I beg to move,
That this House
deplores the persecution of Christians overseas;
supports freedom of religion or belief in all countries throughout the world;
welcomes the work undertaken by the Bishop of Truro in this area;
and calls on the Government to do more with the diplomatic and other tools at its disposal to prevail on the governments of countries in which persecution of Christians is tolerated or encouraged to end that persecution and to protect the right to freedom of religion or belief.
I thank, especially, Jim Shannon, my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce and David Linden, for their work in securing the debate. I congratulate the Bishop of Truro on his report, which was published 10 days ago. I also thank Open Doors and Aid to the Church in Need for their tireless work on this issue.
Around the world, there are horrifying stories of Christians being attacked and often killed, of churches being destroyed, and of Christians being persecuted and prevented from worshipping. This is happening on an industrial scale in multiple countries. Often, the Governments in those countries turn a blind eye, or are even responsible for the persecution themselves. Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world. The International Society of Human Rights says that 80% of religious persecution in the world is against Christians. Open Doors estimates that 245 million Christians around the world—one in nine—face persecution. Here are some examples.
In April 2017, a young Nigerian woman, Dorkas Zakka, was murdered, along with 12 others, 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. In November 2017, in Mina, Egypt, a mob surrounded a Coptic church threatening worshippers inside, many of whom were also physically attacked. Local Coptic leader Anba Macarius said that the Egyptian authorities had done nothing to bring those responsible to justice.
The hon. Gentleman is describing very accurately what is happening to Christians across the world. Given the involvement of the authorities in the two countries that he has mentioned, and in many other countries—countries to which we give considerable aid in the form of money, expert advice and so on—does he believe that the Government could put more pressure on them by withdrawing that aid, or at least threatening to do so?
Yes, I completely agree with that point and will discuss it shortly. We give lots of money to countries where the Governments themselves are turning a blind eye to, or even themselves actively encouraging or carrying out, persecution, and we should be attaching conditions to the aid we give and in extreme cases even withdrawing it entirely; I therefore agree completely with the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes.
In Pakistan, Christian woman Asia Bibi was sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010. She is now in safety in Canada, but the very cell in which she was incarcerated now holds Shagufta Kausar, a Christian 45-year-old mother of four who was sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2014; the very cell that Asia Bibi was held in now contains another Christian woman, also under sentence of death.
I welcome what my hon. Friend is saying. He mentioned the issue of Asia Bibi and Pakistan. Many in this House have said from the very beginning of that case that Asia was being persecuted for her faith and that countries around the world, in line with their religious belief and commitment, should have offered her asylum. The United Kingdom should have done that; we did not. Does my hon. Friend agree that after this report our foreign policy must change, so that rather than hiving off our responsibility on religious freedom to Canada and other countries, we should offer asylum to those being persecuted like Asia Bibi?
That is a question that requires very serious consideration, and of course there are many persecuted Christians from countries such as Iraq and Syria who might wish to seek asylum as well.
Last year, again in Pakistan, Suneel Saleem was beaten to death by a group of doctors—a group of doctors—in the Services hospital in Lahore when he protested about the anti-Christian abuse his heavily pregnant sister had suffered at the hospital. The US State Department says that the Pakistani Government themselves have
“engaged in or tolerated systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom”.
Yet, just a few weeks ago Pakistan’s Foreign Minister speaking in Brussels dismissed concerns as being “whipped up” by “western interests.” His attitude is not acceptable, especially bearing in mind that the UK Government send £463 million a year in aid to Pakistan—it is the single biggest recipient of UK overseas aid, but we do not attach conditions about ending persecution of religious minorities.
The litany of persecution goes on. In May 2017 two churches in Sudan were destroyed on the orders of the Government. In June 2017 some 33 Christian women in Eritrea were imprisoned by the Eritrean Government simply for taking part in prayer. And in India, 24,000 Christians were physically assaulted last year. Prime Minister Modi dismissed that as “imaginary fears”; he is wrong and we should say so.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech on a very important issue. Does he agree that we must also be very careful that individuals in this country have freedom of religious belief, particularly given the level of abuse and intolerance following the votes last week on abortion? Does he also agree that we should decry the fact that at St Vincent de Paul parish in East Kilbride in my constituency parishioners arrived this morning to find that their Our Lady of the Grotto had been destroyed by mindless vandals? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that these issues are also troubling people across the United Kingdom?
The hon. Lady is right. Of course, the first place that we should champion and protect religious freedom is here in the United Kingdom; that is of course our first duty as Members of Parliament, but let us not forget the duty we also owe to persecuted minorities around the world—to stand up and protect them as well.
In Saudi Arabia public places of Christian worship are banned. There are regular crackdowns and raids on private Christian ceremonies, and Christians in Saudi Arabia are regularly imprisoned. Saudi Arabian schools use textbooks that teach hatred against Christians and Jews, and the country’s Grand Mufti recently said that Christianity is not a religion.
Christians are often a target for religious extremists. The terrible attack in Sri Lanka at Easter this year saw 259 people murdered by Islamist extremists, and on Palm Sunday in Egypt in 2017 ISIS bombers murdered 45 Coptic Christians. In Pakistan the year before, again at Easter, the Taliban murdered 75 Christians. These are just a few of the terrible examples of the persecution and murder that Christians around the world are suffering.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case, and the Bishop of Truro’s report is a very strong one, but I am sure that my hon. Friend would also recognise that there are terrible cases of persecution against other religions elsewhere in the world, of which that against the Muslim Rohingya in Burma is one of worst recent examples. Does he agree that there are cases about religions in general which the Foreign Office should also be considering in its policy?
Yes, of course the Foreign Office should take a strong position on the persecution of any religious minorities, and of course the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims in Burma is a particularly egregious example. I am certainly not saying that we should ignore other examples of persecution, but I am drawing the House’s attention to the fact that 80% of religious persecution around the world is committed against Christians, and we should be mindful of that.
I completely agree with what the hon. Gentleman is saying about this situation, which is deeply horrific. I, too, spoke on an Open Doors panel, at the Labour party conference last year. He mentioned Saudi Arabia and Pakistan; does he accept that there is a fundamental problem here in that we have a series of alliances and relationships with these countries, but often turn a blind eye to the fact that they are persecuting Christians and indeed other religious minorities? Does he also agree that there is another problem in that we often do not know how many Christians are even in those countries, because people are fearful of stating what their religion is in the first place?
I agree with both points—not knowing how many people are affected and the fact that we have quite close relationships with some of these countries.
For western Governments to fail to act makes us in many ways complicit in some of these outrages. As the noble Lord Alton has argued many times, failing to stand up to protect minorities simply serves to encourage the persecutors. Lord Alton has often referred to the fact that the world’s indifference made possible the slaughter of 1.5 million Christian Armenians between 1915 and 1917. He makes the point that ignoring some of these atrocities encourages even worse atrocities to be perpetrated in the future; Lord Alton has made that point very powerfully on many occasions.
“the most shocking abuse of human rights in the modern era.”
In particular, I support the Bishop’s call for a UN resolution stating that those countries that are responsible for tolerating or encouraging the persecution of Christians and religious minorities must instead protect them.
I am afraid I have seen instances of Christians killing Christians; obviously, I am referring to Bosnia, where I witnessed that. So it is not just other religions having a go at Christians; it is actually Christians on Christians—almost blue on blue.
I am aware of my hon. Friend’s military service in Bosnia and the fact that he was in the country when the Srebrenica massacre of 1995 took place, and we should be mindful of those sorts of atrocities as well as the other ones we are talking about today.
I also support the Bishop of Truro’s call for the Government and the UN to impose sanctions on those countries who fail to protect religious minorities, and I also support his call for British diplomatic staff to be trained on this issue and for it to be made a priority of British foreign policy to put pressure on Governments who are turning a blind eye to this.
There is even more we can do. As Sammy Wilson suggested in his intervention, many of the countries where the persecution of Christians is tolerated or even state-sponsored receive direct foreign aid from the United Kingdom. Many of those countries will wish to secure trade and investment deals with us and many of them also buy arms from the UK, which requires a UK Government export licence. I would like to see the UK Government do more to link overseas aid, trade and arms exports to real progress in tackling the persecution of religious minorities. Why should we send British taxpayers’ money to a Government, or indeed sell them arms, when they allow or encourage the persecution of religious minorities? Ideally, we should ensure that these steps are taken on a multinational basis, together with our European Union and United Nations partners, but if that cannot be secured, the UK should be prepared to act alone. The UK Government cannot and must not simply mouth platitudes; we must take real action. By approving the motion today, this House will make clear its view. The Government should then act.
