Lords discuss FCO persecution of Christians report

Lord Singh of Wimbledon
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the recommendations of the Bishop of Truro’s Independent Review of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s support for persecuted Christians.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con)
My Lords, the Bishop of Truro’s independent review of FCO support for persecuted Christians proposed a series of ambitious recommendations, which the British Government have considered carefully. We accept all the recommendations, and we will take them forward as part of our work to support freedom of religion or belief for all.

Lord Singh of Wimbledon (CB)
I thank the Minister for his helpful reply. Sadly the appalling treatment of Christian minorities around the world is mirrored in the persecution of other religious minorities, including the appalling treatment of his Ahmadiyya community in Pakistan. In Afghanistan a once-prosperous Sikh community of more than 20,000 people has been reduced to a few hundred. Does the Minister agree that the underlying cause of religious persecution is the religious bigotry inherent in aggressive assertions that the one god of us all, way above human emotions, favours one group of humans to the exclusion of others?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
I thank the noble Lord. There is the thought for the afternoon. I am grateful for his work in this area and agree with him. I was the Prime Minister’s envoy on freedom of religion or belief when it was first suggested that we look at persecuted Christians. Of course, when we look at Christian persecution around the world, the figures and the persecution are horrendous. Equally, where Christians are persecuted we can be sure that, tragically, other religious minorities are also persecuted. It is right that this was done and we look forward to working with all across this House and beyond to ensure that we can implement effectively so we can be a voice for people of all faiths. I have been incredibly heartened and totally humbled by meeting surviving victims of religious violence and religious persecution because in their courage lies inspiration for us all.

Lord Anderson of Swansea (Lab)
My Lords, in Syria, Christians are afraid to enter UNHCR camps because of violence against them, and there is also violence in the camps in Germany, yet the Government accept only refugees from those camps, unlike Belgium and Australia. The result is that in the first quarter of 2018, no Christians from Syria were accepted in this country and the Government have steadfastly refused to give any figures since because of the likely embarrassment. Why is that? Is it post-imperial guilt or are the Government discriminating against Christians from Syria?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
On a lighter note, this is the second day running that I have been asked about post-imperial guilt. The irony is not lost on me. On standing up for persecuted Christian minorities around the world, I am proud of the record of this Government and previous Governments, who have done the right thing. The noble Lord raises an important point about granting asylum and refuge to people from persecuted communities, including Christians, and I believe that the Government have focused on that. We have sought to work with the UNHCR to ensure that applications are progressed effectively and efficiently. There has been a suggestion that Christians should be prioritised over others. I believe that, whether you are Christian or of any other faith, or of no faith whatever, common humanity dictates that we stand up for the rights of others, including Christians, as well as our own rights.

Baroness Berridge (Con)
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend but one factor influencing the persecution of Christians is, unfortunately, that in some contexts they are seen as a leftover from the Empire. Has my noble friend considered whether the UK Government taking on the role of defining anti-Christian hatred could expose victims of persecution to more risk? Surely this is a role for communities—for example, the Jewish community has done this and the Muslim community is doing it—rather than for the UK Government. At the very least we should assess the risk to ensure that we do not inadvertently increase the risk of Christians being persecuted.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
I agree with my noble friend on both her points. In answer to her and to the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, one issue that the Bishop of Truro identified in his report was that singling out Christians for support and for the processing of claims of religious persecution or requests for asylum would, as my noble friend has articulated, put them at greater risk. I also agree with her totally that it is right that community and faith leaders define religious hatred, as has been the case with the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. We are currently looking at the issue of Islamophobia. It is for communities to do that and it is for Governments to ensure the protection of all faiths and none.

The Lord Bishop of Ely
My Lords, we on this Bench welcome the report and look forward to working with the Government as they take forward its recommendations. With regard to the recommendation to name the phenomenon of Christian discrimination and persecution, does the Minister accept that there is nothing to be gained and everything to be lost by encouraging a competition for victim status, and that such energy would be better spent in further developing the framework of international human rights protection?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
I totally agree with the right reverend Prelate.

Lord Alderdice (LD)
My Lords, I welcome the Minister’s undertaking that the Government will accept all the recommendations in the Bishop of Truro’s report, and I congratulate him on his work over the last few years in the area of freedom of religion and belief. One of the report’s recommendations was that Her Majesty’s Government should use the opportunities provided by the international institutions of which they are a part. Regarding the United Nations Human Rights Council, we have had a special rapporteur going right back to the days of the Commission on Human Rights and there have been regular resolutions—I think that the last one was on 21 March this year—with lots of wonderful words. Disappointingly, however, on a daily basis members of the UN Human Rights Council, the Security Council and even the P5 disregard all the fine words in those resolutions as a matter not of accident but of public policy in discriminating against people who have a different religion or belief. How will the Government use their membership of the Security Council and the United Nations Human Rights Council to bring about a change, as identified in the bishop’s report?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
On the noble Lord’s second point on the UN Human Rights Council, we have made sure, through repeated UPRs on every country, that freedom of religion or belief is a specific question raised with countries of particular concern. I agree with the noble Lord about the institutions of the UN. Currently the issue of freedom of religion or belief sits with an organisation called the Alliance of Civilizations—I must admit, when first raised with me, it took me back to my A-level history on Aztecs and Incas—which exists for that purpose, but I support the noble Lord’s view that there is more to be done. I am delighted that the United Kingdom lent support to the resolution that 22 August will be the international day marking freedom of religion or belief, focusing on persecuted minorities, faith minorities and those of other beliefs around the world. We will work on an Arria formula meeting with Poland, which will chair the Security Council in August, to ensure that this issue is given the priority that it deserves.