Persecution of Christians Overseas

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:35 pm on 18th July 2019.

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Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative, Stirling 3:35 pm, 18th July 2019

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.