The persecution of Christians overseas – Westminster Hall debate

Chris Philp (Croydon South) (Con)
I beg to move, that this House has considered the matter of the persecution of Christians overseas.

In April last year, a young Nigerian woman, Dorkas Zakka, was murdered, along with 12 others in Kafanchan, simply for attending an Easter mass. Local priest Father Alexander Yeycock said that Nigerian military units stood by and did nothing while the murders took place.

Last November in Mina, Egypt, a mob surrounded a Coptic church, threatening worshippers inside, many of whom were also physically attacked. Local Coptic leader Anba Macarius says that the Egyptian authorities have done nothing to bring those responsible to justice.

Asia Bibi was sentenced to death by hanging for blasphemy in Pakistan in 2010. Thankfully, that sentence has since been suspended. Two Pakistani politicians who advocated on her behalf and opposed Pakistan’s blasphemy laws were assassinated.

In May last year, two churches in Sudan were destroyed on the orders of the Sudanese Government. In June last year, 33 Christian women in Eritrea were imprisoned by the Eritrean Government simply for taking part in prayer activity.

Just two weeks ago, Pakistani man Suneel Saleem was beaten to death by a group of doctors and security guards—a group of doctors, Mr Hollobone—at the Services Hospital in Lahore, Pakistan, when he protested about the anti-Christian abuse that his heavily pregnant sister had suffered at the hospital. A man was beaten to death by doctors in a hospital simply for being Christian.

In January this year, in Tamil Nadu, in southern India, a mob pursued and beat a priest and three companions outside a police station. Despite their desperate pleas for help, the police stood by and did nothing. We have heard nothing by way of condemnation of these sorts of attacks in India from Prime Minister Modi.

According to a petition presented to Parliament last year by Aid to the Church in Need, such attacks have been taking place in about 50 countries worldwide. In India alone, about 24,000 Christians were physically assaulted last year. In Iraq, the majority of the Christian and Yazidi populations have come close to being wiped out.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab)
I am very interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying about various countries persecuting Christians. I hope he will come on to North Korea and China, which have ​also been persecuting Christians; in fact, that has been going on for a long time. In Egypt, the Coptic Church has been persecuted for years and years. I hope that the Minister, when he winds up the debate, will tell us, for a change, what the British Government are going to do about it. Perhaps we should look at aid for a start.

Chris Philp
The hon. Gentleman pre-empts my speech in two or three regards, but as he mentions North Korea, I will say now that Aid to the Church in Need ranks North Korea as the worst country for Christians to live in. Accurate information is of course hard to obtain, but ACN estimates that at least 200,000 Christians have gone missing in North Korea since 1953. North Koreans who are found practising as Christians face arrest, torture and imprisonment, and there are worrying examples of Christians being publicly executed in North Korea.

Michael Tomlinson (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (Con)
May I take my hon. Friend back from North Korea to Iraq and the middle east, but may I first make a general point? There are so many hon. Members present who want to speak—I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this really important debate—that I suggest he sponsor a longer debate in the future so that all of us will have a chance to speak. However, may I also invite him to praise the work of Open Doors, which has been working with the Christian communities in Iraq and Syria?

Chris Philp
I thank my hon. Friend. Perhaps we should all get together and ask for a Backbench Business debate one Thursday, when we could debate this matter more fully. Let us all, as an action, take that away to the Backbench Business Committee. I will note down who is here, so that I can get in touch after this debate.

I would specifically like to praise Open Doors. I did write its name at the top of my notes, but in my haste to get the debate started and not to take up too much time, I overlooked it. In fact, I can see sitting in the Public Gallery Rev. Sue Thomas from St John’s church in Old Coulsdon, in my constituency, who I have been discussing this issue with for some time and who works with Open Doors. I thank Open Doors for its work in this field, and I specifically thank Rev. Sue Thomas.

Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Slough) (Lab)
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. The Open Doors charity has found that, overall, persecution of Christians has risen for the fifth year in a row. Such persecution—indeed, persecution of any religious group—is abhorrent and unacceptable. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the UK Government must put the protection of human rights, including freedom of religion or belief, at the heart of their foreign policy and use all diplomatic means available to ensure adherence to international law?

Chris Philp
I agree very strongly with the sentiments that the hon. Gentleman has expressed. I will come on to what I believe the UK Government could do in this area, or could do more of, but whatever efforts are being made at the moment, worldwide they are not enough, because as the hon. Gentleman has just pointed out, the problem of Christians being persecuted is getting worse, not better. The direction of travel is the wrong one, and it is incumbent on those of us in the United Kingdom and other countries who have or can have influence to do a lot more than we are doing at the moment. We need to reverse the trend.

There are many examples of where the trend is getting worse. We all know about the activities of Boko Haram in Nigeria, where 276 Christian schoolgirls were kidnapped several years ago; 112 of them are still missing. In Myanmar, where Rohingya Muslims have been persecuted, Christian converts have been persecuted as well. About 100,000 Christians are living in displacement camps as a result.

