Westminster Hall debate 4 July 2017 – featured in BBC Radio 4’s Today in Parliament
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered persecution of Christians and the role of UK embassies.
Today is 4 July, independence day for the United States of America, which enshrined religious freedom as one of the most fundamental constitutional rights. Despite the fact that it is a celebration of victory over us British—every person in this room—it also celebrates the concept of freedom, which must always be celebrated and cherished. Today’s debate is about the right to religious freedom and how the House can best help achieve that.
Both at home and abroad, conflict along religious lines remains a consistent feature of human life and a considerable barrier to building stable societies. Although religion is not necessarily the driver of global conflict, conflict often manifests along religious lines, and those who suffer violence are often targeted because of their beliefs or because of the faith group with which they identify. Even when certain groups do not experience violence, they can often be discriminated against in terms of work, education, healthcare and in many other ways that can limit their chances of improving their lives.
Although there are many complex and interconnected factors that lead to violence within a state, there is a correlation between states with high levels of freedom of religion or belief violations and states considered to have had low levels of peace or high levels of terrorism—the correlation between the two is clear. The Pew Forum Research Centre assesses that out of the 16 countries with high hostilities towards religious groups, 11 have low or very low peace levels and nine have high or very high incidences of terrorism, according to the Institute for Economics and Peace global terrorism index. That makes them some of the most violent countries on the planet.
I am very pleased to have secured the first debate in Westminster Hall in this new Parliament; I am sure I will be back once or twice, but that is by the way. It is important to have this debate. I should have declared an interest at the beginning; I apologise for not having done so, Mr Hanson. I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief and on Pakistan religious minorities, so the issue is very real for me. I thank Members for the turnout; there is a good balance here of Members from all parties.
A failure to recognise the role of religion and to promote freedom of belief will make much more difficult—if not impossible—the work of embassies and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development and other Departments as they try to build more stable societies. The roles of the Minister and our Government are at the crux of the debate.
I will mention a few brief cases that outline the depth of persecution across the world. It is sometimes good to remind ourselves of what we have that other people do not. People do not take note of our car registrations and take pictures of us as we go to our churches on Sundays, but there are places in the world where that happens.
Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP)
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Before he goes on to itemise some aspects of persecution, does he agree that in addition to the various departmental responsibilities and the good work that has been done there, there are various non-governmental agencies such as Open Doors and other groups that have highlighted the topic he is discussing today? They are to be highly commended for so doing.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. In the Gallery today are people with a particular interest in this issue: Open Doors, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Release International, Premier Christian Radio, and people who highlight this issue across the world. We thank them for their work. As my hon. Friend said, their work is good as well.
The Eritrean Orthodox Patriarch, His Holiness Abune Antonios, aged 89, has spent more than 10 years under house arrest. His continued imprisonment coincides with an increased crackdown on Eritrean Christians by the Eritrean authorities, 122 of whom were reportedly rounded up and detained in May. Many of those detained have been subject to torture—by being kept in metal shipping containers without water and flogged, for example. In May, all members of the Kale Hiwot Church in Adiquala were detained, including 12 children. Children are seen as a threat by some Governments, even though they are young. They are young enough to understand the powerful words of the Bible, but at the same time Governments see them as a threat, which annoys me.
Russia’s Supreme Court in Moscow recently declared that the Jehovah’s Witness national headquarters in St Petersburg and all 395 local organisations were extremist. The court banned all their activity immediately and ordered their property to be seized by the state. That is the first time a court has ruled that a registered national centralised religious organisation is extremist and banned it.
So-called Islamic State has led attacks against Egyptians on the basis of their beliefs, heavily targeting Coptic Christians since the attack of June 2016, in which Father Raphael Moussa was shot dead in North Sinai. In December 2016, 29 people were killed in a bombing near Cairo’s St Mark’s Cathedral. On Palm Sunday 2017, 47 were killed in twin attacks on churches in Tanta and Alexandria, and in May at least 28 Coptic Christians were killed when their bus was targeted by ISIS. Hundreds were injured in those attacks.
In February 2017, ISIS released a video vowing to kill all Egyptian Christians. ISIS is a real threat to everyone in that area. The House and the Government need to express solidarity with Christians wherever they are in the world.
Chris Green (Bolton West) (Con)
The case of the Coptic Christians highlights what this debate is focused on. It is difficult for people in Egypt to speak up publicly about the persecution, which puts responsibility on Government-to-Government relationships and the pressure that can be applied behind the scenes.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. We both had an opportunity to visit Iraq and to understand the issue he has highlighted. As he rightly says, we must speak up on behalf of those who cannot be heard and who have no voice. Today in this Chamber, we will be their voice.
David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP)
I am sure my hon. Friend agrees that the persecution of Christians is nothing new. Those who believe in the biblical truth of the gospel have always been persecuted. We do not have to go to other countries to see that; we see it in the British Isles, where street preachers and others are told to remove themselves from the streets. If we live in an age of equality, that should be rectified.
That is a timely reminder from my hon. Friend. We do focus on Christians in other parts of the world, but sometimes we need to focus on what happens at home as well, as my hon. Friend said.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)
On the hon. Gentleman’s campaign for equality and freedom of expression and on the British Government’s advocating human rights abroad, should not the Government advocate the rights of homosexual men—for instance, those in Chechnya who are being tortured and killed because of their homosexuality—as well as the rights of Christians?
I agree. This debate is about the persecution of Christians, but I wholeheartedly support what he says. I have no issues with that.
Christians have lived in Iraq for two millennia, but are currently on the verge of extinction. Many have fled areas controlled by ISIS and other Islamic extremists. Overall, persecution in Iraq is characterised by impunity, the threat of attacks and second-class treatment by the authorities. The Christian population, which before 2003 numbered as many as 1.4 million, dwindled to 350,000 and is now estimated to be around 250,000.
As in Iraq, the Christian population in Syria has fallen dramatically in recent years, from 1.25 million in 2011 to approximately half a million. The situation in Syria is characterised by heavy persecution of all types of Christians in areas held by ISIS and other Islamic militants. In those areas, Christians are often given the ultimatum: convert to Islam or die.
Can you imagine, Mr Hanson? What would we in this House do, as Christians, if we were given that challenge? I would like to think we would stand firm in our beliefs. That has been the stark and cold reality for Christians in Syria, and they have fled from areas held by Islamic State and areas destroyed during the conflict.
John Spellar (Warley) (Lab)
I happily served with the hon. Gentleman on the Defence Committee. It is absolutely right that Britain should stand up for human rights and the right of expression of religion right the way across the world. Many from the various Christian denominations in our constituencies believe that, because of our historic and cultural heritage, we should play a particular role in standing up for Christians’ rights to exercise their freedom of belief or religion in various parts of the world. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?
We are honoured to have the right hon. Gentleman here. He brings his years of wisdom and knowledge to the debate. His words are exactly what we need, and I thank him for them.
