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I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the matter of the persecution of Christians.
I am very grateful to all hon. Members who want to contribute to this debate today.
The suffering of men, women and children persecuted for their faith or belief is a matter of deep concern to the Government. The Prime Minister’s special envoy on freedom of religion or belief, my hon. Friend Rehman Chishti, would very much like to have been here today, but he is currently in Washington DC on a visit focused on this very subject.
The scale and severity of suffering is alarming, from daily discrimination in the workplace or in school to intimidation of businesses and families to large-scale violence or state-sanctioned persecution. On every continent, religious minorities are under threat. Everyone across the House will remember last year’s Easter bombing attack on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, which was deeply saddening.
Defending freedom of religion or belief is a long-standing priority for the UK. Last August, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said:
“Freedom of religion or belief is at the heart of what the UK stands for.”
He also expressed our determination to use all the tools of British diplomacy in this cause.
However, despite our long-standing support of freedom of religion or belief, it is fair to say that we had not given the particular issue of Christian persecution the attention it warranted. That is why in 2018 the then Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend Jeremy Hunt, commissioned an independent review to consider what more the Foreign and Commonwealth Office could do to support persecuted Christians overseas. The Bishop of Truro was asked to consider tough questions and make ambitious recommendations; his report highlighted the seriousness of the issue and gave practical recommendations on how the UK should respond and, as I am sure colleagues know, the Government have accepted all his recommendations. We reaffirmed our commitment to implement them in the Conservative party manifesto.
Before I say how we are implementing those recommendations however, I want to start with a note of caution: bluntly, we have to be a bit cautious about the scale of Christian persecution because we may not have the full picture. The reason for that is that, at the moment, only limited data is available on religious minorities. The UK is actively working to fill that information gap.
I am grateful to the Minister for leading this important debate in the name of the Prime Minister. She mentions data; will she join me in praising certain organisations, such as Open Doors, which does so much in this place? Each year, its event is possibly the best attended by parliamentarians, MPs and Members from the House of Lords; I think no fewer than 100 parliamentarians were present this year. Its evidence suggests that persecution continues to worsen, and there are 260 million Christians on its watch list. Is that a number that the Minister recognises?
It is a number I recognise, and if my hon. Friend is able to stay for the rest of the debate, he will hear me talking about that figure in a little while.
In the meantime, we use what data is available from the excellent non-governmental organisations in the field, and—here we are—one of them, the highly regarded Open Doors, estimates on the 2020 world watch list that a staggering 260 million Christians are at risk of high to extreme levels of persecution. Open Doors says that the persecution takes many forms, including the growing use of surveillance technology by Governments to identify and discriminate against Christians.
What have we done so far to help? We have made good progress in implementing the recommendations of the review, both through in-house changes in the Foreign Office and through policy change. For example, we have recognised that our diplomats and officials must fully appreciate the role that religion plays in people’s lives in political and social contexts, and that is why we are working to expand and enhance our religious literacy training. We have also appointed a senior champion for freedom of religion or belief, and we now mark “red Wednesday” in support of persecuted minority groups.
Policy-wise we are also making important changes. Colleagues will be aware of our plan to establish an independent human rights sanctions regime; this will allow us to take quick and effective action against those who commit serious abuses or violations, including against religious minorities, and will, we believe, act as a deterrent to others.
The hon. Lady is a doughty fighter on the matter of the Uyghur; she has corresponded with me on this matter a number of times. Now that we have left the EU, we are setting up our own sanctions Magnitsky scheme, and where there is clear evidence of named people, we can take that forward.
We have also announced that it is our intention to use our position as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council to highlight the issues faced by Christians and people of other faiths and beliefs in the middle east.
Of course, implementing the review’s recommendations is only part of our broader work to promote freedom of religion or belief around the globe. For example, we use our influence to speak up for persecuted Christians and individuals of other faiths in multilateral institutions such as the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the UN. Last year, we joined 87 other states to co-sponsor a UN resolution establishing the international day commemorating the victims of acts of violence based on religion or belief. We stand with the international community not only to honour those who have paid the ultimate price to practise their faith, but also to combat ongoing intolerance and discrimination, and that is why we call out specific countries that violate the right to freedom of religion or belief, including China, Iran and Russia.
The Minister has mentioned tolerance, and I wonder whether she agrees that we need to remember that tolerance is not reaching the same point of view, but is when we profoundly disagree with one another yet do not resort to force, whether lawful or otherwise, in order to try to force people to our point of view. Tolerance is agreeing to differ. Does the Minister agree that at the heart of problems of intolerance are blasphemy laws, and that this Government and this country must always stand against blasphemy laws in order to ensure that we have promoted true tolerance?
We have a prime position in the Security Council of the United Nations, as a permanent member—one of the five. Do the Government intend to introduce a United Nations Security Council resolution, and lead on that to try to get the whole of the United Nations against the idea of states being allowed to persecute Christians—not just Christians, but those of any religion?
My hon. and gallant Friend puts forward a noble cause, but I am afraid I must write to him on that.
So, we call out specific countries, as I have mentioned, and through our extensive diplomatic network we also lobby Governments for changes in laws and practices, and we raise individual cases of persecution. As the House will understand, the safety of the people we support is paramount and, given that much of this work is sensitive, it is best done in private. Finally, we also support work to promote freedom of religion or belief; we have given over £1 million for projects in Iraq, Malaysia, Myanmar and Sudan.
I am proud of our efforts, but we know that we alone cannot defend freedom of rights or belief. It requires concerted efforts by faith groups, NGOs, civil society, human rights defenders and others, including parliamentarians. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all Members from across the House for their work to defend this human right internationally. With your continued support, I hope we will succeed in this ambition to end religious persecution once and for all. I look forward to the rest of the debate.
I thank the Government for bringing forward this general debate on an issue that always stirs feelings in this House: the persecution of innocent, peaceful civilians across the world simply for trying to practise their faith.
I hope the House will indulge me if, before I begin my remarks, I pay tribute to a really doughty campaigner in my constituency. Her name is Joyce Sundrum. I mention her because she lies gravely ill, at the age of 90, in St Gemma’s hospice in Leeds in my constituency, having spent a lifetime fighting for the rights of Christians and other faiths in her own area in Leeds, across the nation and throughout the world. Her surname is Indian. She married an Indian citizen who was not a Christian, but she continued to practise her own faith and she stands up for all faiths. I hope she will be with us for a lot longer, but somehow I doubt it, so I wanted to pay my own tribute to her for her extraordinary work.
It is especially timely to be having such a debate shortly after the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, when we saw the ultimate, unimaginable depths of evil; where such persecution can lead humanity. For a world that reacted to the horror of what was discovered at Auschwitz and other concentration camps with a solemn promise of “never again”, it should appal and shame us that 75 years on we are still debating religious attacks, persecution and genocides that have happened in countries across the world in recent years.
I would also like to take the opportunity at the outset to pay tribute to my friend and colleague, Helen Goodman, the former hon. Member for Bishop Auckland. She remains a proud member of Christians on the Left and, in different circumstances, would probably have been leading the debate for the Opposition today. While she is a devout Christian, one of Helen’s great strengths is that she believes passionately in the freedom of every religion and would just as fiercely fight for the rights of the Muslims of Mindanao in the Philippines as she would for Christians in Burkina Faso. She is greatly missed in this House and in these debates, as is our other former friend and colleague Liz McInnes, who did so much to try to help Asia Bibi find sanctuary in this country when her life was at risk in Pakistan because of her Christian faith. Helen and Liz may be gone from this House, but I am at least glad that this House will always echo their views and be united in saying today—
This might seem like an unusual question, but I just wondered whether the hon. Gentleman feels that Christian belief is a factor in the Labour leadership contest.
I am not sure it is for me to comment on whether Christian belief should be a factor in the Labour leadership contest. I think a strong set of moral values, one of which is a strong set of Christian values, is very important in any leadership contest and I know that all the candidates will have those strong moral values.
Whether it is the Jews in Portland Oregon, Muslims in Myanmar and New Zealand or Christians in Nigeria and Pakistan, we all believe that an attack on people of any faith is an attack on people of all faiths. I am sure that that will be the consensus we reach at the end of this debate. However, we must never mistake the consensus that we establish in this House for attitudes in our country as a whole. As much as we might reassure ourselves that Britain is a tolerant society where such prejudice and attacks do not occur, we know, sadly, that that is utterly wrong, whether it is the terrible scourge of antisemitism, which poisons online debate and forces the Jewish community in this country to post guards around synagogues and Jewish schools; the appalling rise in Islamophobia and attacks on our Muslim population in recent years, unfortunately whipped up by the comments of some politicians and media commentators; or, indeed, the attacks by sick-minded Jihadists with bombs, guns, vehicles and knives on innocent crowds of people in our country who they have dubbed as unbelievers or kafirs. This is an issue we know we have to confront domestically.
Our task today, of course, is primarily to discuss how and where it needs to be tackled abroad, specifically in relation to the persecution of Christians. We are once again, as has been mentioned, indebted to the Open Doors organisation for its latest report on the scale of the issue, to which the Minister referred in her speech. It is not just the scale of the issue now, but the extent to which it has risen in recent years that should give us all real cause for concern. The report found yet again that the persecution of Christians is becoming both more widespread and more serious. Of the 50 countries on the Open Doors annual watch list, 45 of them are places where Christians were rated as experiencing very high or extreme levels of persecution in 2019, double the number of countries that were given that rating in 2014, just five years previously. That increase means that in 2019 approximately 260 million Christians across the world were at risk of high, very high and extreme levels of persecution, up from 245 million in 2018 and 215 million in 2017—shockingly high levels and a 20% increase in the number of Christians at the highest levels of risk in the space of just two years.
Open Doors also found that another 50 million Christians are facing high levels of persecution in a further 23 countries outside the top 50 on its watch list The one small consolation, if we can call it that, from the Open Doors report is that the overall death toll from persecution fell last year from more than 4,300 in 2018 to just under 3,000 —again, a shockingly high number. The number of deaths is still shocking and unacceptable.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the UK Government’s words and actions should synchronise in a meaningful way, so that while we criticise the persecution of Christians and stand against it we should not be fêting and rolling out the red carpet for leaders who are guilty of it in the search for trade deals, for example with President Erdoğan of Turkey. Turkey was picked out by Open Doors as being a problem for Christians. Does he not believe that the UK Government should be more discerning in the friendships they build across the international community?