Dame Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con)
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate. Actually, there was a bid to the Backbench Business Committee for a wider debate, but unfortunately it was rejected—we should try again. He has just mentioned the Chibok girls. May I, through him, remind colleagues of early-day motion 1246 about the plight of one particular girl, who had to spend her 15th birthday still in captivity because she is refusing to renounce her faith? If all colleagues were willing to sign that early-day motion, that would be very helpful.

Chris Philp
My right hon. Friend raises a very important issue and draws attention to a very important early-day motion. So many Christians subjected to this sort of persecution show tremendous faith and tremendous bravery by standing up for their faith in the face of the most appalling threats. The example that my right hon. Friend cites is truly inspiring and tells us how seriously we must take our duty to protect girls such as the one to whom she refers. They deserve all the support and protection that we can possibly give them.

I deliberately chose the examples that I gave earlier because in all of them a Government—a nation state’s Government—failed to take action to protect Christians being persecuted, whether it was those army units in Nigeria standing by and doing nothing, the police in Egypt and India standing by and doing nothing or, in the example from Sudan, the Government themselves imprisoning Christians.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP)
I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He is itemising the huge displacement that there has been. Does he agree that, in relation to the middle east alone, we are talking about unprecedented movements of Christians out of their historical homelands, and we really need to address that problem?

Chris Philp
The hon. Gentleman is quite right. I have been raising individual cases, because they tell a painful and powerful story, but behind those individual cases lie hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Christians being persecuted and displaced, particularly in the middle east. We cannot stand by or walk by on the other side. We must take action.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this important debate. I was reminded that when I was the parliamentary churchwarden for St Margaret’s, we did some good work trying to engage the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association to get an interface with some of these countries where we are not getting through. Could we be optimistic and get something moving back on that kind of track?

Chris Philp
I hope we can. The hon. Gentleman is driving at the point I was just beginning to make. We understand that there are terrorist organisations, such as ISIS, that do terrible things, and we are quite rightly combating them. However, I chose the examples I did very specifically, because in those examples, Governments of nation states—some of them Commonwealth members, and some of them allies of the United Kingdom—have either stood by and done nothing or, in some cases, actively encouraged and facilitated the persecution I have been describing. It is unacceptable that allies of the United Kingdom should stand by and allow this kind of persecution to take place. As a powerful western nation, we have levers at our disposal to influence these countries that are allowing the persecution of Christians to take place under their nose—and knowingly, deliberately and intentionally doing nothing.

The most obvious lever that we have was referred to by the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham), namely the overseas aid budget. It is a good thing that we spend £13 billion a year on overseas aid, which is 0.7% of GDP. That gives us enormous influence. Much of that aid is spent bilaterally. It goes directly to countries rather than via third-party agencies such as the United Nations or the European Union. I believe we should use the power that aid donation confers to achieve the change we want to see.

For example, the largest bilateral recipient of overseas aid is Pakistan, which receives about £350 million a year. Yet, Christians there are persecuted terribly with violent acts. The court system in Pakistan often prosecutes Christians using blasphemy laws, which are wholly contrary to any notion of free speech or religious freedom. I believe we should be looking at imposing some conditionality, particularly on aid we give directly to another Government. We should ask that they do more and not just pay lip service and say fine words, which generally speaking they do, but that they take real action to prevent the persecution of Christians, whether it is in the court system, or through the police and other armed forces standing by and doing nothing.

Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con)
Does my hon. Friend agree, on a more positive side, that we need to expect the Department for International Development to take far more account of the work that Christian and other faith-based organisations do? It does not take enough account of the strength of the work that those organisations do in development on behalf of the people of that country. My right hon. Friend the Minister has been an exception to that in his role in the Foreign Office, but that needs to spread to DFID, which cannot be a religion-free zone.

Chris Philp
My hon. Friend is quite right. Christian charities and organisations often show enormous courage in going into areas where Governments and the UN fear to tread, and they do work protecting Christians who are not being protected by anybody else. I endorse my hon. Friend’s point, and I hope the Minister will specifically reply to it in his remarks.

I am clear that we should be using the overseas aid budget as a means to influence behaviour by sovereign Governments. In this country we offer full religious freedom, quite rightly, regardless of faith, to everybody. I am proud that we do, but in return we should be demanding that Christians and people of any faith around the world receive precisely the same religious freedom. Where that religious freedom is not extended by unenlightened Governments, we should be doing everything to change that.

We allow some countries, for example in the middle east, to send quite large amounts of money into this country to promote their domestic faith, which is fine, and we are happy to let that happen, but at the same time, those very same Governments that are sending money here are denying religious freedom over there. That is fundamentally unfair, and it should end.

