Colleagues, in respectful memory of the 321 people slaughtered in the appalling Easter Sunday terrorist attack in Sri Lanka, including eight British citizens, and of the approximately 500 people wounded in those attacks, I propose that we now hold a one-minute silence.
The House observed a minute’s silence.
Colleagues, thank you.
Today, the flags in Downing Street and on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are flying at half-mast following the horrific Easter day terrorist attack in Sri Lanka. With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the attack and the UK Government’s response.
On Sunday, multiple terrorist suicide bombings were conducted across Sri Lanka. Six explosions occurred simultaneously—three in churches conducting Easter day services in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa, and three more in hotels in Colombo popular with foreign visitors. Information is still coming in, but we know that over 300 people have been killed, and we know that at least eight of those, sadly, are British nationals. They include mother Anita Nicholson with her 14-year-old son Alex and 11-year-old daughter Annabel, teenage brother and sister Amelie and Daniel Linsey, and retired firefighter Bill Harrop with his wife, retired GP Sally Bradley. The whole House will want to pass on our deepest sympathies and condolences, as we digest a truly heartbreaking situation.
I spoke to James Dauris, the British high commissioner in Colombo, earlier this afternoon, and I want to put on record my thanks to him, his team and all the employees of the British Council for their dedication in extremely testing circumstances. One locally employed British Council employee is in hospital with his wife, both with serious injuries, and our thoughts are also with them and their family. Our travel advice has been updated and remains the best source of information for any British nationals or family members who have concerns about the situation.
Yesterday, I spoke to my counterpart, the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister, to express my thanks for the work of the emergency services in Sri Lanka, as well as to pass on our condolences to all the bereaved families. I also discussed what further support the UK might be able to offer. Her Majesty the Queen, the Prince of Wales and other members of the royal family have sent messages of condolence to the President and people of Sri Lanka, and the Prime Minister is expected to speak with Sri Lankan Prime Minister Wickremesinghe later today.
These attacks were a primitive and vile attempt to sow division between people of different faiths. Religious tensions have caused some of the bloodiest battles in human history, and it is sombre and sobering that even in the 21st century attempts continue to set believers of different religions against each other. Our response must be to deny the perpetrators the satisfaction of dividing us by being united in our condemnation of the attacks and united in our support for religious tolerance— surely one of humanity’s greatest achievements. Just as after the equally horrific attacks on the two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, we must respond by bringing people together; that is the exact opposite of what the perpetrators intended.
It has to be said that the sheer brutality of the attacks was stark. One pair of attackers, after detonating their first explosives in a hotel, waited for people to try to escape before detonating a second device. The device destroyed by security services at Colombo airport was most likely designed to target fleeing civilians. The attack was complex, tightly co-ordinated and designed to cause maximum chaos, damage and heartbreak.
The UK will never stand by in the face of such evil. Today, we stand in solidarity with the Government and people of Sri Lanka, who have made enormous strides towards stability and peace following the conclusion of the civil war almost exactly 10 years ago. The Metropolitan Police counter-terrorism command has dispatched a team of specialists to Sri Lanka, including family liaison officers, to support the families of British victims and assist with the repatriation of deceased British nationals. A recent programme run by Interpol involved the training of 30 Sri Lankan forensic specialists and police officers by UK experts in disaster victim identification. We hope that that will be of additional support.
The Government of Sri Lanka have declared a state of emergency as the investigation continues. More than 20 arrests have been made, and there are likely to be more people who were involved in the planning of this attack still at large. A large amount of improvised explosive device material has been recovered, including 87 low-explosive detonators that were recovered from a bus station. There are no verified claims of responsibility as yet. So far, 40 arrests have been made, and counter-terrorism activity continues. The Sri Lankan Prime Minister and President have both said publicly that there will be a thorough investigation into the incident and whether information was handled correctly, and it is important to let that process follow its course.
To attack Christian worshippers at Easter, which is a celebration of peace and the holiest day in the Christian calendar, betrays in the attackers an absence of the most basic values of humanity. Just two days ago, the Prime Minister and I both noted in our Easter messages the dangers facing Christians around the world, 300 of whom are killed every month. In response to such acts, we must redouble our efforts to protect the freedom of religious minorities to practise their faiths, wherever they are. For that reason, the FCO has asked the Bishop of Truro to do an independent report into what more can be done to protect persecuted Christians around the world.
The British Government will continue to give their wholehearted support to the people of Sri Lanka, and I am sure the House will join me in once again expressing our deepest sadness and sympathy to everyone who has been affected by these monstrous attacks. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for advance sight of his statement and for the tone of his words, with which I wholeheartedly agree. I join him in commending the work of the British high commission in Colombo. Once again, it has demonstrated that in the very worst of circumstances for British nationals abroad, our consular services offer the very best of support. I am sure the high commission will continue to ensure that the families of the British nationals who have so tragically been killed in the attacks get all the support they need at this time of unbearable shock and sadness.
I have full confidence in what the Foreign Secretary has said about the assistance that the Government are ready to offer to the Sri Lankan authorities, whether in relation to security and intelligence, or in relation to help for the forensic services. He has our support and our thanks for that.
I know that there are many questions to be asked about who was responsible for the attacks and what could have been done to prevent them, but today is not a time for those questions. On this day of national mourning in Sri Lanka, as the first of those who were killed are buried and as the death toll continues to mount, it is simply a time for this House and this country to stand with the people of Sri Lanka, with the British families and with those from around the world who have lost loved ones and to express our shared solidarity and grief at the devastation that they have suffered. It is a time to stand in admiration at the way in which the Sri Lankan people and their Government have responded to this attempt to divide them by instead coming together in peace and calling for the unity of all communities. We in the west must do our part to help Sri Lanka to recover from this horror by continuing to visit that beautiful country and showing the terrorists they will not win.