Turning back to China—in my Ulster Scots accent, some of the words and names will never sound like Chinese—Pastor Zhang Shaojie was sentenced to 12 years in prison for fraud and for gathering a crowd to disturb public order. He was detained without formal documentation on November 2013, along with 20 other members of the Nanle county Christian church. Church members, lawyers and Christians visiting the family of the detained Protestant pastor were beaten, harassed and detained by hired thugs, police and Government agencies. In December 2013, there were significant questions about the fairness of his trial. Reports from the pastor’s daughter are that he is on the verge of death after suffering various forms of torture while serving his 12-year sentence.
In Burma, following hundreds—probably thousands—of allegations and the co-ordinated documentation by Rohingya groups of mass killings, mass rapes and the destruction of whole villages, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights sent a team to interview Rohingya refugees who had recently fled to Bangladesh. Some 70,000 had fled. Based on more than 200 interviews, which is a substantial evidential base, OHCHR issued a damning flash report on February 3, complete with harrowing tales of the burning alive of elderly Rohingya men and the slitting of children’s throats— unspeakable wickedness. The UN estimates that Burmese authorities may have killed as many as 1,000 Rohingya men in recent violence alone.
The Conservatives’ 2017 manifesto declared that they would
“expand…global efforts to combat…violence against people because of their faith”.
In the recent Shrove Tuesday, Easter and Finsbury Park mosque attack statements, our Prime Minister said that we must take measures
“to stand up for the freedom of people of all religions to practice their beliefs openly and in peace and safety.”
With that in mind, I look to the Minister, with whom I spoke beforehand. I wish him well in his new position. I know that he knows the issues well, and I have no doubt that his response will be exactly what we in this Chamber want to hear. I am anticipating a good response; I believe and know from our conversations that that is how the Minister’s mind works and his heart thinks. I would be grateful if he would clarify what the measures will be, and I offer the APPG’s assistance in taking them further. We are here to enable Government to take such things forward. We had a meeting last week in which we had the opportunity to hear from Government officials about how the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development and other bodies work together. In his intervention, the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar) mentioned the Defence Committee. I think there is a role for that Committee on where we go and how we can collectively work together better.
Dame Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con)
At that excellent meeting with the Minister, it was important that the Members present stressed the need to take a cross-departmental approach and to explain to the British public why using taxpayer funds to tackle things such as the persecution of religious minorities abroad is important for security back home.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her intervention, and for her contribution to the meeting we had with the Minister. I think all of us at that meeting were focused on how we could do better.
I come to what I hope the Minister and his Department will be able to do. Will he ensure that displaced communities in Iraq and Syria are able to return home safely? I think that would be an aspiration of us all, but how will that happen? I am ever mindful that the Minister has just taken up his role, but knowing his history and past comments, I am sure he will be able to respond.
In the light of the above cases, we ask Her Majesty’s Government to ensure that UK embassies are resourced to have a human rights focus incorporated in the work of the embassy and, specifically, to report and monitor on freedom of religion or belief. That is one issue we spoke about last week. In his response, the Minister indicated a willingness to make that happen; for it to happen, we look to the Minister for those resources. We need the people in those places to have the necessary training. If done properly, that will allow UK embassies to assess the appropriate time to intervene on issues of persecution, before they escalate too much, and will also allow embassies to assess the appropriate means of raising cases.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office toolkit on freedom of religion or belief has been sent to all FCO country desk officers and embassies to help in situations of persecution. The toolkit explains what to look out for in potential cases of persecution, providing a list of questions to check against. It provides guidelines on what can be done to ameliorate the situation. The toolkit outlines the methodology of response, but we ask the Government to ensure that embassies are asked what they are doing to use and implement the toolkit. It is all very well to have it in the armoury, but if it is not used or used incorrectly, we will fail to move forward in the way we should.
Embassies are due to take a lead in determining projects for the human rights and democracy fund. In his intervention, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) referred to human rights. The embassies have the opportunity to address that now, and we need to be using the toolkit regularly where it is possible, necessary and applicable. The hon. Gentleman is right, and I support that wholeheartedly. Considerable consultation should be taken up with civil society and faith-based actors on this matter. That is a way forward.
Ensuring that FCO and DFID partners and projects do not discriminate based on religion or belief is crucial. We need the mindset in the FCO, DFID, Defence—in Government policy singularly and collectively—to ensure that discrimination based on religion or belief does not take place. That means ensuring that the UK is not supporting any programme that provides humanitarian or other support to one group of people based on their beliefs, while withdrawing it from another.
When I first came to this House in 2010, there was a statement about the floods in Pakistan. I was aware from my own church, the Baptist church, that some of the people who were Baptists in Pakistan were not receiving the humanitarian aid that they should have received. It was discussed in our church the Sunday just before that, and it was coincidental that there was a statement. It was clear to me then that some of the authorities in Pakistan were withholding humanitarian aid from Christians. I want to see that stopped, and I believe the Minister will be able to respond on that.
In a world where nearly 85% of people globally adhere to a religion, if the FCO and DFID are to meet their commitments to promote peaceful, inclusive societies—that has to be the goal—they will need to engage with religious actors and communities, and support initiatives that build respect and trust between people of different faiths. The APPG on freedom of religious belief is there for those with Christian beliefs, with other beliefs and for those with no beliefs. We need to make sure that that is our focus. It is exactly such initiatives, led by local civil society groups, that embassies need to ensure are financially supported and provided with space to operate. Such programmes are crucial for breaking down tension between different religious groups, promoting understanding between people and reducing the drive and desire to persecute Christians and people of other beliefs.
We hear about what happens to the Baha’is in Iran and Iraq, to the Shi’ites in Pakistan and to those of other religions in Indonesia. We hear about what happens in the middle east—my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) and I were talking before the debate about how Egyptian Coptic Christians are treated—and to those in Algeria, Morocco and many other places across the world, such as south and central America. In all those places, our focus has to be on having a society in which people understand, appreciate and accept that others may have a religion that is different from the one they hold to, and that they must have access to education, healthcare and support for their children, and the opportunity have a business.
Julia Dockerill (Hornchurch and Upminster) (Con)
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that clampdowns on religious freedom often go hand in hand with an oppressive approach to free-thinking in general, and in particular to the press? I have worked a lot with the Bangladeshi community, and in Bangladesh there are a lot of problems with sectarianism, which goes hand in hand with a vicious clampdown on bloggers. Has work been done with advocates of a free press, in a similar way to what the hon. Gentleman is doing?
I wish the hon. Lady well in her new position, and I thank her for that intervention. We need to look at what the media’s role will be in the future. The media have a physical relationship with people and a critical job to do, and how it is done affects what happens in a country. We need a responsible, respected free press.
Engaging with human rights and faith-based organisations, religious actors and communities, and programmes of reconciliation will help to achieve the FCO and DFID’s goal of tackling the causes of insecurity, instability and conflict. There is a role for the media there.