I will come on to mention that very issue on how far we compromise our high moral values in this country in favour of trade deals that we so desperately need. The sheer number of countries, and the rising number of countries, where the persecution of Christians is occurring is an indication of how huge this crisis is.
In the time I have, I would like to ask the Government about one specific country and I hope the Minister will be able to respond at the end of today’s debate. That country, which has already been mentioned, is China. Much recent attention on religious persecution in China has rightly focused on the appalling treatment of the Uyghur Muslim community, but we also know that the Chinese Christian community, estimated to be 90 million people and rising, has faced an escalating wave of repression, interference and mistreatment over the past two years. According to Open Doors, over 5,500 Chinese churches were destroyed, closed down or confiscated during 2019. China has risen to number 23 on its world watch list, up from number 43 in 2018. Anyone under the age of 18 is banned from attending church. The celebration of Christmas in Christian churches has also been banned. Surveillance cameras and facial recognition software has been ordered to be installed in every remaining church, so that authorities can identify all worshippers and listen to the readings and sermons they hear.
Most seriously, what accompanies the repression in China is the routine detention and jailing of worshippers and their pastors under false charges of seeking to subvert state power. I will give one example as an illustration, although I could give hundreds or, indeed, thousands of examples.
In Chengdu province in December 2018, 100 members of the Early Rain Covenant Church were arrested. The church’s pastor, Wang Yi, was charged along with his wife, Jiang Rong, for subversion of state power, all for the temerity of trying to celebrate Christmas together. Thankfully, Jiang Rong was freed last June, but at the end of December, her husband Wang Yi was sentenced to nine years in prison—nine years in prison for a man who led a church because of his faith, who spoke out against forced abortions because of his faith, and who spoke out against curbs on Christians because of his faith. That is the face of persecution, and it is being orchestrated by the second richest nation on the planet—a permanent member of the UN Security Council—which regularly hosts our Prime Ministers and members of our Government.
When the Minister speaks later, will she confirm whether the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary have ever raised the case of Pastor Wang Yi and all the Christians like him who face persecution because of their faith? My fear is that our current Prime Minister is instead walking in the footsteps of his predecessor, who was praised and acclaimed by the Chinese state media after her visit to the country last year for “sidestepping” the issue of human rights and putting the importance of “pragmatic collaboration” with China first. It concluded that
“May will definitely not make any comment contrary to the goals of her China trip...For the prime minister, the losses outweigh the gains if she appeases the”
“media at the cost of the visit’s friendly atmosphere.”
If the former Prime Minister, a devout Christian, could not be expected to raise the cases of Wang Yi and fellow worshippers a month after they were detained, what hope is there that our current trade deal-obsessed Prime Minister is any different? Perhaps the Minister will tell me later that I am wrong. I certainly hope that she will, because if not, what was the point of the Bishop of Truro’s report, and indeed, what is the point of today’s debate?
I had a quick look through Hansard and discovered that I first started speaking on this subject 20 years ago in a debate on the persecution of Christians in Egypt. Frankly, there was little interest from the Government then, but we see much more attention now, which I welcome. There is a special envoy for freedom of religion and belief. Numerous charities, such as Aid to the Church in Need, Open Doors and Christian Solidarity Worldwide, work on the frontlines and raise awareness here, and Red Wednesday, of course, has become an annual fixture. However, I believe that the Government, for all their efforts, could still do more.
We continually underestimate the clout that we have. We gave £463 million to the Government of Pakistan in 2016. The Department for International Development’s planned budget for Nigeria in 2018 was £235 million. We have a long history and tradition of humanitarianism, which we want to continue. These countries have problems and we want to help them, but how are we helping when we are sending hundreds of millions of pounds to Governments who completely fail to protect their Christian citizens? We should not be afraid to turn off the tap when lives are on the line. We need to question countries with Islamist Governments on why they will not allow the total freedom of worship and religion and equal rights. Surely people everywhere, in every country, province and land, of every faith and denomination, should be able freely to practise their religion or belief in accordance with their conscience—it simply does not happen in the world today. How can we say we really think that if our aid budget does not reflect our thinking and we are not prepared to use our clout?
We sit here today in the heart of a country renowned across the world for our resilience in the face of challenge, and our magnanimity, fairness and concern for the vulnerable—that is all very good. We command one of the most capable militaries on the planet. We are a financial heavyweight, giving hundreds of millions of pounds each year to countries that are poorer than ourselves. That is fantastic, yet in the face of another radical threat to stability in the developing world, our resolve appears to have dimmed and our desire to help been neutralised.
Aside from questions of war fatigue, which I entirely sympathise with, we ought to consider how much more difficult it will be to solve this crisis in 10 years’ time if we do not act swiftly now. Some of us were in the Chamber as our predecessors decried the actions of Saddam Hussein against his own people and the malicious rule of Gaddafi, and we took action. I ask the House: where is that same commitment when it comes to the persecution of Christians? Where is the same loyalty to the victims of the repressive proto-caliphate that is developing in the Sahel?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should use our aid budget to help persecuted Christians and give more money to the minority groups who are being affected, such as the poor Christians in Syria and across the middle east?
That is a very positive suggestion. Perhaps we should take some money away from the Governments who are not doing enough and give it directly to people on the ground.
We could spend hours going over many countries in the world but I want to talk about Nigeria, to take one example. It is a wonderful nation on the west coast of Africa. It is a close partner in the Commonwealth. It is forecast to be the continent’s “bread basket” within a generation. The UN predicts that Nigeria’s population could be 411 million by 2050 and 794 million by the end of the century. We have many people born in Nigeria or of a Nigerian background living in Britain today, and we welcome all this. However, in the same way that the recent expansion of ISIS in Iraq and Syria could not have been so easily predicted, we should be careful not to exclude from our view the painful reality that parts of Nigeria are now ripe for an ISIS takeover. I will talk about a few distressing examples—all well documented—from Open Doors and other organisations.
Some 1,300 Nigerian Christians have been killed in the past year, in addition to the more than 6,000 deaths since 2015. The Islamic Fulani, a nomadic ethnic group of about 20 million people across 20 west and central African countries, are, I am afraid, largely responsible for this new wave of attacks. In the last four or five years, growing numbers of them have adopted a land-grabbing policy—motivated by an extremist belief system and equipped with sophisticated weaponry—leading to the massacre of thousands of people and the permanent displacement of vulnerable rural communities.
Despite centuries-long tension between sedentary farmers and the nomadic Fulani herders, recent attacks have exposed the Fulani’s improved military capability and ideological fervour. The Global Terrorism Index in 2016 and 2017 named Fulani militia as the fourth deadliest terrorist group in the world, with only Boko Haram, ISIS and al-Shabaab considered deadlier. Targeted violence against predominantly Christian communities suggests that religion and ideology are key drivers in the massacre, which is going on in our time and, we might say, on our watch.
The right hon. Gentleman is making an excellent point. Does he agree that it would be useful to have an update both from the Department for International Development regarding its involvement in supporting those persecuted in Nigeria and on the FCO’s and DFID’s engagement with the Government in Nigeria on those issues?
I will talk about our influence on Nigeria and the work of DFID and the Foreign Office, which is a very important point, but I will spend another couple of minutes detailing some of what is going on on the ground.
In Christmas eve in 2010 in Jos, at least 86 people were murdered and 74 injured in a series of Islamic bomb blasts and attacks, most of them targeting church services. Choir members were hacked to death in their pews. A year later in Madalla, Islamic bombers struck a Catholic church during a morning Christmas mass, slaughtering 45 worshippers and injuring 73 more. The day before, 11 were brutally murdered in Maiduguri, including a pastor and his young daughter who were incinerated in the fire-bombing of three churches. Life can be unpredictably and unbearably short for Christians in the killing fields of northern Nigeria. On the Epiphany of January 2012, 20 Christians who had gathered for a funeral were machine-gunned to death at close range by Muslim terrorists shouting “Allahu Akbar”, and a further 15 were brutally injured. In Rivers State in 2018, Islamic gunmen invoking the name of God opened fire on Christians returning from a church service, killing 17 and raping any vulnerable woman who could not escape. I could go on and on.
Warnings have been given by organisations such as PSJ, the Organisation for Peace and Social Justice. That organisation, which campaigns in Europe and the United States and is supported by many leading Nigerians, urges President Buhari to change course and raise his game. Its work is striking a chord with millions on the ground in Nigeria today. So many Nigerians have had their churches, homes, farms and even families taken from them in the harshest way imaginable. I commend the work of PSJ and other organisations, and hope that it can mark the beginning of a new era in Nigerian politics.
An ineffectual Government led by President Buhari have shown little sign of stopping the silent slaughter of the innocent. He has repeatedly paid lip service to possible solutions, but has failed to deliver on any of those vague promises. There are also geopolitical consequences. The President appears exceptionally relaxed about the fact that his border with Chad is porous and undefended, and, as such, it has become a transport hub for Islamist weaponry, intelligence and recruits.
Our long-standing connection and friendship with Nigeria means that we are well placed to do something about the unravelling situation. Whatever we do—if we save just one life—it is worth doing. At the same time we can respect national sovereignty, which, of course, we always do. Britain is one of the biggest donors of foreign aid to Nigeria: we give it £300 million each year. Is it not about time that we started to review the conditions attached to that aid, as our partners in America and Europe have been doing so in other contexts? One prominent example was in 2017, when the United States withheld nearly $96 million in foreign aid to Egypt and refused to commit itself to a further $195 million as a penalty for the country’s abysmal human rights record.
More recently, the US Government have proposed basing the apportionment of foreign aid on the way in which countries treat their religious minorities—all religious minorities. The scheme would involve designating a ranking system under which foreign aid handouts could be reviewed depending on the severity of the situation in each country. At this moment, the European Union is also preparing a human rights sanctions regime, which would allow the bloc to target specific individuals in breach of good practice. That regime could be readily applied to many in the Nigerian Government.