It is sadly apt that on St George’s day, when we mark both the birth and the death of Shakespeare, we are confronted with the latest example of what he once called “mountainish inhumanity”. That is the unspeakable inhumanity and evil of men who would walk into a group of peaceful Christian worshippers at prayer or happy foreign tourists having breakfast and blow these innocent people up, killing at least 320 people, including 45 children and an eight-year-old cousin of our good friend Tulip Siddiq. Dozens are still fighting for their lives in hospital and hundreds more have received life-changing injuries.
When we ask how anyone’s mind could become so warped and depraved as to commit such an act, just as we did about the attack on Muslims in Christchurch last month and on Jews in Pittsburgh last October, we must not make the mistake of blaming religion. There is no religion on this earth that teaches that the way to salvation is blowing up innocent children or shooting people at prayer. We must also not make the mistake of saying that one act of evil begets another, that somehow this atrocity happened because of the atrocity in Christchurch. I believe that that is an entirely false narrative, one that excuses terrorism. We should never indulge it. Instead, we should call it out for what it is: an act born of pure, vicious mind-polluting hatred perpetuated by sickening, despicable individuals who do not worship God but death; whose only religion is hate and whose fellow believers in hatred and in death must be wiped from the face of our earth.
But in these dark and terrible moments, I see one shred of light and one piece of definite proof that the narrative that says that evil begets evil and we reap what we sow is indeed a false one. That was the deeply moving statement made by Ben Nicholson, confirming the loss of his wife and two children in the blast at the Shangri-La hotel. I do not think there is any one of us who could understand what that grief would feel like. We would all have understood if Mr Nicholson’s reaction had been one of anger and hatred towards the people who had destroyed his family, but instead his response was filled with love for his wife and for his beautiful children. He rejected hatred, the hatred that had killed his family, and he responded to it with mountainish humanity: a humanity that no act of evil could corrupt, because, as Shakespeare also wrote:
“unkindness may defeat my life, But never taint my love.”
I thank the shadow Foreign Secretary not just for the tone of her comments but for the very moving way in which she delivered them. I thank her for her support of the work of the British high commission, which is particularly challenging at this time. We are indeed giving help to the Sri Lankan Government in the two areas on which they particularly requested help: counter-terrorism work and countering violent extremism, of which we sadly have a lot of experience in this country.
The right hon. Lady is right to say that at times like this bringing people together with a message of unity and reconciliation is the only approach. I think people on all sides of the House were immensely inspired by the tone taken by the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, after the horrific attacks in Christchurch. I know the Sri Lankan Government are making every attempt to take the same approach.
I thank the right hon. Lady for talking about the extraordinarily generous response made by Ben Nicholson after losing his wife and two children. I also agree with her that these kinds of attacks, far from being religious, are condemned by people of all faiths and none for their utter depravity.
The final point I want to make is simply that while it is right that, in this House, we think about the eight British people who lost their lives, the vast majority of people who were murdered were Sri Lankans at church on Easter morning, celebrating the resurrection of Christ and life. They did not deserve to suffer this way and it is absolutely right that we remember them as well.
I commend my right hon. Friend on his statement and on raising the reality, which is clear to us all, that these attacks were planned to have the maximum effect on the single biggest day in a Christian calendar, when children are encouraged to be in the church, celebrating what has been the resurrection for Christians of Christ. Therefore, they would have known that the maximum effect would be devastating. Following what the Opposition spokesman, Emily Thornberry said, does my right hon. Friend agree that the reality is that the one thing that Easter teaches us is that it is about sacrifice for others and the forgiveness that follows? I wonder whether he will therefore ensure that no matter what else happens, we give our greatest support to the Sri Lankan Government in pursuing those who conducted this terrible attack but, at the same time, recognising that the Christian faith is about forgiveness.
I thank my right hon. Friend for saying those brave words. It is very difficult for many people to think about forgiveness after what happened, but that is indeed an appropriate thing for Christians to think about, particularly at Easter. But forgiveness does not mean the absence of justice, and that is why it is absolutely essential that we support the Sri Lankan authorities in their determination to track down everyone responsible. We know that they have identified other people who have not yet been arrested, who they are looking for at the moment. Obviously, for the safety and security of everyone in Sri Lanka, it is vital that they are found, but I thank him for the generosity of his comments.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and join him in thanking the high commissioner, everybody at the high commission in Colombo and the rest of the Foreign Office officials, who must have worked in the most difficult and distressing circumstances over the weekend. I extend our thanks to the Sri Lankan emergency services as well for their efforts and work. At this time, our thoughts are obviously with all those who are affected, and we send our condolences to the families who have had their loved ones taken away in the cruellest of circumstances. That loss of life is always sad, but I have to say, I find it particularly heartbreaking how many children were killed in this attack, and the brave and touching statement from Mr Nicholson is a lesson for each and every one of us.
