Westminster Hall debate: Persecution of Christians and Freedom of Religion or Belief, 21 October 2020
Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con)
I beg to move, that this House has considered progress on the Bishop of Truro’s independent review on persecution of Christians and freedom of religion or belief.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting me the opportunity to have this Westminster Hall debate. As colleagues from across the House know, I led on the implementation of this report and on championing freedom of religion or belief as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. I led on this work across Government from September 2019 to September 2020. I stepped down from that role because of a policy difference with the Government. It was on a matter of principle regarding the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill and my personal commitment to respecting the rule of law.
At the outset of this debate, I would like to thank my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for giving me a chance to serve as his special envoy covering issues of freedom of religion or belief, which are dear to my heart. I know that they are also dear to the Prime Minister’s heart, and he made FORB a top priority for the Government.
I came to this country in 1984 at the age of six and as the son of an imam. My family and I were able to practise our faith openly and freely and were welcomed with open arms in Gillingham. A moral duty on me, whether in Parliament, as envoy or in everyday life, is to stand up for the rights of individuals from minority faiths around the world, so that they are able to practise their faith or belief openly and freely, as I did in Gillingham and as I do now in my home towns of Gillingham and Rainham.
I am most grateful to His Grace Archbishop Ian Ernest, the director of the Anglican Centre in Rome, for pointing me towards Jeremiah 29: 4-8, from the Bible, which he said means, “You should welcome all people, regardless of colour, creed or background, to your city, and when you join that city, you work hard for co-existence in that city, so that the area prospers.” Gillingham accepted me with open arms, and my parents taught me the values of respect, kindness and individual responsibility, which helped to give me an opportunity to serve my home town as its Member of Parliament and a chance now to serve its community.
As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary stated at the time of my appointment:
“A staggering 83% of the world’s population live in nations where religious freedom is threatened or banned. It is an area where the UK can and must make a difference.”
Those were the words of our Foreign Secretary. According to a Pew Research Center report, 84% of the world’s population claim to identify themselves with a religion. I agree with the BBC’s chief international correspondent:
“If you don’t understand religion—including the abuse of religion—it’s becoming ever harder to understand our world.”
I thank the Prime Minister for his personal commitment during my time in office and for his keen interest in my work. For example, when I sent an update note to the Prime Minister on the work that I was doing, I got a note back saying, “The Prime Minister very much appreciates what you have put in the update note. Can you clarify point x?” One does not need to know what point x is; that shows the Prime Minister’s personal interest in the note that had gone in and that he wanted to know more about the work that was being done.
In 2018, the Prime Minister also personally supported my campaign for the UK Government to grant asylum to Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five who was being persecuted in Pakistan for her faith, in an abuse of the blasphemy laws. I thank Members of Parliament from all parties for being absolutely amazing champions in promoting FORB in Parliament; I see them in Westminster Hall today.
I also thank my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary for his personal support for my work as the Prime Minister’s special envoy. I thank him right from the outset for going to the extent, as the Minister knows, of saying that, as a special envoy, I was entitled to attend ministerial meetings on a Tuesday to give updates on FORB. The personal support that I received from him in this role was absolutely superb, and I thank him through the Minister; I have already thanked him personally, but I thank him again now.
Likewise, it was a real pleasure to work with Ministers from across the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office on this top priority for the Government, and I thank all the excellent officials who I worked with on the FORB team at the Foreign Office.
I also personally thank four other individuals. Someone coming in as a special envoy is given a team of civil servants to work with, which is great, but I wanted experts, so I said that I would like to appoint my own four experts to advise me on delivering the 22 different recommendations. There is a recommendation on the United Nations Security Council resolution, which I will turn to later. I am not an expert on the United Nations Security Council, so who should I have appointed? I was very fortunate to have Sir Mark Lyall Grant, the United Kingdom’s former ambassador to the United Nations, a brilliant national security adviser and a former director general at the Foreign Office; I see the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), nodding with approval. Sir Mark is a brilliant former diplomat, so I was very lucky to have him on my advisory board.
I was also lucky to have Sir Malcolm Evans, a professor from the University of Bristol and a member of the Foreign Secretary’s advisory board on human rights, as well as Dr Naz Ghanea from Oxford University, who is brilliant on human rights and intersectionality on FORB issues and women’s issues across the board. Finally, I was fortunate to have Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, a former bishop in Pakistan and also Bishop of Rochester, so he covers all the jurisdictions and issues that face individuals.
I turn now to the report from the Bishop of Truro. As colleagues from all parties know, the Bishop of Truro’s independent review was commissioned by the previous Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), on 26 December 2018, to consider the persecution of Christians around the world. As I see it, the review was a direct response to wide-ranging reports that the suffering of Christians globally and especially that of Christian minorities is of such a scale and intensity that it can no longer be ignored by the Government or other actors. I thank my right hon. Friend the former Foreign Secretary for commissioning that report.
The review was carried out by the Bishop of Truro, Philip Mounstephen, and his team: Sir Charles Hoare, David Fieldsend and Rachael Varney. On 9 July 2019, Bishop Philip published his report, which made 22 recommendations. This Government, like the previous Government of Prime Minister May, accepted those 22 different recommendations in full.
I thank Bishop Philip for his excellent work and detailed report. As the report, which I have here with me, spells out on page 4:
“Across the globe, in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, Christians are being bullied, arrested, jailed, expelled and executed. Christianity is by most calculations the most persecuted religion of modern times.”
That is a statement from Bishop Philip, who was asked by our Government to carry out a report into the scale of persecution of Christians around the world.
One needs to look at the work and the data of excellent NGOs such as Open Doors, Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Aid to the Church in Need—to name just a few—that I had the real pleasure of meeting and interacting with, because best policy is made when we speak to, listen to and engage with people on the ground, and our NGOs do that.
I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers). She organised the Open Doors event that was attended by over 110 parliamentarians from across the House—Members of the Commons and Members of the Lords. That is why I say to the Government that in this Parliament the issue of religious freedom is a top priority among parliamentarians, and so is the delivery of this report, which I will shortly outline.
It would not be fair of me if I did not refer to what Bishop Philip said on page 7 of his report. He wrote:
“To argue for special pleading for one group over another would be antithetical to the Christian tradition. It would also, ironically, expose that group to greater risk. We must seek FoRB for all, without fear or favour.”
The report and its recommendations, which I was taking forward for the Government, were designed to protect and stand up for freedom of religion or belief for all.
For me, freedom of religion or belief is a fundamental right for everyone. It is crucial for a peaceful, prosperous, virtuous society as well as being a national security priority. When I came in, I split the delivery of the different recommendations into short-term, medium-term and long-term deliverability, after I had consulted Bishop Philip. I had the report and I asked myself the question, “What is behind this report and these recommendations?” I met Bishop Philip to ask, “How can we take these forward? Why did you come up with that recommendation? What did you have in mind when you designed that recommendation?” His advice and counsel, from the outset and throughout, has been outstanding.
There were challenges during the year. We had a general election, which meant we were away from Parliament for a bit, and there was covid-19. From March, covid-19 meant that resources and officials working on this area were deployed elsewhere, to a certain extent, and rightly so. They were dealing with covid-19 and making sure that our citizens were brought back from different parts of the world. I thank the Foreign Secretary and Foreign Minister for doing a great job and getting 1.2 million of our citizens back to the UK.