I am conscious that time is pressing on, so I want to conclude. There are two reasons why I believe this issue should be at the top of our foreign policy and overseas aid agenda, and why we need more than warm words from some of these overseas Governments. There is a human rights dimension. Religious freedom is a fundamental human right. There is a human tragedy, in that individual Christians are being persecuted in the most appalling ways, as I described in the examples I gave. I also believe that it serves our national interest to see human rights promoted, because if we help these countries become more tolerant—if we help human rights take root—that will in itself combat extremism. Where there is tolerance and respect, extremism will not flourish. There is an overwhelming human rights case for pushing this agenda hard and properly, and there is a national interest argument as well.

I know that lots of hon. Members want to speak, so I will conclude now. This is an important issue and one we all feel strongly about. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Preet Kaur Gill (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab/Co-op)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp) for bringing this important debate. He so eloquently put forward the argument about the persecution of Christians. We have clearly seen a considerable increase in attacks by armed Fulani herdsmen on predominantly Christian farming communities in northern Nigeria. To get an understanding of the scale of these attacks in the past three years, I note that the Fulani herdsmen, armed with AK47s and in some cases chemicals, are believed to have killed more men, women and children than Boko Haram.

Egypt is home to the middle east’s largest Christian community—comprising some 10% of the population—the majority of whom are orthodox. The spread of ISIS-affiliated groups in the country has seen a significant rise in their persecution. In February 2017, the group released a propaganda video vowing to wipe out Egypt’s Coptic community and this followed the killing of 28 Christians by a suicide bomber in the Coptic Orthodox cathedral of St Mark in Cairo, in December 2016. Last year, two church bombings killed 49 people and another 29 were killed when extremists attacked people travelling to a monastery in May.

Given the time constraints, I will conclude by reminding the Minister that in 2017, in its report on human rights, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office stated that freedom of religion and belief was now considered

“a key and integral part of the work”

of the UK Government and one of three areas that the Government would be prioritising. I urge the Minister to ensure the Government stand by that commitment.

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I would like to speak with particular reference to China. A recent hearing of the Conservative party human rights commission, which I chair, heard—as the Aid to the Church in Need report, which has already been referred to, says—that persecution in China has notably increased recently.

There are 127 million Chinese Christians, yet we have heard that, partly as a result of the revival of Christianity in China, the Chinese authorities are now cracking down even more strongly than previously, not just on the unregistered churches, where we have heard that thousands have been pulled down, crosses have been pulled down and clergy have been routinely detained, but now on registered churches and even house churches, the small churches where groups have met legitimately. Officials are going into those homes, removing any Christian items and replacing them with a picture of the Premier.

This spring, new laws were implemented to prevent certain groups of people from going to church in China, including people in certain types of employment, and even—quite shockingly—to prevent the taking of a person under 18 to church. Increasingly, apart from the imprisonment of the clergy, the human rights lawyers, who used to be able to defend the clergy from unreasonable accusations, have also been imprisoned. I understand that it is now virtually impossible to find such a lawyer in China—

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for the opportunity to speak. I congratulate the hon. Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp) on introducing the debate. I welcome the Minister and look forward to his important response. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, many things come to my attention. In Nepal, the new anti-conversion and blasphemy laws threaten Christians. In Nigeria, Christian farmers and others have been murdered in their thousands by the armed Fulani militias. In Pakistan, at least 1,000 Hindu and Christian girls are kidnapped, forced to convert, forcibly married or sold into prostitution annually.

I would like to leave something for the Minister to do in these 90 seconds—it is a bit like that radio programme “Just a Minute”. He should develop strategies to advance freedom of religion or belief in countries with severe FORB restrictions; develop a database that tracks quantitative data on issues relating to religious or belief minorities; increase Government expertise internally or via external experts; and introduce mandatory training for employees of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development who work in countries with severe levels of discrimination against religion or belief.

Those steps will address the persecution of Christians. This year, 100,000 people will die for their faith, 200 million will be persecuted and 2 billion will live in an endangered neighbourhood. When we put those figures into perspective, we know why this debate is so important. That is why I am very happy to support the hon. Member for Croydon South.

Kevin Foster (Torbay) (Con)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp) on securing this debate. In the brief time I have available, I will compliment Open Doors on its work.

The necessity for this debate is shown by an attack on the Emmanuel Christian College, which Open Doors has been supporting, that took place on 14 May in South Sudan, where 10 people, including five children, were killed. Although the details are unclear, witnesses blame the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. That is a sad reminder of the risks people face to do what many of us take for granted in our daily lives, which is to declare our Christian faith, to go to church and to wish to share that faith with others.

This is not just about the state actors—the traditional idea of a Government oppressing their people—but the non-state actors, such as Daesh, which have brought so much terror to the middle east and, in particular, to Christian families there. In the Minister’s response, I am interested to hear what work he plans to do with Governments who we want to change their policies to allow more religious freedom and to support Governments who are genuinely struggling to deal with extremist elements within their nation states that cannot be dealt with by normal law enforcement mechanisms.

The key part is about stopping the persecution not just of Christians, but of people who freely choose which faith they have, or who have no faith. All Christians should stand for that fundamental right.