Savage acts of terrorism do not discriminate by age, but they do not discriminate by faith either. These attempts to sow division through violence at Easter, of all times, should be met with a response of peace and solidarity. Our message is that barbarism strengthens our belief in our common humanity, regardless of faith, background or ethnicity. I thank the Foreign Secretary for the work that is ongoing with the Sri Lankan authorities. I am glad that that assistance will be ongoing, but at the moment, our prayers and thoughts are with all those affected. The message from this place has to be that hate and violence will not win out.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments, with which I wholeheartedly agree. The number of child victims, of many, many nationalities, is one of the most heartbreaking things to have occurred. What this event also reminds us is that when we talk about Christians suffering around the world, we are talking not about wealthy westerners, but about some of the poorest people in the world—it is only 8% of the population in Sri Lanka—and sometimes that fact has been obscured in terms of the priorities that we set ourselves as a country. That is what we are hoping to put right with the review that is being done by the Bishop of Truro.
I thank the Foreign Secretary and Emily Thornberry for the tone of their statements today. Through the Foreign Secretary and from experience, I express my thanks to Foreign Office and other UK Government personnel who will be involved in dealing with the aftermath of the incident. I thank the Foreign Secretary particularly for expressing so clearly the indiscriminate nature of terrorist violence. Does he agree that the best way to protect the Christian community, or any community in the future, is to ensure that the rule of law is everywhere, that the best of intelligence is shared around the world, and that the understanding that an attack on one is an attack on all becomes universal, for there is no hierarchy in terms of victimhood?
Those are the kind of wise words that I would expect from my right hon. Friend, with whom I was privileged to work; he spent many years in the FCO. He is right to say that if we are going to prevent this kind of horrific massacre from happening in future, it is really a combination of the hard and the soft. The hard side, of course, is making sure that the security is there and that the security services are able to do their job to track down perpetrators and potential perpetrators. The soft side is what he and the shadow Foreign Secretary so movingly talked about, which is the message of reconciliation, because trying to set faith against faith is one of the oldest tricks in the book in human history. It is a great measure of human progress that in the last 100 years, we have massively increased across the world the amount of religious tolerance, but I am afraid that these events show that we can never be complacent.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his words, his statement and for all that his Department is doing, and I thank the shadow Foreign Secretary for her moving words. This was a heartbreaking attack on Sri Lanka, Christians and peace-loving people everywhere, and we stand with Sri Lanka. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that we face a real threat from those who seek to divide us and to drive our world towards conflict, where far right nationalism and pseudo-religious extremism feed off each other in a dependent, destructive cycle? We need to stand up and challenge that hate and the best way to do that is to stand together with love.
I agree. That is the fundamental challenge. When we are trying to answer the important question of how we prevent this kind of thing from happening, the most important first step is to properly understand the motives of the people who try to perpetrate these attacks. We do not know that at this stage, but it seems clear that one was a religious motive to try and set faith against faith, and one was a cultural motive to try and target western tourists who are visiting Sri Lanka. We have to be alive to both of those, but the shadow Foreign Secretary was absolutely right in saying that one of the things that we can do to support Sri Lanka is—obviously subject to travel advice, which is very carefully kept under review—to continue to visit a country that depends on tourism to show our support and to show that we are not going to be put off by this kind of terrorism.
Whoever perpetrated these hideous crimes and whatever their warped ideology, they are murderers, and cowardly murderers at that. Will my right hon. Friend therefore convey to the high commissioner James Dauris, his staff and to the Government of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe that we want to show our solidarity and sympathy with our Commonwealth cousins at this extraordinarily difficult time? Will he confirm—it may be too premature to do so—that many of those arrested to date appear to have connections of one sort or another with Syria? And if that is the case, will he look very carefully at extending whatever assistance he is giving to the Government of Sri Lanka to include offering similar assistance to the Government of the neighbouring Maldives, where there is also a problem with returning foreign fighters from Syria and where we have many British tourists on holiday at any given time of the year?
As I would expect, my right hon. Friend, being a former Minister for Asia, makes an important point. He is right that there are early indications of Islamist extremism that we need to investigate properly, and the Maldives is a very young democracy to which we want to give every support, so I will take his point away.
Mr Speaker, I am sure you will join me and other right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House in passing on our condolences to the former Member for Manchester, Withington, Keith Bradley, now a Member of the other place, whose sister, Dr Sally Bradley, was killed in Sri Lanka. Her husband, Bill Harrop, was also killed.
Dr Sally Bradley qualified as a doctor at Manchester University, worked as a GP in Salford and served as director of public health and director of medicine in the Pennine Acute Hospitals NHS Trust, which covers a large part of Greater Manchester. Her husband, Bill Harrop, was a firefighter, but not just a firefighter, and had worked in Manchester and received a commendation after the 1976 IRA bomb, which went off in the centre of Manchester. No distinction can be drawn between victims of such crimes, but there is something particularly monstrous and brutal about people who dedicated themselves to public service being killed in this fashion. I spoke to Keith Bradley yesterday and he told me he was being supported by liaison officers and wanted me to pass on his thanks to the Foreign Secretary.
I finish by asking the Foreign Secretary—I know what his answer will be, but it is worth saying anyway—to redouble his efforts to ensure that people in this country and elsewhere are as safe as they can be from the diaspora of ISIS in Syria and elsewhere.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for reminding the House that behind all these tragedies are human beings and for his moving description of the wonderful public service of Bill Harrop and Sally Bradley. I pass on my condolences to Keith Bradley—and indeed to Tulip Siddiq, who also lost a relative in the attack. I was privileged when Health Secretary to see at first hand the extraordinary work of the Greater Manchester emergency services in combating terrorism after the arena bombing, but I had not realised Bill Harrop’s connection to fighting terrorist incidents in that city. It makes it all the more moving.