On 13 September 2020, after one year in office, 17 of the Truro recommendations were either fully implemented or progressed. How did I come up with those 17 recommendations? It is important to have accountability. In July this year, we had a new head of freedom of religious belief, Juliet, a brilliant official tasked with overseeing all of the FORB work. I asked her to review every aspect of the work that I led on, because there needed to be accountability for my work.
I asked Juliet to look at the different recommendations across the board because by July, when I gave evidence to the yearly review with Bishop Truro, there were 11 recommendations that may have been classed as moving forward into the category of implemented or fully implemented, but I wanted someone to independently look at that. On 7 September, Juliet, as the head of FORB, and said that 17 recommendations could be classed as fully implemented or progressed.
I will touch on some of those recommendations now. Recommendation 1 says:
“Ensure FoRB…alongside other human rights and values, is central to FCO operation,”
and talks about a “Diplomatic Code.” When I read the report, my first question was. “What do we mean by a diplomatic code? Bishop Philip, what do you mean by a diplomatic code?” He said, “It is an internal working programme for the Foreign Office.” It provides overarching objectives for the Foreign Office.
I then met the permanent secretary at the Foreign Office and said, “This is the recommendation. This is what is designed to be delivered. Can we look at how we take this forward?” He said, “Rehman, one of the objectives we have at the Foreign Office at the moment is promoting freedom of religion or belief for all.” In the Foreign Secretary’s evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee last week, he gave a three-winged approach on freedoms—FORB freedom, media freedom and Magnitsky sanctions. On the framework, I asked officials to come back by December with a recommendation of how it could be taken forward.
The next recommendation will take a bit of time, Mr Hollobone, but it is important that I cover it for Members. It says:
“Articulate an aspiration to be the global leader in championing FoRB”.
That is crucial. It is a top priority for our Government, but what have we actually done to make it a top priority? How have we interacted with others around the world?
When I advised the Government, it was a delight to join the International Religious Freedom Alliance as a founding member in 2020. The IRFA is an organisation of like-minded states that respect freedom of religion or belief, as in article 18 of the declaration of human rights. It was launched in Washington by Secretary of State Pompeo with over 20 members from states around the world. I had the pleasure of representing the United Kingdom at that meeting.
I pay tribute to Sam Brownback, United States ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. He had a vision of creating an international alliance that could take swift, quick and appropriate action with like-minded partners, and he made it a reality by getting the alliance set up. It has done work on covid-19 and the challenge that we face. We sit here in Parliament representing constituencies. Our constituents have faced challenges and difficulties, but some citizens around the world have suffered more than others under covid-19 for being a member of a religious minority. So what has the alliance been doing?
The alliance helped religious prisoners of conscience in Yemen and worked to get prisoners of conscience in the Baha’i community released. In Eritrea, religious prisoners of conscience were released. On speaking to Ambassador Brownback at the weekend, I learnt that 1,679 religious prisoners of conscience in Uzbekistan have been released with the direct involvement of the alliance and the work of Ambassador Sam Brownback, and it would be unfair of me not to mention the work of the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed. I thank them all.
Before I stepped down I was fortunate to be the vice-chairman of the international alliance, having helped to create it, and the members had asked if I would serve as co-vice-chair with Ambassador Jos Douma from the Netherlands, who did a terrific job on the campaign to get the Baha’is released in Yemen. Another issue that we faced was how to get like-minded countries to make a statement on the persecution of individuals around the world, and there was a covid-19 statement from 18 countries.
I must highlight what minorities around the world have faced during covid-19. First, some Governments have used the pandemic to further repress religious minorities. Secondly, religious minorities are often discriminated against when it comes to the provision of food, aid and healthcare. Thirdly, some religious minorities are being blamed for the spread of covid-19 and are targeted as a result. Fourthly, online propaganda campaigns are targeting religious minorities. Fifthly, technology is being used to further repress, discriminate or surveil religious minorities. That is why the United Kingdom alone cannot make a difference. We have to work with like-minded partners through multilateral fora, which is what the alliance did. I want to give a huge thanks to Professor Mariz Tadros from CREID, the Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development, who recently covered that point at the G20.
CREID has been doing vital work on covid-19 and the scapegoating of religious minorities in countries such as India, Pakistan and Iraq. In Pakistan, CREID provided poor sanitation workers, predominantly from Christian backgrounds, with awareness training around personal protective equipment. As well as providing the equipment, CREID conducted advocacy activities with the Government around the right to dignity, respect and protection.
I see the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) sitting to my right. His report on minorities in Pakistan and his visit with Lord Alton was absolutely superb. I thank him from the bottom of my heart for what he does day in, day out, and for what he has done throughout his career in Parliament. I also thank his colleagues on the APPG. I have a small example. When I was the envoy and I needed to know what was going on, I used to have Twitter alerts from the APPG to find out what was going on. The guys on the APPG were absolutely brilliant. Also, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for her report on minorities in Pakistan.
On the canonisation of St John Henry Newman, a great British saint who made a global impact, we were at the Holy See. We had an APPG delegation there at the time. We also had His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales leading the United Kingdom delegation. We had two Secretaries of State representing the United Kingdom Government and we had the Prime Minister’s special envoy. I thank our brilliant ambassador to the Holy See, Sally Axworthy, for the way in which the celebrations were conducted. If colleagues have not had a chance to read His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales’s October 2019 article in The Tablet on interfaith at the time of the canonisation of St John Henry Newman, I strongly suggest that they do, and I thank him for his work on interfaith dialogue. I will come to the Minister in due course.
For the UK to be a leader on FORB prompts the question of whether the United Kingdom will host the international ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief. I went to the United States and said, “Hey, the United Kingdom would like to host that conference.” Other countries wanted to do it, but the United States said that the United Kingdom could do it. We decided on 2021 for the full conference, but then the decision came back and officials said, “It will be in 2021, but I understand that given covid-19, COP26 is being moved to 2022. Would you do it?” I did not think we should have a virtual semi-conference; there should be a full conference. I spoke to counterparts in the United States to ask whether another country could step in in 2021, and the United Kingdom in 2022. The Foreign Secretary accepted my advice. It would be great if the Minister could say exactly when in 2022 the United Kingdom will host that conference.
Recommendation 2 was for the United Kingdom to:
“Advocate that member states introduce a Special Envoy position for FoRB”.
The first country that I visited as the envoy, on transit to the Holy See, was Bahrain, a Muslim-majority country that has a good track record on interfaith, mutual co-existence. It has had a Hindu temple for 200 years and churches for over 100 years. The vicar from my constituency, Reverend Chris Butt, had been the vicar at St Christopher’s Cathedral in Bahrain just prior to my visit. I asked His Majesty King Hamad whether Bahrain would appoint a special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. I was pleased that one of the last meetings that I had in my official capacity was with the Foreign Minister of Bahrain in early September and he said, “His Majesty has considered your request, and Bahrain will appoint a special envoy for freedom of religion or belief in due course.”
Recommendation 3 is to
“Name the phenomenon of Christian discrimination”.
The decision on that recommendation was not made by the envoy. Research was allocated to Archbishop Angaelos of the Coptic Christian Church. Through the John Bunyan fund for freedom of religion and belief, 15 projects were given money to conduct research on FORB. He put forward a submission, and he has a strong track record on freedom of religion or belief. The research was carried out by his team, and I hear that there were mixed representations. Some want a name for the phenomenon of Christian persecution, and some do not, but the recommendation was from Archbishop Angaelos, not me as the envoy. The key thing from him was saying that there should be a recognition of the phenomenon of Christian persecution. I accept that the most persecuted faith in the world is the Christian faith, and we should advocate our policy with that in mind.