David Linden (Glasgow East) (SNP)
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp). I will be brief and talk about one person in China: Gao Zhisheng, a prominent Chinese human rights lawyer who is best known for his work defending Christians, Falun Gong adherents and other vulnerable social groups. He is believed to have been forcibly disappeared by the authorities since August as a result of his work on sensitive cases and his open letters to Chinese political leaders.

Gao was detained and tortured numerous times before being convicted of inciting to subvert state power. He was sentenced to three years in prison and was released on 7 August 2014 with serious health problems. He was disappeared again in August and I met his daughter not long after being elected.

My only ask is that the Minister makes direct representations to the Chinese authorities to revise all regulations and legislation pertaining to religion to ensure that they align with international standards on freedom of religion or belief, as set out in article 18 of the international covenant on civil and political rights, in consultation with religious communities and legal experts. That is my ask. The Minister should get on with it.

Steve Double (St Austell and Newquay) (Con)
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I place on record my huge respect for people of all faiths who are persecuted around the world for their faith and, in the context of this debate, particularly for Christians who face horrific circumstances that we in this country can only imagine. We honour their dignity and courage.

Persecution is not always about violence and killing people. It often takes more subtle forms where Christians and people of other faiths are excluded from certain parts of society and from obtaining certain jobs—in some countries they cannot work in the public sector—and are perhaps put under surveillance. We should be conscious of all forms of persecution that Christians face around the world, not just the most extreme.

To echo other hon. Members, our Government should do more to use the influence they have, particularly through the Commonwealth and our overseas aid budget, to ensure that the rights and freedoms of Christians around the world are protected and to challenge countries where that is not the case. Like other hon. Members, I place on record my huge respect for Open Doors and the incredible work that it has done over decades to raise the issue of the persecuted Church around the world and to support persecuted Christians. It is a sad reality that despite the organisation existing for more than 50 years, its work is more needed in our world today than ever before. We should support everything that it and others do to support the persecuted Church.

Chris Evans (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op)
Given the time constraints, I will focus on the Coptic Orthodox Church. In Islwyn, St Mary’s and St Abu Saifain’s Coptic Orthodox church is the first in Wales, and hundreds of people from across Wales go to worship there every year. I was lucky to be invited when my son, Zachariah, was three weeks old. I went with my wife and we celebrated our first mass with the Copts there. We were so welcomed.

Although Coptic Christians in my constituency and across the UK can freely worship without persecution for their beliefs, the same cannot be said for those in Egypt and elsewhere. Many will remember that a Coptic church just south of Cairo was targeted in a horrific terror attack in December, which took the lives of 10 people, including the perpetrator. That same day, an electronics shop owned by Copts in nearby Helwan was also attacked, leaving another two people dead. The Egyptian Interior Ministry confirmed that those attacks were by Daesh.

Estimates vary as to how many Copts there are worldwide, but it is believed that there are up to 20 million. Of those, at least 15 million reside in Egypt. That makes Copts a minority in Egypt’s population of 95 million, the majority of whom follow Islam, which is recognised as the state religion. There have been many examples of Copts, especially women and girls, being kidnapped, forced to marry and converted. That needs to stop. I agree with hon. Members who have said that where Governments are struggling to keep a lid on extremism and protect Christians, we must do all we can to help them in word and deed.

John Howell (Henley) (Con)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. The largest Christian community in Africa is in Nigeria, a country for which I am the Prime Minister’s trade envoy.

The centre and south of Nigeria are tolerant places where faiths live side by side in happiness. The problem comes in the north and north-east of the country, where there is a great deal of radical Islamism. Christians are caught in the crossfire there between ethnic or illegal groups as they pursue their vendettas against other groups.

Nigeria did not stand by, however, after an attack on a Christian church. The President was summoned to Parliament and he condemned the attack in the strongest possible language. The Parliament suspended its sittings for three days. Before it did that, it passed a no-confidence motion in the security chiefs. That is a strong indication of the feeling across the whole of Nigeria—we should not forget that the President is a member of the Islamic faith—that the attack on the church was not to be tolerated.

Martyn Day (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (SNP)
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for calling me to speak. I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp) for securing this important debate.

Earlier this month, I had the privilege to meet the Reverend Yunusa Nmadu, the chief executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide Nigeria and general secretary of the Evangelical Church Winning All, who gave me an insight into the awful situation facing Christians in Nigeria, particularly in the north of the country. I was told of the worrying rise in the number of young Christian schoolgirls being abducted and then subjected to forced conversion and forced marriage. I heard about Leah Sharibu, the sole Christian among the Dapchi girls abducted by Boko Haram on 29 February, who remains in captivity.

The rise in attacks by the Fulani militia was also highlighted to me. It is reported that since 2011 such attacks have displaced some 62,000 people and left 6,000 dead and many more injured, in what observers have described as some form of ethnic cleansing. In the same timeframe, the Fulani herdsmen have destroyed some 500 churches in Benue state alone.