I join others in expressing my horror at and condemnation of the stomach-churning cruelty and appalling depravity of these attacks on innocent worshippers and tourists. Does the Foreign Secretary agree it is vital that this appalling atrocity not deter Sri Lankans in their efforts to press ahead with peace, reconciliation and accountability following the long years of conflict in that country?
I thank my right hon. Friend for making that point; it is of course the bigger picture. The extraordinary change in Sri Lanka, compared with 20 or 30 years ago, means it is now possible to visit all parts of the country. It has made incredible progress in tackling terrorism, and that must not be obscured by this horrific incident, so she is absolutely right to say that.
“targeted nationals of the crusader alliance…and Christians”.
If that proves to be the case, does it not show that although its forces may have been defeated on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, its ideology has not, and does that not make it all the more important that on this day and every day in the future we stand shoulder to shoulder with all those who stand for the right of all God’s children to freely practise their religion in safety and peace in the face of such barbaric hatred?
The right hon. Gentleman speaks incredibly powerfully and I absolutely agree with him. Sadly, I doubt we will ever defeat the ideology of hatred, because it is a persistent feature of human existence, but we must be ready to stand up and fight it in whatever guise it emerges. He is absolutely right, too, that the territorial defeat of Daesh does not mean the ideological defeat of Daesh. We must continue to redouble our efforts in precisely the way he says.
It was a privilege to listen to the statement by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and to the response from the shadow Foreign Secretary. They spoke with great passion and integrity. I cannot have been alone this weekend in holding my children that much closer after reading Ben Nicholson’s heartbreaking words and hearing of his enormous courage.
This issue offers a challenge to us here in this House, as so much of our debate in the last year or two has been inward-looking; we must look outwards, and in doing so we must not only support the people of Sri Lanka at this incredibly difficult time. Will my right hon. Friend also redouble efforts elsewhere and, in supporting Christian communities around the world, on the advice of the Bishop of Truro, also support other communities threatened by terrorism? We might not be world leaders in every field, but there are a few areas where we really are: intelligence, diplomatic support and training to important allies and partners is one area where we can make a real difference. I welcome the work of the Metropolitan police and the units already deployed, and I know there is much more he cannot talk about, but it would be good to know that support is going to our friends and allies around the world.
My hon. Friend makes an important point and subtly alludes to the challenge we face at the moment. Preoccupied as we are in the House with one big issue, we should not forget that the rest of the world looks to this country to show leadership in tackling these big issues and wants us to get back on the job as quickly as possible. When it comes to freedom of religious belief, it is important to remember that terrorism is not the only issue; there is also in many countries state-sponsored oppression of people who just wish to practise their faith freely. That is why our work will look at not only what we can do to prevent such terrorist incidents, but at how we can use diplomatic levers to stand up for the right of people all over the world to do what we can do in this country, which is practise our religion freely.
I thank the Foreign Secretary and shadow Foreign Secretary for their moving words, because the events and stories coming out of Sri Lanka are truly heartbreaking. To attack churches on Easter Sunday in this way, and the streets and hotels, is vile. They are right that the extremists and terrorists are seeking to divide us and that it is important to bring people together. Does this not show the importance of our international intelligence and security partnerships and our ability to use them in support of Sri Lanka and other countries in the international fight against ISIS and extremism? Does it not also show that this work is about supporting peace and saving lives?
The right hon. Lady understands this area very well, from her former role as shadow Home Secretary, and is absolutely right. We in this country are lucky to have superb intelligence services and strong intelligence relationships all over the world, which we need to keep each other secure, and I can absolutely give her the assurance that, even though these things happen under the surface, they are a very important part of our counter- terrorism effort.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement.
This is so sad for Sri Lanka. It takes us back to the dark old days of which my right hon. Friend has spoken. Such cold, calculated attacks make us all think about the character and the thought processes of those involved—or, dare I say, the lack of any thought at all. As has already been said, to attack Christians on Easter Sunday was nothing short of barbaric.
I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s assurance that Britain will never just stand by and has already committed resources to support the Sri Lankan Government, but will he go further, and say that Britain will support not only Sri Lanka but others in tackling this global threat? It appears that ISIS has influenced and integrated into domestic organisations in Sri Lanka without which these organisations would not have been able to cause such devastation.
Will my right hon. Friend also confirm that this event has strengthened his resolve—I know that this is a personal mission of his—to ensure that we tackle the persecution of Christians around the world, which too often goes unreported?
I am happy to give my hon. Friend a personal commitment that I want to do more on this front, and also to tell him that the United Kingdom is a world leader in countering extremist disinformation online. We have developed particular expertise over the past five years or so, and we share our information widely.
My hon. Friend is right to say how coldly calculated this attack was. To co-ordinate six explosions to take place at virtually the same moment required an enormous degree of planning. Those people knew exactly what they were doing. They spent a long time planning the attacks and finding the recruits to carry them out. We have to think hard about the kind of people who would do such a thing, and I hope that will mean that we redouble our efforts to ensure that it does not happen again.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the focus on protecting religious minorities—in this case, Christian minorities—must be redoubled? The atmosphere of intolerance towards religious minorities in different countries—whether they are Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews or Hindus—has increased, and the international community must step up to provide that protection, as well as security for minorities
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Let me also commend her for the work that she has done in championing the rights of Rohingya Muslims in Burma; I think that my first contact with her when I became Foreign Secretary was in that connection.