We might also consider using such mechanisms to hold Nigeria to account. Adopting that approach would place its Government under pressure to improve. The argument that Buhari needs British handouts to solve the problems facing him does not stand up to scrutiny. The fact that after years of generous aid packages the massacre of Christians is escalating is a sign that the money we have given him has not been used well. Continued and unquestioned support puts a seal of approval on his inaction. Undeserved aid packages of that kind provide a false sense of security, even when the situation on the ground is worsening.
We can help Nigeria greatly by incentivising it to use its natural wealth more effectively and equitably. It is 146th on the 2019 Corruptions Perceptions Index, and scores an abysmal 26 out of 100 for transparency. By contrast, Pakistan, which has seen horrendous human rights abuses towards Christians—most notably the poor woman Asia Bibi, imprisoned for years under an extremist blasphemy law—is 120th on the index, nearly 30 places higher.
One of the key policy aims of our Prime Minister and his new Government must be to defend persecuted Christians, at home and abroad. He has made some good moves so far, but they need to be backed up with more muscle. It is not that our impression of Nigeria as a resource-rich, joyful, and energetic part of the world is entirely wrong, but if we do not intervene soon, it risks becoming so. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
It is a pleasure to speak in this hugely important debate. Although not too many Members are present, I know that there are many others who, if not here in person, are certainly with us in spirit. I include in that my hon. Friend Angus Brendan MacNeil, whose work on reuniting refugee children informed him about much of what we will be debating this afternoon. I thank him, and so many other Members, for being such a powerful voice in speaking up for the millions of persecuted Christians around the world. Sadly, that voice is more necessary now than ever, as it seems that anti-Christian discrimination and persecution are on the rise. That was brought home to many of us who attended the launch of the 2020 Open Doors report just last month.
As we have heard, every year the charity Open Doors publishes its world watch list of the 50 worst-offending countries when it comes to the persecution of their Christian communities. The list makes particularly depressing reading. As we have also heard, the 2020 report says that, from Colombia to China, a staggering 260 million Christians face extreme or high levels of persecution. A further 50 million face persecution in 23 other countries that are named, including Mexico, Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo. That means that more than 300 million Christian people are living in fear of practising their faith, and it appears to be getting worse.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, in order to take a really committed stand against religious persecution, the UK Government could, in solidarity against that persecution, allow asylum seekers who come to the UK and whose claims have been accepted to work if they are fleeing religious persecution?
Obviously I agree. We have argued in favour of that on many occasions. Perhaps it is time that, rather than just talking about Open Doors once a year, the UK practised literally opening doors to people across the country who need our help.
Five years ago, Open Doors ranked just one country, North Korea, as “extreme” in the level of its persecution of Christians. Today no fewer than 11 countries are in the “extreme” category: during those five years, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Sudan, Eritrea, Yemen, Iran, India, Syria and Pakistan have joined the list.
On the night of
Earlier this week Huma Younus’s case was heard at the High Court in Karachi, where her parents argued that her marriage was invalid, in line with the Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929, which forbids marriage under the age of 18. They produced evidence, including her baptismal certificate issued by St. James Parish in Karachi, which showed that she was 14 years old, having been born in May 2005. Yet the judges ruled that, as per Sharia law, even if Huma was a minor, the marriage between her and her alleged abductor was valid because she had already had her first menstrual cycle. Obviously, the judges’ decision was a devastating blow to Huma’s family. In the words of her inconsolable mother,
“Once again, justice has been defeated and, once again, our state has shown itself unable to treat Christians as Pakistani citizens.”'
In a direct appeal to international Governments, her parents said:
“We appeal to the international community and to the international media, we appeal for you to raise your voices in defence of Huma. Our daughter is just 14 years old.”
So I ask the Minister on behalf of Huma and her heartbroken parents: what is the UK going to do for her and for those other Pakistani children who are being sexually exploited, forced to abandon their faith and enter marriages against their will? What are the UK Government going to do? How are they going to lobby the Pakistani authorities in those cases where religious laws and customs that are discriminatory towards minors are taking precedence over state legislation and causing a flagrant breach of human rights? This year, the UK plans to give more than £300 million in aid to Pakistan. What assessment have the Minister and the Government made of Huma’s lawyer’s statement about the Child Marriage Restraint Act that
“in Pakistan these laws are formulated and approved only to improve the image of the country in front of the international community, to ask for development funds and to freely trade Pakistani products on the European market”?
Of course, Pakistan is far from being alone in this. Open Doors and other Christian groups have identified a number of trends that are fuelling the rise in persecution against Christian communities. They include increasingly authoritarian states clamping down and using legislation to control or suppress belief, and unscrupulous Governments and regimes discovering that appealing to a sense of national religious identity and depicting Christians as aliens or outsiders can be a useful way to boost their own power and position. They also include, as we have heard, the spread of radical Islam, which has been driven out of large parts of the middle east but is now becoming more prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa.
Last year in Nigeria, more than 1,300 Christians were killed for their faith by ISWAP—Islamic State West Africa Province—or Boko Haram. In Nigeria, more people were murdered for their faith than in any other country in the world. Among them were the 10 Christian men who were beheaded and whose murders were graphically shown to the world in a video released on Christmas day, of all days. Tragically, 2020 has started where 2019 left off. On Monday of this week, the body of 18-year-old Michael Nnadi was found by a roadside. Michael was a seminarian with the Good Shepherd seminary in Kaduna and had been missing since being taken hostage, along with three brother seminarians, by Boko Haram on
I am sorry to say that the activities of Boko Haram and ISWAP are spreading to the neighbouring countries of Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Niger and Mali, all of which appear on this year’s Open Doors list. Last week, Bishop Bruno Ateba from northern Cameroon told Aid to the Church in Need that in the first two weeks of 2020 there had been 13 attacks on villages in his diocese. He said:
“Just when people thought that the beast of Boko Haram had been completely decapitated, the horror has resurfaced in northern Cameroon.”
The problem is undoubtedly getting worse, and the persecutions of Christians is becoming increasingly widespread. We have all watched with horror and great sorrow the systematic attempts to erase all traces of Christianity from its middle eastern spiritual homeland. His Holiness Pope Francis has said:
“It might be hard for us to believe, but there are more martyrs in the world today than there were in the first centuries. They are persecuted because they speak the truth and proclaim Jesus Christ to this society.”
Sadly, the response of this society to those speaking that truth is all too often to imprison torture, kidnap or murder them.
Thankfully, there are many individuals, charities and NGOs who work hard in this field. I pay tribute to the wonderful work being done by Aid to the Church in Need, which each year funds more than 5,000 projects in more than 140 countries around the world, helping and supporting persecuted Christians to live out their faith while providing practical and spiritual support to millions of people. I was privileged last year to visit Lebanon and the Syrian border with Aid to the Church in Need to see that practical support in action. We met Christian families who had fled Syria, Iraq and other places in the middle east to seek refuge in Lebanon. Were it not for the day-to-day support and pastoral care provided by ACN, they would be absolutely destitute. On the feast of the Epiphany, I was honoured to be with the Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop when St John the Merciful Table provided 1,000 refugees with their only hot meal. That is something that they do every single day. It was a small but wonderful example of how Christian organisations are helping those fleeing persecution, but with the growth in the number of people in need, this cannot be left simply to the charities to provide.
As I said, more than 300 million Christians are being persecuted or are living in fear of persecution. As we have heard, there is no identikit model for what that persecution looks like. It comes from direct state suppression, as in North Korea and China. It can come in the form of discriminatory laws that favour one group ahead of another, such as those we are currently witnessing in Pakistan. Persecution can also come in the form of terrorism from Daesh, Boko Haram or ISWAP, who use extreme violence against many of the poorest people on the planet in order to pursue their ideology. It can come with or in the wake of war, as warring factions seek to divide communities along religious lines for their own gain, as we are seeing in Syria. We have to be clear that, wherever it comes from and however it manifests itself, we all, as individuals, as groups and as the Government, have to call it out. We have to be seen to be doing everything we possibly can to stop it.
It is a great honour to speak in this debate and to follow the excellent speeches that have been made by the Minister and by my right hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for the work he has done over decades on this subject, and to Brendan O’Hara for the interesting analysis that he has just presented us with.
As a Christian, I am well aware that this is not a new subject; it is a very ancient subject indeed. In fact, we had Christian persecution during the Roman empire on a monumental scale. It persisted through the middle ages and the wars of religion in France, and it was of course endemic in the communist era under Stalin. This is not only a question of what is going on in China today; it is something that permeates our history and our civilisation. I shall be bold enough to say that, in my opinion, religious toleration is the best evidence of a civilised society. I say that because it is not just about law-making; it is about attitudes, cultural life and thinking. Where there has been a proper degree of religious toleration in the past, there has tended to be peace. When that toleration breaks down and people compartmentalise their own ideology and use it as a weapon—and as a state weapon in the case of certain countries, many of which have been mentioned today—we end up with the increase in persecution that Open Doors has identified so well. This debate is quite rightly about Christian persecution, which of course does apply and has applied in the past more particularly where there have been atheistic regimes and regimes that discriminated against Christianity but also against other religions.
I welcome and applaud what Open Doors has said. This has not been specifically mentioned yet, but Open Doors estimates that 260 million Christians in the top 50 countries on its world watch list for 2020 are being persecuted for their religious beliefs, compared with 245 million in 2019. In 2014, only North Korea was ranked as extreme for its level of persecution of Christians. In the 2020 report—only six years later—11 countries fall into that category, and Open Doors estimates that attacks on churches have risen by 500%, from 1,847 to 9,488, over the past year. That massive increase is highly dangerous and problematic not only for stability in the countries in which such things are happening, but in relation to what this country must do to attempt to mitigate and prevent them. The International Society for Human Rights estimates that Christians are the targets of about 80% of all acts of religious discrimination or persecution worldwide, so it is significant that this debate focuses on persecution against Christians.