Order. There is a four-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches. I ask Members to be very strict about this; otherwise, some are going to drop off the list and I do not want that to happen.
It is a great pleasure to follow Chris Philp, who made a very thoughtful speech. Mention has been made of the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Glasgow East (David Linden), and I want to thank them for requesting this debate and for their tireless campaigning work in this area. Above all, I think we would all wish to thank the non-governmental organisations, including Open Doors, that have kept these issues in our consciousness for years. We must also thank our constituents who have kept Members across the House informed, and I would like to thank the members of the Penycae Neighbourhood Church of the Nazarene who have kept me informed of meetings that have been happening.
Freedom of belief is a basic human right. It is not a western construct; it is a basic fact of being human. Article 18 of the United Nations universal declaration of human rights makes it clear that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right includes a person’s freedom to change their religion or belief and the freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest their religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
I commend the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the work that the Bishop of Truro has done in looking at the specific issue of persecution against Christians, simply because of the scale of it. Open Doors is now saying that extreme persecution has increased from being found in one country to 11 countries over five years. There has been a rise in hate speech in state media and by religious leaders. This House, the European Parliament and the US House of Representatives have declared that ISIS atrocities against Christians and other religious minorities—for example, against the Yazidis and Shi’a Muslims—met the tests of genocide. I would like to see that recognised by the UK Government.
However inconvenient it might be for politicians from western democracies, we must recognise that part of that universal declaration includes the right to convert or to change religion or belief, including the right to have no belief, which is a fundamental part of religious freedom. This is not about western values; it is about universal human values, and any extreme form of nationalism that does not allow for conversion goes against that fundamental tenet.
Mention has rightly been made of the Commonwealth, which has a real role to play in this. The blasphemy laws in Pakistan are a total obscenity. They are not somehow loosely based on the codification of laws in the 1860s. Since the 1980s, crimes under these laws have increased, prejudicing religions including certain types of Islam and Christianity, and that is a disgrace.
I would also like us to reflect on an issue of general concern—the death penalty. We have seen an increased use of the death penalty, and the Centre for Social Justice in Pakistan has stated that its use has increased for people accused of blasphemy. In the United States, 29 states still use the death penalty, including some that still use a firing squad. It is simply unacceptable to those of us in the west who wish to advocate on this issue that the US still has the death penalty, and I urge the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to challenge it. I also urge everyone in the US who cares about the persecution of Christians to question the use of the death penalty in that country. Lastly, I think we must all take responsibility. I do not want to be partisan, but when people describe Muslim women wearing burqas as looking like letterboxes, that is irresponsible, wherever it comes from. We have to protect these freedoms.
As the Bishop of Truro’s local MP, I am pleased to be able to speak in this debate in support of his excellent report. It has become a custom in this House to give a voice to the voiceless. This enables us to ground our debate in the real-life experiences of our constituents and draw on their expertise. I want to use the short time I have available today to give voice to the Bishop himself, as he cannot speak in this debate. I had planned to read out his personal introduction to his report, but time allows me to refer only to a few extracts from the six reasons for the review.
First, to understand why the review is justified we have to appreciate that today the Christian faith is primarily a phenomenon of the global south, and that it is therefore primarily a phenomenon of the global poor. Western voices that are quick to speak up for the world’s poor cannot afford to be blind to this issue. Secondly, this particular focus is justified because Christian persecution, like no other, is a global phenomenon. Thus Christian persecution is not limited to one context or challenge. Thirdly, Christian persecution is a human rights issue and should be seen as such. Freedom of religion or belief is perhaps the most fundamental human right, because so many others depend on it. If freedom of religion or belief is removed, so many other rights are put in jeopardy too.
Fourthly, this is not about special pleading for Christians, but about making up a significant deficit. In that sense it is an equality issue. If one minority is on the receiving end of 80% of religiously motivated discrimination, it is simply unjust that that minority should receive so little attention. Fifthly, this is also about being sensitive to discrimination against, and persecution of, all minorities. Because the Christian faith is perhaps the one truly global faith, it has become a bellwether for repression more generally. Renewing the focus on Christian persecution is therefore a way of expressing our concern for all minorities who find themselves under pressure.
Finally, historically and theologically, the Christian faith has always been subversive. “Jesus is Lord” is the earliest Christian creed, and those were not empty words. Rather, they explain why the Christian faith attracted persecution from the earliest days. To say “Jesus is Lord” was to say that Caesar was not the Lord, as he claimed to be, so from its earliest days the Christian faith presented a radical challenge to any power that made absolute claims for itself. The Christian faith should make no absolutist political claims for itself, but it will always challenge those who do. Indeed, the Christian faith’s inherent challenge to absolutist claims explains why it has been such a key foundation stone of western democratic government, and why we should continue to support it vigorously wherever it is under threat. The focus of the review’s recommendations is clearly on guaranteeing freedom of religion or belief for all, irrespective of faith, tradition or belief system, and taking full account of the scale, scope and severity of its abuse in various contexts. We must seek freedom of religion or belief for all, without fear or favour. That is something that the whole House can agree on, and I very much support the motion.
It is a pleasure to be able to speak in the debate on this important issue. I would like to start, as others have done, by paying tribute to the Bishop of Truro for his important and wide-ranging report. It not only highlights many issues that we need to think about but points to how we might build a better and more tolerant world for all of us. Although I do not subscribe to the Foreign Secretary’s newfound views on Britain leaving the European Union with no deal, I do thank him for establishing the independent review into the extent and nature of the global persecution of Christians and committing to assess the quality of the response from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the British Government more generally.
Since April this year, I have had the good fortune and immense honour to represent my home and my community in Newport West. It is one of the most diverse and multicultural parts of Wales, and people from all communities and all cultures are able to practise and embrace their faiths there. I know that colleagues across the House believe in the importance of all communities and all people having the chance to do that right across the world, too. I thank the Bishop for making it very clear at the outset that this review is not about pitting one faith against another or about legitimising the hatred and loathing of Islam or Judaism. This is about ensuring that all our faiths are respected, and that all those who practise are free to do so safely and peacefully.
I completely agree with the hon. Lady when she says this is about ensuring that people can practise their faith, whatever it may be. As somebody who comes from a Muslim faith and whose father, grandfather and uncles were all imams, I know that Islam itself says, “La iqra ha fiddin”: people should be able to practise their faith whatever it is—there is no compulsion. As this report sets out, religious freedom is not only a civil right, but pretty much the fundamental core of people’s own faith and scriptures: to respect each other’s faith.
I agree completely with the hon. Gentleman’s comments. The persecution of Christians across the world is attracting ever more focus and attention. This point is exemplified by the fact that the review was meant to conclude by Easter 2019, but as the scale of the task became clear, deadlines were pushed back to ensure there was enough time for the fullest of reports to be published.
As I have already said, the persecution of Christians is an increasing concern to me and to many of my constituents. I thank all those—Christian and non-Christian—who have written to me asking me to speak up for them in this debate. We must, as the Bishop notes, recognise that this is not a western problem, that many of the poorest in our world are Christians, and that they need our solidarity and support. It is easy to brush this off, but there are people living in fear, people living with often devastating consequences and people who need the British Government to stand up for them. This need to stand with them is why it is so important that the British Government get to grips with this.
Of course, it is not just us; we need to work with our partners in the Commonwealth of Nations, to raise these issues in the Security Council at the United Nations and, whatever happens with our relationship with the European Union, to work with Europe too. I know that the Foreign Secretary may not be in his place next week—who knows, he could be in No. 10—but I hope that, whoever steps into the role next week, he or she will maintain an interest in and focus on these really important issues.
I welcome the 22 recommendations in the Bishop’s report, particularly the focus on working together with our international and regional partners and allies. We must ensure that civil society plays its role in shaping views and protecting minorities. We have seen what happened with the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and with the Christians in the middle east and other places. The British Government can and should become a leader in defending freedom of expression and of faith too.
“you may choose to look the other way, but you can never again say you did not know”.
Our task in this Chamber and in our communities is to ensure that we do not look the other way, and that we do not walk by on the other side either.
I do not know whether I should start by declaring an interest in that I am a Christian who has newly found faith, but it is really exciting to see so many Members of all parties in this House wanting to take part in this debate. It is a shame that we are limited to such a short time today, because there are so many MPs who want to get in and make their points.