Recommendation 4 is
“to gather reliable information and data on FoRB to better inform the development of international policy.”
I am pleased to say that recommendation 4 is another that has been adopted and is now part of business as usual at the Foreign Office. Research continues, but let me say this: various projects funded by the John Bunyan fund, which I will discuss in greater detail, will also feed into the delivery of recommendation 4. Furthermore, I was delighted to meet representatives of the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington earlier this year. With the help of the funding from the FCDO Magna Carta fund, it has developed a highly sophisticated online tool to gather simple, meaningful, accessible, reliable and timely smart data on religious freedom landscapes across the globe. That is how we got the data from the work with the RFI, and the strategy that was applied. The smart tool collects data in 17 countries and aims to focus on collecting detail in a very localised way.
CREID has also produced some excellent work in this area, including a working paper titled “Humanitarian and Religious Inequalities: Addressing a Blind Spot”, which discusses religious inequalities being blind in humanitarian frameworks and how humanitarian actors can incorporate sensitivity to religious difference and persecution into their programmes.
Recommendation 5 would:
“Bolster research into the critical intersection of FoRB and minority rights”
and gender issues. Again, I pay tribute to CREID and I thank the Government for allocating in 2018 via DFID £12 million for research into security, economic activity and religious hate content online. The CREID paper “Invisible Targets of Hatred: Socioeconomically Excluded Women from Religious Minority Backgrounds” addresses the intersection of religious, gender, social, economic, ethnic and geographic marginalities affecting women who belong to religious minorities in six contexts. CREID has also been working on countering hate speech online, which can often have severe violent consequences in real time. If colleagues have not seen it, the research is available in documents such as the ones I have here. It is crucial that that research is taken into account when Foreign Office officials, and those who were in DFID, make policy.
Recommendation 6 would establish permanently the role of the special envoy. Peter Jones was appointed a director-level champion on FORB and he did a terrific job and I thank him for his support. Based on my experience, my advice to the Government, as we look to appoint a new envoy, is to consider how we make the post most effective. The Minister is terrific; he is a great Minister. However, the work on FORB and the Truro review is led by an envoy, and an envoy does not have the authority to shape or make policy; an envoy does not have the authority to come before Parliament to answer questions on why certain decisions have been taken on certain countries; an envoy may pick up an issue on the alliance and try to put it through the system, but he does not have the authority for political or policy steering. Therefore, my advice to the Government and to whoever comes in next is to give the role the maximum authority possible by ensuring that that person has that authority and is answerable to Parliament. When I was the envoy, I used to read all the debates introduced by Members, and it was a pleasure to read them. If whoever comes in as the Government’s key lead on FORB, they should have the authority to be accountable to Parliament for the decisions that they make about different countries.
Recommendation 7 would:
“Ensure that there are mechanisms in place to facilitate an immediate response to atrocity crimes, including genocide”
and would set up an early-warning system. I was advised by the FORB team that the United Kingdom already has a strategy to deal with early-warning signs and genocide but I refer colleagues to the speech made by my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) in the previous Westminster Hall debate led by the hon. Member for Strangford. It was a powerful speech and highlighted the need to get the early-warning system right. In the seventh paragraph of his speech in the debate on the large-scale persecution of religious or racial minorities on 12 March, the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) highlighted the issues that lead to intolerance and hatred going to their ultimate extent.
The work on the subject is being undertaken by the FORB team and a note was to reach the envoy in December. However, the alliance is crucial as part of that thematic work that I advised the Government to join. The occurrence of mass atrocities targeting members of religious and ethnic minority groups has highlighted the need for greater co-ordination among countries and a more robust response whether atrocities are perpetrated by state actors, such as Myanmar against the Rohingyas, or by non-state actors, such as in Iraq by Daesh. The alliance can serve as the mechanics to mobilise a response based on the principles of action in the joint declaration of principles. That is the vision but before we do that, we can still work together to share good practice.
Recommendation 9 is to be prepared to impose sanctions. I thank our sanctions team. Before we had the designations in July, Bishop Philip and I met the sanctions team at the Foreign Office so that he could explain recommendation 7. There was a FORB perspective on the designations and in the first designations were two Myanmar generals. I read the debate on 12 October on China’s policy on the Uyghur people and seen the United States’ position on the sanctioning of individuals for the way the Uyghurs have been treated in Xinjiang province. As a parliamentarian, do I think the line has been crossed for the United Kingdom to designate individuals in line with what the United States has done to members of the Chinese Communist party? The answer is yes. In this Parliament, Government needs to take into account the views of parliamentarians. As the envoy, I saw debate after debate: a freedom of religion debate on 12 March, 10 October and 6 February, and the debate on 12 October 2020 on China’s policy on its Uyghur population. That debate says it all.
The United Kingdom has a moral obligation to do the right thing and stand up for our global values: democracy, rule of law and liberty. That means taking that decisive, appropriate action. I know the Government have done that in Belarus with sanctions on certain individuals, but my question to the Government now is: why wait? We took the decision and, on my understanding, designations were supposed to be every few months. We took an exceptional decision on Belarus, and rightly so. Why are we not taking that decision on the Uyghur situation in China? My understanding of the Magnitsky sanctions is that, as global Britain, we are working with our like-minded partners Canada and the United States. The United States has designated individuals from the Chinese Communist party on the sanctions list, with visa restrictions, export restrictions, a ban on exporting to the US and business advice to US companies, cautioning businesses about the reputational, economic and legal risk. As such, I say to the Minister that the United Kingdom should quickly and swiftly do the right thing. Our great parliamentarian William Wilberforce is quoted on page 6 of Bishop Truro’s report:
“You may choose to look the other way, but you can never again say you did not know”.
On that recommendation, future designations always need to consider FORB and I ask the Government to make that decision on exceptional grounds, quickly and swiftly.
Recommendation 10 is for
“The Foreign Secretary to write to FCO funded ‘arm’s length’ bodies”.
I am pleased to say the Foreign Secretary wrote to the Westminster Foundation, Wilton Park and the British Council: done, done and done. I also highlight something crucial to colleagues: the Foreign Office-produced reports on conferences on protecting vulnerable religious minorities in conflict; promotion of freedom of religion or belief; tackling violence committed in the name of religion; and fostering social cohesion in Nigeria. Nigeria will come up in the debate, and colleagues may highlight that. When I was the envoy, I said to officials “Let’s have a Wilton Park conference on Nigeria” and we had that. The documents are superb and highlight the United Kingdom and the Foreign Office’s commitment and good practice and I ask colleagues that we move forward in that.
The next recommendation is number 11, to ensure
“both general and contextual training in religious literacy”.
When I first came into office, that was one of my first goals. Unless our diplomats have the right training across the board, how do they pick up the issues of intolerance, hatred and non-violent extremism that lead to violent extremism? We need to make sure our diplomats have that. We have some of the best diplomats in the world; I have worked with them. However, they need to be given the right tools.