I will conclude with this comment, because I am very conscious that all those who have made an effort to be here deserve to speak, and I look forward to hearing all their contributions. We cannot be responsible for the problems of the world, but evil triumphs when good people do nothing. I believe that, in this debate, we as Members of Parliament have a duty to convey our concerns directly to the Government and to ask for the help of the FCO, DFID and all the other Government bodies across the world. It is clear that we must use our influence to do something. We need to be the voice of the voiceless—those in the Public Gallery will understand that they are also a voice for the voiceless, as we are here. Our embassies and ambassadors have a role. I believe that, with respect to previous Ministers, this has not been fully utilised in the past, but it must be utilised now. How does the Minister think this will be done, and done soon? Every day that passes, there is a new case of persecution due to religious belief. Every case is one too many. Let us do today all that we can.
Kevin Foster (Torbay) (Con)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I will be mindful of your guidance and keep my remarks relatively short. It is a pleasure to be here at a 9.30 am Westminster Hall debate led by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I am a former member of the Backbench Business Committee, and it is apt that he secured this debate, given the number of times he has appeared before us.
It is very sad that we have to have this type of debate. Today, we celebrate—or remember, as some might say—4 July 1776, when the then American colonies looked to break away from a system of government that they thought did not give them their fundamental rights. Yet here we are more than 200 years later talking about many countries around the world where people still do not have the most fundamental right to come to God as they see Him and as they believe He is, and not to have sanctions imposed upon them merely because they disagree with the prevailing view in their local community or nation.
It is easy to think that we are just talking about Iraq and Syria, but Open Doors’ great work shows that the countries where it is worst to be a Christian are North Korea and Somalia, closely followed by Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sudan. We know about Daesh’s appalling crimes, including its genocide in the middle east, yet the countries that are the most oppressive of their citizens’ political rights are just as oppressive of their religious rights. People’s freedom of choice in anything is a threat to the leadership of those countries. I hope the Government, through our embassies, will be active in tackling that mindset.
Anyone who is as strong in their faith as they claim they are has nothing to fear from anyone else’s beliefs. The fact that there are other faiths in this country does not affect my Christian faith. I am free to believe what I wish to believe, without feeling threatened by the fact that some other people believe something else. We need to promote that to ensure that other nations start to understand that this is not about our requiring them to convert or change their beliefs, but about giving people the fundamental right to choose what they believe and to approach God in their own way. That right, which seems literally God-given in this country, is sadly so precious in others.
On Friday my church, St Matthias in Torquay, will be hosting the south-west Open Doors evening of prayer. We will be reflecting on the fact that every Sunday we take for granted the ability to go to church without fear and without worrying if our employer will fire us or if the state will want to interview us about why we were there. We hope many other Christians will soon be able to enjoy that right.
I am delighted we have had the chance to debate this issue. Just standing here and bearing witness for those who are not able to express their faith as freely as we can is as important as any action we take. I hope they take inspiration from knowing that there is again a debate in this House about this issue. They do not walk alone; their Christian brothers and sisters in this House are standing side by side with them even as they go through their darkest time.
Dr David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op)
I am delighted that my first contribution is on this topic. Having been away for seven years, my knowledge will be somewhat dated, but hopefully the spirit and the faith I have always tried to demonstrate are still there.
I would like to say two things in my very short contribution. First, I have always seen it as the role of MPs to take up the position of minorities in various parts of the world that are being discriminated against, persecuted and even worse. Secondly, I was pleased to go with Christian Solidarity Worldwide on a number of visits. Pakistan and Nigeria were two of the main ones, but when I was previously in this House I was able to go to Geneva to make representations on behalf of a North Korean who had escaped from that regime. Likewise, I have demonstrated outside a few embassies, including the Eritrean and Burmese embassies, because of the way their countries have deliberately persecuted not just Christians but all manner of minorities. The hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) said it is a tragedy in this day and age that we have to have such debates, and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made that point eruditely.
My experience of embassies abroad comes from the country I was most concerned about, Sudan—now, of course, there is South Sudan as well as Sudan. Whenever we went on a visit there when I was the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Sudan, my experience was that the embassy was very helpful. It flew us about and gave us an enormous amount of time. On the third visit, the ambassador, Sir William Patey, went beyond the call of duty. My only criticism of him is that he went on to become chairman of Swindon Town Football Club, who are our rivals—I am a former chairman of Forest Green Rovers—so he went on to do things that were not as good as those he had done as an ambassador.
It is vital for the role of the embassy team to do research, to make representations and, when it receives delegations, to ensure that those delegations can see what is happening, despite how difficult that is—at times in Sudan it was dangerous. It is the role of the embassies to ensure that that is carried out to the best of their ability. I had that experience in Sudan certainly. I do not know what it is like now, although I imagine it is even more difficult. To my mind, that is why we as parliamentarians have a role to play. When we make such visits, which are important, we must ensure that the embassies make our visits not so much seamless but as instrumental as possible in enabling us to obtain information that we can bring back to debate and on which, we hope, we can make some representations to our own Government.
Dame Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con)
Thank you, Mr Hanson, for calling me because I omitted to put in to speak last night, for which I apologise. It was an oversight, but one that I should not have committed.
An interesting cross-section of Members of Parliament is in attendance to support my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) who, as chair of the all-party group on international freedom of religion or belief, had the foresight to call for this debate. We welcome to the Chamber new Members who are showing their concern for the persecuted, and returning Members who we know through their faith will take a stand for the persecuted. As my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) so eloquently put it, we are all here to show our solidarity, and that is the important point. Some Members may not even speak, but we are numerous and we wish the persecuted out there to know that.
I will focus briefly on the role of the Foreign Office and embassies. Thanks to the foresight of my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford, we were lucky enough to have Lord Ahmad speak to the all-party group. He underlined the fact that freedom of religious belief is a priority for the Foreign Office, but in welcoming my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) to his new role as Minister for Asia and the Pacific, I want to inquisition him about what that means in practice.
We are delighted that the Foreign Office has reissued its toolkit and that there are guidelines for every embassy around the world about what they should be doing to make freedom of religious belief a priority. We want to be absolutely sure, however, that that book of guidelines does not sit on the shelf gathering dust. I urge the Minister to give us answers in the debate, if he can, so I am interested to know what percentage of the discretionary funds that embassies have to spend on local projects is in fact spent on projects to support the freedom of religious belief. I want to know whether, in practice, the Foreign Office thinks in such terms, when some countries—16 in particular, as my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford said—are seeing a rise in the persecution of Christians.
The background is one of increasing persecution of Christians in parts of the world where we are significant donors of aid. How recently has the Foreign Office had a systematic review of its human rights interventions to assist persecuted Christians? We may not get the answer in the debate, but perhaps it will be possible to give interested Members some hard evidence of freedom of religious belief being made a priority.