First, I want to pay tribute to the Foreign Secretary for his work in bringing about this important report. There was that old adage in No. 10 Downing Street that “We don’t do God”, but that was in a previous Administration. Christians in this country have often thought that there was a sniffiness about Christianity. All too often since I have found faith, I have heard the words “Oh, they’re do-gooders”, and a Church of England vicar sent me an email about “Jesus freaks”. We seem to do down Christianity in this country somewhat, and it is important that the Foreign Secretary has put this front and centre of the work of the Foreign Office.
We are a multicultural and multi-faith society, and we should embrace and champion that, but when we see that 80% of all religious persecutions around the world are persecutions of Christians, it is important that we as a nation stand up and say that we will not accept this and are going to come to the aid of those Christians around the world. In the same way that we deplore it and speak out when the Rohingya are persecuted in Myanmar, the Yazidis in Iraq and the Uyghur Muslims in China, so we must, with all our might and all our voice, speak out in defence of Christians around the world.
It touched me recently when, at the church that I attend in Uttoxeter—the Renew Church—we had Open Doors come and present to us one Sunday. The scale at which Christian persecution around the world is taking place is scary, as is the speed at which it is increasing.
I very much thank my hon. Friend for what he is saying. Does he agree that we should approach all this in a real spirit of humility, because we ourselves in this country have seen religious persecution over the centuries? However, we know what it is to put that behind us, and the advantages it brings to our society when we do not do it any more. I myself come from a Huguenot background: we fled to this country because of religious persecution elsewhere. British people have had to flee to the low countries—the Netherlands—because of persecution here. We need to approach this in a spirit of humility, as well as of upholding the name of Jesus Christ.
I absolutely agree with what my hon. Friend says. He is a true example of somebody who is living a Christian life, and he is absolutely right when he says that the UK was the first country to establish human rights such as freedom of religion. It was us who established this, and spread it around the world—to America, and to Australia and New Zealand. It was in 1547 that the freedom to read the Bible in public was first established, and it was 1559 when we first had the freedom to interpret the Bible without Government interference. There are centuries of examples of Britain leading the way in protecting religious freedoms of all kinds, and certainly in standing up for Christianity.
At the outset, my hon. Friend mentioned that we had cross-party support for this motion. May I gently add that that support is not only cross party but multi-faith among the Members of Parliament here?
Does my hon. Friend agree that Britain has a significant role on the global stage—we are a permanent member of the UN Security Council, head of the Commonwealth and a major economic power—and that we use our influence on the global stage for a whole variety of reasons and causes, and should ensure that the protection of Christians is put high on the list and that we use our influence for that purpose as well?
My hon. Friend speaks with great common sense, as always. I am very proud to represent a multicultural, multi-faith community. I have some 7,000 Muslims in my community, and they make a massive contribution to my society and it is a joy to be their Member of Parliament. He is absolutely right that we have this historical connection and historical influence with which we can do good. We can use that for the benefit of Christians, for the benefit of religious freedoms and for the benefit of democracy around the world.
In many respects, because of our history, we almost shy away from confrontation. Because of that colonial past, we are often too afraid to be seen to be interfering in the business of other independent nations. Actually, as we heard in the magnificent opening speech from my hon. Friend Chris Philp, whom I commend for securing this debate, we see that effect on a global scale, and it is only right for Britain to stand up and take its responsibility seriously.
I pay tribute to the Bishop of Truro for his brilliant, incisive work, but I hope that this is just the first step towards the Government standing up and taking religious persecution and the persecution of Christians very seriously. A bit like a stick of Blackpool rock, I want this to run through the middle of all our Foreign Office policy, aid and trade. We have the levers to change behaviour and save lives. When people are being victimised, persecuted, murdered, stabbed and bullied simply for reading the Bible and worshipping Jesus Christ, we must act. The Bible states that Christ said:
“And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake: but he that endureth to the end shall be saved.”
I absolutely believe that this motion is an important step forward in ensuring the safety of Christians around the world.
I begin by adding my congratulations to the Bishop of Truro on the publication of his excellent report and by thanking my hon. Friend David Linden and the hon. Members for Croydon South (Chris Philp), for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing today’s debate. I also put on the record my appreciation for the work of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief in promoting the right of people of faith or none to have the freedom to pursue their beliefs. I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in sending our best wishes to Catherine Thane, who until recently was the operations director for the APPG and who was married to George on Saturday.
I thank all those people for being such a powerful voice for persecuted Christians around the world because, sadly, that voice is necessary now more than ever. No matter where one looks in the world right now, anti-Christian discrimination and persecution is on the rise.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the most important aspects of this report is that right across the United Kingdom, including within churches, there is still significant ignorance and a lack of knowledge about the sheer scale of the persecution of Christians right across the world? One of the things that we can do as Christians and as Members of Parliament is raise that awareness through the likes of this report and these debates.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. As Christians in this country, we have become very comfortable in our freedom to believe as we do, and we should always have at the forefront of our minds that our brothers and sisters around the world are not in such a privileged position. His Holiness Pope Francis said recently:
“It might be hard for us to believe, but there are more martyrs today than in the first centuries. They are persecuted because they speak the truth and proclaim Jesus Christ to this society.”
Increasingly, however, society’s response to those speaking that truth is to imprison torture, kidnap or murder them. As we have heard, the Open Doors charity publishes an annual watchlist of countries where it believes persecution to be extreme, very high or high. One country was on that list five years ago: North Korea. Today, no fewer than 11 countries are considered to be in the extreme category, and we have all watched in horror the systematic attempt to eradicate all traces of Christianity from the ancient middle east homeland that we all love.
Of course, many charities and NGOs are working hard and doing some great work, and I pay tribute to the work done by Aid to the Church in Need, which funds over 5,000 projects in 140 countries each year, helping to support persecuted Christians live out their faith and provide practical and spiritual support to millions of people. In January, I was privileged to join Aid to the Church in Need on a visit to Lebanon and the Syrian border to see that practical and spiritual support and action for myself. We met Christian families who had fled Syria, Iraq and other places in the middle east to seek refuge in Lebanon and who would be destitute were it not for the day-to-day support and pastoral care provided by ACN.
On the feast of the Epiphany in January, in the town of Zahlé on the Syrian border, we went to a food centre called Saint John the Merciful Table, where ACN, along with the Melkite Greek Catholic archdiocese, provides 1,000 people with a hot meal every single day. It was a small but wonderful example of how Christian organisations are helping those fleeing persecution.
However, given the number of people in need, the situation cannot be left to charities and NGOs, which is why I commend the Bishop of Truro’s report. I sincerely hope that the Government take heed of what it says and act upon its recommendations. In particular, I urge the Government to heed his words about the UK being a global leader when it comes to championing the freedom of religion or belief across the world. I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Member for Croydon South that the UK Government must be prepared to impose meaningful sanctions against perpetrators who abuse the religious belief of others.
Finally, as the chair of the all-party group on the Yazidi people, as we approach the fifth anniversary of the genocide, I highlight the Bishop’s recommendation that the Foreign Office should take a lead role in pursuing the prosecution of the perpetrators of sex crimes against Yazidi and Christian women, and not only as terrorists.
Like many others, I follow what Open Doors says. We know from its report that some 245 million Christians are at “high”, “very high” or “extreme” risk of persecution. That figure is rising—only a few years ago, there were 200 million, so the situation is getting worse. In China, over 1,000 Christians have been detained without trial or have been unfairly arrested and hundreds of thousands of Uyghur Muslims are being interred or the families are being separated. In Nigeria, 3,731 Christians were killed for their faith. The situation in China is getting worse: on the Open Doors world watch list, it has risen from 43rd to 27th place—a significant deterioration. For the first time, India has entered the top 10 countries of most concern.
The figures for deaths and for churches destroyed around the world are really serious. In 2016, there were over 4,000 deaths in Nigeria, with 198 churches destroyed. In the Central African Republic, 1,269 Christians were killed and 131 churches were destroyed. In Chad, 750 Christians were killed and 10 churches were destroyed. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 467 Christians were killed and 13 churches were destroyed. In Kenya, 225 Christians lost their lives, and in Cameroon 114 Christians were killed, with 10 churches destroyed. This is happening on a very large scale. William Wilberforce said to this House in 1791 that
“you may choose to look the other way but you can never…say that you did not know”.
That is as relevant now as it was then.