When I came in, there was some support through the LSE programme. Now, there is a Cambridge module on religious literacy. However, tying in with recommendation 13 to
“deliver tailored responses to FoRB violations at Post level”,
I have a recommendation for the Government. When I came in there were four priority countries, but I say there should be 13 review countries. How do you identify a review country? I asked Sir Mark Lyall Grant, our former ambassador—I am running close on time, but I shall be very brief in my summing up. Review countries are based on where the most significant infringement on FORB is taking place and where the United Kingdom can make the most impact on it. I wrote to 24 different missions with a view to getting 13 put into that category. We could, then, ensure that the diplomats going to those 13 countries had that tailored support.
“Ensure FCO human rights reporting”.
I am pleased to say that the annual human rights report covers freedom of religion or belief in that regard.
Recommendation 17 is for
“The FCO to convene a working group for government departments and civil society”
to engage. I am pleased to say that the FORB forum, chaired by Bishop Truro, has recently been established by a diverse group of human rights NGOs, civil society organisations and faith groups. The UK FORB forum is a mechanism for civil society actors to engage with HM Government on the issue and ensure that egregious violations in both individual cases and systematic abuses are looked at. I thank Bishop Philip and the civil society organisations for coming forward.
Among the final recommendations I want to cover, one concerns the annual event in support of the UN international day on victims of religious violence. The United Kingdom supported Poland at the UN on that, and carried out a Red Wednesday event, with Aid to the Church in Need. Buildings across Government Departments were lit in red. I spoke about that at Westminster Cathedral.
Recommendation 20 is for the United Kingdom to secure a Security Council resolution on FORB. When I first came into office I advised and spoke to No. 10 and the Foreign Secretary, and I spoke to and got a note back from our mission in New York on a strategy to take forward that recommendation. I gave the Foreign Secretary an update note on that in July. I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for accepting my advice on the strategy to take that recommendation forward. Before I left, that matter was on my desk. The United Kingdom has the Security Council presidency in February next year and I would like confirmation that the United Kingdom will move that motion then.
I am grateful to colleagues for their amazing support and their championing of FORB, and I look forward to working with them on this again as a parliamentarian.
Dr Lisa Cameron (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (SNP)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Hollobone, and to speak in this extremely important debate. I thank the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) for the work that he has completed already. I am sure that he will continue to be an assiduous advocate in Parliament of freedom of religious belief. He has spoken of detailed and extensive work, and it is heartening to be shown how much work has been happening. It has been heartening, I am sure, for people in my constituency, to hear of the progress being made; but what the hon. Gentleman said also provided an outline for the Government of the important recommendations that need to be taken forward.
I want to thank the organisations that work in this space: Open Doors, Aid to the Church in Need, and Christian Solidarity Worldwide, to name just a few. I also thank other hon. Members here today, who are familiar faces from the all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief—particularly, of course, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who works tirelessly on the issue.
In much of the world, freedom of religion is, indeed, the linchpin on which other freedoms rest—such as the freedom to congregate, freedom of speech, and freedom of expression. Those rights are interdependent and absolutely inseparable. That is one of the reasons why the issue should be seen as such a priority for Government. It is not just because of the faith groups that depend so heavily on Government to champion those freedoms, across the United Kingdom; it is also for the whole of society, because the other rights that non-religious groups and other organisations depend on rest solidly on the foundation that has been set.
In the couple of minutes I have, I want to focus particularly on Nigeria. I understand that Fulani militants have carried out multiple raids on villages in Kaduna and Plateau States. Thirty-two Christians who were obeying directives to stay at home during the humanitarian disaster of covid, to prevent the spread of the virus, were targeted in attempts to uproot the Christian community from the area. Open Doors recorded one local Christian who said:
“If people are going to stay in their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic, they need to feel safe from attacks like this.”
I think we can echo that sentiment.
Open Doors notes that there is an urgent need to engage with representatives of organisations that work to secure freedom of religious belief in places such as Nigeria, where persecuted Christians are incredibly vulnerable—that was highlighted in the recent APPG report, “Nigeria: Unfolding Genocide?”—and where the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office still refuses fully to recognise the religious dimension of the conflict. I urge the Minister to focus on those issues and work with excellent organisations such as Open Doors to take these matters forward.
I wanted to speak about Pakistan; I dare say that I will not have enough time to do so, but I can perhaps send the Minister a letter about that. I pay tribute to the work of all across our constituencies in the United Kingdom who champion these issues in their work, and who provide such support for those who are in need internationally.
Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con)
First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) for his tremendous work. The energy and commitment that he has brought to the role of Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief will be a hard act to follow, whoever is appointed to succeed him. We all owe him a deep debt of gratitude.
We have heard much from my hon. Friend about the progress that has been made in applying the recommendations of the Bishop of Truro’s report. I want to focus on one of those recommendations—recommendation 7, which makes reference to the crime above all crimes: genocide. In Article II of the 1948 convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide, to which we are a signatory, genocide is defined as,
“acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”.
Recommendation 7 has two important components. The first is on early warning monitoring and the second concerns the determination of genocide.
Sadly, over many decades now, through many atrocities in different parts of the globe, both in this country and as part of the wider international community, we have all too often failed to take note of genocide and to address it until it is too late. From the suffering of the Armenians in Turkey a hundred years ago, through the holocaust, the genocide in Rwanda, the suffering of the Rohingya Muslims in Burma, the Yazidis in Syria and Iraq, and the Uyghurs in China today, too often—indeed, invariably—religious minorities are part of the equation when crimes against humanity and genocide occur.
As the report says, genocidal actions against Christians are high on the agenda of concern. The report contains a quote from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:
“The persecution of Christians throughout much of the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, [and] elsewhere is one of the crimes against humanity of our time.”
Yet, as I say, we fail to hold perpetrators to account or recognise genocide. The UK does not have comprehensive early warning monitoring mechanisms and does not engage in genocide determination. Without that, we fail to trigger our duty under the convention. As a signatory to that convention, we are required to act to prevent genocide and to protect those affected, but only if there is a judicial determination of genocide. It was a sad failure in 2016, when I was privileged to bring a motion to the House on this issue, that we failed to persuade the Government to act, even though that determination was passed by a majority—indeed, unanimously.
How do we break this circular argument that only the courts can determine genocide, and without that we cannot refer this internationally? In recent years, one way in which Lord Alton in the Lords and I in the Commons have endeavoured to do that is through our private Members’ Bills, the Genocide Determination Bills, which provide for the High Court to make a preliminary finding on cases of genocide where, for example, an affected group refers a matter to it. That would facilitate a referral of such a finding to the International Criminal Court.
The Trade Bill is being discussed in the Lords—this is the single point that I want to make today—and amendment 76A, which takes proposals from the Genocide Determination Bill, requires that if a referral for a declaration of genocide is made to the High Court by a representative of a religious or ethnic group, for example, the Court must consider it and make a determination. Any trade agreement would then have to be avoided if a signatory to it is a partner that has perpetrated genocide. I urge the Government to support the amendment.
Taiwo Owatemi (Coventry North West) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), the special envoy for religious freedom for the UK, for securing this important Westminster Hall debate. I and many of my Christian constituents, and indeed members of all faiths in Coventry North West, were pleased when we were told that there would be a long-overdue independent review into the persecution of Christians and the freedom of religion and belief. I stand here representing Christians in my constituency, and I denounce the human rights abuses facing Christians in Thailand, China, India and other places across the globe.
Earlier this year, I met a constituent from an organisation called the International Asian Christian Front, which supports and advocates for persecuted Christians in Pakistan and India. They expressed concerns that covid-19-related assistance is not going into predominantly Christian religious bodies in this country. Discrimination and attempts to deprive people, on the basis of their religion, of the health assistance they need in a pandemic are unconscionable, and I am sure that the Minister and hon. Members agree. At such a precarious time, when we should be banding together in solidarity and support, swathes of our society are being left to fend for themselves simply because they adhere to a different faith.