I will finish by focusing on a test case. On behalf of the Church of England, of which I am the Second Church Estates Commissioner, may I ask where the Foreign Office is taking bilateral decisive action? We are looking closely at a recent case that occurred on 10 June in Pakistan, which is the second largest recipient of our overseas aid. The Pakistani anti-terrorism court convicted Taimoor Raza of committing blasphemy on Facebook and he has been given the death penalty. It is the first time that someone has been charged under article 295C of Pakistan’s penal code, which makes blasphemy on social media an offence. I cannot help but contrast that with restrictions that are not in place in other parts of the world, including at home—not that I wish anyone to go that far, but I would like to see some better policing of social media.
The Church of England will be paying close attention to that case. The Bishop of Coventry has tabled a series of written questions to highlight it. I, too, have a request, although it may be one that needs to be left pending, because it needs time for a response—we would all like to see what, in practice, it means to make freedom of religious belief a priority.
Dr Lisa Cameron (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (SNP)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for bringing this extremely important debate before the House: the first debate of the Parliament in Westminster Hall—
The first of many.
Yes—the first of many, I am sure. I commend the hon. Gentleman on his 4 July tie, which has brought a great splash of colour to Westminster Hall. I must declare an interest in this important debate: I am a practising Christian and a member of the all-party parliamentary group on Christians in Parliament.
As we have heard, individuals are persecuted throughout the world for a variety of religious beliefs, not just for Christianity. It is important to stand up for freedom of religion everywhere in the world and for all religious beliefs, and to teach future generations tolerance of religious belief.
Only a few years ago, I enjoyed a family holiday in America—in Pennsylvania—and my children were able to meet Amish communities and to learn about other religions that we might not have much contact with in the UK. The message is that we must have religious tolerance and teach our children it from the word go. That is an important lesson to learn and it will set them up for the rest of their lives, as well as giving them such interesting learning experiences. We can cherish meeting those with different beliefs from around the world.
I want to speak briefly about the role of the Department for International Development. I was a member of the Select Committee on International Development in the previous Parliament and we were fortunate enough to visit Lebanon and Jordan to see the good work being done there. Our aid money is helping some of the most vulnerable refugees in the camps, and I very much appreciated that work. However, when preparing our report, we heard evidence to the Committee that Christians are often fearful of going to refugee camps—they fear persecution and being singled out. They hide their religious beliefs in the refugee camps, and some are so much in fear for their lives and of the potential danger that they will simply not go to the camps.
In countries where we are working with refugees, our work in the field and our aid are important, but we must also ensure that we reach out to marginalised groups, including the Christians whom we heard about in Committee. They might not otherwise figure in our work, so might not benefit from relocation programmes such as those of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. I ask the Minister: what percentage of Christians will feature in those programmes and, wherever possible, will refugees from all religious backgrounds be included in our relocation work?
I have also heard from local churches in my constituency. At times church groups can feel that their beliefs are marginalised in this country, too. It is extremely important for us to stand up and to say that all faiths have a place in society—their beliefs should never be marginalised. We are an open and multicultural society. It is also important that families with strong religious beliefs are able to access religious education where they feel that that would benefit their children.
I echo the request made by the hon. Member for Strangford: a cross-departmental approach by the FCO, DFID and so on to this very important issue is much needed. We must highlight religious persecution wherever it happens right across the world, but we should also effectively resource our embassies to monitor and ensure freedom of religious beliefs, and advocate that freedom wherever we are in the world.
Several hon. Members rose—
David Hanson (in the Chair)
Order. Five Members are standing and there are 20 minutes left, so self-evidently each Member has four minutes each. I call Fiona Bruce.
Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con)
I welcome the Minister to his place and thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for bringing this issue to the House once again.
It is about five years since we stood here and spoke about this issue for the first time in a debate about the persecution of Christians in the middle east. I am pleased that there have been positive developments since then. The FCO has recognised that this issue needs to be addressed. There has been religious literacy training for FCO staff, and the Department held an excellent one-day summit. Ministers now raise issues as they go around the world, and they come to debates. Lord Ahmad’s appointment is another indication that the FCO takes this issue increasingly seriously.
However, as colleagues have mentioned, DFID needs to do much more. The FCO has led on addressing this issue, but DFID is way behind the curve. I know from trips with the International Development Committee that, in many parts of the world, DFID staff share embassy sites with FCO staff. I believe that they could do much more to address the serious and deteriorating position across the world.
In its most recent review of religious freedom in 196 countries, Aid to the Church in Need clearly indicated that religious freedom has declined in 11 of the 23 worst offending countries and stated that in seven others,
“the problems were already so bad they could scarcely get any worse.”
The tragedy is that, of the 23 countries with the worst religious freedom in the world, which contain 4 billion people, no fewer than 17 receive UK aid.
DFID has promised to
“sustainably address the root causes of poverty and exclusion”,
but it will never do so unless it addresses religious freedom much more seriously. Lack of religious freedom is a root cause of poverty, displacement, violence and death across the world, including in many places where DFID operates. The 21st-century phenomenon of the rise of hyper-extremism is concerning. The hon. Member for Strangford referred to recent atrocities against Coptic Christians in Egypt. Hyper-extremism was illustrated graphically by a video released by IS in February 2017, in which it vowed to kill all Egyptian Christians. Hyper-extremism is a wrecking ball. It is primarily, but not exclusively, violent Islamic hyper-extremism. It is determined to do nothing less than eliminate all other beliefs, including moderate Muslim beliefs, and to develop a monoculture.
Of course, women suffer particularly from the elimination of religious diversity. That is why it is so important that we ask DFID to address religious freedom when it addresses sustainable development goal 16, which states:
“Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.”
DFID needs to be much more proactive. It needs not just to stand alongside civil society and deal with individual cases but to take a lead globally and, in countries where we work, proactively prevent civil disturbances where the root is lack of religious freedom.
I am afraid that, as I have travelled the world with the Select Committee, I have found that that is not the case. In Nigeria, for example, I had to fight for someone from a leading Christian organisation to get round the table at a meeting with non-governmental organisations that DFID had organised. It seemed that there was an elephant in the room with regard to civil disturbances that DFID simply did not want to address: religious freedom. That must change.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)
I am delighted that you are here in Parliament, Mr Hanson, let alone chairing this debate. I welcome the debate, which the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) secured.
I hope Members will not mind if I refer a bit to the Bible, as I think I am the only former priest in the room. Chapter 19 of John’s Gospel states that when Jesus was on the cross, the soldiers decided that since the robe that he wore was seamless, they would cast lots for it rather than tear it apart.
The fundamental point that I want to make to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is that human rights are a seamless garment: we cannot split the different elements that we try to stand up for—religious freedom, personal freedom, sexual freedom and, for that matter, the rights of women. In many of the societies that we are talking about, women are not allowed to go to school and be educated, to go on to university or to drive a car, and they are often treated terribly in their marriages. They are still effectively treated as a chattel, as they were in this country in the 19th century.