I welcome the initiative of the Prime Minister and, indeed, the manner in which my hon. Friend Rehman Chishti has taken over as special envoy on this matter, under the auspices—if I can use that expression—of my hon. Friend the Minister and the Prime Minister. I will issue a word of encouragement, rather than warning, because when I read the Bishop of Truro’s report, and the commentary around it, I noted that only two of the 22 extremely important and significant recommendations are Christian-specific. It is worth making that point, because if the proportionality demonstrates that the increase in attacks on Christians is so much greater than in those on others, and that that is largely happening in countries with a particular state ideology about religious beliefs that is antipathetic to the Christian religion, then inevitably it is a serious problem on an international scale. For that reason, I am glad that the United Nations is taking an active interest in the matter.
It is one thing to say we do not like persecution, but it is another to say that it is coming from certain quarters and certain countries, and that it is aimed at certain categories of religious minority—in this case Christian—while the volume of persecution against Christians is increasing. It therefore becomes a matter of extreme importance to us, and I welcome what the Foreign Secretary has said about the matter. The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Minister are hitting the nail right on the head. It is one of the most intractable problems, as shown in the historical outline I gave from the Roman empire onwards, and it will not just go away. It will require careful diplomatic, belief-based and religious tolerance from those who want to prevent the situation from escalating.
As I said during the shadow Minister’s very good speech, we must be careful not to generalise the subject in such a way that our attention is distracted from attacks on Christians. I have always been a strong supporter of Holocaust Memorial Day, and I feel intensely about the matter. I had the opportunity the other day to sign the book, and I remember writing, “Never again.” I do not need to write 10 lines, just the words, “Never again.” Having been born in 1940, I am the oldest Member in the House of Commons, so unlike many others—I mean no disrespect; this is a problem of age—I actually lived through that period. I can remember as a small boy seeing the extent of the persecution when I watched black-and-white films after the war about what went on in the concentration camps.
One must remember that some people were taken to those camps due to their Christian beliefs. We all know about Bonhoeffer and Father Kolbe—St Kolbe as I think he is now—and so on, and I am just trying to contextualise the debate a little by saying that this is not a new problem and it is not confined to Christianity. However, this debate is especially important because of the degree to which Christians are now being targeted in a new wave of anti-Christian persecution by certain states that have either atheistic or, in some cases, Islamic objections to Christianity and have weaponised their state control in order to persecute Christians.
We must also be aware of the use of sanctions. My hon. Friend Alexander Stafford, Brendan O’Hara and my right hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh impressed me by mentioning the imposition of conditions on the aid we give. Members will know that I promoted the Bill that became the International Development (Gender Equality) Act 2014. Its aim was to protect women and children from FGM and all those other matters. The Bill imposes a statutory obligation that where the Government, through the Department for International Development, are giving aid, they are allowed to impose conditions to promote the idea of protecting women and children, including from trafficking, honour killings and other matters whereby women are unfairly treated in different countries.
As we have heard, many countries are actively using state powers to promote anti-Christian persecution. Imposing conditions could be a fruitful line of inquiry and needs to be worked on, because although the 2014 Act related to the protection of women and children, it could just as well be used for ensuring that Christians are not persecuted. The law is already there, and I remember the former Prime Minister saying to me, “You do realise, Bill, that you have changed the law in a really big way,” because the £13 billion that we give in international aid now has embedded in it a statutory obligation, subject to judicial review. I would be keen to see that principle applied to the purpose of ensuring that Christians in other countries are not persecuted.
This debate has been incredibly useful for many reasons, and I will finish by saying something about my great friend Jeremy Lefroy, the former Member for Stafford, who has sadly left this House. He is doing the most amazing work, and I am sure we shall hear more about it from my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce. His work, and that of others doing similar things, can play a big part in ensuring that we get this problem straightened out. I will finish on the domestic abuse of Christians. It has bothered me for a long time that some people appear to be able to go up and down Whitehall with placards attacking Christians—make no mistake—without being properly prosecuted. If Christians were to attack other religions in the same context, it would immediately fall into the category of what is called human rights law. I am not against human rights and never have been, but I am deeply concerned—[Interruption.] I see one or two Members shaking their head. I have a very deep concern that human rights laws sometimes protect some people but can give rise to the invasive question of proper control over the misuse of freedom of speech. That is highly controversial and we do not have time to go into it now, but I put that forward as a proposition.
It is important that issues of religious toleration have complete equivalence of treatment under the law. Once it gets out of control, it becomes so pervasive and causes so much division in society—I come back to Holocaust Memorial Day and my concern for the Jewish population, and to what I have seen in the press about some aspects of the accusations against some members of the Labour party.
We all owe it to everybody to be fair, reasonable and tolerant, but also to put our foot down, using sanctions where necessary and financial conditions where required, to ensure that we do not allow Christians, either abroad or at home, to be persecuted. Such persecution is unjustified and hateful, and we can do something about it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this extremely important debate on the persecution of Christians, Madam Deputy Speaker.
As an officer of the all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief, I pay particular tribute to the group and its chair, Jim Shannon, who is here today. His tireless work in the group is outstanding, as is his support for Christians and all other religious groups to prevent persecution and to ensure these issues are regularly raised in this House so that we are cognisant of our responsibility to address them at all levels of government.
This issue is of immense importance to constituents and church groups across East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow. I have received over 60 emails in the past couple of weeks asking me to attend the Open Doors event in Parliament. I attended and was extremely impressed by its detailed work and its watchlist of countries where Christians are persecuted today.
I heard the poignant accounts of those who bravely practise their faith in countries where they experience threats to their life. As a Christian, I always seek to live by my values but, when there is a threat to someone’s life and, particularly, a threat to their family’s lives, the bravery, courage and absolute faith of those extraordinary individuals is commendable and insurmountable. I was moved by the whole experience of that event in Parliament.
Will the Minister take this away and consider the persecution faced by Christians in Turkey, China, Pakistan and Nigeria? I visited Nigeria with the Select Committee on International Development a number of years ago, and we heard at first hand the religious intolerance that appeared to be building and about the very real risks people faced every day. In support of the Bring Back Our Girls campaign, we spent time with the mothers whose children had been abducted.
As my constituency hosts the Department for International Development, I ask the Minister to look at the Department’s work. It is important to many Members that the Department continues to make progress on the spirit and recommendations of the Bishop of Truro’s report. The Department does fantastic work across the world, and people in East Kilbride are proud that we are at the helm of many programmes that support those facing persecution, as well as those in extreme poverty in developing countries.
As a member of the International Development Committee, I visited the refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan following the Syrian crisis. I went with Fiona Bruce, who will speak shortly, and I distinctly remember that one of our reports highlighted how refugees from Christian backgrounds were often under threat of persecution and therefore could not, or felt they could not, go to the security and safety of the settlements developed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
We took evidence over many months in producing our detailed report, and we understood that the proportion of Christians included in the resettlement programme was desperately low and that the issue had not been addressed at the time. I am not sure whether the Minister can provide an update today, but perhaps she could write to update me on the UNHCR’s work and on the number and proportion of Christians who are now part of the resettlement programme. Has that been addressed? My fear was that families were in hiding and were not able to take part in the very good programmes to which we contribute funding. That is extremely important.
We think about the international persecution of Christians, but we need to address how Christians across the United Kingdom sometimes feel. People from many different religions feel persecuted at times, and we must always address that. No matter our own religion or values, we must make sure that the UK has freedom of religious belief for everybody.
Some of the groups that contacted me over the past year have highlighted a gradual perception of the erosion of beliefs and values related to Christianity across the United Kingdom. That concern is felt by teachers who contacted me, and by individuals who feel it is important to celebrate Easter and who were very upset by the announcement a few years ago that Cadbury’s would be taking the word “Easter” off its Easter eggs. I remember writing to Cadbury’s at the time, and it subsequently reversed the decision. Although big companies might base such developments on their consumers, they have a fundamental impact on people with religious beliefs.
Other individuals highlighted cases where “Merry Christmas” has been replaced with “Happy Holidays,” or where they felt pressured to make that change. I visited a hospital not so long ago where staff were greatly upset that the star had been taken off the Christmas tree. It is important not only that we continue to work together across this House on all these issues, but that this is not just seen singularly as an issue for other countries, because we have to accept that we also have a lot of work to do to ensure the continuation of freedom of religious belief, which we all hold so dear as an absolute value in this House. We must support that and do everything we can, across all parties in this House, to ensure that it is one of the core fundamental values that underpin our democracy.
It is a pleasure, albeit a sad necessity for many of us, to speak on a debate on this issue yet again in this House. The analysis I have seen from Open Doors and others shows that in the past three years alone more than 10,000 Christians have been killed for their faith—that is a staggering number. We are right to hold this debate today, because, as others have mentioned, the evidence shows that Christians are the target of about 80% of all the acts of religious discrimination or persecution around the world.
However, as other Members have done, it is right that we focus briefly on the other 20% as well. It is a huge slight to this country that there are record levels of antisemitism here in the UK, but we are not alone, as this has increased by some 27% in France. We know that Muslims are persecuted around the world: there is internment in China, which we have heard about; 49 Muslims were killed in the mosque attack in New Zealand not so long ago; in June 2017 a 51-year-old man was killed coming out of a mosque in Islington, here in the UK; and in New York, in 2016, an imam and his associate were also killed. We also should not forget the issues that atheists face around the world. Thirteen Muslim countries punish atheism or apostasy with death, and in others legal status can be withdrawn. So although it is right that today’s debate focuses on the 80%, I, like many other Members, wish to put on record that we are concerned about all abuses of human rights in matters of faith. The diminution of those rights for people of any faith diminishes all of us, Christian or otherwise, in this House.
Sadly, we could discuss so many countries in this regard, but I am going to deal with North Korea, which has been at the top of Open Doors’ world watch list for a long time. I often feel that North Korea does not get the attention it should in these debates, probably because so little information comes out. However, some information does come out from time to time, and we need to recognise the indescribable brutality against Christians in that country and the fact that it is absolutely directed by its Government. I, for one, would like to see greater protest about that from young people and others, because it is absolutely unacceptable.
