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.