Although I fully endorse all the comments about how the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and DFID need to stand up to try to do what they can in relation to religious freedom all around the world, I differ slightly from the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) in that I do not want religious tolerance; I want religious respect. Tolerance always seems to me like putting up with people being different from me, whereas respect is far closer to the Christian gospel. I hope that the Foreign Office will take away the point that human rights are a seamless garment. We as a nation stand by human rights and the rule of law. That is a key part of what we offer to the international community.
If we simply focus on one element—freedom of religion—we undermine the historical truth of the Christian faith. In the Epistle of James, the answer to the question, “What is true religion?” is
“to visit widows and orphans in their affliction”.
That is fundamentally what our international aid budget is all about. If we try to say, “We won’t give you money if you don’t honour religious freedoms,” we fundamentally undermine what all the churches campaigned for in the run-up to the millennium: a set of goals to tackle poverty around the world. I am delighted that there is cross-party agreement that we should stick with the 0.7%, but that should be focused on alleviating poverty above all else, not on any other political goals.
Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con)
As we have heard, it is right that our Government and Parliament stand up for the human rights of people of all faiths and people of no faith, but it is also right that, as a Christian country in which all are welcome, we debate this issue. There was quite properly an urgent question recently about the appalling treatment of homosexual people in Chechnya. It is right that, as Christians, we raise concerns about our Christian brothers and sisters around the world.
I do not think we have quite registered the scale of the problem and the fact that it is getting worse. The fact is that more Christians are being killed for their faith in more countries around the world than ever before, and the global persecution of Christians is getting worse, not better. Many Christians are being forced to leave their homes; displacement is a massive issue all around the world. That is extremely serious, too.
We have heard about the top five worst countries in the world—North Korea, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sudan—but it is concerning to note that the situation is getting worse, not better, in Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. It is a grim picture, so it is right that the Foreign Office and DFID, and the whole Government, take this issue increasingly seriously. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister; it is excellent to see him in his place, and I know that he will take this issue seriously. I hope that he will go back to the Foreign Office and convey the strength of the concern expressed by Members across the House, and that that will be conveyed to our diplomatic staff, who do excellent work on our behalf around the world.
Talking of the work that they do, major trade negotiations are of course coming up, as part of the Brexit arrangements. As has been said, freedom of religion and belief contributes not only to countering extremism, but to encouraging economic development in the countries in question, and to making them prosperous, so that they can be markets with which we can trade well in the future. The Foreign Office will be looking for trade deals with countries such as China, India, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Indonesia and Turkey, in all of which there are issues of the kind we are discussing. I hope, therefore, that it will not be with a sense of embarrassment, or as an afterthought, that the issue of freedom of belief is mentioned in the negotiations. The evidence, as has been said, is that when it is properly dealt with, prosperity increases, here and around the world. Those things are not opposed to each other; they are all of a piece.
Similarly, one thing on which I think there would be absolute agreement across the House is that there should be equal access for everyone to the work of the Department for International Development. We would rightly be appalled if DFID aid were denied to homosexual people in certain parts of the world, so we should be equally appalled if it is denied to certain groups because of their faith—and if it is denied to Christians. I hope and believe that the Foreign Office and DFID hold to that line and enforce it, but I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend the Minister would respond to that point.
I want finally to mention a small practical point. I have the Open Doors World Watch List map up on my office wall in the House of Commons. It is a great little aide mémoire to remind us day by day how fortunate we are in the freedoms we have, and it would be a great thing for all the churches in our constituencies to have one, perhaps in the porch where people go in.
Patricia Gibson (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP)
I extend my thanks to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for bringing forward this important debate. Freedom of religion—the freedom for people to worship their God, however they perceive him or her to be—should be an absolute right. If any society exercises censorship over which God its members may worship, prohibits a particular religion or compromises on freedom of religion, that is a threat to all that society’s freedoms.
The 300,000 Christians in North Korea are deemed to be enemies of the state, in a country where worship must be reserved exclusively for the nation’s leader. Christians face being tortured and executed. It is a society that looks like something straight out of a George Orwell novel. In Somalia, the state religion is Islam, and converting to Christianity or any other religion is illegal. Indeed, the Islamist group al-Shabaab has stated that it wants to rid Somalia of all Christians. Those suspected of following Christianity are killed on the spot. In Iraq there are 300,000 Christians, and there have been public execution-style killings of them by ISIS—some of which have been recorded for propaganda purposes. Saudi Arabia, with its 1.25 million Christians, punishes conversion to Christianity with death.
India also has a poor record on freedom of worship for its 59 million Christians, and so does Qatar, which has 900,000—not to mention Pakistan, whose 5.3 million Christians are often treated as second-class citizens. Christian women and children there are often the targets of sexual abuse, and blasphemy laws are abused to attack Christian churches; those churches are monitored and often attacked. Even in the Maldives converting to Christianity means forfeiting citizenship, and owning a Bible is punishable by death. I could go on with my examples, of course, but there is not time. The list is unfortunately far too long. What a world we live in.
I want to add my voice to the praise that has been directed today to the work of Open Doors. It has often visited Parliament to reveal its World Watch List of countries in which Christians face awful persecution. Sadly, it seems that the western media frequently under-report such persecution. The suspicion that I have heard expressed is that that is because of a fear of offending cultural sensibilities. I do not know whether that is true, but I certainly hope not, because there is no room for cultural sensitivities when it comes to basic human freedoms. Persecution and violence are wrong and unacceptable, and we must all have the courage to say so.
While democratic countries celebrate their freedoms we cannot turn away as minority groups abroad are bathed in violence and blood. The UK Government and specifically the Foreign and Commonwealth Office need to support the efforts of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. We need to ensure that there is proper support for the work of Open Doors and other non-governmental organisations that work on the frontline to help Christians who are persecuted. We cannot afford to stand by. An attack on religious freedom is an attack on all freedoms and we in the west, particularly, who believe in those values and take them for granted must stand up for them wherever they are attacked.
Christian Matheson (City of Chester) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hanson. I find myself in the familiar position of paying tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), not only for his leadership on this issue but for his diligence, once again, in Westminster Hall.
In the couple of minutes for which I intend to speak, I want to draw the Minister’s attention to one issue to do with religious freedom that has not yet been mentioned, but which is still a problem for those who face it. In the Open Doors World Watch List that comes out every year, the “usual suspects” are mentioned, and the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) mentioned some of them. However, I was surprised this year to see Colombia and Mexico included. I asked why it was, and it would seem that there is a problem with organised crime targeting religious groups—particularly church groups, and particularly in rural areas—and with the violence to which organised crime necessarily resorts to make its way, such as extortion.
Surely there is a role for the UK to help to develop civil society structures in those countries, to help with law enforcement to take on organised crime, in areas in which we have experience. For example, the hon. Member for Strangford and other Northern Ireland Members have been extremely supportive of the continuing peace process in Colombia, which has taken lawlessness out of some rural areas, and thus has, hopefully, helped the religious groups that have been affected. That was an earlier example of coalition-building by the DUP and others, which was successful in bringing peace to Colombia.