I am sure the Minister will join me in paying tribute to Open Doors, which provides support and assistance to persecuted Christians across the world. I am proud to support it. It shines a light on the Christians who face injustice and discrimination on the basis of their faith, and it ensures that Members of this House are aware of and can lend their support to those who need it most.
I welcome the Government’s pace in implementing the Bishop of Truro’s 22 recommendations. Will the Minister outline when they will be implementing the remaining recommendations? Will he also tell me what they are doing to support persecuted Christians who are being denied food aid in Bangladesh and India during the pandemic, nurses in the Gulf who have been denied personal protective equipment, and those who have reportedly been attacked during lockdown in Nigeria? For my Christian constituents of Asian heritage, will he tell me what the Government are doing to support Asian Christians in the UK who do not have a church or community centre to call their own?
In everything we do as representatives in this place, we must work towards promoting and building cohesion among all religious groups in the UK and across the world so that we can navigate this crisis as one, and come out the other end better than we entered it.
Imran Ahmad Khan (Wakefield) (Con)
It is a great pleasure to serve under your stewardship for the first time, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) for the great energy, intellect and compassion he has brought to this subject and his role as the Prime Minister’s envoy on freedom of religion.
I think we all agree that one of the cornerstones of the United Kingdom is our fundamental belief in the individual’s right to live freely without fear, threat or harm, regardless of whether it is from other individuals or the state. Freedom of thought and belief is perhaps the most fundamental right, and sadly the one that is most at peril around the world. It truly saddens and pains me to witness the rise of persecution based on religious belief. It has been estimated that one third of the population of the globe suffers from religious persecution, in whatever heinous form it takes.
In absolute terms, Christians are the most persecuted of those groups, and they have been subject to violence, extrajudicial killings, involuntary disappearances, social persecution, the suppression of public expression and attempts to cleanse regions of religious belief over a prolonged period. Sadly, during my time living in Pakistan in support of the Pakistani army and Pakistani state on behalf of the British and American Governments, I saw the deep link, which was referenced by my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham, between religious exclusion and inequality and extremism, violent extremism and terrorism. It is clearly there.
Unfortunately in Pakistan, martial law ordinance XX, which was first promulgated to be used against Ahmadis, is increasingly being employed to persecute Christians. Across the middle east, the birthplace of Christianity, the persecution of Christians is seen at its very worst. One hundred years ago, Christians made up at least 20% of the population across the middle east and north Africa. Today, that stands at a meagre 4%.
Sadly, in many countries it is the state that drives prejudice and discrimination against its Christian citizens. In Egypt, Iran and Syria, church properties and properties owned by Christians are confiscated or outright attacked, and restricting Christians’ access to their places of worship is common. In Iran and Turkey, incitement to hatred against Christians has been observed on state-sponsored media. Turkey’s Christians have been portrayed as “not real Turks”, and various campaigns smearing their beliefs have also been run. In China, the Communist party seeks to control what its citizens think and to inhibit their ability to feel and believe. That is not only the case for Uyghur Muslims; Uyghur Christians are also being interred and persecuted.
These regimes not only violate the sacred value of freedom of religious belief but encourage non-state actors to violate that freedom. That is a violation of what Britain and decent, right-minded people everywhere cherish, champion and fight for. As we redetermine our place in the world following Brexit, a key part of global Britain must be defending the values that underpin our society—namely pluralism, tolerance, diversity and individual liberties—wherever they may be assaulted. Standing up to these nations and protecting the rights of individuals to live, work and worship as they please will be vital. I am greatly appreciative of the Bishop of Truro’s report’s shining a light on countries that fail to do so.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) on securing the debate. My wife just texted me. We have a new grandchild, who was born at 11.50 pm last night. We are up to five now. Perhaps the Shannons will be able on their own to vote their grandfather into Parliament once again—I hope that I will be elected by more votes than that, but that is by the way. I am pleased to speak in the debate. I declare an interest as chair of both the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief and the all-party parliamentary group for the Pakistani minorities.
I put on the record my thanks to the hon. Gentleman for his tireless work. His door has always been open for a meeting, and his responses have always been excellent. I thank him for that. I will do as he did and start off with a Scripture text, from Romans 8:35, which asks, “Who shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus? Shall tribulation, distress or persecution? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.”
Covid-19 has exacerbated the plight of Christians and other religious minorities across the world, because they get blamed for the virus and for spreading it. I will speak up for the Jewish community, who have faced dramatic increases in antisemitic hate speech as a result of covid-19. The office of special envoy for freedom of religion or belief is so important. The Prime Minister has not appointed anybody to that post yet; I hope he will soon.
I put to the Minister the need for all the recommendations of the Bishop of Truro’s review to be implemented fully. Recommendation 11 is to do with making sure that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office staff who work in countries have the necessary training and can make the most of their resources to address these violations. I encourage FCDO to incorporate civil society evidence submissions into their human rights and democracy report-writing process.
It is important to have that focus from the Department—I know it is there, and I am happy that the Minister will confirm this, because I want it on the record—on the Baha’is, Shias, Hindus, Armenians, Rohingyas, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Ahmadis, Muslims and Coptic Christians in all countries, but particularly in Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Egypt. The focus is very much on the middle east, which I have had the opportunity to visit on occasion.
I also ask the UK Government to implement recommendation 8, which is to be
“prepared to impose sanctions against perpetrators of FoRB abuses.”
The right of freedom of belief is enshrined in article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights.
In the case of China, we have often talked about the Uyghur Muslims, but there are also the Tibetan Buddhists, with over half a million labourers detained in camps in the first seven months of 2020 alone. The Chinese Government have also cracked down on other religious groups: they have destroyed churches and harassed, imprisoned and intimidated Christians. Even small church groups have been under terrible threat, and, worse still, the independent China Tribunal found that there was forced organ harvesting of prisoners of conscience: that is Christians, Uyghur Muslims, Falun Gong and others. We really do have to grab China—in a nice way—by the lapels and tell it to get into line.
What can we ask the Minister to do in relation to that? I support amendment 68 to the Trade Bill, to which the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) referred. I confirm to the Minister that we are asking for pressure to be put on China. What is happening about that? We have to address the face of evil that China is, so that we can change things. While we may look forward to the future, I pray and beseech that we make the right decision, and that our grandchildren will look at us and say, “You spoke up when you should have done.”
Alexander Stafford (Rother Valley) (Con)
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) for all his tireless work on this cause and for having secured this debate. I also thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and congratulate him on the birth of his grandchild, who will, I am sure, bring much happiness.
I read with concern the deeply depressing final report submitted by the Bishop of Truro, which set out in stark terms the persecution faced by Christians around the world. It seems perverse that Christians face greater oppression now than at any other point in recent history. It is also an uncomfortable reality that the persecution of Christians is largely unacknowledged by leading Governments, for various reasons, but while we prevaricate, Christians across the globe are being attacked, harassed and killed because of their religious beliefs. As Members will know, I believe freedom of religion to be a central pillar of our civic society. As a Catholic, I can see the ways in which people of Christian faith enrich discourse and dialogue in the United Kingdom every single day. However, in many countries, Christians are regarded with suspicion, contempt, and often outright hostility.
