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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiona Bruce MP in the Afghanistan debate

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Afghanistan: the consequences for Afghan Christians of the Taliban takeover

Minorities in Afghanistan

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

The vulnerability of Afghan religious minorities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taliban ideology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taliban actions against minorities while in power 1995-2001

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

Changes since 1996 likely to influence Taliban actions

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

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

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

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

Increased risk to Christian minorities in the wider region

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

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

The US deal with the Taliban

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

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


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

Refugee policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also

Exclusion of Nigeria from FCDO report prompts letter to Foreign Secretary

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

Rt Hon Dominic Raab MP
House of Commons
26 July 2021

Dear Dominic,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours sincerely,

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

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

Written Questions explore the implementation of the Truro Review

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

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

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

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

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


The Truro Review – Two Years On

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

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

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

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

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

Fiona Bruce MP

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

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

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

Lord Alton

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

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

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

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

Impact of the John Bunyan Fund

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

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

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

Countries of Concern

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

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

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

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

View the recording of this event 

House of Lords discuss the APPG report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FCDO publishes 2020 Human Rights and Democracy report

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom of religion or belief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Effect of the Pandemic on Religious and Ethnic Minority Communities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (SNP)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joy Morrissey 

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

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

Patrick Grady 

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

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

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

Patrick Grady 

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

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

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

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

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

Sir Christopher Chope (in the Chair)

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

The Minister for Asia (Nigel Adams)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question put and agreed to.


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

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