My hon. Friend has put forward a concerning picture from around the world. On addressing that challenge, does he agree with the former Bishop of Rochester, Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, who said that the greater use of our aid for persecuted Christian communities around the world is something that we should seriously consider? He gave the example of supporting the Iraqi Christian homes on the Nineveh plains and listed a number of others. As a passionate supporter of international development aid, I ask my hon. Friend: should that now be targeted to support persecuted Christian communities around the world?
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend’s point. I will illustrate the sort of thing that is going on by quoting Bishop William Naga of Borno, who said of some of the refugee camps in Nigeria:
“When the care of the camps was handed over to other organisations, the discrimination started. They will give food to the refugees, but if you are a Christian they will not give you food. They will even openly tell you that the relief is not for Christians. There is an open discrimination.”
It is really important that DFID, if it is involved in helping those refugees, makes sure that British aid is going to everyone who needs it, regardless of their faith, and that that sort of discrimination is not allowed to happen. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we need to make sure that where overseas aid, trade and arms exports are concerned, they should be subject to requiring robust action on dealing with persecution.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech. Like him, I pay tribute to the work of Witney-based Open Doors for its powerful advocacy on this very serious issue. He mentions Nigeria, and one of Open Doors’ other points is that progress should be pursued in areas where progress has already been made. Perhaps if the Foreign Office were to engage alongside the Government of Nigeria, as they already have, great progress will continue to be made.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, and I am grateful to him for putting it on the record.
This is a harrowing debate—rightly, because we need to bring these matters into the public domain, and to keep doing so until things get better. However, I end my speech by drawing the House’s attention to examples of one people group or faith coming to the aid of another that is being persecuted. In the second world war, when Jews were being rounded up into railway trucks for deportation, the Patriarch of Romania, in full ecclesiastical dress, came to the station and quoted the words of Ruth from the Old Testament:
“Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.”
We need more of that type of intervention.
In Pakistan, about which we have heard quite a lot today, on the Sunday a week after the Peshawar bomb, Muslims formed a human chain around some churches to protect Christians who were going to worship. In Oman, a Muslim country, it is possible for Christians to worship openly in the Jesus the Good Shepherd church in Muscat; I have been able to worship there myself. That is an example that other Muslim countries should follow. In Mandera in Kenya, Muslims stood up for Christians who were being attacked, saying, “You kill all of us or you kill none of us.”
As I say, this is rightly a grim debate, because these facts deserve much greater circulation, and all of us want follow-through from the Government. However, it is important to look at how we can do things differently, and to look at signs of hope and examples of people from one faith standing up against the persecution of people from another.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for commissioning this excellent report. He has taken a bold and important step in opening the Government up to challenge. He did that for good reason. We all look forward to the Government following through on the recommendations, as they very much need to.
I follow on from my dear friend Andrew Selous in giving a big thank you to the Foreign Office. I also thank the Bishop of Truro for conducting this investigation, and the hon. Members who managed to get this debate. Of all the excellent organisations that have been name-checked, I particularly praise Christian Solidarity Worldwide. I have made two visits abroad with it. The first was to Nigeria, where I witnessed the words of the Bishop of Jos, whose wife was raped by extremists. He gave a graphic account of what things are like in northern Nigeria.
I also visited Pakistan, where I met the inestimable Shahbaz Bhatti, who was the Minister for Minorities. He was slaughtered for his beliefs. I hope that in due course the Catholic Church will recognise what that wonderful man has done. Pakistan is an interesting country; it has people of all persuasions in its Government, but Shahbaz always knew that he took the risk of losing his life, though he carried on nevertheless.
I spend a lot of time worrying about Sudan. It is obvious what is going on there. I got very interested in it because of the religious divide, but when I learned more about the situation, I found that it is not just Muslims against Christians; Bob Stewart talked about Christians sometimes fighting Christians, and sadly that happens in southern Sudan. Also, religion is used as a franchise, and people of extreme views use those views to maintain power. I ask the Government to keep a very close eye on the Christians who remain in the north in Sudan, of whom there are many millions, and to try to bring peace to the south.
In the two minutes remaining to me, I will concentrate on a couple of points in the Bishop’s report that are worthy of emphasis. First, it is very important that our embassies and those who advocate on behalf of the British Government recognise the importance of freedom of religious belief, are properly trained, and look out for it. That is an important recommendation from the Bishop, and I hope that the Minister will take it up. Often there are other connected issues, such as sexuality and gender. It is important that we tease away what may be a veneer of religion and look below the surface.
At the end of the day, we are talking about the mass exodus of Christians from many places in the world. That is unacceptable and we as Christians have to do something about it. We must talk about it in this place and represent those communities. Of course, this is not just about Christians. The Ahmadis have already been mentioned, and the Baha’is are another religious group who are heavily discriminated against in many parts of the world.
In conclusion, the one blemish—I was sad about this —is that the Bishop was called in by the Israeli ambassador to be admonished about the fact that he chose to mention Israel and Palestine as a reason why Christians have left the middle east. It is important that we stand with the Bishop and make it clear that, whatever the discrimination, those who may not be openly discriminatory are still, none the less, covertly allowing such things to go on. We should stand with the Bishop in what he has said and done, and in how we follow up on it.
Just a few months ago, this Chamber stood shocked in the aftermath of the appalling Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka. It is so sad to have heard in this debate that that was just one of the most recent of a whole series of terrible atrocities committed against Christians in many parts of the world.
“Across the globe, in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, Christians are being bullied, arrested, jailed, expelled and executed. Christianity is by most calculations the most persecuted religion of modern times. Yet Western politicians until now have been reluctant to speak out in support of Christians in peril.”
That is a pithy summary of the terrible injustice on which we are reflecting.
Christian persecution is a global phenomenon with multiple drivers. It is very important to remember that Christianity is not just a religion of the west—it is a genuinely global faith. The victims of persecution are, in the main, from some of the poorest and most deprived communities on earth. Open Doors has identified in a succession of “World Watch List” reports the worrying phenomenon that, where Christians are in the minority, they are increasingly portrayed as somehow western or alien, despite the fact that their communities date back hundreds of years in their home countries.
That is a particular problem in the middle east. Christians have been living in the middle east since the earliest days of the faith. They have an unbroken presence of 2,000 years in the middle east, and yet they are under pressure in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen; and, of course, horrific atrocities have been committed against them in the region, including gender-based violence.
The situation is so severe that the very survival of Christianity as a living religion in the middle east is now in doubt. A century ago, 20% of the population was Christian, but now, according to the report, the figure has fallen to 5%. It is distressing to read the Bishop of Truro’s finding that some of Christianity’s
“oldest and most enduring communities” are facing what he calls “decimation”. There are tragic parallels with the situation of the Jewish community, whose connection with that region goes back just as far and who were largely forced out—800,000 of them were forced out—in the years between 1948 and the 1970s. My terrible fear is that history is repeating itself.
In responding to the Bishop of Truro’s report, the Foreign Secretary acknowledged that the efforts made to tackle the problem of attacks on Christians around the world has not matched the scale of the injustice perpetrated. I welcome that frank acknowledgement. I hope that the Bishop of Truro’s report marks a turning point where that inadequacy begins to change. We cannot just stand by and let this continue to happen.
The Open Doors website quotes 1 Corinthians, chapter 12, verse 26:
“If one part suffers, every part suffers with it”.
We have a responsibility to act. As the Bishop’s report says, the vague language of general condemnation must be replaced by action to address the specific problem of Christian persecution. A key task is to spread that message to Governments around the world. The editorial in The Times that I quoted at the start of my speech said:
“We cannot be spectators at this carnage.”
This has been a powerful debate on a hard-hitting report that I hope will change the direction of UK foreign policy in a profound way.
Boko Haram has been persecuting and killing Christians for more than 10 years. In a decade, thousands have died. I am going to focus on the story of just one woman.
Saratu’s home was one of those targeted. She saved her family as her village burned, making sure they got away. They hid together in the forest, but she knew she would have to go back. They had nothing to eat and she could not let her children die of hunger. She was spotted, chased, captured and beaten. Saratu was taken to a holding camp with hundreds of other women and children; they were held like animals. She feared the worst. She had heard the stories of rape, torture and murder, and of forced conversion, forced marriage and slavery. But her spirit was not broken. She was determined to get back to her children and save the other women with her. Two nights later, she escaped with more than 20 women and children.