The persecution of Roman Catholics in Pakistan and the People’s Republic of China are crimes that I have been following closely. Maira Shahbaz, a 14-year-old Catholic girl in Pakistan, was recently abducted, raped, married to her abductor, and forcibly converted to Islam. She is now on the run and at risk of being killed. This is a disgusting situation. Regrettably, Pakistan’s recent record of protecting religious minorities, including Christians, is woeful. I understand that Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon raised freedom of religion or belief with Pakistan’s Minister for Human Rights and with the Governor of Punjab, but I urge the Government to keep up the pressure on our Pakistani counterparts to ensure that authorities there seek justice for Maira, and guarantee her future safety.
In the People’s Republic of China, the Chinese Communist party is waging the most severe, systematic suppression of Christianity in that country for decades. In the past few years, the CCP has been destroying crosses, burning Bibles, shutting churches and ordering followers to sign papers renouncing their faith. Only state-approved Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association churches are allowed to exist, and Catholics have been driven underground at great personal cost. It is no wonder, then, that the Holy See recognises the Republic of China as being the true representative of China: Catholics can worship freely and openly in Taiwan, but not in the PRC. Many Catholics are worried that the renewal of the secretive agreement between China and the Church damages Rome’s moral authority and puts Catholics in danger through its acquiescence to Beijing’s terms. I entreat this Government to work with the Vatican and the PRC to stop the oppression of Catholics, and to legalise the Church in that country.
Set against that background, the Bishop of Truro’s review was welcome and timely, and the Government’s commitment to its recommendations will bring real improvements to the lives of those persecuted because of their faith. I am pleased to note that more than half of the recommendations have already been implemented, or are in the process of being implemented. I am particularly encouraged by the creation of a UK global human rights sanctions regime, responding to the recommendations in the report that we must impose sanctions against those who persecute Christians. Furthermore, the launch of the John Bunyan Fund for Freedom of Religion and Belief has funded 15 research projects to look at the challenges facing different religious communities among those Christians. That is great progress.
The Government should visibly and robustly stand up for the rights of Christians everywhere. We must face down oppression wherever we find it and protect the world’s most vulnerable, regardless of race, background or creed. I pray for my fellow Christians and will continue to fight for them in this House.
David Linden (Glasgow East) (SNP)
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) on securing the debate and on all his work as the Prime Minister’s special envoy. I also pay tribute to Mervyn Thomas, who stood down earlier this year as chief executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide. He served that organisation with distinction for 40 years. Most of us who work in the field of FORB know what a titan Mervyn Thomas is in the field. I am sure I speak on behalf of all hon. Members in wishing him well for whatever comes next.
This debate has been excellent, with contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) and the hon. Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi), for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan), for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford).
In my time as an MP, the issue of religious freedom has been close to my heart and to the hearts of my constituents. However, an image has stuck with me from before my time as an MP. In 2011, in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, Christians formed a human shield around Muslims who were on their hands and knees praying. For me, that is the essence of what freedom of religion and belief is all about: when people of different faiths or no faith whatsoever come together in respecting each other and upholding that freedom.
That is not just a romantic idea; it is enshrined in the United Nations universal declaration of human rights, which states:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
Freedom of religion is a fundamental human right, which we should all honour and protect. As a Scottish National party MP, I am not often proud to be a Westminster MP, but this is one of the few occasions when we come together and affirm our absolute belief in that freedom.
During the 2019 Backbench Business debate on this topic, I offered my support and that of my party for the Bishop of Truro’s report and all its recommendations. We, like others, are committed to ensuring that religious freedom is observed around the globe and that the report’s recommendations are implemented in full in order to attain that goal.
As the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham set out, 17 out of 22 of the report’s recommendations have been, or are in the process of being, implemented. All hon. Members want them to be implemented as quickly as possible. However, no one has been named as a replacement for the hon. Gentleman as the Prime Minister’s special envoy. It is a crucial role and I urge the Government to fill the position as soon as possible, to ensure that this vital work can continue.
As a nationalist MP, I appreciate that the Prime Minister is unlikely to take advice from me, and probably rightly so. However, I advise the Government, in all sincerity, that if they choose to appoint another MP as the special envoy, they should seriously consider the hon. Member for Strangford, who does so much work in this field. There are examples of Members of other parties being appointed as special envoys. I ask the Minister to take that suggestion back to the Prime Minister. The hon. Member for Strangford is a champion in this field and would be an excellent candidate for the post.
Covid-19 has negatively impacted on Christian communities across the globe, with persecution continuing during this public health crisis. I have continued to work closely with Christian Solidarity Worldwide during the pandemic and have been in touch with one of its contacts in Uttar Pradesh, India. The contact, who shall remain anonymous for their safety, informed me of violent attacks that have taken place against Christians worshipping. I was told that there were 60 cases of persecution in 2019 and that a further 45 cases had already occurred by September this year, even with covid-19 lockdown measures in place.
My contact also described how some police officers in the region have been biased against the Christian community. It is often a lottery as to which police officer receives the call and, therefore, how those Christians who are worshipping will be treated. For example, if the officer is sympathetic to the Christian faith, they will respond to the call; if not, there is often no response to the attack, meaning that violent criminals often go without punishment.
I know that the Government are probably fed up of hearing me complain about the situation in India, but we have to take stock of the fact that this is the world’s largest democracy, with an emerging middle class, but it is rising rapidly up the world watch list. I once again ask the Government to ensure that they raise this with the authorities in India. Around the globe, everyone should be free to worship without fear of persecution. It is vital that the Government do everything in their power to condemn violent attacks against those worshipping, and work together to protect freedom of religion.
I am glad that the hon. Members for Congleton and for Strangford, and others, referred to the Trade Bill. There is no doubt that, as the United Kingdom becomes global Britain and tries to find a new space on the world stage, it has an opportunity to ensure that these issues are not missed out in trade negotiations. I appreciate that in a trade negotiation we do not want to raise things that will perhaps be controversial, but we should never lose sight of the fact that freedom of religion or belief and human rights should be at the top of the agenda.
We are faced with a unique moment in history. Between Brexit talks and the pandemic, it is vital that we continue to protect human rights and freedom of religion. It is crucial that during the crisis we continue to work towards ensuring that the persecution of all religions, and of those who have no religion at all, ends and that everyone around the globe is free to worship without fear. At the unique moment of history in which we find ourselves we cannot lose sight of the values that mean the most to us, including the core belief that absolutely everyone should have the freedom to worship without fear.
Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)
It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I thank everybody for their incredibly strong and passionate contributions, as I would expect from the Members present. I commend the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) for securing the debate and for his work as the Prime Minister’s special envoy. I am sorry that he had to resign.
I thank the Bishop of Truro for his work and all the organisations, many of which have been named, for the work they have done in bringing attention to many of these instances of persecution, particularly against Christians, around the world. I declare an interest as a Christian, and as someone who worked previously with Open Doors and a number of other organisations to highlight such cases, including working with Christians on the Left within my own party.
It is, of course, disappointing that it has been a month since the resignation of the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham and the Government are yet to appoint a special envoy. I hope that the Minister can give us some news on that, because it is crucial and relates to at least four of the recommendations in the report of the Bishop of Truro. It is vital that we get that work back up and going, but I know that the hon. Member will continue to be a strong voice on these issues.