I learnt recently of a report from a defector from the North Korean national security agency, who was talking about being trained to look for things such as people who remained silent, with their eyes closed; people who were meditating; and habitual smokers or drinkers who quit smoking or drinking all of a sudden. Those people were to be watched closely, because those things were a sign that they might well be Christians. Severe recrimination, including torture, often leading to death, would follow as a result. There are brave people who have escaped from North Korea. Indeed, some have spoken in Speaker’s House about what goes on in that country, and it gives me pleasure to give amplification to their words, because we do not hear and say enough in this country about what goes on there. We also know that North Korean national security service spies are commissioned to set up fake secret prayer meetings to attract Christians, who, again, will then be imprisoned. Those are the lengths to which that deeply evil regime goes to stop any form of faith happening in that country.
Later on this year, the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting will take place in Kigali, in Rwanda. Such a meeting happens every two years, and I am a big fan of the Commonwealth. It does great work around the world, and as we have left the European Union, we are going to need to invest in that important member organisation even more strongly, to boost our trade links and our links of friendship. But if Members look down the world watch list, they will see that on it are India, Nigeria, Brunei, Cameroon, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Kenya and Malaysia. Those nine are all Commonwealth countries and they have things to answer for on how they are treating Christians. So one of my questions to my good friend the Minister, whom I know takes these issues extremely seriously, is whether Her Majesty’s Government will engage on the issue of freedom of religion and belief with our Commonwealth friends and partners at that CHOGM meeting. I hope she will be able to give us answer in the debate, but if she cannot, perhaps she would write to us.
Like many Members here, I am extremely proud of the fact that my right hon. Friend Jeremy Hunt instituted the Bishop of Truro’s review. He was right to do that, and it is even better news that the previous Government committed to it, as has our current Prime Minister. We have a fantastic envoy in this area, whom I spoke to in America early this morning. He might be in Washington but he is still on the case and he is very interested in what we are doing in this House today. He was running me through some of the recommendations, and I wish to focus on three in particular.
The first recommendation was for the UK to seek a United Nations Security Council resolution, and I know the Minister was asked about that earlier. I understand that the United Kingdom will assume the presidency of the Security Council shortly, and I hope that will be a time when we press forward with that important resolution to Governments in the middle east and north Africa to protect Christians and other persecuted minorities in those countries. That is absolutely necessary.
The second recommendation on which I wish to focus is the training that we provide to our excellent diplomats. We are extremely fortunate in this country to have world-class diplomatic representation. As one of the Prime Minister’s trade envoys, I have the privilege of working with some of our diplomats and know that they do fantastic work for this country all around the world. I understand that the recommendation is that all Foreign Office staff, at home and abroad, should have mandatory training on religious literacy, and that in some British embassies, high commissions and relevant companies there should be tailored responses to any violations of freedom of religion or belief. If the Minister is able to update us on the ongoing procurement of further training for our diplomats, that would be helpful. This issue needs to get into the DNA and culture of the Foreign Office—it is the bread-and-butter business of the Foreign Office. Trade deals matter, but so does freedom of religion and belief.
The final recommendation that I wish to dwell on for a while is the consideration of the imposition of sanctions on perpetrators of serious human rights abuses against religious minorities, including Christians. Again, I know that the Government are working on this issue. It would be really helpful to the House if in her response the Minister could perhaps flesh out the situation and tell us whether the Foreign Office has any particular countries in mind. Indeed, it might be helpful to those countries to know that they are potentially in the frame. Perhaps they would raise their game and make improvements so that the sanctions were not imposed.
It would be useful for the House to know what the process is and what sort of things the Government are looking at. How will the sanctions apply? If the persecution comes from the whole Government, will the sanctions apply just to individuals or to the Government as a whole? How will the sanctions be worked into our trade negotiations? Obviously, we hope that the mere threat of sanctions would lead to improvements so that they would not need to be imposed. In a sense, to impose a sanction is always a failure. It is a tool that we want to have in the box but do not want to have to use, but sometimes we need to take the tools out of the box if there is no change or action. It would really help the House if the Minister could kindly flesh out a little more of the Government’s thinking in that policy area. If she is not able to do that today—I may have put her on the spot—perhaps she would be kind enough to write to us to set out the Government’s thinking.
I am absolutely delighted to have this opportunity to raise the plight of persecuted Christians. The last time I raised this issue in the House, in a debate just like this one, I focused on Nigeria and the horrifying persecution by the terrorist group Boko Haram. This time, I wish to highlight persecution by the Chinese state, which observers from the Open Doors world watch list believe is increasing.
In China, unlike many other countries where Christians face persecution, the origin of the persecution they face is not hatred from members of another religion; instead, it appears to be the Communist party’s apparently endless desire to exert its authority over every institution, however small and potentially unthreatening, that could provide an alternative source of community or—they might possibly think—power. This desire for control leads to attempts to Sinicise every single church and every other religious and cultural institution in that place, forcing them under state control and into conformity with official interpretations of Chinese culture.
For those who do not fall into line, there have been crackdowns, detentions, interrogations, torture and disappearances. Local authorities are reportedly shutting down unregistered churches and arresting their members. Some regions have been told to replace pictures of Jesus with that of the Chinese leader. Members may have heard of the Early Rain Covenant church in Chengdu, more than 200 members of which were arrested in 2018. Its pastor, Wang Yi, was sentenced to nine years in jail. The Zion church, one of Beijing’s largest unofficial Protestant churches, was shut down in 2018.
As my hon. Friend Fabian Hamilton mentioned in his opening remarks from the Front Bench, children under the age of 18 are systematically banned from attending church. In effect that strips parents of the right to pass on their faith to their children. Technological monitoring has strangled religious freedoms in China. As we have heard, surveillance cameras have been forcibly installed in churches as a so-called security measure.
Someone who has experienced all that at first hand is Pastor Jin. He realised that his country had changed in 2017. He says:
“There was something about the tone and urgency of the language that suggested a new campaign was coming”.
Pastor Jin was arrested because of his church work and detained for more than 10 days in solitary confinement. He says:
“As the days dragged on, doubt crept in. I began to go over and over the same questions: if I am called by God, am I really willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of the Gospel?”
I cannot imagine how difficult it must be for someone to choose between their faith or their freedom and safety, and the safety of their family, too.
Some of the worst affected are those who dare to stand up for Christians and their right to practise. They are the lawyers, the human rights defenders and the people who speak out against the state as Christians are forced underground. They have been subject to the most awful intimidation and violence. Gao Zhisheng was one of them. Amnesty has called him the bravest lawyer in China. He grew up in poverty. When he became a lawyer, he pledged to serve the underprivileged. It was when Gao defended underground Christians as well as the Falun Gong that he got into trouble. For his efforts, he was repeatedly abducted. He spent three years in a prison in Xinjiang from 2011 to 2014. He was physically and mentally tortured, beaten, deprived of sleep, placed in solitary confinement for long periods of time and electrocuted with cattle prods. He continued to speak out against the injustices that he saw. He wrote:
“My experience is just one part of the boundless suffering of the Chinese race under the cruellest regime in history.”
In 2017, Gao was disappeared. His family have not heard from him since.
Another man, Li, is known for defending sensitive cases, such as those in unregistered religious groups who have faced persecution. Li was attacked multiple times because of that and, in one incident in 2007, he was abducted, held in a basement of a building and stripped to his underwear. Those who abducted him were heard shouting that if they saw him in Beijing again, they would beat him. Then he was attacked with bottles and electric shock batons. By the end, he had bruises all over his body, and he had lost his hearing in his left ear. Returning home, he found his house ransacked and his computer wiped. In 2015, he was arrested and spent two years in prison and was tortured daily. His family were not told where he was for six whole months. He left prison frail and unrecognisable after pleading guilty to charges of subverting the system. Li returned home to close surveillance and restricted freedom of movement. Li’s brother, Chunfu, was also detained for 18 months. Chunfu was hospitalised and diagnosed with schizophrenia. His wife, understandably distraught, was heard telling the police officer:
“His mind is shattered. Just what did you people do to him?”
These are just some of the horrific stories that have emerged—stories of people who were trying to defend the religious minorities in China.
As we know, and as we heard earlier, it is not only Christians who are being abused in the service of state control. Uyghur Muslims are being tortured and indoctrinated in modern day concentration camps in Xinjiang. In Tibet, Buddhist monasteries are being destroyed and their faithful monitored and imprisoned. Practitioners of Falun Gong have been targeted as an extremist group and reports suggest that they have been subjected to utter horrors, including live organ harvesting.
I know that hon. Members in this place would agree with me that it is a fundamental basic human right to have the freedom to practise religion or, indeed, to have none. The people who I have spoken about today have suffered so much to stand up for that basic human right, and they have suffered all the more because they stand alone and because we have not been standing with them. The protection of these rights needs to be at the heart of UK foreign policy. We must do everything possible to ensure that people have the right to pursue their beliefs without fear. The Government have been asked multiple times about their position on the breaches of human rights in China and elsewhere. Although I have heard nice words and that our concerns are shared, I am anxious that the Government’s response has lacked depth, or—dare I say it—courage. The severity of the situation calls for a stronger reaction and a clear declaration of intent. Statements of concern from our Government are simply not enough. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office needs to be more than an extended department of trade, because if we in Britain will not stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves, who are we?
I thank the Minister for allowing time for this important debate on the persecution of Christians, and I thank colleagues for their deeply moving and informed speeches. It is a privilege to follow them.
Like my right hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh, I want to focus on the situation in Nigeria, which others have also touched upon. Yesterday, in a written answer, the Foreign Office Minister, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, said:
“We are appalled by and condemn the escalating levels of violence, including executions, instigated by Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa (ISWA) in Northern Nigeria. The targeting of Christians, including those from Plateau State, has tragically increased in recent months”.