I trust that the Minister will be able to use this Government’s influence to encourage the Government of Nigeria to meet their constitutional and international obligations to uphold freedom of religion and belief for all citizens. The examples that I have highlighted just touch on the issues in Nigeria, but there is certainly a great need to press the Nigerian Government to overhaul their existing security arrangements, so as to protect vulnerable communities from the threat posed by the Fulani militia.

I hope that the UK Government are able to raise those concerns, and that the Minister will join me in urging Nigeria to tackle the proliferation of small arms and to address the violence caused by the armed bandits and the Fulani herdsmen, among others.

Julia Lopez (Hornchurch and Upminster) (Con)
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for chairing this crucial debate, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp) for securing it.

Sadly, persecution of individuals due to their religious belief is nothing new. However, there is no doubt that communities of Christians that might once have expected to live in peace now face new threats that go hand in hand with rising political violence, attacks on free speech and discriminatory law making in countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan and Indonesia. The Minister will be aware of the appalling attacks that took place this month on churches in Surabaya.

What can we do? I know that the Minister has been developing a strong relationship with Indonesia, and I would like to know how the UK is sharing our security expertise with nations affected by Islamist terror, what work we are doing to share expertise on deradicalisation, and what engagement we have had on anti-blasphemy laws that are affecting Christian and Ahmadiyya communities.

What can we do to encourage thought leadership in regions such as the middle east? Saudi Arabia clearly wishes to rebrand itself very carefully as a more modern nation, in part to satisfy a growing demand for change from its young and vibrant population but also to diversify its economy. How can we harness that drive and carefully encourage the kingdom towards a more moderate approach, which other nations might be inclined to follow? I would be interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts on that.

It has been mentioned before, but we also have leverage through our aid budget, with some £350 million going to Pakistan alone each year. Understandably, that development package is highly controversial among many of my constituents, but in so far as the Government wish to continue that aid relationship I agree with other Members that it ought to be conditional.

Michelle Donelan (Chippenham) (Con)
This issue is an extremely important one, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp) on securing the debate.

It is shocking that more than 2 million Christians around the world are persecuted simply because of their faith, and like many hon. Members today I commend the work of Open Doors. What stood out for me on its world watch list was the fact that many of the countries on the list are also synonymous with luxury holidays, such as the Maldives and Mexico.

We need to talk more about this issue and not be afraid to talk about it. We are traditionally still a Christian country, and this issue does not necessarily get the airtime that it deserves. We have leverage with our international aid budget, enabling us to push countries to do more and to stop persecuting people simply because of their faith. We should also ring-fence a proportion of our international aid specifically to address this issue, because it is so important. In addition, I want us to ensure that our aid does not have unintended consequences, whereby we try to further causes such as education but actually make the problem worse.

I also note the work of SAT-7 in my constituency of Chippenham. It is a broadcaster across the middle east and Africa that tries to promote Christian values but also tolerance of and respect for all religions, which we all want to see. Also, I echo the comments made earlier about SAT-7 being unable to get donations from the Department for International Development just because of its religious background.

Dame Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con)
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone—thank you for calling me to speak, given that I have already made an intervention.

I return to what is happening in Nigeria. The 2018 world watch list names Nigeria as the country with the largest number of Christians who have been killed, at 3,000. In fact, 6,000 people in Nigeria have been killed by the radicalised Fulani herdsmen since 2011. Can the Minister give us some assurances that the Government will examine the spread of such terrorism into the centre and south of Nigeria, since those parts of Nigeria have ceased to be the focus of the Department for International Development’s responsibility? Nigeria is a vast country that lies on a fault line between Islam and Christianity. There should be very real concern in our country about Nigeria, which, after all, is a Commonwealth country upon which we should be able to bring some pressure to bear.

Will the Minister also come back to the question that I asked in my intervention about what the Government are doing to get the last of the Chibok girls freed? These poor girls have slipped all too easily from the attention of the media around the world, and to think that a girl had to spend her 15th birthday in captivity just because of her unwillingness to give up her most profound belief shocks me to the core. I hope that by having this debate we can do something to ensure that those girls are not forgotten.

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair)
We now come to the Front-Bench speeches. The guideline limits are five minutes for the Scottish National party, five minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister. Then Mr Philp will have the time remaining at the end to sum up the debate.

Carol Monaghan (Glasgow North West) (SNP)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp) on securing this very important debate. He made a powerful speech, which at times highlighted very disturbing, even harrowing cases from across the world, and he talked about the fundamental human rights that are jeopardised when people are not free to practise their religion.

As Christians in the UK, we can be subject to verbal abuse, but nobody ever prevents us from practising our religion. We have had many contributions this afternoon, and I will mention some of them. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) talked about the rise of ISIS and the difficulties that presented for the Christian community. The hon. Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) both talked about the Christian community in China and the fact that 127 million Christians in that country are in great danger. The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) and the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) all talked about the Christian community in Nigeria. In fact, Nigeria is one of the countries where Christians face the greatest degree of persecution.