Twenty thousand Nigerian Christians have been killed, and many more have endured kidnapping, forced conversion and torture. The kidnappings have not stopped. Christians across the middle belt of Nigeria still live in fear and the violence has spread to neighbouring Niger. Just last month, Boko Haram kidnapped a woman from the city of Diffa, in an area that has provided refuge for the tens of thousands fleeing the attacks in Nigeria. They used that woman to send a message of terror—a letter saying to all in Diffa: “Leave within three days or be killed”. Many Christian families have fled in fear, but others simply cannot afford to leave and remain at risk. It may become yet another story of religious cleansing and murder.
The Diffa region has already seen what Boko Haram will do: 14 people were killed and 37 kidnapped in two separate 2017 attacks. Soon afterwards, the daughter of the region’s Christian pastor was taken as well. The persecution caused by Boko Haram is extreme. Some 8,000 children have been used as soldiers, targeted because of poverty and vulnerability, and exploited, lied to and manipulated. Many are orphans, and some had been abandoned to the streets by parents who could simply no longer look after them. In 2018, according to UNICEF, 48 of those children were used as suicide bombers— 48 children died to murder others. In that year, they were mostly girls. In 2017, the number was 135. The campaign of religious violence has not stopped, and less than a month ago three children were used as a weapon in a communal hall; 30 were murdered and 40 injured. Religious differences have been exploited to create this violence. Christians—the minority in the north of Nigeria—have been made scapegoats. Hatred has been created and fuelled.
President Buhari has made clear commitments to improve security, including for Christian communities in Nigeria, but frankly such promises have been made before. I want to know what the Government are going to do to work proactively with Nigeria, Niger and others to make that basic promise of security a reality.
It is an honour to take part in this important debate, and particularly to follow Lyn Brown. I am sure none of us have been anything but moved by the accounts we have heard.
I pay tribute to the Bishop of Truro for his excellent report. The persecution of Christians has been raised many times in this House since I have been elected, but never have we had such a comprehensive and well put together report, which really presents a picture of what is taking place in the world. I draw attention to the fact that, in the report, the Bishop included a quote from William Wilberforce, from one of his first speeches in this House against the slave trade. He said:
“You may choose to look the other way but you can never again say you did not know.”
That is what the report does to this House—never again can we say that we do not know what is going on in our world today. It is therefore down to us to decide what we do with the information with which we have been provided.
Like many other Members, I wish to pay tribute to the many organisations that work tirelessly to raise the issue of the persecution of Christians. They even put their own lives at risk to work for the protection of those who are persecuted for their faith. I have had the pleasure of working with Open Doors and Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and I thank them for the amazing work they do.
The persecution of Christians is nothing new. Right from the very beginning, the Christian Church faced persecution, but I am sure that if we spoke to those first early Christians and told them that, more than 2,000 years later, the persecution of Christians for their faith would get worse, they would have struggled to comprehend how that could possibly be the case. None the less, that is the situation in which we find ourselves. As other Members have highlighted, the vast majority of people—some 80% of them—who are persecuted for their faith around the world are Christians. The persecution of Christians can be seen as a bellwether of the broader persecution of other faiths. Often, how a country behaves towards its Christians is a test of how other religious minorities will also be treated, which is why it is important that the Foreign Office, through this report from the Bishop of Truro, has chosen to focus on the persecution of Christians around the world.
It is often difficult for those with no faith to understand exactly what it is like for someone to find that their right, or their freedom, to worship, to practise and to express their faith is taken away. It is as if their identity has been taken away. To take the right of freedom of faith away from anyone is the ultimate violation of human rights.
We must never take for granted the freedom that we have in this country. Like Dr Cameron, who is no longer in her place, I have been horrified by some of the abuse that Members here have experienced over the past week or so simply because they followed their conscience and voted in a particular way in this House. We should all make it absolutely clear that there is no place for that in this country and that people should be free in this House to vote in the way that their conscience dictates. That is an ultimate freedom that we should defend and never lose sight of.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this important debate. I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Croydon South (Chris Philp), and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), and David Linden for joining me to present the case to the Committee. I thank, too, the Minister for Europe and the Americas and the Foreign Secretary for their commitment to this issue—the Foreign Secretary has been much committed to this issue—and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro for his efforts in carrying out the review of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s work to support persecuted Christians.
In the past year, 100,000 Christians will have been murdered because of their faith and 200 million will have been persecuted because of their faith. Some 2 billion people live in what is referred to as an endangered neighbourhood. That is the magnitude of this issue and why it is so important to have it before us in the House today.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene. As he praises the commitment of others across the House, may I just pay tribute to the work that he does in his role as chair of the all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief. He represents incredibly well our party, our constituents, and, I think, all those of faith who believe that we have more to do, so I thank him.
My hon. Friend is most generous. I have been working to raise the issue of the persecution of Christians, people of other faiths and people with no faith.
I have a sister who is a missionary in Africa. Her team encounter persecution on a daily basis, and have faced particular difficulties in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Some of this persecution has sometimes been called tribal violence. It is not tribal violence; it is tribes rising against Christians, and it has been covered up by the world media. We also need to highlight that issue.
May I pay tribute—I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees with me—to the absolutely sterling work done by organisations such as Open Doors? Although I have attended church throughout my entire life, before I came to this place I was completely unaware of the sheer scale of the persecution of Christians. This issue is incredibly important to all of us. We talk to each other, and most people in the Chamber have read the report and know the scale of the situation, but there is still a huge amount of work to be done out there. It is our duty not only to speak in this House, but to go out and speak to our constituents on our social media accounts and through the media to ensure that everybody is aware of the plight facing many millions of people right across the world—people of the Christian faith in particular, as that is the subject of today’s proceedings, but also people of other faiths. We should also make people aware of the incredible work that the APPG does in trying to raise awareness across all faiths.
I thank my hon. Friend for her very kind intervention.
There are some 80-plus churches in my constituency. I write to them and let them know what is going on, and this debate will go out to every one of those 80 churches of all faiths across my constituency next week when the girls in the office get the work done.
As the APPG noted in our published statement, all religious or belief communities throughout the world face violations of article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights, and protecting one group requires protecting all groups. I visited Pakistan last year, and it was poignant and emotional to see the position of Christians there with respect to education and qualifications, job opportunities, the right to worship and the right to convert. In fact, we are well aware of the issues across the whole middle east.
In Syria, 1.5 million Christians have left their country. There are only a quarter of a million Christians left in Iraq and fewer than 100,000 in Iran. In Colombia, Christian peasant farmers have been persecuted, tortured and murdered by Government forces and paramilitary groups. There are similar situations in Libya and in Nigeria, which Lyn Brown mentioned, where Boko Haram has carried out murders to a large degree. The Easter massacre in Sri Lanka is all too real in our lives. In eastern Ukraine, where Russia has influence, Baptist pastors have gone missing and churches have been destroyed. And then there is North Korea, where people cannot even mention the word “Christian” without being put in prison right away. There are also unbelievable abuses in China, as has already been mentioned today.
FORB is a hugely important issue. Indeed, the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation published its analysis on the same day as the launch of the report. I would strongly encourage any future UK Government of any colour to take this issue very seriously. The Minister knows that I am fond of him and he always responds well to our questions, so I look forward to his response. I have a couple of questions for him today. Has he initiated any action under the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018 against FORB violators such as the generals in Burma? Have we ever needed reminding how much the Rohingya in Burma have been butchered, violated, murdered, raped, abused and burnt alive, or that their babies have been killed almost at birth? Those generals need to be made accountable. I look to the Minister to see what we can do in that regard. What discussions has he had with the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence to ensure that they can also be part of the changes that are needed? I commend the charities—Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Open Doors, Release International, the Barnabas Fund and Aid to the Church in Need—for all they have done.
I commend the Bishop of Truro for his efforts with this review. Will the Minister ask a Select Committee to assess the review to determine lessons learned and provide support and guidance for future reviewers? Recommendation 22 of the review states that in three years there should be a review to assess the Government’s progress in implementing the recommendations of the report. Will the Government also consider asking the Foreign Affairs Committee to carry that out?
Jim Shannon has an enormous heart and often speaks from it. I admire, respect and have affection for him.
I welcome the final report of the Bishop of Truro and thank him for it. I commend the depth of research in it. I want to speak rather technically about some of the recommendations, but before that—and more briefly than I would have liked—I want to affirm what colleagues have said. It is so important to protect the right to freedom of religion or belief; when it is encroached on, that so often also involves the violation of other human rights, including the right to life, the right to be free from torture, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, the right to freedom of assembly or association, the right to freedom of expression and many more.