It is important to understand that it is an easy first step to target and attack someone because of their religion, and that in very poor countries where many people have not had a proper education it is easy to whip up feelings in a way that can be lethal.
I thank my right hon. Friend and the shadow Foreign Secretary for what they have said this afternoon. The freedom to practise a faith—in the community or alone, in public or in private—or to change one’s religion, or follow none at all, goes to the heart of what freedom means. Does my right hon. Friend agree that freedom of religion is not an optional extra but goes to the heart of our freedom values, and will he confirm that he will continue the excellent work that he has begun in his Department, which has made that a central focus?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Freedom of religious belief is just a form of freedom of belief. The fact is that states which try to control what people believe will try to affect their human rights in many other ways as well. One of the points made by the Archbishop of Canterbury is that the countries that have the biggest problems when it comes to freedom of religious belief tend to have the biggest human rights problems generally. That is a kind of litmus test of the freedom that people have in different countries, which is why it is such an important issue.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
As many Members have said, terrorism does not discriminate between the rich and the poor, and will target people whatever their age, sex or gender, nationality or religion. The harrowing vista that we have seen since the Easter weekend grows more sorrowful as each day passes, and as more stories unfold about the barbaric acts that took place in Sri Lanka. The Foreign Secretary will be aware of the book of condolence that has already been opened in the high commission, and I hope that he will encourage people to sign it.
Can the Foreign Secretary assure the House that, as the days unfold, he will examine the sources of all the financial support that flows from the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth countries to political groups in Sri Lanka, and can he confirm that none of that support makes its way to radicalised groups or individuals there?
Rather than responding to the hon. Gentleman from the Dispatch Box, I will look into the work that we are doing and, if I may, write to him giving the full details. I know that we do an enormous amount of work in trying to strangle the sources of terrorist funding throughout the world.
My right hon. Friend and the shadow Foreign Secretary set the tone for this set of exchanges. I think that more and more people are saying, as they did when the Provisional IRA was at its peak, “This has not been done in our name”—even people who may somehow be beyond those who know what they are doing in directing violence of this kind.
I spent Christmas with my family in a church in Sri Lanka at a multilingual service. During our time in Sri Lanka, we were very impressed by the intercommunal peace and harmony. It was clear to us that tourism matters a great deal to the development of Sri Lanka as it recovers from its past. I hope that people will soon realise that they can travel to Sri Lanka safely and enjoy helping it to put itself back on its feet.
We must do what we must also do in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries where people have tried to destroy the prosperity of others in the countries that they share.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. He is also right to point out that there has been great progress in Sri Lanka, and great progress in religious tolerance. It is important to recognise that the extent of religious tolerance in any developing country is also a function of its political leadership. If there is leadership from the Prime Ministers and Presidents of those countries, it is possible to set the right tone when it comes to religious tolerance, but if those leaders fan the flames of populism or extremism, things can go wrong very quickly.
Let me express my sympathy and sincere condolences—and those of constituents who have contacted me following these horrific attacks—to the families of all who were killed or injured, and to the injured themselves. Words cannot describe the shock that was felt around the world. The despicable terrorist attacks which targeted the Christian community also killed or injured people of all faiths and none. This was an attack on humanity, on the values of respect and compassion, and on freedom of religion and faith.
The Sri Lankan diaspora community, including many people in my constituency and across the country, will currently be experiencing huge fear, anxiety and great concern for their friends, families and loved ones. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that as well as continuing to provide vital security, intelligence and consular support in Sri Lanka, he will ensure that support is extended to the diaspora communities here, given what they will be going through, and given that they will also have a vital role to play in helping Sri Lanka to heal?
I can certainly assure the hon. Lady of that. I will be talking to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government about what support the Sri Lankan diaspora community might need. I will also be signing the book of condolence in the Sri Lankan high commission tomorrow, and I hope that I will have a chance to talk to the high commissioner as well.
The interconnected nature of the modern world means that abhorrent atrocities as far away as Sri Lanka can hit terribly close to home. I am very sad to tell the House that the Nicholson family, who were so tragically caught up in the cruel and barbaric attack on the Shangri-La hotel, were residents of Upminster, in my constituency, before their move to Singapore. Will the Foreign Secretary join me, and the community that I represent, in expressing profound condolences to Mr Nicholson for the unbearable loss that he has suffered, and will he assure me that Mr Nicholson and other affected families will have access to the full range of consular and other support services in the difficult and dark days ahead?
I am absolutely happy to give that assurance. The high commission has been supporting the Nicholson family and will continue to support other families. I think the whole House has been touched, moved, shocked and saddened by what happened to that family, but also uplifted by the generosity of Mr Nicholson’s response to an unspeakable personal tragedy.
May I begin by thanking the Foreign Secretary and the shadow Foreign Secretary for what they said? Unfortunately, this will not be the worst day we will have to talk about, because this Daesh death cult and its local affiliates will continue to carry out these kinds of atrocities globally. We must always say that this will not change our behaviour, it will not change our values and it will not change our solidarity with the people of Sri Lanka or elsewhere. We will stand resolutely with them in trying to get to the people who have done this and to stop other attacks.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his strong and powerful words as a former Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. I can only agree with everything he said. I think other countries around the world look to this country because of our, sadly, extensive experience in fighting terrorism here. They look to us for expertise, and they look to us to say and do the right thing in these terrible situations.
May I join other Members in passing on my commiserations to the people of Sri Lanka as they seek to rebuild their lives after these despicable terrorist acts? Will my right hon. Friend pledge whatever expertise this country has to help our good friend Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to rebuild that country? In particular, will he support Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s call for help in finding out how the use of better intelligence might have prevented this attack and might prevent future attacks?
