Persecution of Christians Overseas

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:46 pm on 18th July 2019.

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Photo of Liz McInnes Liz McInnes Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 3:46 pm, 18th July 2019

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.