That recognition must be clearly visible in the strategy of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Protecting the right of freedom of religion and belief is so important because its violation is often the root cause of so many other human rights violations across the world, as we have heard today.
I praise my hon. Friend for all the work she has done, along with my hon. Friend Jim Shannon and others in this House.
Most countries in the world have signed the universal declaration on human rights. That is there—it is a commitment that they have made. All who have signed it, including the United Kingdom, need to be held accountable. Every year, the United Nations needs to hold to account all the nations that have signed the declaration but are not living up to it. Does my hon. Friend agree?
Absolutely. I commend the report’s recommendation that the UK engage better with international human rights mechanisms, but I do not think that the recommendation for a universal periodic review will help enough. A review conducted every three or four years is not enough to enable us to address some of the freedom of religious belief-related issues.
As my hon. Friend said, we need a solid review plan for a rolling oversight of the FCO’s obligations under the universal declaration of human rights and the international covenant on civil and political rights—international standards—so that we can monitor the situation of the affected communities, tailor the FCO’s response and oversee implementation. For that reason, I am somewhat sceptical about the suggested introduction of a diplomatic code. actually, we have the international standards; we should be judged against those.
I commend the recommendation for the UK to champion the call for other countries each to have a special envoy position for freedom of religious belief—something that I emphasised in my communications with the independent review. I stress that we need to strengthen the mandate of our own Prime Minister’s special envoy on freedom of religious belief, to ensure that he has all the resources and powers that he needs to be effective. I am not sure that that is the case at present. I see the good work that Lord Ahmad is doing, but time and again I see how stretched he is. I wonder whether the role should be distinct from that of a Foreign Office Minister, so that action on many of the review’s recommendations can be held to account independently.
My hon. Friend is right to echo the call in the report for the United Kingdom to become a champion of freedom of religion or belief, but does she share my concern about the deterioration of tolerance towards Christians in this country? I point to the example of Dr Cameron, who has been subject to the most intolerable feedback in relation to her vote of conscience last week.
I agree—we must call out criticism of those in this place and elsewhere who simply want the freedom to express their biblically-based beliefs. My hon. Friend is right. Along with many others in this place, I have been the subject of some really unpleasant attacks during the past week, particularly on social media, simply for speaking out in this place and voting on biblically-based beliefs on abortion and marriage.
I turn to the issue of genocide. I welcome the recommendation in the report that the Government should introduce
“mechanisms…to facilitate an immediate response to atrocity crimes, including genocide through activities such as setting up early warning mechanisms to identify countries at risk of atrocities, diplomacy to help de-escalate tensions and resolve disputes”.
I have spoken about this issue many times in this Chamber, raised questions about it and put forward the Genocide Determination (No. 2) Bill, which would help to deal with it. I commend the Bishop of Truro for highlighting the issue.
It is important to point out that the FCO does not have appropriate mechanisms to consider mass atrocities and determine whether they amount to genocide. When asked about genocide, the Government’s usual response is that such a determination is not for politicians to make, but for the international judicial systems. That needs to be reviewed. The FCO needs to review its long-standing policy of outsourcing the determination of genocide to the international judicial systems, which often do not exist. We need to introduce an FCO-based team focused on genocide and religious persecution to consider situations, identify red flags and inform the FCO response. We also need to ensure that the FCO works closely with other Departments, such as the Home Office and the Department for International Development, to ensure that we are applying the principles in this report internationally and at home.
Finally, I welcome the recommendation about improved religious literacy training. The FCO has a FoRB toolkit, but as the Bishop of Truro has said, barely anyone applies it in their work or takes notice of it. We need to improve that.
I congratulate the Members who helped secure today’s debate on this very important matter. The persecution of Christians around the globe is felt by many both within and outwith the Church, in my constituency and further afield. Leaving Christians overseas vulnerable to persecution would be a gross abdication of the global responsibilities that this country has worked ceaselessly to uphold over many years.
The very birthplace of Christianity is under threat. Christians in countries across the middle east find themselves driven from their homes and imprisoned, tortured or killed on the basis of the faith that they hold or the texts that they follow. Daesh in Iraq and Syria, and the continuing spectre of Boko Haram in central Africa, present a real existential challenge for the free practice of religion in those regions. The presence of Christianity in more and more parts of the world faces nothing short of complete extinction, while Governments fail to provide a bulwark against the tide of attacks.
Christians in communities across the world under oppressive Governments, or who are the target of militant groups, take little comfort from warm words. For a child left parentless after her family was executed for attending church, condemnation provides no salve. For a pastor standing in the ruins of his church, statements of support ring hollow. We can do more, and we must do more, to help bring the persecution of Christians to an end.
I welcome the Bishop of Truro’s recommendations, which show the clear steps that this Government can take. I am encouraged by the words of many colleagues, which demonstrate the constructive spirit in which we all are willing to work. The challenge that faces all of us in ending discrimination and violence against Christians is monumental, but this report leaves me optimistic about the future of religious freedoms. This review makes concise, achievable recommendations that draw on the talents of our unparalleled diplomatic network. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has immeasurable experience in helping some of the world’s most vulnerable people when they need it most. Now is the time to use that experience and influence to protect Christians, who face the most unimaginable treatment for following their faith. I congratulate the Government on their unequivocal support for defending the rights of Rohingya Muslims in Burma, because that demonstrated the impact and reach that our country can have when we lead international responses to protect those suffering from religious persecution.
The systematic denial of freedom of religious belief is becoming entrenched by extreme nationalism and militant extremism in all corners of the world. We cannot afford to hesitate. The Government have shown that they are able and willing to lead an international response to tackle these injustices. The responsibility now rests with the Government to agree a strong collective response that has freedom and tolerance at its heart.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Ross Thomson on his speech. It is deeply humbling for me to follow my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce and my friend Jim Shannon. When I think of those two Members, I think of the line from Paul’s epistle to the Romans, chapter 1, verse 16:
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ”.
The speech delivered by the hon. Member for Strangford reminded me of the famous saying of St Francis of Assisi:
“Preach the gospel at all times and, if necessary, use words.”
The emotion behind what he said was very powerful.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary for commissioning the report—it is a measure of that particular Member of this House that he felt the need to commission it in the first place. I also thank the Bishop of Truro for the work that he has done to highlight the scale of Christian persecution around the world. It is an excellent report, and I hope that its conclusions and recommendations will be studied carefully, and accepted and actioned. I cannot truly convey the emotions I felt when reading the report, because the scale of Christian persecution that it describes is truly shocking and horrific. Nobody should be persecuted because of how or who they worship. It is a fundamental part of the spiritual DNA of many Members of this House that everybody should have the basic human right of freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
I fully support the Bishop’s recommendation that freedom of religion or belief should become the underpinning of the operation of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, I endorse the need for a diplomatic code. I think that some of our diplomats need to have a clear direction on the appropriate response to the persecution of Christians, because I feel ashamed that so many Christians have been persecuted around the world and we have done so little to stop it, or even to speak out about it. It is right that we have spoken out to condemn violence against other minority groups, but it is wrong that at times we have been too restrained—or indeed silent—in condemning the persecution of Christians.
I also agree with the Bishop that calling out the persecution of Christians is neither imperialistic nor a case of white privilege. As my hon. Friend Sarah Newton noted, the Bishop said that it is not about special pleading for Christians, but about making up for a significant deficit, because Christian persecution accounts for 80% of all religious persecution around the world.
Our county must act. We have a special responsibility—a moral responsibility—because of our privileged status in the world, and with our Head of State being the head of a Christian Church, to speak out and protect Christians around the world. Renewing a focus on Christian persecution, as the Bishop said, is actually a way of expressing our concern for all minorities who find themselves under pressure. Ignoring Christian persecution might well mean ignoring other forms of repression.
May I make a plea to the Minister that we will use our soft power to exercise as much influence as possible in speaking up for persecuted Christians? It is high time we escalated the role of the Prime Minister’s special envoy on freedom of religion or belief. We need to follow the American example by having a dedicated ambassador at large for international freedom of religion or belief, with a formal structure of support, engaging with faith leaders at home and abroad and articulating recommendations for cross-Government action on this.
As others have done, I pay tribute to Chris Philp, who opened today’s debate. He eloquently set the scene for what has been an excellent debate that, as some of us predicted, has been squeezed due to time. Alongside the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), I appeared before the Backbench Business Committee in support of the application for the debate. Both Members have been serious champions for the persecuted Church in this House. I know I speak on behalf of everyone when I thank them for their pursuance of this issue.