I am very happy to do that. I know that our Prime Minister was hoping to speak to Prime Minister Wickremesinghe this afternoon. We absolutely want to support Sri Lankan efforts to get to the bottom of what intelligence they received—apparently, it did not reach the politicians involved, although it is important to say that, even if it had, it would not necessarily have been possible to prevent these attacks. However, we will give Prime Minister Wickremesinghe every help he requests.
I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary and to my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary for the tone they have set. The Foreign Secretary mentioned that religious intolerance is about not just terrorism, appalling though it is, but oppression. Would he consider adding intolerance of those who do not practise religion? That is, in itself, a belief system, and a valid one, and it can also preach messages of hope and love. There are countries around the world in which having no religion is as dangerous as having the wrong religion. Would he be able to comment on that issue and on whether the Bishop of Truro’s investigations could cover it?
I absolutely support what the hon. Lady is saying, because the whole point about freedom of religious belief is that people should be free to believe what they want, and that applies to people of any faith or no faith. A fundamental tenet of a free society is that people should be free to come to their own conclusions.
The Bishop of Truro’s review is specifically about Christians. I hope the hon. Lady understands that that is because we have a concern that the plight of Christians worldwide has not had the attention that it needs, and we want to put that right. However, I will happily look into the issues she raises about humanist beliefs and other beliefs that are not attached to any particular religion, and write to her if I may.
I concur with the statements made in the House today of compassion for those who have suffered in Sri Lanka this Easter weekend. Across the world, whole swathes of humanity—by some estimates 250 million people in 40 countries—are being persecuted, intimidated, victimised, terrorised, tortured, murdered, deprived of their livelihoods and driven from their homes simply because they seek to practise the Christian faith, and this is getting worse year on year. I thank the Secretary of State for recognising that one of the best weapons to prevent such atrocities is the systematic and determined promotion of religious freedom and for the steps his Department has taken over recent years to address the issue—particularly the inquiry he has called for, which is an acknowledgment that more needs to be done. However, may I urge him to ask his Department for International Development colleagues to do the same, to engage with the inquiry and to look at what more DFID can do?
I thank my hon. Friend for the passion of her words. Last year, according to the figures I saw, 3,000 Christians were killed because of their faith, and that was double the previous year. These are largely some of the poorest people on the planet. The oppression of Christians, just to deal with that particular issue, is often concentrated in countries such as Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Afghanistan, where we have large aid budgets and therefore a significant degree of leverage with the host countries. One purpose of this review is to understand how we can better join up our Government Departments so that we really do use the influence we have.
I warmly welcome the Bishop of Truro’s review, and its importance is highlighted by this awful massacre. My constituent Councillor Lakmini Shah, who is in Sri Lanka, points out that many children have been orphaned as a result of the attacks, and there is no safety net available to help them—hospitals have been overwhelmed. What immediate relief can the Foreign Secretary’s Department and the Department for International Development give, given that many in Sri Lanka face a very difficult few months?
I will look into that if I may. I know that we would stand ready to help in any way we could with that situation. I am very pleased that the right hon. Gentleman asked that question, because it has reminded me of something the high commissioner asked me to pass on to the House and, through Members here this afternoon, to their constituents. He strongly encourages anyone who is in Sri Lanka on holiday to contact their friends and family just to say that they are safe. Obviously, there are a lot of people at home worried about what may have happened.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the statement. In Essex, there is a very strong Tamil community. Will he express his condolences to the Tamil community, particularly regarding those Tamils who lost their lives in this horrific terrorist atrocity? As my right hon. Friend Theresa Villiers said, we could use this tragedy to bring about reconciliation with the Tamil community in Sri Lanka.
I am very happy to do that. There is a very large Tamil Christian community in Sri Lanka. The important work that has happened over the last decade to achieve reconciliation between Tamils and Sinhalese also needs to be about religious reconciliation and religious tolerance.
Undoubtedly, questions will need to be answered and lessons will need to be learned, but today is not the day for that. Will the Foreign Secretary therefore reassure the House that the UK stands ready to help Sri Lanka with whatever it needs? Furthermore, does he agree that the world, and not just Sri Lanka, may need to reflect on the learnings that come out of any investigation, particularly when it comes to the persecution of faiths?
I am happy to give the hon. Lady that undertaking. I think a number of hard lessons will need to be learned about what happened, not least because it does seem, from statements that the Sri Lankan Government have given, that there was some intelligence forewarning of these attacks, although we do not yet know whether that meant that they could have been prevented.
However, we are also keen to understand broader issues around freedom of religious belief. My own view is that the issue has been talked about a lot in the United States but not so much in Europe, and it is important that we have our perspective on it, which might be different from the perspective in the United States. That is absolutely our intention.
I join others in the House in congratulating the Foreign Secretary and the shadow Foreign Secretary on the respectful way in which they have conducted this debate. We in this House rightly protect people’s right to worship in whichever way they wish, but the Pew report has stated that Christianity is the most persecuted of religions, and the Open Doors report states that the persecution of Christians is on the increase. This shows the challenge that we face. Every day across the world, Christians face violence, intimidation and death just for worshipping Jesus Christ. What advice would the Foreign Secretary give to people like me who have constituents who are missionaries in Sri Lanka and around the world? What practical steps, alongside the Bishop of Truro’s investigation, can the Government take to protect Christians across the world?
