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Britain's Place in the World

Part of Speaker’s Statement – in the House of Commons at 5:01 pm on 15th October 2019.

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Photo of Rehman Chishti Rehman Chishti Conservative, Gillingham and Rainham 5:01 pm, 15th October 2019

It is a real pleasure to follow Stephen Twigg. He focused his speech on values. By and large, foreign policy around the world is viewed through three prisms: prosperity, security and values. I, Madam Deputy Speaker, want to touch on the issue of values.

Our Queen’s Speech made it very clear that the United Kingdom will stand up for its values. Those values could be the rule of law, justice, liberty or freedom. I was surprised to see that the freedom of religion or belief was not in the Queen’s Speech. This Government—our Government—asked the Bishop of Truro to commission a report into the persecution of Christians around the world to see, first, whether the Foreign Office understood the scale of the issue at hand and then how we can address it. That was our report. The Government accepted the 22 different recommendations that were in that review.

There can be no compromise on article 18 of the 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.”

It says “his”. It should also say “hers”, but we should remember that this was in 1948. Why is this important to me? I came to this country from Pakistan in 1984. My father was an imam, my grandfather was an imam, and my uncles were imams. When I arrived, I could not speak a word of English. I moved to my constituency of Gillingham and Rainham. My father, my sisters and I were able freely and openly to practise our faith in our great country. There is now a moral obligation on me and others who are part of minority religious faiths in this great country to stand up for individuals who are being persecuted for their faith in their countries of origin or elsewhere where they are a part of minority religious communities. That is why, for me, there can be no compromise on freedom of religion or belief. I am grateful to the Prime Minister for appointing me, on 12 September, his special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. This is what the Prime Minister said:

“People across the world deserve the chance to practise their beliefs freely. I’m delighted to appoint Rehman as my new Special Envoy and look forward to him building on the important work we have already done on this issue. The UK will always be a passionate advocate for greater tolerance, respect and understanding internationally.”

I am grateful to him for that appointment. Let me make it clear that I will carry out my duties without fear or favour. Yes, I am the Prime Minister’s special envoy and I also report to the Foreign Secretary at the Foreign Office, where I am based, but as somebody who is committed to freedom of religion or belief I look to colleagues across the House.

There were parliamentarians from across this House, led by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, at the canonisation of Cardinal John Henry Newman at the Holy See. I am a Muslim, but I stood there and listened to what that great man stood for; and I consider him to be my saint too, because of those values. There can be no compromise on freedom of religion or belief.