I have the privilege of winding up today’s debate on behalf of the Scottish National party, which endorses the report and the recommendations made by the Bishop of Truro. We extend our grateful thanks to Philip and his team for doing so much work in such a short period of time. It was great that the Foreign Secretary committed to the review being undertaken. The relatively tight timescale for the report to be conducted and produced has raised some eyebrows, but we are where we are. It is important that the next Foreign Secretary is as committed to this issue as the current office holder.
Over the course of the afternoon we have had no fewer than 15 contributions from the Back Benches, from the hon. Members for Croydon South, for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones), for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), for Newport West (Ruth Jones) and for Burton (Andrew Griffiths), my hon. Friend Brendan O'Hara, the hon. Members for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and for Stroud (Dr Drew), Theresa Villiers, and the hon. Members for West Ham (Lyn Brown), for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), for Strangford, for Congleton, for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson) and for Stirling (Stephen Kerr).
For my own part, one of the most powerful images I have ever seen was from Egypt’s Tahrir Square in 2011. That scene, of Christians forming a human shield around Muslims who were on their hands and knees praying, is one that will never leave me. For me, that kind of solidarity and fellowship is the very essence of freedom of religion and belief. However, freedom of religion and belief is not just some romantic idea. It is enshrined in the UN universal declaration of human rights:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion;
this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
The review is to be warmly welcomed, and it is especially welcome that it has a very specific focus on the persecution of Christians. Whether it is a subconscious post-colonial guilt or not, there is sometimes a feeling that the persecution of Christians is often ignored or given less attention. That is alarming when we consider the sheer scale of the persecution of those of us who follow Jesus Christ. We know that Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the whole world. Indeed, in 2016, the Pew Research Centre found that Christians were singled out and persecuted in 144 countries across the world. That was up from 125 the previous year. We know from the excellent work done by organisations such as Open Doors that a quarter of a billion Christians in the top 50 countries for persecution still suffer intolerable levels of persecution and risk simply for following Jesus Christ.
Others have already done justice to the report by going through its recommendations, and the Foreign Office should absolutely give them serious consideration. I want to focus on where we go now and how the British Government interact with other countries in the years to come. At the moment, I am particularly concerned about persecution of Christians in Latin America and southern Asia.
Alarmingly, we saw India shoot up the world watchlist this year, entering the top 10 countries for persecuting Christians. That is particularly worrying, because the hostility towards Christians has grown enormously in just five years or so. Put simply, the persecution in India can be attributed directly to Prime Minister Modi’s Hindu nationalist movement. India is the world’s largest democracy, yet we are still hearing of prayer meetings being disrupted by Modi’s thugs and Christians being beaten simply for gathering to study God’s word and to pray.
Moving from India over to Pakistan, we are reminded of those paying the price twice: first, for being female; and, secondly, for having the temerity to have a different faith. In Pakistan, Christian women are particularly vulnerable to abduction, rape and forced marriage. It is estimated that 700 girls are vulnerable to that every single year.
I want to turn now to Latin America, which is in the Minister’s brief and which he is familiar with. There are a number of factors in play in Latin America, and we know that the main driver of persecution is a depressing cocktail of cartels, state authorities and rival human rights claims by indigenous groups. In Mexico, for example, murder is a regular occurrence, with the Roman Catholic Multimedia Centre reporting the murder of 45 priests and one cardinal between 1990 and 2017. Even today, Mexico is still considered one of the most dangerous places on earth to be a Catholic priest.
Earlier in the year, I wrote to the Minister about the situation in Chile and he, in his usual courteous but robust style, disputed that it was a place of hostility for Christians. However, in recent years, we have seen a co-ordinated campaign of arson attacks on churches, both Catholic and Protestant, so I would be grateful if, in summing up, he could specifically refer to Chile and the latest situation there.
The reason I mention some of these countries and not the typical ones, such as Iraq and North Korea, is that they are ones with which we seek to have a good relationship in the context of global Britain; indeed, the Government actively want to do post-Brexit trade deals with them. I guess my main ask today is that human rights and freedom of religion and belief are not overlooked in some mad scramble to do a post-Brexit trade deal. As with any negotiation, there are trade-offs, but turning a blind eye to the persecution of Christians cannot be one of them.
That brings me rather nicely to the final thing I want to quote, which is the Bishop of Truro’s last words in the report:
“Perhaps the most dystopian aspect of George Orwell’s 1984 is the existence of the ‘Thought Police’ and the possibility of prosecution for ‘thought crime’. The freedom to think for oneself and to choose to believe what one chooses to believe, without fear of coercion, is the most fundamental human right, and is indeed the one on which so many others depend: because if one is not free to think or believe how can one order one’s life in any other way one chooses? And yet everywhere in our world today we see this right questioned, compromised and threatened. It is a grave threat which must be resisted—both because it is an evil in itself, and because it threatens so much else. It is on the basis of that conviction that these recommendations have been formulated. And those who find these recommendations unpalatable should simply ask themselves this question: what exactly would the consequences of inaction be? And how grave does this situation have to become before we act?”
I thank the hon. Members for Croydon South (Chris Philp), for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Glasgow East (David Linden) for securing this important debate. I also thank the hon. Member for Glasgow East for his summing-up. The hon. Member for Strangford, in particular, has done some excellent work as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief to highlight the persecution of Christians and, indeed, of those of other faiths and none. I commend him for his passion for the subject. Yes, sometimes it is emotional, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
We have heard 15 excellent speeches from hon. Members, and the representation here has been impressively cross-party and multi-faith. Genuine action on the persecution of Christians is long overdue; many people have been trying to draw the world’s attention to the deeply worrying scale of Christian persecution for many, many years. Like other Members, I was shocked to hear that 80% of religious persecution globally is against Christians. Clearly, there is a serious problem here that needs urgent action from all Governments.
The report rightly highlights that persecution for one’s religion or belief is not limited to Christians or indeed to any one religious or non-religious group. The unfortunate reality is that countries that do not respect religious freedom, or indeed the right to no belief, invariably do not respect other basic human rights. The persecution of Christians often goes hand in hand with the persecution of other religious groups and minorities. For example, we might look at India, where the rise of Hindu nationalism affects millions of Muslims, Sikhs and Christians, or at Pakistan, which is about 95% Muslim and 2% Christian, and has some of the harshest blasphemy laws in the world, including a mandatory death penalty for insulting the Prophet Mohammed.
The case of Asia Bibi was particularly concerning. While we are all relieved that Asia and her family have now settled in Canada, it was a real shame that our Government could not confirm at the time that they would offer her asylum in the UK. I had numerous conversations on the subject with the then Minister for Asia and the Pacific, and each time he urged caution in making the case too public. Now that the current Minister is in a position to comment on Asia’s case without jeopardising her move, can he clarify whether it is correct that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office vetoed the suggestion that she be allowed to move to the UK?
I very much welcome the Government’s initiatives to put the persecution of Christians centre stage globally. However, human rights groups and others are concerned about whether they will maintain the momentum. In July 2018, the Prime Minister took the very welcome step of appointing Lord Ahmad as her special envoy on freedom of religion or belief. One way to alleviate the concerns of human rights groups would be to make the role of the special envoy permanent, providing appropriate resources and an ability to work across Departments, and I hope the Minister will be able to confirm today that the Government will do that.
The Bishop of Truro said in his review that we must be prepared to consider imposing sanctions on perpetrators of serious human rights abuses against religious minorities, including Christians. Such a measure to hold nations to account over their human rights violations could be a very significant step, and would be a real statement of intent, showing that the Government were committed to protecting religious minorities. Another potential measure is to include human rights clauses in future trade agreements. EU trade policy is increasingly incorporating human rights considerations. Can the Minister give an assurance that the significant work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on the persecution of Christians can be mainstreamed through new trade agreements?
The Bishop of Truro also recommended that the Government seek a Security Council resolution urging all Governments in the middle east and north Africa to protect Christians, and other persecuted minorities, and allow UN observers to monitor the necessary security measures. That too would be a welcome step, and I hope that the Minister will comment on it, but I suggest that we need to go further. Rather than monitoring situations, we need to actively pursue progress on the persecution of Christians. That could start with countries with which we have good relationships, such as Nigeria. The report notes the internecine violence between Muslim herdsmen and Christian farmers across Nigeria’s middle belt. If the Foreign and Commonwealth Office were to work with the Nigerian Government to prioritise engagement on freedom of religion and belief, investing the necessary resources, a real difference could be made over time.