It has always been a brave thing to be a missionary, and I urge them to ensure that they are fully abreast of Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice in order to maintain their own safety. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that there is a broader issue here. The Open Doors report says that 245 million Christians are persecuted every year, and we think that around 80% of the people who are persecuted for their faith are Christians. That is why the independent review by the Bishop of Truro is so timely.
I will not be the only person in this House who finds 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning to be the most peaceful time for practising their faith, but until recently it has felt like the safest time as well. There is no doubt, however, that recent events in Pittsburgh, Christchurch and Sri Lanka have highlighted the fact that there are now attempts to attack people as they go to worship God, whichever God they believe in. The Foreign Secretary spoke about ensuring that we shared our experience of counter-terrorism, and I am glad that he is doing that with Sri Lanka, but the reality is that this now appears to be emerging in a number of countries. Can we therefore ensure that we share these resources proactively, starting with the 50 countries that are on the world watch list, to ensure that events such as these do not happen again?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. When we have the Bishop of Truro’s report, I want to look at how we can build a coalition with other countries worldwide that have concerns about freedom of religious belief so that we can start spreading those lessons. One of the most important things we can do is to ensure that we express our views to any Governments, particularly in younger democracies, who might be tempted to resort to populist messages that can lead to discrimination against religious believers of one faith or another, and to make them aware of the dangers of that approach.
This was a horrific and cowardly series of attacks against Sri Lankan nationals, tourists and Christians who were gathering together on the holiest day of the Christian calendar to celebrate their faith. According to the Open Doors world watch list, 11 Christians lose their lives every day because they are practising their faith. What more can the Department do to protect them from persecution and to share the counter-intelligence initiatives that are needed to protect us all?
There are two specific things. When it comes to countering terrorism, we in this country have huge expertise and we share it with as many countries as we can in order to try to prevent terrorist attacks. Unfortunately, however, a lot of the persecution that the Open Doors report talks about is state organised and state sponsored, and in those cases we can use our diplomatic levers and those of our friends in other countries who share our values, to try to make it clear that that is not the right way forward.
I thank those on both Front Benches for their response today and particularly for their defence of pluralism. They outlined their horror, which we all share, of innocent people being attacked in their place of worship, where they should feel safe. I agree with the Foreign Secretary about the importance of religious freedom and of the capacity of different faiths to live together and coexist in peace but, given these attacks, there will be people even in this country who are now more nervous about their own places of worship. What assurance can he give to people here that the maximum measures are being taken to defend the pluralism and freedom of worship that we enjoy here in the UK?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. I think he would agree with me that the extraordinary advances that humanity has made since the time of the Enlightenment have come about because the human race has come to accept pluralism as a mechanism for progress. However, that principle always has to be defended and I am afraid that it still has to be defended in this country. For example, we see some of the protection that is necessary around synagogues and mosques, although not yet around churches. We have to be eternally vigilant on these issues.
I wholeheartedly join others in condemning this sickening action. It is almost unbelievable that people could be so callous as to do something like this on Easter Day. I believe that the Sri Lankan Government very quickly shut down social media straight after the attacks to stop the spread of fake news. We have been talking about what we can do to reduce terrorist attacks on the worldwide stage, and one way in which we can really help is by tackling fake news and the spread of disinformation and misinformation. Social media is such an easy tool for those who want to cause us harm, and I would like to ask the Secretary of State what he is doing about that. Is he speaking to colleagues about it?
What we call countering disinformation online is an area in which this country has been taking a lead internationally. We spent £20 million on it last year and we have huge expertise. Unfortunately, we do not have to go as far as Sri Lanka to see these problems; they are also here in Europe—many of the eastern European countries are dealing with propaganda being pumped out into their social media systems, for example—and we absolutely do make that expertise available to our friends around the world.
I should like to put on record my condolences to all those affected by this awful attack. In the practical sense of supporting the Sri Lankan diaspora in the UK, what communication has the Foreign Secretary had with the Home Secretary about the current status of applications from people from Sri Lanka for asylum or leave to remain in this country? Some of them will wish to have the reassurance that they are in a place of safety and that they can stay here.
Social media in this country was used on Sunday by members of the Tamil diaspora with whom I work closely to give me real-time updates and to share their horror and despair. Social media was also used in Sri Lanka to encourage people to donate blood because of the shortages in the hospitals there. The people of Sri Lanka are now unified in their grief, whether they are Sinhalese, Tamil, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Christian or of any other faith or none. What more can we do to work with the Government of Sri Lanka and the international community to cement that universal solidarity as that island moves forward?
It is early days, but I spoke to Foreign Minister Marapana yesterday, and our Prime Minister is due to speak to the Sri Lankan Prime Minister this afternoon. Our offer is there to support them in any way possible, but one of the things that we can do is what this House is doing this afternoon. We have had a nearly full house of people from all political parties wanting to show their solidarity with our friends in Sri Lanka, and I think that that is something of which we can be rightly proud.
I should like to associate myself with the comments of my Mancunian colleague, my hon. Friend Graham Stringer, and to send my deepest sympathy to Lord Keith Bradley and his family today. There are 1.2 million Catholics in Sri Lanka who will be frightened to go to mass this coming Sunday. The Church aid agencies are saying to me today that the two priorities are security intelligence, to help the Government there, and expertise to help to rebuild family lives. The Foreign Secretary eloquently covered those two matters in his statement, but will he personally undertake to look at how well the Foreign and Commonwealth Office does in those two areas, to help to inform the Mountstephen review?