The Bishop of Truro said very clearly at the start of the report:
“Across the globe…Christians are being bullied, arrested, jailed, expelled and executed. Christianity is by most calculations the most persecuted religion of modern times. Yet Western politicians until now have been reluctant to speak out in support of Christians in peril.”
We have seen the opposite today. Many of us are willing to speak out on these issues, and I know that many others across the House are not afraid to do so either and that they will also continue to speak up for those facing persecution.
Sadly, there are far too many circumstances to mention them all, but I will focus on a number. I will start by talking specifically about the situation for Christians in Nigeria, but given the events overnight, with your leave, Mr Hollobone, I will briefly mention the shocking scenes of brutality and violence at the Lekki toll plaza. I hope that the Minister can share the Government’s response to those shocking scenes, not least because of our strong relationship with Nigeria and its military and security forces. Amnesty has said that there is credible evidence of excessive use of force leading to the deaths of protesters. The action has been condemned by the former US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, so can the Minister tell us whether he and his colleagues will be urgently speaking with the Nigerian high commissioner and their counterparts in the Nigerian Foreign Ministry? It is crucial that they do so, given the horrific scenes overnight.
I want to draw attention particularly to the concerns in Nigeria for Christians. We have heard from Christian Solidarity Worldwide of 50,000 Christians in southern Kaduna state having to flee violence. We have heard from a number of Members, including through the work of the APPG and the report that was mentioned, of the violence between Fulani herders and settled farming communities. In 2019, 1,000 Christians were killed. The International Crisis Group has pointed to more than 300,000 people being displaced, and, of course, Nigerian human rights organisations have also been speaking out, saying that in 2015 up to 12,000 Christians were killed, with 350 deaths in just the first two months of 2020.
There is also alarming persecution of religious minorities by elements of the Nigerian state. There have been arbitrary arrests of both Christian and humanist figures. For example, Professor Solomon Musa Tarfa was detained in Kano state, as was Mubarak Bala from the Nigerian Humanist Association, whose case I have raised regularly with the Minister for Africa, the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge).
There are many other worrying circumstances beyond those in Nigeria. We have heard about the circumstances of the Muslim Rohingya minority and the persecution they face at the hands of the Myanmar authorities, and about the situation for Rohingya Christians. The hon. Member for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan) talked about that. There are approximately 1,500 Rohingya Christians and they report that they have faced threats and violence in camps, including an attack in January this year when a group of men attacked 22 Christian families, vandalised homes, looted personal property and smashed up a makeshift church and school.
Of course, we have also seen attacks across the middle east. We have heard about the persecution of Coptic Christians and the destruction of churches in Egypt. In Algeria, there is an ongoing campaign of church closures against the Protestant Church of Algeria, which serves the Berber population—13 churches have been closed over the past three years. We have heard about the situation in Iran, where only Shi’a Muslims are allowed to hold key political positions and there are continued attacks on people who change or renounce their religious beliefs. Atheists, too, are affected. Many people whose religious beliefs differ from those of the extraordinarily repressive regime in Iran are at risk of arbitrary detention, torture and the death penalty.
We have also heard about the situation in Pakistan, where the blasphemy laws still carry the mandatory death penalty and violate fundamental rights to the freedom of expression, thought, conscience and religion. Rather than moving away from such violations, there has been an increase in attacks. Many individual cases are of deep concern to the organisations that have been speaking out so powerfully on behalf of individuals, individual churches and others who have been affected.
There is also the situation in Sri Lanka, with the horrific attacks that we have just been marking. Those scenes have utterly shocked the world. The situation has also worsened in places that have not been drawing attention, such as Mozambique. The situation in the north of that country is deeply worrying. Recently, monks in the north of the country have been forced to flee across the border to Tanzania after an attack on their monastery in the district of Cabo Delgado. The deeply worrying rise in extremism there is, I am afraid to say, little noticed by the outside world.
There are so many examples of religious persecution that it is difficult to do them justice. Organisations have been highlighting such atrocities. I mentioned the specific Christian organisations, but organisations such Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and many others have also been leading efforts to draw attention to the circumstances and to urge Governments around the world to act.
We heard about the situation with the Chinese Communist party, including from the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford), who is no longer in his place. The so-called sanitisation of religion, which was pushed by Premier Li at the National People’s Congress in March 2018, has been on show and affects not only Christians but other religious minorities, including Muslims, Buddhists and Taoists, and other non-religious groups. The week-long disappearance of Catholic Bishop Shao Zhumin from Guangzhou diocese in Zhejiang was also very worrying. There is also the case of Guo Xijin in Fujian province. When he fled state custody and went into hiding, having refused to bring his church under the Government-run Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, the authorities in the diocese of Mindong began closing churches, installing surveillance cameras and evicting priests who refused to be brought under official control.
Of course, we cannot have this debate without mentioning the absolutely shameful and disturbing atrocities that are being perpetrated against the Uyghur population in Xinjiang, who are facing a monstrous Government-co-ordinated programme of police surveillance, enforced re-education, disappearances, internment and mass detention. There are even shocking reports of forced sterilisation.
Having heard the powerful contributions made today, I want to put a few questions to the Minister. Obviously, the Government have enacted a number of the Bishop of Truro’s recommendations, including the launching of the John Bunyan fund, but there have been cuts to official development assistance budgets as a result of the decline in gross national income, and we believe there are cuts that go beyond that. Can the Minister confirm what cuts will be happening and to what extent there will be ongoing funding for the John Bunyan fund and work will continue to focus on tackling persecution of religious minorities? Will specific country programmes in some of the contexts that we have mentioned today face the chop? I certainly hope not, because that work is absolutely vital.
Recommendation 18 in the Bishop of Truro’s report talks about a standard FORB scale of persecution. It would be incredibly beneficial to have a clear scale of escalation, so that the Government and others could formulate common approaches in advocating for persecuted Christians, especially in the very worst cases and situations.
The freedom and right to believe and worship as one chooses, without threat of attack or sanction, whether legal, financial, social or physical, is one of the most fundamental rights that we hold, but too often and in too many places, we see both governmental and non-governmental actors using division, hatred, sectarianism and persecution to advance their agendas, bolster support and eradicate dissent and freedom of thought. The UK must stand boldly against such egregious abuse of human rights. I look forward to hearing from the Minister how the Government will be expanding their work to uphold freedom of religion and belief for all.
These freedoms are guaranteed by some of our most fundamental human rights global commitments: article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights, article 18 of the international covenant on civil and political rights, and the declaration on the elimination of all forms of intolerance and of discrimination based on religion or belief. There is of course a crucial UN special rapporteur on these issues. There is the UN Human Rights Council. Perhaps the Minister can say how we will be using our seat on the UN Human Rights Council to push these agendas forward.
Of course, all of this is underpinned by the UK remaining committed to the very highest standards of human rights, to the rule of law and to a proactive role in global human rights bodies. I am sorry to say that we have seen some drawing back from that in recent years. I hope that the Minister can reassure us that that will not be the case, that these programmes will continue to be funded and that he and his colleagues will continue to use their full diplomatic muscle for global Britain to advance the case of persecuted Christians worldwide.
The Minister for Asia (Nigel Adams)
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I not only congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) on securing this debate, but commend him for his long-standing commitment to freedom of religion or belief. I also thank him for his incredibly hard work over the last year as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. He gave us a fantastic run-through of his work over the last year—an exhausting year, by the sounds of it—and it was well worth the over-run on his time, Mr Hollobone, to be able to hear about all the work that he has done. There sure are big boots to fill in that regard. My hon. Friend’s commitment to this agenda has contributed hugely to the Government’s work in this area. It has been instrumental in the implementation of more than half the Bishop of Truro’s recommendations.