It is true that the conflict in Nigeria is not simply religious, but is also driven by climate change and a rapidly growing population. It is clear that more needs to be done to promote reconciliation between religious communities. I hope that the Minister will clarify how the UK will work with other Governments to support freedom of religion and belief. Numerous options are available to the Government to show that they are committed to protecting religious minorities, and many of them are contained in the Bishop of Truro’s review. I am sure the whole House looks forward to hearing from the Minister which recommendations the Government will be implementing, and what specific action they will be taking in the light of this review.
I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Croydon South (Chris Philp) and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), and to the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Glasgow East (David Linden) for securing the debate. The Minister for the Middle East, my right hon. Friend Dr Murrison, would have liked very much to be here to respond to the debate, but he is currently engaged in a parallel debate, so the honour falls to me.
I am grateful for the contributions of all Members. This really has been a most dignified and passionate debate. I pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford. I have only a day or two left as a Minister—by choice; or perhaps, anyway—and I have to say that in my three years as a Foreign Office Minister, I have responded to many, many Westminster Hall debates, and without exception, when any topic involving human rights, religion, persecution of international justice is being discussed, the hon. Gentleman has been unfailingly present. I shall miss him, if not all Westminster Hall debates.
Thank you for the offer. There are not many saints in this House, but the hon. Gentleman is about as close as anyone gets to being one.
The world is an increasingly challenging place for people of faith, and in some parts of the world for those of no faith. In the past two years, appalling atrocities, as we have heard today, have been committed against the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and the horrific shootings in two Christchurch mosques shocked us all, but there are so many other stories of suffering that gain far less news coverage, and the statistics tell us, as we have heard again today, that Christians suffer more persecution than any other religious group in the world, yet we hear far less about this than one would expect. We are too reticent about discussing Christian persecution, and we must overcome this mindset; the evidence justifies a much louder voice.
As the Bishop of Truro states in the introduction to his review, the majority of Christians are found in the global south and among the global poor, and the review takes case studies from China, India, Nigeria and Sri Lanka, where persecution stems from state oppression, terrorism and ethnic or nationalist conflict. As Christianity is perhaps the most truly global of religions, the persecution of Christians often indicates wider violations of the rights of all minority groups, and the report notes the large body of evidence for this. In some places the persecution of Christians is closely linked with poverty and social exclusion, and elsewhere it is compounded by discrimination against women, so increasing the attention given to Christian persecution does not dull but sharpen our focus on human rights for all.
The Foreign Office has taken the lead on this, but the Minister will know that a number of hon. Members have argued that there needs to be a cross-Government approach for the very reason he has just set out: that this touches on so many areas. May we have a strategy across the whole of Government to address this alarming persecution?
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend, and in fact he is making my point for me: this is not just a Foreign Office thing. Indeed, it is not just an envoy thing; it is an everything thing, which means that all Departments, all of Government, and all Government policies must bear this in mind. And in doing so we should not be timid; we should be bold and ensure that the UK’s response to Christian persecution is in proportion to the problem, and that, as the report suggests, now demands serious effort.
We cannot have one set of standards for abroad and a different set of standards for our own domestic life; they all have to be consistent, and in that sense my hon. Friend is absolutely right.
Freedom of religion or belief is already a fundamental part of Foreign Office work, in accordance with article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights. We have a team here in London dedicated to this agenda, and our overseas network promotes and supports freedom of religion on a daily basis. Over the past year we have spoken out about the rights of the Baha’i in Yemen, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, the Rohingya in Myanmar and religious minorities in the middle east.
However, belief is a sensitive issue where more can sometimes be achieved through quiet persuasion and discreet negotiation. Sensitive cases often depend on strong diplomatic relations. With this in mind, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been tackling religious persecution on three levels: first, we work with the United Nations and other global organisations to create international consensus to support freedom of religion or belief; secondly, at country level Ministers and officials raise individual cases with their hosts and lobby on behalf of the United Kingdom against practices and laws that discriminate on the basis of religion or belief; and thirdly, the Government, through the FCO, fund and support projects that promote respect for all people of faith and those of no faith.
The UK argues strongly for civilian and refugee protection, for humanitarian access and for the improvement of the effectiveness and funding of the international response across the world. We support efforts to ensure that Christians can return to their homes in areas of Iraq liberated from Daesh, and we are leading global efforts to bring Daesh to justice for their crimes. Two years ago, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted the UK-drafted Daesh accountability resolution 2379, which called for the establishment of an investigative team to collect evidence of Daesh’s crimes. Last year, the Prime Minister appointed my noble Friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon as the first special envoy on freedom of religion or belief. Lord Ahmad has worked tirelessly on this issue to offer our support to those who suffer. Good work is being done, but we must of course reflect on whether there is more we can do to protect Christians who are persecuted on the basis of their religion.
The report suggests that there is more to be done, and I am pleased to announce—in answer to Liz McInnes—that the Government have decided to accept every recommendation in full. The following list of commitments is not exhaustive, but I hope that it illustrates the scale of our ambition. We will put freedom of religion or belief at the heart of FCO culture, policy and operations. We will publicly articulate our goals, and give guidance to our diplomats on how to reflect these values. We already engage on freedom of religion or belief in a range of international forums, but we will strengthen our approach with an advocacy strategy. We will carefully examine whether adopting the label “Christophobia” would better inform FCO policies to address the problem.
We will strengthen our data on freedom of religion or belief, and we already have the Magna Carta project that is investigating ways to improve the data. We will also work with the Department for International Development’s freedom of religion or belief programme to look at how better data can inform the development of international policy. We will respond immediately to any atrocity, including genocide, and we will continue our work to impose sanctions on the perpetrators of religious or faith-based persecution.
We will encourage arm’s length bodies and partners such as the British Council to develop appropriate policies on freedom of religion or belief. To promote religious literacy, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce, all Foreign Office staff will undergo mandatory training where this is relevant to their job. We will create a clear reporting framework to formalise how we engage with minority and religious leaders on the ground, and we will use the recommendations to tailor responses to violations. We will ensure that human rights reporting mentions faith-based persecution wherever relevant.
To improve co-ordination, we will investigate whether new Whitehall structures could strengthen cross-Government thinking. We will initiate regular themed discussions with civil society representatives, and convene Ministers across Government to give a consistent international approach. At the United Nations, we will explore how best to deliver a new Security Council resolution urging all Governments in the middle east and north Africa to protect Christians, and to allow UN observers to monitor the necessary security measures. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will follow up on the recommendation that this report should also inform the work of other public authorities through a future full Cabinet meeting. Finally, we recognise the importance of measuring the impact of our work, so a review will be commissioned after a suitable length of time.
We warmly recommend this review for helping to give the worldwide persecution of Christians the attention that it demands. The review provides us with new evidence and raises concerns to which we must respond. I hope that Members here today will agree that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is demonstrating its firm commitment to addressing the recommendations of the review and to improving freedom of religious expression around the world, and I am more than happy that my final words in this House as a Minister should be in support of such a worthy cause.
This afternoon’s debate has been a really excellent one. I would like to pay tribute to all the Members who have contributed to it, but in particular to my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce, and to Jim Shannon for his emotional and powerful contribution earlier. I strongly suspect that the final words of my right hon. Friend Sir Alan Duncan in the Chamber will not be those he has just spoken. I look forward to hearing his words for many years to come.
I strongly welcome the response we have just heard. It is fantastic news that the Government are accepting all the recommendations in the Bishop of Truro’s report, and I am delighted we have heard that announced in the House this afternoon. It is very important that all of us in this House and in the Government take responsibility for protecting and promoting human rights around the world. Just because atrocities are happening across the oceans or across the seas does not make them any less serious. We should never pass by on the other side.
I hope this afternoon’s debate will provide the Government with the motivation to redouble their efforts—not just in adopting the recommendations in the report, but in going further and looking at the ways we can use aid, trade and other tools in the Government’s toolbox to protect the rights of religious minorities, particularly Christians, around the world, where persecution occurs. Today’s debate has been an excellent one, and I hope action results. Once again, I thank everybody for participating in it.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
deplores the persecution of Christians overseas;
supports freedom of religion or belief in all countries throughout the world;
welcomes the work undertaken by the Bishop of Truro in this area;
and calls on the Government to do more with the diplomatic and other tools at its disposal to prevail on the governments of countries in which persecution of Christians is tolerated or encouraged to end that persecution and to protect the right to freedom of religion or belief.