I would of course be happy to do that. Sadly, what happened in Sri Lanka will colour the review and make us consider the issues around terrorism more fully. When we originally set up the review, we were perhaps not thinking that that would be such a big focus, but I think it must be.
Having visited Sri Lanka several times over the past 30 years, I am acutely aware that what makes Sunday’s events even more tragic is the progress that has been made in that country over the last 10 to 15 years, including prosperity, national unity and the real prospect of it becoming a tiger in south-east Asia. Will the Secretary of State reiterate our commitment to work with the Sri Lankan Government and people to ensure that they build on the progress that they have made over the past 10 to 15 years, so that they can become that prosperous and unified country?
I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. We are the penholder for Sri Lanka on the United Nations Security Council, so we have a particular responsibility to ensure proper accountability and reconciliation as part of the progress that is being made. I thank him for pointing out that progress. In these dark moments, it is important not to forget that there is actually a lot of hope in the country given the progress that has been made over the past 10 years.
I thank the Foreign Secretary and the shadow Foreign Secretary for their comments today. Whether in a Christian church in Sri Lanka, a Pittsburgh synagogue or a mosque in Christchurch, the targeted murder of people at prayer because of their faith is a particularly heinous and hateful act of terrorism. Given the dangerous levels of intolerance in the world today, does the Foreign Secretary agree that it is incumbent on each of us, as elected representatives, to reflect on the words that we use, the arguments that we engage in, and the way in which we conduct our political debate to ensure that we contribute to a world that is more tolerant and more inclusive, rather than breed hatred and fear?
I cannot really add anything to that, because the hon. Lady speaks powerfully of the responsibility of all Members, except to say that to do what she says is quite challenging. Elections are competitive things, and we get headlines by saying strong things that grab people’s attention, but we must always ensure that we stand on the right side of the line and do not foster the kind of hatred that we so tragically witnessed this weekend.
It is right that we should respond to this unspeakable outrage with a message of tolerance, calm and peace, but it is also right that this wickedness should not go unpunished. Does my right hon. Friend agree that our intelligence agencies, including GCHQ in my constituency, should be authorised to give their Sri Lankan counterparts whatever support is deemed appropriate to ensure that those responsible for this wickedness are brought to justice?
I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. I am pleased that he mentioned GCHQ, because it has done a spectacularly important job in recent years in helping us to understand the Daesh networks and how they operate online. That has played a significant role in the defeat of Daesh in recent months, at least in terms of their territorial possessions.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and my right hon. Friend Emily Thornberry for her response. They set a perfect tone for this exchange. As my hon. Friend Catherine McKinnell just said, we must consider how we behave and set high standards for how we conduct our politics if we are going to show leadership at times like this. Intolerance can reach into all our communities. Yesterday was the 26th anniversary of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, and such events bring home to us the need for us all to face up to intolerance wherever it is.
If the Bishop of Truro is conducting an inquiry looking specifically at the Christian faith and at how Christians are being persecuted around the world, we must avoid any suggestion that we are setting up one religion to be more important than another, because people may seek to prey on that. I know that the Foreign Secretary would want to avoid that, but we must be aware of it.
I entirely understand why the hon. Gentleman raises that issue. I reassure him that we support freedom of all religious belief; it is just that we think that Christianity has been slightly left behind for various reasons. More Christians are persecuted than those of any other faith, so we want to ensure that we are giving that the proper attention it deserves without excluding any other faith from our concerns.
I also thank the Foreign Secretary and the shadow Foreign Secretary for what they said and the way in which they said it, and the same goes for all colleagues. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the people of Sri Lanka deserve immense praise for the fact that there is freedom of belief in their country? We have already heard mention of Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and others who are able to practise their beliefs. Indeed, this atrocity was possible only because Christians were freely able to worship together on Easter Sunday, which is not possible in so many other countries.
My hon. Friend makes a profoundly important point, and I totally agree with him. The perpetrators of this evil attack were trying to stop freedom of religious belief, and we must ensure that they are not successful.
I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. I thank the Foreign Secretary for his article in The Mail on Sunday in which he referred to the story about “God’s smuggler”, which he read when he was about 10 years old and I read when I was about 24 or thereabouts—perhaps that shows our age difference. He also said that Britain cares
“about those who stand up for the right to believe”,
and I think that he spoke not only for his Department and our Government, but for MPs and for our nation.
The photographs of children at Sunday school or people who had closed their eyes in prayer only to be murdered because they were Christians resonate with us all. Such grief brings us together. We can pray, but we must also provide emotional support, because both Sri Lankans and others have suffered life-changing injuries, and some families have also been deprived of their wage earner. Is the Foreign Secretary able to help in providing the necessary medical help to those who have life-changing injuries? As he rightly said, the Christians are probably some of the poorer people in Sri Lanka, so can we also reach out and give financial assistance? If we can do those things, we can provide the innocents with the practical help that they so badly need.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development will consider any need for that kind of support with the greatest of sympathy, but I thank the hon. Gentleman for drawing attention to the people who have had life-changing injuries. Around 500 people were injured in addition to the more than 300 people who tragically lost their lives, including a local employee of the British Council and his wife.
I thank the Foreign Secretary, the shadow Foreign Secretary, and all colleagues who have spoken in the course of these exchanges both for what they said and for the way in which they said it. It is the right thing to do in itself, but I think I speak for all colleagues in expressing the hope that it might offer some very modest comfort and succour to the families and friends of those who have been slaughtered or injured in the course of these horrific attacks.