This is echoed by Baroness Cox, who was in Nigeria recently, and her organisation, Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust, which does such great work there, in their report, “Your Land or Your Blood: the escalating persecution and displacement of Christians in northern and central Nigeria”. She writes:
“While the underlying causes of violence are complex, the asymmetry and escalation of attacks by well-armed Fulani militia upon predominately Christian communities is stark and must be acknowledged. It is too simplistic to label these atrocities as driven by desertification, climate change or competition for resources…
The situation fulfils the criteria of genocide and should be recognised as such, with the responsibility of the international community to respond accordingly.”
I have some questions for the Government that I would like them to raise with the international community, but first I wish to read a few survivor testimonies from Baroness Cox’s report. Archbishop Ben Kwashi of Jos says:
“We are still not safe in our homes. I am raising an alarm –
if the government will listen”.
A pastor from Maiduguri in Borno:
“Every day we carry new corpses to the cemetery. They kill farmers. They destroy our homes and churches. They kidnap and rape women.”
Margaret from Ngar village:
“My sister was raped and her wrists cut off before she was shot through the heart. They took my brother, his wife and all their six children, tied and slaughtered them like animals.”
Veronica from Dogon Noma:
“They attacked me with a machete twice, once to the neck and once to my hand. I lost consciousness. When I woke up, I saw my daughter on the ground –
she was dead –
with my chopped finger in her mouth”.
Boko Haram has long been clear about the targeting of Christians, considering them to be infidels—non-believers. As its leader, Abubakar Shekau, who pledged allegiance to Daesh, said after the abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls:
“We know what is happening in this world. It is a jihad war against Christians and Christianity. It is a war against Western education, democracy, and constitution…a war against Christians and democracy and their constitution. Allah says we should finish them when we get them.”
Sadly, those quotes come from an October 2014 newsletter, “The Voice of the Martyrs”. In other words, it is not recent news. The religious element of these atrocities is so important, yet it has been downplayed and ignored, altogether often, for far too long by so many. Sadly, that includes representatives of our own Government in Nigeria. In early 2016, the Select Committee on International Development, on which I then served, visited Nigeria to review the Department for International Development’s programmes there. A roundtable meeting of community organisations was arranged by DFID staff there. During that trip, I repeatedly urged them to invite a senior representative of CAN, the Christian Association of Nigeria, to listen to his concerns about how Christians were being targeted and how disturbances and killings could not simply be put down to local disputes between travelling herdsmen and settlers, to the exclusion of religious elements. Yet in 2016 those DFID staff were not interested in listening to his concerns about religiously motivated attacks or dedicating resources to addressing them.
I hope that things have now changed on the ground there and ask whether the Minister will request that the DFID in-country staff there produce a report on what they are doing to address the persecution of Christians in Nigeria. How many lives could have been saved between then and now if they had listened to the representative of the Christian Association of Nigeria? Those lives might even have included the life of his colleague, Rev. Lawan Andimi, the chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria’s Adamawa state chapter, who was kidnapped and killed by Boko Haram just a few days ago, on
“This message is to the Christians in the world…Those…you see…are Christians and we will shed their blood as revenge”.
Aid to the Church in Need’s “Persecuted and Forgotten?” report said that between July 2017 and July 2019 there was
“an upsurge in the number and severity of attacks against Christians in the Middle Belt region.”
These attacks, clergy report, are
“growing in ferocity and frequency”.
I join colleagues in paying tribute to organisations such as Aid to the Church in Need, Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Open Doors.
There is too, sadly, grave concern in Nigeria that the Government of President Buhari are not simply failing to address these atrocities, but possibly doing worse. Baroness Cox says in the report:
“We share widespread concerns that many attacks take place with the states’
Following the Boxing day beheadings, Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah of Sokoto told Aid to the Church in Need that the Nigerian Government, by placing what he called “hard-line Muslims” in key Government positions, are giving tacit approval to such groups. He says:
“They are using the levers of power to secure the supremacy of Islam…If the people in power don’t do enough to integrate Christians, then they give oxygen to Islamism. If they have countries where everybody is Muslim in power then you give vent to the idea that Islam should be supreme.”
“Western nations are not doing enough…the Western nations could have reduced the influence…by 80 or 90 percent…Christians have every reason to feel insecure and…there is a general feeling of their marginalisation from the political process. If the principles of our religion were different, there would be a civil war by now”— meaning that the only thing preventing Nigeria from being engulfed in civil war is the peaceful tenets of Christianity. I challenge the Minister to find out the Nigerian Government’s exact response to concerns raised by our own Prime Minister about the increasing levels of violence across Nigeria when he met President Buhari at the UK-Africa investment summit on
First, despite the scale of violence in the farmer-herder conflict, few perpetrators—if any—have been brought to justice. What actions will the Nigerian Government take urgently to arrest and prosecute the perpetrators of violence, and what can the British Government do to help?
Secondly, in the farmer-herder conflict there have been many accounts of security forces not being deployed, not acting to prevent impending attacks or, worse still, being complicit in violence. What are the Nigerian Government doing to ensure that security forces respond to violence, and that any members of the security forces who perpetrate human rights abuses or wilfully ignore attacks are investigated and prosecuted?
Thirdly, targeted attacks against churches and heightening religious tensions indicate that religious identity plays a role in the farmer-herder conflict. What are the Nigerian Government doing to address the religious aspects of this violence, and to promote reconciliation between religious communities in Nigeria at a local level?
Christian Solidarity International has written to our Prime Minister this week:
“The increasingly violent attacks and the failure of the Nigerian government to prevent them and punish the perpetrators are alarming.”
It has also issued a genocide warning for Nigeria.
I welcome the fact that the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court is now considering the situation in Nigeria. Its report from the end of 2019 said that there is a “reasonable basis” to believe that war crimes and crimes against humanity have taken place in Nigeria. However, the OTP has been considering this issue since as long ago as 2010, and one particular element of the atrocities continues to be neglected in its annual reports: atrocities perpetrated on the basis of religion or belief. The OTP must take the religion or belief element of such atrocities in Nigeria into urgent consideration. Will the Minister ensure that the Government do ask for that? Any other approach simply would not provide a comprehensive picture of the situation so would fail to address the issue properly or ensure justice for victims and survivors. I appreciate that the Minister will not be able to respond to all my questions today—and I do have more—but I would appreciate her doing so at a later date, when she has had time to consider them.
What urgent action will the UK Government take in their role as a permanent member of the UN Security Council to uphold their commitment to prevent further genocide in Nigeria? The commitment to prevent genocide derives from the UK being a signatory to the genocide convention of 1948—a commitment reaffirmed in a 2005 declaration of the responsibility to protect.
I turn to the Bishop of Truro’s report, which I warmly welcome. I am appreciative that it is being given attention at the Foreign Office. Specifically with regard to Nigeria, how will the Government ensure that recommendation 7 on genocide prevention and determination and recommendation 21b on bringing Daesh to justice are given full and proper consideration, with particular reference to the increasingly violent attacks against Christians in Nigeria? May I politely suggest that if the Foreign Office is serious about its intention to implement the review’s recommendations, as I believe is the case, its approach could be analysed by a subsequent independent review, with particular reference to Nigeria as something of a test case? Might the Minister be willing to ask her FCO counterpart whether they could rise to that challenge? How will the Government ensure that Boko Haram, Daesh and other perpetrators are brought to account for the atrocities they are involved in? With regard to the Bishop of Truro’s report, what steps will the UK take to ensure that it prevents and suppresses the crime of genocide in Nigeria?
If you will permit me, Mr Deputy Speaker—it is a privilege to be able to speak at more length than usual in debates such as this—I would now like to refer to aid. This was touched on by my right hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh. To say that huge amounts of UK aid go to Nigeria is inadequate; perhaps more proper would be the term that has been used by our parliamentary colleague Lord Alton, whose written question this week ascertained figures that he called “eye-watering” sums of money. The figures appear to indicate that the total UK bilateral official development assistance to the Federal Republic of Nigeria for the 10 years up to 2018 was £2.4 billion. If the calculations are correct—I stand to be corrected—then for 2018, the latest year of statistics, that would equate to over £800,000 per day; and that was not the highest year, by far. Could the Minister confirm—perhaps, I accept again, at a later date—whether that is in fact correct? What proportion has been used specifically to address religious persecution and the persecution of Christians in Nigeria, about which we have heard so much today? What proportion of the £12 million that the Government have committed to champion freedom of religion or belief worldwide has been allocated to Nigeria, and for what purpose?
“The Alliance is intended to bring together senior government representatives to discuss actions their nations can take together to promote respect for freedom of religion or belief and protect members of religious minority groups worldwide.”
At the launch, Secretary Pompeo stressed the ever-growing need for such a combined effort, listing some of the worst acts of violence based on religion or belief in recent years. We have heard about many of these today. He cited
“terrorists and violent extremists who target religious minorities, whether they are Yazidis in Iraq, Hindus in Pakistan, Christians in northeast Nigeria or Muslims in Burma”,
“the Chinese Communist Party’s hostility to all faiths.”
It is very good to see that the UK Government have immediately joined that alliance. How will they use their membership to raise concerns on these issues, particularly the persecution of Christians in Nigeria? Nigerian Christian leaders who met Baroness Cox in Manchester earlier this week are, she reports, desperate for us to do something, as recent unreported massacres bring a horrific toll of suffering. In Nigeria, as the president of the Christian Association of Nigeria, Dr Samson Ayokunle, said last month,
“Christians have become endangered species in their own country.”
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken before me, and those who will follow afterwards, for their contributions. It is always a pleasure to see the Minister in her place. We had a discussion this week about this debate. We thank her for her contribution, and the shadow Minister as well. The civil servants never get a mention, but they are in the Box over there. We have met them on a number of occasions. I want to thank them for their responsiveness to us as MPs but also for helping the Minister in the job that is done.
This debate is very important and also very timely, as it falls the day after the inaugural meeting of this Parliament’s all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief—FoRB—and the APPG for the Pakistani minorities. That took place just yesterday—we did both at the same time. I thank the Members who have contributed to those groups and who attended the AGM. We speak up for those with Christian faith, those with other faiths and those with no faith—it is important to put that on the record. This debate is clearly about the persecution of Christians. I am a Christian and I am here to speak for that faith, but we also speak out for those of all faiths, because they have a right to worship God. Our God is a god of love, and we want to put that on the record.