I ask the Minister not to take his eyes off the ball in relation to such criminal-based persecution of Christians. It is surely an easy hit for us to make, to improve the lives of those who want to worship in those countries.
David Linden (Glasgow East) (SNP)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson, for my first ever Westminster Hall debate. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing the debate.
Although I am a new Member, I am not unfamiliar with the House, having been a researcher for my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss). Often in my previous role, I would remark on how often the hon. Gentleman pops up in the Chamber, leading me to believe that he is the Member for Westminster Hall rather than for Strangford. However, in all seriousness I am grateful to him for allowing us this important opportunity for debate. He is a tenacious and diligent Member of Parliament and a credit to the people of Northern Ireland.
I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate. I shall keep my remarks focused within the parameters of the motion, but I recognise that there is persecution of people of all religions—and, indeed, of those of no religion at all. In particular I should like to highlight the plight of the Ahmadiyya community, which faces intolerable oppression the world over. I commend the work of hon. Members in that regard, including that of the all-party group on the Ahmadiyya Muslim community.
Like other hon. Members, I pay tribute to the sterling work done to highlight the persecution of Christians. I have been familiar with the work of Open Doors since about 2009, when I came to faith. I should declare an interest, as I am a member of a Baptist church. The profile of Open Doors, at events such as Christians Linked Across the Nation, led me to look more closely at the persecution of men and women of faith. Of course Aid to the Church in Need has also done excellent work, and I regret that for reasons of time we cannot go into that so much.
Although we value freedom of worship and religion in this country, far too many places do not. The prayers of many in the Church have rightly focused on persecuted Christians who are being slaughtered at the hands of Daesh in Iraq. It is heartbreaking—sometimes, I confess, it is too easy to just turn off the TV—when we see the situation in Iraq: the sheer brutality of being a Christian in that region and, as has been said, its impact on women and children.
We know that Christian women in Baghdad and Basra have been forced to veil themselves in order to feel safe outside their homes and that greater pressure is being forced on Christians to observe Ramadan. More concerning is that Iran now exerts increasing influence within Iraq, and that Christian converts who previously followed Islam are said to be being monitored by the Iranian secret service. I will be grateful if the Minister responds to that particular point and clarifies whether it has been factored into discussions and considerations within the Foreign Office.
I have briefly touched on the situation in Iraq. The situation in North Korea also rightly garners a lot of attention and interest, but I will use a few moments to focus on a country of a lesser international profile, but which is still cause for grave concern: Tanzania, and particularly its coastal region of Zanzibar. At this juncture, I should declare an interest as the vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Tanzania. I saw that the chair, the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), was here; I pay tribute to his work with the APPG.
With a population of almost 57 million, and a Christian population of more than 31 million, it is perhaps difficult to believe that Christians could be persecuted in Tanzania—particularly given that they make up the majority of the population. However, radical Islamic extremism in certain regions of the country, including Bukoba, is leading to immense hostility against Christians. Again, I will be grateful if the Minister will reference Her Majesty’s Government’s efforts to discuss the protection of Christianity and the upholding of freedom of religion with the Tanzanian authorities.
The purpose of the debate is to consider the role of embassies in foreign relations and in protecting Christians. It is perhaps no surprise that, before I sum up the debate on behalf of the Scottish National party, I will talk about Saudi Arabia. For reasons of not only geopolitics, but also, in my view, trade, Saudi Arabia remains one of Her Majesty’s Government’s closest allies. I continue to feel that Saudi Arabia’s inexcusable—I repeat, inexcusable—human rights record at home and abroad, including in Yemen, has far too often been overlooked by Her Majesty’s Government. Quite frankly, the British state is far too quick to lower its flags to half-mast on the deaths of Saudi monarchs. However, seldom does a day go by without the brutality of state-sponsored torture, human rights abuses and murder by the Saudi authorities; no flags are lowered to half-mast in those cases.
I am greatly encouraged to hear of more Christian converts in Saudi Arabia—a state that, even today, can punish by death anyone who leaves Islam. However, the fact remains that Saudi Arabia is still one of the most dangerous countries on earth in which to follow Christ; today in 2017, converting to another faith is punishable by death. Christians risk arrest, imprisonment, lashing, deportation and, in some cases, torture.
Given that record, I have often wondered in recent months and years what exactly the UK is getting from its relationship with the Saudis—other than arms sales. It strikes me that we are not exerting much influence in Riyadh when it comes to promoting our values of freedom and human rights for those of all faiths and none. In Christianity, the Bible commands us to turn the other cheek. However, in too many cases, particularly in Saudi Arabia, it feels as though Her Majesty’s Government are turning not only the other cheek but, in some cases, a blind eye.
I will sum up some of the remarks from colleagues, who have contributed to an excellent debate. The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) spoke of the situations in Egypt and Nigeria. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) was quite right to put on the record the situation in Chechnya. It is important that we consider that and that we do not forget it; it feels to me that it has fallen off the agenda a little bit, and he is right to bring it back up. The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) spoke of trade deals and the FCO’s work, and I touched on some of that in my remarks about Saudi Arabia.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) gave a very honest overview of a lot of the country profiles. I was particularly glad to hear her mention the situation in Pakistan, because Her Majesty’s Government have to hear that news. The hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) spoke of the situations in Colombia and Mexico, and it is concerning to see those countries coming on to that list of shame. I am grateful to him for bringing that to our attention.
The hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) spoke about the work of his local church. As a new Member, it is important that I place on the record my thanks to my own church, which supported me as a candidate throughout the general election. I am particularly grateful to my pastor, Rev. Michael McCurry, for leading congregation and prayers during my election campaign.
It is good to see the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) back in the House and speaking so passionately about his work in Sudan. The right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) quite rightly talked of discretionary funds for local projects, and I hope the Foreign Office takes that forward. My hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) spoke about working with children and teaching them about tolerance. That is important, and is something that, as the parents of a two-year-old, my spouse and I are now looking at. Having had him not baptised but dedicated, we are considering how we teach our son about the role of Christianity, of religion and of freedom of speech.
I want to make sure that there is plenty of time left for the Minister to respond to my points and those from other hon. Members. I also hope that drawing my remarks to a close early will afford the hon. Member for Strangford the final word on what has been an excellent debate. I simply conclude by thanking him for bringing the matter to the Chamber and thanking you, Mr Hanson, for your forbearance.
Liz McInnes (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab)
It is a pleasure as always to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. It is also a pleasure to sum up for the Opposition in the first Westminster Hall debate of the Session. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for bringing the debate and for wearing that magnificent tie on what is American independence day. Despite the ruling that ties are no longer necessary for hon. Gentlemen in the Chamber, it would take away from the gaiety of the nation if he were not allowed to express himself in that way. I thank him.
