The Effect of the Pandemic on Religious and Ethnic Minority Communities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (SNP)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joy Morrissey 

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

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

Patrick Grady 

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

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

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

Patrick Grady 

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

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

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

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

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

Sir Christopher Chope (in the Chair)

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

The Minister for Asia (Nigel Adams)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

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

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





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