For Christians, the world is becoming more and more dangerous. Christians are in a fight for survival, and many of us are aware of that. I was particularly interested in this issue when I came to the House, along with other Members—Fiona Bruce in particular—and we have come together to work on it. I have had the privilege to chair the APPG for international freedom of religion or belief for several years. It is encouraging to see the ever-increasing parliamentary appetite to engage on this issue. When the group started in 2013, it had roughly 30 or 40 members, and now it has well over 100. It was heartening to see so many Members join the meeting yesterday, and it is encouraging that today’s debate is mirrored by a discussion in the other place about freedom of religion or belief and international development.
The APPG made the following recommendations in November 2019: first, that Foreign and Commonwealth Office posts further implement the FCO FoRB toolkit as a normal part of their work; secondly, that the FCO in London continues to encourage, support and monitor posts’ implementation of the FCO FoRB toolkit’s recommendations; thirdly, that, building on the welcome appointment of a special envoy for freedom of religion or belief by two successive Prime Ministers, that post be made permanent; fourthly, that the commitment that the international roving ambassador for human rights will work with the special envoy for freedom of religion or belief is expressed in visible public activity at the United Nations, including the Human Rights Council, as well as elsewhere, including with FCO posts worldwide; and fifthly, that FCO posts actively engage with the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief by proactively seeking ways to concretely advance freedom of religion and belief in country, as well as monitoring the special envoy’s work on social media. Those recommendations are very important.
Thousands of Christians will be murdered for their faith this year. Some 200 million will be persecuted for their faith, and 2 billion live in endangered neighbourhoods. Figures obtained from the Library and Open Doors indicate that some 83% of the world’s Christian population is threatened or persecuted. I had the privilege, as I think everyone speaking in the debate did, to attend the launch of the Open Doors world watch list a few weeks ago, where I learned that 260 million Christians live in countries where they are at a risk of high, very high or extreme levels of persecution. That important event reminded us all of the vital need to protect marginalised Christian communities around the world. That is why I am grateful that the Government are maintaining their commitment to implement the recommendations of the Bishop of Truro’s report on the FCO’s work to support persecuted Christians.
Today is an opportunity to do so, but I wonder whether we in this House speak out as much as we should on behalf of Christians being persecuted across the world and whether our efforts match the seriousness of the problems. I commend the Government for the work they have done so far and encourage them to focus on the recommendations that have the biggest practical impact, such as improving data collection and training, making better use of the FCO FoRB toolkit, increasing funding for FoRB projects and imposing sanctions on FoRB violators.
I thank the hon. Member for giving way and pay tribute to him for his work as chair of the APPG. Whether it is Nigeria, Iraq or Myanmar, we have seen time and again how hostilities between religious or belief groups can lead to persecution and major humanitarian crises. I am concerned that our international-facing Departments spend enormous amounts of money responding to crisis but do little to promote freedom of religion or belief in order to prevent conflict. Does he agree that specific plans and funding for promoting FoRB should be included and shared between Departments working on international affairs?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. She is the co-chair of the APPG on international freedom of religion or belief, and I am very pleased to work alongside her. I absolutely and wholeheartedly agree with what she has said.
The funding and all that is necessary need to be looked at in taking another step up to improve the Government’s capacity to engage on FoRB issues and to have a direct impact on lives. Last year, we had the Sri Lanka Easter Sunday massacre, when 250 Christians were killed, and that still ranks high with us.
I had occasion to visit Iraq with Aid to the Church in Need, which was mentioned by Brendan O’Hara, the spokesperson for the Scots Nats. We had a chance to meet a number of people—Archbishop Warda was one of those we met, as well as Archbishop Nicodemus—from the Roman Catholic Church and also from the Orthodox Church. We had a chance to visit many places in Iraq where we met individuals who had clearly been persecuted and victimised for their beliefs. At that time, Mosul was still under ISIS control, but now it is free. We saw the damage done in that city not just to the buildings, but in the number of lives lost. It was a special occasion to be in Iraq and to experience that.
Of course, in an ideal world one could do everything, but in this world decisions have to be made about where to direct the limited resources. I therefore suggest that the Government do not prioritise recommendations the practical outcomes of which are uncertain, and which may be very costly in time and diplomatic effort, such as seeking to secure UN resolutions. Instead, they should focus on recommendations that have a more certain practical impact. Preet Kaur Gill referred to that, and it is important that we do so. We should put the funding where it would help by making changes, and we should do that in a really practical way so that we can almost touch those changes.
The Government can really help Christians and people of all faiths and beliefs who are suffering now in places such as Nigeria, where the scale of violence is already enormous and getting worse. Across the middle east, Christians have been displaced in Syria, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and western Africa. The information on this from Open Doors takes cognisance of where we are today.
The number of countries in west Africa where it is safe to be a Christian is shrinking. One could travel from Morocco in the north-west the whole way down to Cameroon in the south-west without leaving the world watchlist. That is a downward trend relative to what it should be in relation to human rights, but most importantly in the impact it is having on Christians.
Christian Matheson is not here for this debate, but he reminded me this week of the Christian leader who was beheaded in Nigeria, primarily because of his beliefs. That is the violence we see across the world. Christians and Muslims in Nigeria are suffering enormous violence at the hands of violent Islamic groups. According to evidence from Open Doors, last year approximately 1,350 Christians were killed for their faith in Nigeria. Let us think about that: 1,350 Christians were murdered just because they were Christians. That really ranks high with us.
This violence is not only causing untold misery and suffering for those who have been directly affected by it, but it is exacerbating religious tensions in an already extremely volatile country. I fear that if something is not done, we may be in this Chamber years from now—I hope not, but we may be—lamenting our failure to respond appropriately, and ending up investing much more money and effort in dealing with a future Nigerian refugee crisis.
Boko Haram and ISIS groups are in a full killing spree against Christians in Nigeria. Central Africa, as many will know, is the source of supplies of weapons of all sorts for terrorist groups across the world, so Boko Haram has easy access to the weaponry it needs, and the terrorists seem to have full sway.
I want to put on record my thanks to Open Doors, CSW, Release International, the Barnabas Fund and many other organisations that are speaking up for Christians across the world. They do some absolutely superb and excellent work. I would be very grateful to the Minister if she shared the discussions the Government had with President Buhari of Nigeria during his recent trip to the UK about his plans to halt the violence? Others have asked for that.
We had occasion through the all-party group to have a meeting with the Nigerian ambassador’s chief of staff, just to push these matters. From another angle, when the Government were meeting the ambassador and the President directly, we took the opportunity to speak to the chief of staff. I would also appreciate hearing what plans the Minister has to push the issue at a multilateral level, to ensure that the international community is collectively taking this issue as seriously as it should.
Pakistan is another country where I fear for the rights of Christians and other religious or belief minorities. I am ever mindful of the conference held in New York in, I think, September 2016. I remember it distinctly; different countries were represented, and we had two MPs from Pakistan, one a Muslim MP and one a Christian MP. Each of them stood up and the Pakistan Muslim MP said that he was speaking not just for Muslims in his country but for Christians, and the Christian MP did the same. That reminded me of what we can do if we do it together and do it well.
I had the privilege of travelling to that great country with two parliamentary colleagues in October 2018, and we were welcomed by a wide range of people from Parliament, Government and civil society. We shared stories of the challenges we face around protecting freedom of religion and belief, and we were humbled by the desire we saw to meet similar challenges in Pakistan. Off the back of that trip, the all-party groups on Pakistan religious minorities and freedom of religion and belief produced a comprehensive report outlining some of the challenges and making recommendations for the Pakistani and British Governments to help ameliorate the situation.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute, the spokesman for the SNP, made a good contribution, as all contributions have been. He gave examples of young Christian girls who were abducted, forcibly converted, and then married at the age of 13 or 14. That was one of the things that we brought to the attention of the Pakistan authorities when we were in Pakistan. What is happening there is absolutely disgraceful and there seems to be no control or will to stop that. They tell us that it can be stopped, but there does not seem to be a will to stop it, which concerns us.
We also had occasion to visit some of the slums, a Christian slum in particular, where a school is in place. It is a rudimentary school with children from the ages of four up to perhaps 15 or 16, and there was one Christian lady who had taken it upon herself to educate those children. We need the education of the Christian children in Pakistan to be as it should be. Pakistan sets aside 5% of jobs for Christians, but the jobs it offers those 5% are usually menial jobs such as sweeping the streets and cleaning the latrines. Pakistan needs to ensure that those 5% who are Christians have the opportunity to get an education so as to bring themselves up to a level where they can be nurses, doctors or teachers, instead of keeping them down so that they will never ever get away. So there is lots to do in Pakistan.
We also had occasion, along with Maurice Johns, the Pakistan religious minorities administrator, to visit a church of the Church of Pakistan, which is the equivalent of the Church of England, the Church of Scotland or indeed the Church of Ireland. There was an English service first and then a Pakistani service, and I attended the English one, and sang along with the hymns in my Ulster-Scots. The scripture text chosen was important: Corinthians 4:8-9:
“We are hard-pressed on every side, but not yet crushed;
perplexed, but not in despair…persecuted, but not forsaken;
struck down, but not destroyed.”
If ever there was a sermon in a church that summed it up for us, that was it. We arrived at that church with a police escort and an army escort, and there were metal gates on the entrance to the church, but all the other people who attended that church came and went as they normally did, and they went home afterwards in their own way. That brought me back to what it means to be a Christian in Pakistan and other places.
I would be grateful if the Minister sent me a letter outlining her response to those recommendations from the trip to Pakistan, including the plans to encourage and support Pakistan to make the necessary changes to achieve its ambition of obtaining freedom of religious belief.
