Parliamentary questions: Iran, Sudan, asylum, Iraq and Syria

David Burrowes MP (Enfield, Southgate) (Con) has had his question, regarding the extent to which Iran fulfils its obligations under Article 18 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, answered by Foreign Office Minister Tobias Ellwood MP (Bournemouth East) (Con).

Mr Ellwood stated that in 2013, President Rouhani of Iran had made a number of comments in support of religious freedom. The Minister expressed disappointment that this had not translated in a significant change in Iran’s approach over the past year, as religious minority groups in Iran continue to face widespread discrimination. He said that the UK has repeatedly called on the Iranian Government to end all persecution of individuals on the basis of their faith.

Fiona Bruce MP (Congleton) (Con): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, what discussions officials in his Department have had with the Iranian government on Iran’s compliance with Article 18 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (a) in general and (b) with reference to the reported comments on 6 October 2014 by Ali Yamesi, the adviser to President Rouhani on religious and ethnic minorities, on the illegality of religious conversion in Iran.

Foreign Office Minister Tobias Ellwood MP (Bournemouth East) (Con): The right to freedom of religion or belief, including the right to change one’s faith or beliefs, is a right which is enshrined in international human rights law. The UK government has consistently urged the Iranian government to respect the rights of all minority religious groups, in line with their international commitments. The UK last raised our concerns about freedom of religion in Iran during our inputs in Iran’s Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council on 31 October. The UK’s non-resident Chargé d’Affaires to Iran also raised the issue of freedom of religion with Iranian human rights officials during a visit to Iran in March 2014.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP) has had his question, regarding the persecution of Christians in the Sudan region, answered by Foreign Office Minister James Duddridge MP (Rochford & Southend East) (Con).

Mr Duddridge said that the Government raises its concerns about freedom of religion with the Government of Sudan regularly. The Minister said that the British Embassy in Khartoum had raised this issue with the External Affairs Secretariat of the National Congress Party of Sudan recently. The Minister added that the Embassy regularly engages with Christian groups based in Sudan.

Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB): To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many refugees from the Christian communities of Iraq and Syria have been received into the United Kingdom in the last 12 months; and whether they intend to review immigration and asylum provisions for such Christian refugees in the light of the continuing attacks upon them in their home countries.

Home Office Minister Lord Bates (Con): All asylum claims are considered on a case-by-case basis in accordance with our international obligations, taking full account of the conditions in the country concerned. The Home Office does not systematically record the basis of a person’s asylum claim or the reason(s) why a person might be granted asylum, and therefore does not have accurate data on how many Christians from Iraq and Syria have claimed or been granted asylum in the UK.

In terms of reviewing our immigration and asylum provisions, the Home Office has recently updated its country information and guidance on Iraq and plans to do likewise on Syria shortly. The guidance to decision makers – as informed by the accompanying country information – recognises the precarious situation in parts of Iraq under the control of, or being contested by, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). It also recognises that particular groups, including Christians, are at heightened risk and are therefore likely to qualify for protection.

We continue to monitor the situation closely and, as the situation changes and more up-to-date information becomes available, we can and will update the country information and guidance to reflect this.

Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB): To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking and intend to take in the future to ameliorate the situation of members of the Syriac Orthodox Church and other Christian communities in Iraq and Syria in the light of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in those countries.

Foreign Office Minister Baroness Anelay of St Johns (Con): The British Government strongly condemns the persecution of communities on the basis of their religion, belief or ethnicity. We are concerned about the growing number of reports of Christians, and other minority groups, being targeted in Syria with many having already fled to camps in Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan. The UK has committed a total of £700 million in response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria and the region. Of this, £314 million has already been allocated to help ensure refugees from Syria are supported in neighbouring countries.

We are supporting non-governmental efforts to promote dialogue between different ethnic and sectarian groups in Syria, with a view to a future political settlement. We are also funding training for Syrian activists to document abuses to a criminal law standard with the aim that this documentation could be used in a future process of accountability. In Iraq we have committed £23 million of humanitarian assistance to help those who have fled Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) advances.

Following lobbying from the UK and other international partners, a resolution was passed at the Human Rights Council in September, mandating the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to despatch a mission to investigate and report on ISIL abuses. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), met the Archbishop Athanasius of the Syriac Orthodox Church in London on 29 July to discuss the situation for religious groups in the region and issued a statement condemning reported threats against Christians in Iraq and Syria. We continue to encourage influential religious leaders in Iraq to speak out publicly and condemn sectarian violence.