A number of Members have mentioned the Open Doors world watch list, and I will just highlight some of the countries on it. No. 1 on that list is North Korea, where persecution is led by the state, which sees Christians as hostile elements that have to be eradicated. Neighbours and family members, including children, are highly watchful and suspicious, and will report anything to the authorities. If Christians are discovered, they are either deported to labour camps or killed on the spot, and their families suffer the same fate. Meetings for worship are virtually impossible to arrange and so are conducted in the utmost secrecy. The churches in Pyongyang that are shown to visitors serve mere propaganda purposes.

In Somalia, family members and clan leaders intimidate and even kill converts to Christianity. Al-Shabaab, the radical militant group, relies on a clan-based structure to advance its ideology, forcing sheikhs and imams to teach jihad or face expulsion or death, so it is not only Christians who are targeted in Somalia but Muslims too. Christians from a Muslim background in Somalia are regarded as high-value targets, and at least 23 suspected converts were killed last year.

In Sudan, there is a complex cultural mix, but the Government are implementing a policy of one religion, one culture and one language. Under that authoritarian rule, freedom of expression is curtailed and the persecution of Christians is reminiscent of ethnic cleansing. Some Christians disguise their faith, even from their children and even after death, preferring to be buried in a Muslim cemetery rather than a Christian one.

In Pakistan, Christians suffer from institutionalised discrimination, with occupations that are regarded as low and dirty being officially reserved for Christians. I want to highlight the work of a Glasgow-based organisation called Global Minorities Alliance, which has produced a number of reports. Some of its staff travelled to Thailand to see some of the Pakistani Christians who had travelled to that country. What they found was that Christians fleeing Pakistan can easily gain access to Thailand, because of Thailand’s loose tourist visa regime, but Thailand is no safe haven for them. Once they are in Thailand, they are in a country that refuses to recognise their status as refugees and they find themselves in limbo, unable to go back to Pakistan and unable to start a new life. Daily life has become an economic hardship, coupled with the fear of arrest, detention and deportation.

Finally, I want to mention three countries that target Christians, all of which we have links with—Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey. We sell arms to Saudi Arabia at the same time as it targets Christians. The hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) mentioned tourism links. We have strong tourism links with Egypt and Turkey, yet their persecution continues, so we need to think carefully about our trade deals and our relationships when considering paying into economies through tourism.

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp) on his powerful speech on an important subject.

Christianity has been dominant in this country for 1,000 years and, for us, it can be difficult to imagine what it is like to be the persecuted. We tend to think of the persecutions of the first century or of the Tudor TV dramas, but the scale of what hon. Members on both sides of the House have described shows that persecution is a large and growing problem. I want to say something about some particular countries, but we need to ask ourselves why this is happening before we can discuss what we need to do.

Hon. Members have spoken about the middle east. Between 50% and 80% of Christians in Syria and Iraq have been forced to move in recent years, according to Open Doors. I, too, commend that organisation’s excellent work in supporting those communities and in bringing the significant problems to our attention. I also commend the work of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which came to see me recently.

Many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill), talked about the problems in Nigeria, which are particularly concentrated in the north of the country and which have grown recently. My husband was born in Kaduna and his father, who had been a colonial civil servant, died in 2004. At that time, the persecution was a small cloud on the horizon, not the big problem it is today. We need to do more. It is, of course, not easy, and we cannot just go around threatening people, but we need to pay more attention to the problem, as we do to the oldest Christian community, the Copts, whom my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) talked about, and their particular need for protection.

As hon. Members have said, the persecution takes different forms. In some places it is about a religious divide. In some places it is state-driven oppression, particularly in China. In some places it is about people being excluded, and that is what we see in Mexico where, for example, someone in the wrong denomination might have their water and electricity cut off—shocking things, which I will raise when I am in Mexico next week.

It is hard for us to understand why people feel that they are under threat from other religions, that what other religions do threatens their position, or that they are so entitled, and so confident in their own rightness, that they should impose their views on other people. It is important that we increase and improve religious understanding. The Minister probably knows that there is a very good centre for religious understanding at the London School of Economics and Political Science, led by Rev. James Walters. We also need to consider how we can use our aid money. We need to think more open-mindedly about what misunderstandings we have, as well as about those of other people, without in any way saying that any of the abuses are acceptable.

In Vietnam, there are arrests, imprisonments, torture and extrajudicial killings, yet the Home Office wants to send a constituent of mine, who is a Christian, back there. When I asked the Bishop of Durham for examples he knew of persecution, he raised that of a Jordanian Christian woman who came to this country and was then interned in Yarl’s Wood before she claimed asylum. We need to use the aid programme and we need to speak out, but will Foreign Office Ministers please also talk to the Home Office so that the very people who have been victims are not re-victimised in this country?

The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp) for initiating the debate. I particularly respect his consistent and long-standing commitment—well, long-standing for a colleague of three years, anyway—to the issue during all his time in the House. He and other hon. Members from across the House have given appalling examples of the persecution of Christians overseas. I fear that I will not be able to do justice in the relatively short time available to their heartfelt contributions, but I will, if necessary, write to those whose issues I am unable to address in these few words.