The hon. Member for Strangford has brought a very important subject to this Chamber. He made the important point that worldwide discrimination against Christians includes not only violence but other forms of discrimination, including that relating to access to work, education and healthcare. We need to remember that discrimination is not necessarily overt and violent; it can be subtle and sometimes quite difficult to identify. In his introduction, he highlighted cases that we are sadly all too familiar with: the treatment of Christians in Eritrea; the declaration of Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremists in Moscow; the attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt by ISIS or Daesh—whichever term hon. Member’s prefer; persecution in Egypt, Syria and China; and the treatment of the Rohingya people Burma. The list goes on and on, and I am pleased that we are debating the issue and that so many Members from different parties are here to express concerns.
The hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) identified the work done by Open Doors. We have already heard the list of the worst places in the world to be a Christian, which includes North Korea, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sudan. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) highlighted the role of Members in representing minorities, and referenced his particular experience in Sudan. One of our jobs as MPs is to highlight and speak up for those people who cannot speak up for themselves. I hope the Minister will reference that in his closing comments. I was very pleased to hear the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) raise the issue of Taimoor Raza, who has been sentenced to death for the crime of blasphemy on Facebook. I have also written to the Minister on that issue—I am sure that I am not the only Member to do so—and the response I received was that the Government are urging Pakistan to honour its human rights obligations.
At the heart of all of this is the role of the FCO, DFID and our embassies as part of our diplomatic mission. We have to be diplomatic in the way that we deal with these things, which may be one reason why it sometimes feels as though progress is quite slow; our representatives—ambassadors and high commissioners stationed in countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and North Korea—have to proceed with diplomacy, which can sometimes look like inaction. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s view on that.
The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) and many other hon. Members talked about the role of DFID. She also highlighted the important issue of Christians being reluctant to go to refugee camps; they might get help in those camps but are concerned about being discriminated against. Again, I hope we will get a response from the Minister on that. The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) also mentioned the role of DFID and expressed her clear view that it could do much more.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) made an important point about religious respect, not tolerance. I support that view. Tolerance implies that we are just putting up with things and not necessarily paying them due respect. We should use the word respect, rather than tolerance.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) highlighted the important fact that in seeking trade deals outside the EU following Brexit, human rights issues should be uppermost in any negotiations. Those discussions should always take place in any trade deals we try to strike with other countries.
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) highlighted that the list of countries the world over where Christians are being persecuted is sadly far too long. Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) mentioned the new aspect of organised crime that targets religious groups in places such as Colombia and Mexico, which I am sure will be addressed. We have to remember that religious freedom is a constitutional human right, and we in the UK must fight for it worldwide. It is absolutely right that we in the UK stand up for human rights and particularly Christianity. The right hon. Member for Meriden made the point that we must address this issue for our own security; that is really important.
We must not forget the NGOs. UK embassies should be given the resources they need to have a human rights function and to report on human rights issues. They should be given help with raising appropriate cases and implementing the toolkit. We must also ensure that the partners who we work with do not discriminate on the grounds of religious belief.
I would like to give the Minister a chance to answer the various points that have been raised, so I will finish with a quote from India’s most famous member of the Dalit caste, Dr Ambedkar, who renounced Hinduism to escape the caste system and converted to Buddhism. He said,
“where equality is denied, everything else may be taken to be denied.”
That sums up the issue of discrimination worldwide, on whatever basis. Christians worldwide who are discriminated against are being denied equality.
The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)
I thank the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) for giving me plenty of time to address the important issues that have been raised today.
First and foremost, let me congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this debate. I am pleased to announce that his tie will be going into cold storage for the next 366 days, because next year is a leap year, but we look forward to seeing it in future. There is some relevance in his wearing that tie. Although many of us in the Chamber may feel that the ideals behind the United States of America are not as strong today as they have been at some point in the last 250 years, those ideals have been a fundamental approach towards freedoms that should be promoted across the globe. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his important work and his consistent and persistent commitment to the freedom of religion or belief, as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on the issue.
I hope that Opposition Members will allow me to quickly mention two former Members of the House who are not here because they lost their seats, David Burrowes and Caroline Ansell, who I think would have been here, playing an important part in this debate. We very much miss them, but I know that their commitment to Christianity means that they will play their part.
Like all hon. Members here today, I am appalled by the persecution suffered by countless millions of Christians across the world who seek only to practise their deeply held beliefs openly, in peace and safety. Here in the west, as has been rightly pointed out, those freedoms are all too often taken for granted. We need to utilise this opportunity, particularly on such a robust all-party basis, to make the case that has been referred to.
I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar). Here in the UK, we rightly recognise that we have a special responsibility for protecting and upholding the rights of Christian communities across the globe.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) is absolutely correct that Her Majesty’s Government should redouble their efforts to work on a cross-departmental basis. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) rightly pointed out that there has been improvement, but Members can rest assured that I regard it as an important priority to ensure ever closer work between DFID and the Foreign Office in this area and, indeed, a number of other areas where there should be closer co-ordination.
I welcome that. The Foreign Office and DFID work closely together, so will the Minister kindly assure us that he will refer his ministerial colleagues at DFID to the comments made by many Members in the Chamber today? DFID needs to follow the FCO’s lead in addressing the human rights issue of freedom of religion and belief in a much clearer, more comprehensive and structured manner than it has done to date.
I entirely understand that, and I will come on to the comments made by my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden about that issue. They can be assured that there is, in ministerial terms, rather more co-ordination now between the Foreign Office and DFID, given that two Ministers are double-hatted. That will assist particularly in parts of Africa and the middle east where there is a part to play. I also will ensure that in the most evident problem hotspots, we make clear to our embassies the expectations about what we need to work towards.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden asked how much is spent on freedom of religion projects. We shall, during this tax year, spend some £758,000 on such projects worldwide, including in Pakistan and Iraq. We also lobby Governments across the globe on a regular basis. She rightly pointed to the case of Taimoor Raza in Pakistan—which has already come across my desk in the two and a half weeks since I took on ministerial office—and the appalling death sentence that has been passed after his blasphemy conviction. The reality is that more often than not, or almost invariably, such a sentence is commuted to life imprisonment—bad though that is.
We need to have a debate about the issue that my right hon. Friend raised. She is quite right that Pakistan is the second largest recipient of aid from the UK Government through DFID. I have some sympathy with her view that we need to, in some diplomatic way at least, link the two. However, I also have some sympathy with what the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said. I would be very reluctant to withdraw from any ongoing aid or development projects on the basis that there were concerns here. We should openly try to suggest, in a cross-departmental way, that a number of Her Majesty’s Government’s priorities, particularly in relation to freedom of religion, need to be an integral part of any ongoing aid and development work. We are spending significant sums of money, but a number of projects could happen in various other parts of the globe.
I very much take on board what my right hon. Friend said, and she can rest assured that through diplomatic channels, in our work between London and Islamabad, we will ensure that the Pakistani Government are made well aware of what we regard as being not just our priorities but their responsibilities in relation to DFID expenditure.
