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?”