I thank the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman). She made a very good point. I am a great believer in joined-up government. Sometimes I fear that, between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office, things are not quite as joined up as they should be on these sorts of matters, and I will do my level best to take up the hon. Lady’s case and address it more avidly, if she will give me the details.

Sir Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con)
While we are on the subject of joined-up government, will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to seek to ensure that, when Christian clerics are invited to the United Kingdom on religious visits, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office will facilitate visas rather than blocking them?

Mark Field
No doubt I will have the specifics of that matter before too long. Yes, I will endeavour to do that for my hon. Friend.

The Government are, sadly, all too familiar with research conducted in recent years by reputable organisations that shows that the persecution of Christians is on the rise. In the 12 months to October, Open Doors concluded that more than 200 million Christians in 50 countries experienced what it regards as a high level of persecution. Its latest watch list charts a swathe of Christian persecution stretching from northern and western Africa to North Korea.

I should at this point like to touch on the situation in Nigeria— an issue that a number of Members expressed concern about. In addition to the challenges presented by Boko Haram, particularly in the north and on the north-eastern border with Cameroon, Nigeria faces daily violence in its central regions between Christian farmers and predominantly Muslim Fulani cattle herders. That cycle of violent clashes has resulted in countless deaths, particularly in recent years, and even in the destruction of entire villages, which we of course condemn.

I fully understand the concerns that have been raised. I should stress that this is a long-running conflict with complex causes, including land, farming rights, grazing routes and access to water, as well as the religious divisions referred to. Along with my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), I warmly welcome President Buhari’s engagement on the issue. It is imperative that the Nigerian Government and the military work together with the affected populations to bring perpetrators to justice and develop a solution that meets the needs of all the communities affected, as British officials will continue to encourage them to do.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) wanted some reassurance. The Foreign Secretary spoke to the Nigerian vice-president following the abductions of the Dapchi, and the Prime Minister herself, during the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, raised these issues with President Buhari on 16 April. Our view is that the attacks on schools must stop. My right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden is right, unfortunately, that the terrible events in the north-east of the country and the abductions—still—of over 100 schoolgirls have disappeared from the media, and this is an opportunity to raise the issue, as we will do in Abuja and beyond.

Returning to the broader theme, Christian persecution takes many forms. As we have heard, places of worship in far too many countries are targeted, shut down or even destroyed. Followers are discriminated against, subjected to mob attack and criminalised—in some cases, by the state. Many live in fear for their lives, and many thousands have been forced to flee their homes.

In whatever form it manifests itself, all religious persecution is abhorrent and deplorable. Governments, religious groups and right-minded people must do all they can to bring it to an end. I am glad that point was raised by a number of Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Torbay (Kevin Foster) and for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), among others.

In our work around the globe, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will stand up for religious freedom—full stop. We do not do that simply for Christians; indeed, one has to recognise that for us to stand up exclusively for Christians would risk protecting a minority perhaps close to many western hearts to the exclusion of others or would, indeed, risk making them more vulnerable.

I assure Members—I saw this in my most recent visit—that we do our best to recognise that the persecution of Christians has become much more profound in particular parts of the world, not least China. I hope to come back to the point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) later.

Fiona Bruce
The Minister talks about bringing perpetrators to justice. Two years ago in a debate in this House, Parliament voted by 278 Members to nil to call on the Government to take action to hold to account the perpetrators of genocide against Christians, Yazidis and others in Syria and Iraq. Will he say what action has been taken since then, or perhaps write to us? In his response then, the Minister’s colleague said that the UK is taking an international lead on the issue. Will the Minister meet Lord Alton and me to discuss the genocide determination Bills we have introduced in our respective Houses? They would go some way to addressing the issue.

Mark Field
I will meet my hon. Friend. If she will excuse me, I will write to her with some of the details she has asked for.

We believe that religious freedom is a bellwether of broader individual freedoms, democratic health and, ultimately, economic health. For all those reasons, it is a priority for this Government to defend and promote the rights of not only Christians but peoples of all faiths and none so that they can practise their faith or belief without fear or discrimination.

I could say much—time is running tight—about aspects of the bilateral work we do. Earlier this month, I visited Nepal. I expressed concern to Prime Minister Oli in a meeting I had with him that uncertainty around provisions of the new penal code might be used to limit the freedom to adopt, change or practise a religion. Those provisions can especially target Christian minorities. I also raised concerns about freedom of religion or belief and about the protection of minority religious communities in Pakistan with the Ministry of Human Rights during my visit to that country in November.

Needless to say, we will continue to raise concerns with the authorities in China at our annual UK-China human rights dialogue and on other occasions about the increasingly worrying and widespread persecution of Christian minorities—particularly those converting from other religions. Our values form an integral part of our relationship with China; indeed, the Prime Minister raised human rights issues when she met President Xi and Prime Minister Li earlier this year.

Chris Philp
Will the Minister give way?

Mark Field
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I only have a small amount of time left.