I want to touch on the issues raised by the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) about Colombia and Mexico and by the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), whom I congratulate on his debut on the Front Bench, about Tanzania and the terrible plight of Zanzibar. I have to confess that I have no data to hand about issues of freedom of religion in those areas or the particular issue referred to of organised crime, but I will write to both hon. Members once I have been able to get more information from our embassies.
I am particularly concerned currently about the plight of Christians in Burma, Iraq and Syria, where the Christian population has fallen dramatically, from 1.25 million as recently as 2011 to approximately 500,000 today. I recall my parliamentary visit 14 years ago to Aleppo, Palmyra and Damascus in Syria. We drove for a mere half an hour from the centre of Damascus to visit some of the ancient Christian villages where St Paul proselytised some 1,900 years ago. I shudder to think what has become of those ancient Christian communities today.
The right to practise one’s religion peaceably—or, indeed, to follow no religion at all—is and must remain a fundamental entitlement, and the UK Government will continue energetically to defend and promote it. As a number of hon. Members pointed out, it is a sad indictment of our 21st-century world that we still have to defend that right, but we do have to, because, as we have learned, it is increasingly being violated.
In 2013, I spoke from the Back Benches in another debate, which I think was led by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, about the persecution of Christians. The fate of Christians and other religious communities in the middle east and the north Africa region is complex and often compounded by their minority status. In Syria, Assad’s actions have helped to fuel the worst sort of sectarian violence. Although at one point he was perhaps seen as someone who could stand up for minorities, the truth is that he has now shown himself incapable of maintaining control of his country or of effectively countering the threat from extremists. In so doing, he has put at risk communities including Christians, Mandaeans, Yazidis and all other minorities, as well as the interests and safety and security of the Sunni majority.
The UK Government remain determined to promote and defend human rights more generally. Failure to do so has an impact on Christian and other religious minorities. As the hon. Member for Rhondda powerfully reminded us, where freedom of religion or belief is under attack, other basic rights are threatened too. It is in all our interests to promote religious freedoms and human rights more generally, so I welcome this opportunity to set out briefly what the Government are doing to promote freedom of religion or belief across the world.
Our activity is both multilateral, through institutions such as the United Nations and its Human Rights Council, and bilateral with individual countries. In the multilateral sphere, we strive to build and maintain consensus on this issue by lobbying other countries and supporting UN resolutions such as the one recently sponsored by the European Union. We also engage closely, through our extensive diplomatic network, with individual countries. We promote the right of freedom of religion or belief and we raise vigorously—if often, for obvious reasons, behind the scenes—individual cases of persecution.
In relation to Pakistan, which we have discussed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs continues to raise the rights of all Pakistani citizens, including religious minorities, and did so very robustly during his visit last November.
In relation to Iraq, we remain deeply concerned about the atrocities committed by Daesh or ISIS against individuals and religious communities, including Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and others. We continue to engage closely, and with a specific cause in mind, with religious leaders both in the UK and in Baghdad and beyond. In the last financial year, we have provided £90 million of humanitarian assistance to Iraq alone. That takes our total commitment to £169.5 million since June 2014. A significant, ring-fenced element of that support will help to protect displaced religious minorities. I take to heart some of the criticisms by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, about the Government’s approach to religious minorities in the middle east, but it is the case, as has been pointed out in this debate, that an avowed policy of giving preferential assistance to any single religious group might make it more vulnerable to discrimination in some of the more ungoverned spaces of the world.
In Syria, Christians, Mandaeans, Yazidis and other minorities, as well as the Sunni majority, as I pointed out, have all been victims of Daesh atrocities. Ultimately, as I think we all know, the only way to stop that abuse is to defeat Daesh, and we continue to play a leading role in the 67-member global coalition in that regard.
The hon. Member for Strangford and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) were right to highlight the plight of the Coptic Christians in Egypt. They are a minority, but a very significant minority—some 8 million to 9 million out of an overall population of 90 million.
We have touched on Yemen and the treatment of the Baha’i community, and on the treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, which the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out. Officials from our mission in Moscow attended the various court hearings there, and members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the UK noted that the presence on the ground of diplomats from the UK had a positive effect on how individuals were treated and how the process was undertaken. We shall continue to monitor that case particularly carefully.
More generally, our project work overseas is an important part of our effort to promote and protect religious freedoms. One project is helping to develop lesson plans for secondary school teachers in the middle east and north Africa. The aim is to teach children about religious tolerance, religious acceptance, and the absolute right to freedom of religion or belief. We strongly believe that teaching children in that way is a vital part of promoting tolerance and respect at grassroots level and of helping to build future resilience against extremism.
I note that the Minister has mentioned a number of countries in which work is ongoing, but before he concludes, and while he is talking about tolerance and respect, will he address my specific remarks on Saudi Arabia?
Yes. The hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but we are talking about a different debate, and I am sure that we will have plenty of debates on Saudi Arabia. It is also not within my responsibilities in the Foreign Office. I will therefore try to address the issues in writing and get my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East to do so.
Our staff in embassies across the globe are essential to the success of our work, and I hope that the debate today will help to redouble some of their efforts. It is important that we make clear the strength of feeling across the party political divide. We need to promote religious tolerance, human rights and religious rights, which are an integral part of our work. To support those staff, we provide training in religious literacy and have created a freedom of religion or belief toolkit, which was referred to earlier and provides useful information on addressing freedom of religion or belief.
In conclusion, I assure the hon. Members present of the Government’s and, moreover, my personal determination to continue supporting, defending and promoting the right to freedom of religion or belief. We will use our influence to promote that fundamental right across the world and to support Christian minorities, including in the middle east, through our engagement in multilateral institutions and with individual Governments and civil society.
I thank all hon. Members for their contributions today, but I hope that the House will indulge me if I single out my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Dockerill) for her first contribution in the House. My hon. Friend is also my very good friend, having worked in my private office, most recently as my chief of staff. She has worked with me for 11 years and learned about all the bad habits of politics from me, and I hope that learning from those mistakes will mean that she has a far more meteoric career in this place. It is a pleasure to be able to mention that.
I also take this opportunity to thank all hon. Members here. Their often unsung work is an important signal of the UK’s determination to stand up for religious freedoms and in particular for Christian communities in some of the most politically unstable and unpredictable corners of the globe.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members, both new Members and those who have been here for a while, for their significant and helpful contributions on an issue that is very important to all of us—it is why we are here. It is good that there has been comprehensive political representation, from all parties, in Westminster Hall today. That has ensured that we have highlighted the relevant issues.
I think the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) summed up, in her response to the debate, the feeling of us all in this Chamber. I found out that the shadow Minister for the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), is a fellow Baptist, so there is more than just me in the House as a Baptist. It is always pleasing to see someone from a similar denomination in the House, and we wish him well in his new position.
The Minister, in his reply, summed up the things that we all want to see in place, and I thank him for that. He referred to his personal commitment to the issue, and I know that he is committed.
I will leave the last word to Matthew in chapter 5, verse 10:
“Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
This debate is sourced from the uncorrected (rolling) version of Hansard and is subject to correction.