I also extend my gratitude to colleagues for their impassioned speeches today. I will try to respond to all the points raised, although I suspect, given the time, that that is wishful thinking. But I do have, to coin a phrase, an open-door policy at the FCDO and I will be more than happy to meet individual colleagues to go through some of the issues that I am not able to respond on today. We have a great team there, working on this agenda, and we will be more than happy to work with everyone collaboratively where we are all on the same page.
I can start by reaffirming the Government’s unwavering commitment to freedom of religion or belief. The commitment was further underlined by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s appointment last year of my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham, who succeeded my ministerial colleague Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, who continues to champion this cause in his capacity as FCDO Minister responsible for human rights, in the House of Lords.
The Prime Minister is resolute in his commitment to freedom of religion or belief, and I can confirm that a new special envoy will be appointed in due course. I thought that the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) was making a fantastic pitch for the job until he pivoted and gave a great reference for the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I ask colleagues to “bear with”, as my kids say. An appointment will be made by the Prime Minister shortly; he is absolutely committed to there being that role.
Diplomacy and development go hand in hand. Religious intolerance and persecution are often at the heart of foreign and development policy challenges. Where freedom of religion or belief is under attack, other human rights are often threatened too. The newly merged FCDO is using all its diplomatic tools to ensure that no one suffers because of their conscience.
As the House is aware, the then Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), commissioned an independent review into the scale of Christian persecution globally. It produced a set of challenging recommendations on what more the Government could do to support people of all faiths and none everywhere around the world. So far, as we have heard, we have implemented, or are in the process of implementing, 17 of the recommendations. I will run through just some of them.
Recommendation 11 focuses on the religious literacy of our officials. I am pleased that work is under way to ensure that British diplomats and officials have access to enhanced religious literacy training to help them understand the role that religion plays in many people’s lives and in the decisions that they make. That training will help us to develop more religiously literate policies and to engage more effectively.
Recommendation 9 is about the establishment of a John Bunyan fund. In August last year, we launched the fund successfully. In the first year alone, we funded 15 research projects looking at the challenges faced by different communities, including Christians, Yazidis and humanists, as well as at cross-cutting issues such as migration and the double vulnerability experienced by women from minority faith backgrounds.
Recommendation 20 encourages us to use our position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council to seek a resolution calling on Governments in the middle east and north Africa to ensure protection of Christians and other faith minorities. The Foreign Secretary remains absolutely committed to delivering that recommendation, recognising freedom of religion or belief as a force for good. Lord Ahmad has been working tirelessly on this and met our mission in New York a fortnight ago to review the opportunities presented by our presidency of the Security Council in 2021. We are working harder than ever to support those who are persecuted on account of their religion or belief and to implement the recommendations of the Bishop of Truro.
Today’s debate highlights why our efforts are so urgently needed. We have stepped up our work internationally as one of the founding members of the new international religious freedom or belief alliance—we have stood together alongside 31 other states to protect freedom of religion or belief. Again, I have to extend my gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham for his leadership on that. We have heard about some of the excellent work that the alliance has delivered.
We will continue to use our influential voice to raise FORB at the United Nations, including urging the international community to work together—we have heard today how important that is—to face the challenges presented by covid-19. It is particularly important at this time to ensure that the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society are actively included in response and recovery efforts.
Turing to some of the references made by right hon. and hon. Members, we heard an excellent opening speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham, as I said. He asked whether we would host the inter-ministerial global conference on FORB in 2022. We will announce a date for that conference in the coming months.
My hon. Friend also talked about sanctions. One or two other Members mentioned our sanctions regime and asked why we are not already implementing it against certain individuals who are oppressing the Uyghur population. We introduced the sanctions regime in July. It gives us a powerful tool to hold to account those involved in serious human rights violations. We are constantly considering further designations under the regime but, as hon. Members will appreciate, it would be wrong to speculate exactly who may be designated, because to do so at this stage reduces the impact of any sanctions.
The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) referred to the excellent work of Open Doors, as did the spokesperson for the Opposition, the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), who has worked with that organisation himself. He and other hon. Members also referred to what is going on in Nigeria. We are aware of the reports of recent human rights violations involving the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, and recent incidents have prompted serious and widespread protests. Our high commissioner in Abuja has raised that with the Nigerian Government. We condemn all incidents of inter-communal violence in Nigeria, which continue to have a devastating effect on communities of all faiths.
The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow also referred to Pakistan, and I very much look forward to receiving her letter. As I said earlier, I am happy to meet her with my team to go through that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) is a constant champion on this issue, and we thank her for all her work on it. She rightly mentioned the genocide definition. Genocide has a specific definition in international law, and any judgment about whether genocide has occurred is a matter for a judicial decision, but I thank her for rightly referring to it again.
Will the Minister reassure us that he will consider the amendment to the Trade Bill, to which more than one Member referred?
Yes. With regard to the Trade Bill, we have a strong history of safeguarding human rights and promoting our values globally. Strong economic relationships with our partners allow us to have open discussions on a range of important issues, including human rights. We continue to encourage all states to uphold their international human rights obligations.
The hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) spoke passionately about her personal experiences of meeting constituents who have been discriminated against. I thank her for welcoming the pace at which the recommendations are being implemented. I can assure her that the full set of recommendations will be implemented by July 2022. We are very concerned about reports that some communities are being denied access to aid. My colleague the Minister for human rights raised that issue during the UK’s closing statement at the 44th session of the UN Human Rights Council.
I thank the hon. Member for Strangford and my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan) for their passionate contributions. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford on the birth of his grandson. My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford), who is no longer in his place, rightly raised the issue of Pakistan and China. The hon. Member for Glasgow East made a well-thought-out and passionate speech, which was almost a great pitch for the special envoy’s role.
Before handing back to my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham, I want to assure the House that the Government will continue to be a long-standing champion of human rights and freedoms. We have a duty to promote and defend our values of equality, inclusion and respect at home and abroad. We will continue to stand up for the rights of minority communities around the world and defend the right to freedom of religion or belief for everyone everywhere.
I thank the Minister for that response, and I also thank colleagues. People of all faiths or beliefs and none have the concept of forgiveness, and I ask for forgiveness for going on for longer than I should have at the outset.
I can only do my job as envoy because of the fantastic work of parliamentarians pushing it at every level, and constituents. The first question I asked at the Foreign Office was where FORB is on the scale of correspondence. I was told that it was the second-highest issue that people write to the Foreign Office about after the middle east peace process. It is fantastic that, when we speak to officials, we can say, “This is what Parliament says, and this is what constituents say.” We have a duty to deliver and do everything we can on FORB.
From our days of playing cricket for the House of Commons cricket team, I know about the Minister’s captaining—his brilliant strategy, frankness, openness and listening—and I thank him for all he does. I just want to ask a couple of things. The FORB forum, led by Bishop Philip, is brilliant at getting NGOs together. In addition to writing the letter for the new special envoy, the work it has done on China, Nigeria and Iraq recently is absolutely crucial. It would be great if the Minister was able to meet with it and discuss that at its monthly meetings.
I should mention recommendation 12:
“Establish a clear framework for reporting”
at post. That was more or less signed off in my time. I ask the Minister for the FORB toolkit to be shared around the world.