Persecution of Christians Overseas

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:53 pm on 18th July 2019.

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Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Minister of State 3:53 pm, 18th July 2019

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.