The Modern Commonwealth: Opportunities and Challenges

Part of International Women’S Day – in the House of Commons at 4:28 pm on 7th March 2019.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 4:28 pm, 7th March 2019

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this House, Mr Deputy Speaker, as I do very often. I extend my thanks to James Duddridge for securing this important debate, and to the Minister for her continued passion and unwavering commitment to her duties.

The title of this debate is “The Modern Commonwealth: Opportunities and Challenges”, and in the short time that I have I want to focus on the challenges. In my role as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion and belief, I—alongside many hon. Members and colleagues from the other place—stand up for the right to hold and practise one’s faith in peace, or indeed to have no faith at all. Unfortunately, in some parts of the Commonwealth, as in the rest of the world, that right is increasingly under threat. Open Doors UK and Ireland this year produced a fantastic report detailing the worsening persecution that Christians face around the world, simply for being Christian. According to the report, up to 245 million Christians are discriminated against in countries across the world. As many of those countries are members of the Commonwealth, I would like to discuss one of the most important challenges facing the Commonwealth: how to protect the right to freedom of religion or belief. To illustrate the depth and breadth of this challenge, I will discuss violations of the freedom of religion or belief in three countries, starting with Pakistan, which I visited last year.

When I was in Pakistan, I heard how Christians and other religious minorities are systematically discriminated against in education and employment, with even Government Departments failing to meet quotas and advertising sanitation work as exclusively for Christians. They should implement the 5% job allocation. For goodness’ sake, give those people a chance to gain the education so they can get better jobs.

The Movement for Solidarity and Peace estimates that at least 1,000 Hindu and Christian girls a year are kidnapped, forced to convert and forcibly married, or sometimes sold into prostitution, in Pakistan. Christians and other religious minorities face all manner of societal discrimination, harassment and physical attacks, sometimes resulting in death.

According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, there have been more than 5,000 deaths in Pakistan due to sectarian violence since 1989. Such intercommunal violence is also common in India. The rise of the nationalist Hindutva ideology, which defines being “Indian” as being Hindu, is leading to increased religious oppression and attacks against minorities. According to data from the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs, there was a 28% rise in communal violence between 2014 and 2017. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom reported some 300 attacks on Christians in 2015 alone.

Other worrying developments in India include the Indian Government effectively stripping 4 million people in Assam state, mostly Muslims, of their citizenship, branding them as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. This move bears worrying similarities to the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar, who have also been denied their citizenship.

In Nigeria, sadly, things are not much better. According to the “Global Terrorism Index”, violence between Christian farmers and Muslim herders has led to over 60,000 deaths since 2001. Christian Solidarity Worldwide reports that more than 1,000 Christians were killed in violence during the first quarter of 2018 alone. That is to say nothing of Boko Haram, which is still very active. Just a few weeks ago, human rights organisations such as CSW marked the first anniversary of the day a young Christian girl, Leah Sharibu, was captured by Boko Haram, alongside over 100 of her school friends. Ahead of International Women’s Day, it is important to remember that that young girl is still imprisoned. Whereas all the others were released, Leah was kept for refusing to give up her Christian faith, and she remains in captivity today.

The issues I have mentioned today are, unfortunately, just the tip of the iceberg. According to the Pew Research Centre, 70% of people living in Commonwealth countries face high or extremely high Government restrictions on their right to freedom of religion or belief. Worse still, 88% face high or very high social hostility simply for holding minority beliefs. This is a major challenge that must be met head-on.

Although protecting the right to freedom of religion or belief is the right thing to do for its own sake, developing social and societal respect for different religions and beliefs is vital to reducing conflict, building stability and encouraging economic growth. Failure to protect freedom of religion or belief can be disastrous. Although it is an extreme case, the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar teaches us how unaddressed Government and social persecution towards religious groups can explode into violence, undermining stability and creating humanitarian crisis.

That is why I ask the Minister to encourage our Commonwealth partners to make promoting freedom of religion or belief a priority and to make funding available for non-governmental organisations to work on behalf of persecuted Christians and other religious or belief minorities. I also ask her to work with other Commonwealth nations to safely develop a statistical database of violations of the freedom of religion or belief, and other data on religious or belief communities, to support policy making.

I thank the Minister for the contribution she will make shortly and for her support on the many things I have brought to her attention. I look forward to hearing her response.