So far this year my ministerial colleagues have raised issues about freedom of religion or belief with counterparts in such places as Iraq, Egypt and Burma. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez) mentioned Indonesia. We have made representations to the Indonesian Government to ensure that the proposed blasphemy laws are not applied on their current rather discriminatory basis. I will be going to that country for four days in August and will raise those issues then. My hon. Friend will appreciate the strong intelligence and security relationship we have with Indonesia. That is not in any way to forgive any of these issues, but we have important intelligence relationships, not least because of the global threat, particularly in Mindanao, which is just the other side of the Philippine border.

It is not just about Government-to-Government work. I could say much about NGO and project work, but I think it would be worth while to focus the end of my comments on issues around aid conditionality that have been brought up by a number of Members—particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy). It is important to state that the Department for International Development has its own faith-based principles that provide a framework for engaging faith partners in development. It also wants to actively support faith-based NGOs to apply to the UK Aid Connect fund, which is a funding pot for smaller NGOs.

In addition to our discussions with Governments, it has been suggested that UK overseas aid should be entirely conditional on recipient Governments taking concrete action to end religious persecution. I reassure the House that we challenge our development partners precisely and specifically on these issues, in whichever country they arise. There may be countries where we disapprove of what they are doing.

This is a non-religious issue, but in Cambodia we have had opposition leaders being locked up. However, equally, we have long-standing relationships in aid and development terms, particularly in mine clearance in parts of that country. The interests of some of the most vulnerable are at stake. If we do not clear those mines, arable land will not be able to be used. While it is right that these things are conditional and that guidelines are set down, we equally have to recognise that we are sometimes acting for the most vulnerable with a range of aid programmes. Simply to cut off that money mid-flow would not be the right way forward.

Generally, DFID will assess a country’s commitment to each of the four partnership principles. One of those is a commitment to human rights, which includes freedom of religion or belief. Evidence of a lack of commitment to the principles influences decisions on how much aid is given and in what manner it is passed out. For example, it might mean that aid is provided through civil society organisations, rather than Government bodies. Our aim is to support projects that can stimulate positive change in the countries concerned, such as our project to help secondary school teachers promote religious freedom in classrooms across parts of north Africa.

The hon. Member for Croydon South specifically mentioned Pakistan. As I have said, Ministers have raised concerns with the Government in Islamabad this year. We are doing a great deal of work through our projects to try to benefit religious minorities in Pakistan. Last year, for example, we had an £800,000 FCO project to counter hate speech and a £200,000 project to celebrate Pakistan’s religious diversity.

We should all be proud of the life-saving impact of our overseas aid on persecuted religious groups. While we do not allocate humanitarian support to them specifically—because we believe it could be counterproductive—our policy of prioritising those most in need means such groups are often the beneficiaries.

I share many of the concerns that have been raised by other Members. The situation is desperate in Iraq and Syria. Some 1.5 million Christians lived in Iraq as recently as 2003. It is understood that fewer than a quarter of a million now remain. Likewise, in Syria, huge numbers of Christians are now in refugee camps in Lebanon or have fled the country. Very few, I suspect, will feel it is safe to return any time soon.

In conclusion, I thank Members for all their contributions. I fear that a 90-second speaking limit does not do anything like justice to the passion they all feel. Less is more sometimes, but not always in every parliamentary debate I have been part of. As a Government, we will continue to defend the fundamental right of religious freedom, not least because of our commitment to the universal declaration on human rights. I very much hope that other Members will have a chance to speak at much greater length. I will endeavour to look through this debate in Hansard and reply individually to each Member whose points I was not able to pick up in this contribution.

Chris Philp
I thank all hon. and right hon. Members who have spoken in this afternoon’s debate. It was a great shame that time was so constrained. I have noted down everyone who was present, and I will follow up and try to organise a proper full-day Backbench Business debate on this important topic at the earliest opportunity.

This debate shows there is cross-party support for pursuing the issue. I think every major party was represented in today’s contributions, and there is agreement around the Chamber about the need to do more, because things are getting worse, not better.

I once again thank Open Doors for its work raising this important issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) has been a Parliamentary Private Secretary in this debate, and he has done a lot of work with Open Doors, which is based in his constituency. I know he is a great friend and supporter of the Open Doors movement.

I welcome the Minister’s remarks on overseas aid conditionality. I am glad he made the comments he did, but I would go a little further: no Government who are failing to take action on this issue should receive any overseas aid from this country on a Government-to-Government basis. Where there are mine clearance programmes or we are dispersing aid through charities, that work is valuable and should not be threatened, but no Government who stand by and allow this persecution to happen should receive a single penny of aid from the UK taxpayer.

Religious freedom, whether it is for Christians or any other group, is of fundamental importance. It is a fundamental human right and a mark of our civilisation as a country and as a world. We must do everything we can, and more than we are currently doing, to ensure that religious freedom is protected around the world.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the matter of the persecution of Christians overseas.

This debate is sourced from the uncorrected (rolling) version of Hansard and is subject to correction.





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