more than a decade, Islamic insurgents including Boko Haram—Islamic State in West Africa—have caused immense suffering to the Muslim and Christian populations. We have made clear to authorities at the highest levels in Nigeria the importance of protecting civilians and we regularly raise our concerns about the increasing violence.

The hon. Member asked about our efforts to rescue Leah Sharibu. We remain deeply concerned about her case and those of all individuals who have not returned home. We will continue to work with the Nigerian Government, non-governmental organisations and civil society to improve the security situation and human rights for all people in Nigeria.

The UK Government will continue to show global leadership in encouraging all states to uphold international human rights obligations and in holding human rights abusers to account. As the Prime Minister announced in his Greenwich speech on 3 February, the UK will also be a global champion for free trade, which is a force for good that underpins stable, open and prosperous global economies.

The hon. Member asked whether we would provide direct aid to vulnerable communities in Nigeria. We are working closely with the Department for International Development—in fact, all FCO Ministers are also DFID Ministers—on freedom of religion or belief. Humanitarian assistance is provided on the basis of need, irrespective of race, religion or ethnicity, and we work to ensure that aid reaches the most vulnerable, including those from religious minorities.

The hon. Member asked how we are helping women from minority faith groups, who suffer from double persecution. We acknowledge the double vulnerability facing women from minority religious communities. Our human rights policy work considers the intersectionality of human rights, and the UK defends the full range of human rights as set out in the universal declaration of human rights.

I turn to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). He described his speech as a ramble and as twaddle; I could not disagree more. He described what he witnessed and had to deal with alongside his men and his wife Claire, whom I know. He believes she is the bravest person he has ever met. His was one of the most moving and passionate speeches heard in this place, based on true personal experience. I take this opportunity to thank my hon. and gallant Friend for sharing his experience of the brutal attacks on religion that he witnessed. I also thank him for his outstanding service to his country and the international community. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]

The SNP spokesman, the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) was absolutely right to raise, in his calm and rational way, a number of important points, including the fact that freedom of religion or belief is the choice of the individual, not a view that should be imposed by the state. He brought the Chamber together with his point that true religion is based on making things better for humanity.

The Chamber will be aware that Christians and other minorities have suffered terribly through the conflict in Syria, particularly at the hands of Daesh. We are working for a political settlement that protects the rights of all Syrians, regardless of ethnicity.

I will conclude to give a minute to the hon. Member for Strangford. While taking action to tackle religious intolerance abroad, we must recognise that it is not just a foreign problem or one that blights countries suffering conflict. It also happens here in the west, where we have seen attacks and antisemitic graffiti. In New York, five people were stabbed as they celebrated Hanukkah. Those attacks show that no country is immune to intolerance and hate.

I assure the House that the Government will continue to be a long-standing champion of human rights and freedoms. We have a duty to promote and defend our values of equality, inclusion and respect, and we will stand up for minority communities around the world and defend the right of freedom of religion or belief for everyone, everywhere.

Jim Shannon
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions. I thank in particular the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). It comes as no surprise to me that he is a compassionate person. I also thank the shadow Minister, and the Minister for his positive response.

I finish with a Scripture text. Psalm 118: 13-14 says:

“I was pushed back so hard I was falling, but the Lord helped me. The Lord is my strength and my defence; he has become my salvation.”

Today was a chance for this House to shine; a voice for the voiceless.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No.10(6)).