Open Doors also referred to India and, I say this respectfully, to Prime Minister Modi. In 2019, there were 1,445 attacks on Christians in that country. It is moving in a dangerous direction. Christians and Muslims are under attack for their beliefs. It narkes me—to use an Ulster Scots word—and I hope we can persuade India to stand up and do the right thing. This debate is about Christian persecution, but freedom of religion or belief violations are a problem faced by all communities in India. Christians face significant persecution, but other religious belief groups face many challenges too. For example, countless Muslims have recently been effectively stripped of their citizenship in Assam state. That action bears worrying similarities to the fate of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, who were stripped of their citizenship in 1982. Ms Brown spoke about the Rohingya Muslims in a previous debate, which I think she secured. Unfortunately, we all know what that gross violation of human rights eventually led to. We must ensure that it does not happen again.
That terrible tragedy makes me wonder—I say this respectfully—whether the Government, or previous Governments, have learned the lessons of Myanmar, which is that unaddressed freedom of religion or belief violations can explode into conflict and humanitarian disasters. The report from Open Doors poses two questions: first, the need for the UK Government, and crucially the Department for International Development, to recognise religion as a vulnerability in any assessment of their programming around the world; and, secondly, the need for the UK Government to recognise local faith actors as a resource which, with support from DFID, should be utilised in development work. Those are two very salient points, which could be extremely helpful in taking things forward.
I would like to think that we have learned from such tragedies, but I fear that that is not the case. How else can one explain the fact that training in FoRB literacy and religious dynamics is an optional extra for staff in DFID and the FCO? It should not be optional. It should be mandatory. That is what I would like to see. I look to the Minister’s response to see whether we can go from voluntary to mandatory training, thereby increasing what we can do and doing it better. I am not saying the staff do not want to do it, but if it is mandatory and they all do it, they will all gain from it. That is really important. Surely, if the importance of these issues was genuinely appreciated, the training would be mandatory and the position of special envoy for freedom of religious belief would be permanent? We ask that it does become permanent. That, too, is very important.
I hope the Minister can assure hon. Members that all that can be done is being done to protect freedom of religion or belief, for the sake of Christians and people of all religions and none in Nigeria, Pakistan, India, China, west Africa, Europe and across the world. Today, we have a chance to speak up for those with no voice—for the voiceless. The Open Doors top 50 world watch list for 2020 is not like premier league football, where if you are in the top 10 you are doing well—or, in my case, if you are Leicester you are in the top three and doing very well—but a chart for countries across the world that do not deliver when it comes to the persecution of Christians. It is a very, very serious matter.
Today’s debate raises awareness, but we must continue to stand up for the millions of Christians who have hoped for change for many years and are yet to see it become a reality. If we don’t, who will?
The Vatican suggested in 2014 that about 100,000 Christians were being severely persecuted. Open Doors suggests that 11 Christians are killed every day—or 4,000 a year. Christians are probably the most persecuted religious sect in the world. Unfortunately, most of that persecution takes place in Muslim countries. The top 11 countries on the Open Doors watch list are classified as places where there is extreme persecution. North Korea is at No. 1; then there is Afghanistan, Somalia and Libya, with Pakistan at No. 5. We then have Eritrea; Sudan, where my wife operated for the International Committee of the Red Cross; Yemen, where I was when I was a boy; Iran and India, which is No. 10; and Syria at No. 11. The watch list classifies all those countries as extremely likely to persecute Christians—by the way, just outside that at No. 12 is Nigeria, which we have heard quite a lot about.
I want to name-check a few of those countries—some have not been referred to so far—starting with North Korea. There is only one god in North Korea and it is Kim Jong-un. If people do not worship Kim Jong-un and they do not have his picture in their house, they are in trouble. There are apparently about 300,000 Christians in North Korea. A considerable proportion of them are in camps and their chances of getting out are slight.
Afghanistan, a country where we have given blood to help, is No. 2. We have done so much to try to help that country. Family members give up their families for execution and if someone is a Christian there, they are likely to end up in a mental hospital. It is appalling.
Pakistan, a country that we are very friendly with, is No. 5. As my hon. Friend Jim Shannon highlighted, Pakistan considers Christians as second-class citizens. They are not allowed to have a decent job. Two Christians died because they were given inadequate clothing to work in the sewers. The law is against Christians. The anti-blasphemy laws are arrowed at Christians.
In India, for goodness’ sake—the largest democracy in the world—thousands of Christians are persecuted every year. Why? Why are they doing this? How can they do it? I just do not understand how India can allow that to happen.
No. 12 is Nigeria, and my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce has said enough about that to shock us.
No. 13 is Saudi Arabia, whose elite come to our country, live in London, dress the way they like, worship the way they like, do what they like and then go back and impose extreme sharia law. People cannot even have a church in Saudi Arabia—is that not disgraceful for a modern country? If someone is an expatriate in Saudi Arabia, they are not allowed to show that they are a Christian, otherwise they might be arrested or expelled from the country.
The hon. Gentleman’s contribution is, as always, absolutely on the button. In Saudi Arabia, if we in the Chamber got together in a house to have a Christian meeting, we would be subjected to surveillance, persecution and imprisonment. That is what happens in Saudi Arabia. What he refers to is only the tip of the iceberg, but I thank him for his comments.
Iraq, another country where we have given blood to help, is No. 15. In 2003 there were 1.5 million Christians in Iraq; now there are 160,000. Throughout the middle east in the past 100 years, huge numbers of Christians have left. They used to make up 25% of the population, and now the figure is 5%. Is that not appalling?
Egypt is No. 16, and 16% of its population are Christians, yet the Government treat those people as though they were the enemy of the state. If a church is wrecked by some riot, no one can get it rebuilt, because it is a matter of national security. Christians are not considered to be “right on” for Egypt.
It is a matter of deep regret to me, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Kazakhstan, that the country I like so much is No. 35. About 4.8 million of the population of Kazakhstan—about 25%—are Christians. The majority of them are Russian Orthodox and tend to stay in their own community, and they do not get too much hassle, but if you happen to come from a Muslim background and you are a Christian, you have got a problem. How come such a great country, which is going to have a superb future in this century, passed a law in 2011 that stopped religious freedom? How wrong is that?
I am shocked—truly shocked—that, during our lives, so much persecution of Christians is taking place. I absolutely endorse the Bishop of Truro’s recommendation that we, using our presidency of the United Nations Security Council in 2021—and, as I said earlier, it should be remembered that we have a permanent seat there—should persuade the United Nations as a whole to sign an agreement not to persecute Christians or anyone else. It will be difficult, but it is something that our Foreign Office should define as a top priority.
I will stop soon, because I think I have said enough, but I remain horrified that people who are peace-loving—all they want to do is worship privately—are so misused in our world, and it is to do with us. My mother, who went to Belsen in 1945 as an officer in the Special Operations Executive, never told me that she had been there until just before she died. When I asked, “How the heck, mum, did you not tell me that you had been in Belsen in 1945 with the British Expeditionary Force as an SOE agent?”—a spy, effectively—she said, “It is because, Robert, I am ashamed.” I said, “Mum, what do you mean, ashamed?” She said, “I am ashamed because the holocaust happened when I was alive.” Now I understand what she meant. We have got to stop the persecution of any religion, but this debate is about the persecution of Christians. It has got to stop. It is happening in our lifetime, and we must do everything we can to sort it out.
During this debate, it has been reported by the police in Northern Ireland that, on
I want to start by commending my hon. Friend Jim Shannon. He is a remarkable chap, as everyone in this House will know, because of his diligence and his service to this cause. I do not think there is anyone on the Front Bench who is not collared by him several times every week on this subject, and rightly so. He is outstanding on this matter and he probably does not get enough credit for the actions that he takes. It is important for me to put that on record, as other Members from across the House and across the parties have also done. Well done, Jim.
The architecture of this room is imbued with significant high callings. Indeed, the words inscribed on the Chair that you sit on, Mr Deputy Speaker, read as follows:
“The hand that deals justly is a sweet smelling ointment. A heedful and faithful mind is conscious of righteousness…Praise be to God.”
That lies at the heart of our Christian beliefs. That sweet smelling ointment means that Christians behave in a different way, and when they face persecution, they do not retaliate in the way that others of different beliefs perhaps would. That inscription on your Chair is a potent reminder of the history—the Christian history—of this nation and a reminder that we should all be alert to the need to defend those of faith who are persecuted, both here at home and abroad. It is important that we are frank about what happens at home so that we can also speak about righteousness abroad. Frankly, it is unfortunate that within this nation, which likes to be called Christian, Christians are seen as fair game for attack, for ridicule and even for hatred. Those who unashamedly hold biblical or Christian beliefs here are often singled out for attack. If we wish to allow freedom of expression for others abroad, we should ensure that there is freedom of expression for religious and, yes, difficult beliefs at home. If we are going to promote freedom outside this nation, we should ensure that we defend freedom inside it.
Sir William Cash commented on the inequalities that persist in human rights legislation. Three years ago a huge banner was openly displayed—certain Members of Parliament even walk with that banner—bearing the words “F— the DUP”. When I reported the matter to the police, they told me that that was within the human rights legislation on freedom of expression. I challenged them by asking whether, if I were to have a counter banner, that would be permitted under my freedom of expression. I was told that it would not be allowed because it would provoke trouble. The hon. Member for Stone rightly highlighted these inequalities, and we should not be afraid to address these matters.
We have also seen attacks in this place. A leader of the Liberal Democrat party was effectively driven out of the leadership because he is a Christian and expressed Christian views. More recently we have read in the press about an attack on a prominent Labour party member who hopes to be leader of the party. She holds certain moral views and keeps them private, but because she holds those views, she is game for attack. We need to call those things out and recognise that if that is allowed to grow, we cannot really stand here and talk about religious freedom elsewhere. People must have that moral and religious freedom.
Around the world, as Members have already put on record, there are 260 million Christians who live in either a high or very high state of alert as a result of extreme levels of persecution. It has rightly been said that, if someone travels from Morocco in the north of Africa to Cameroon in the west, they will be in danger in each and every one of the countries they pass through, all of which have widespread persecution. We saw the despicable bombing of a place of worship—the softest of soft targets—in Colombo last year. Those with hatred in their hearts see places of Christian worship in particular as legitimate targets for attack because they are soft and easy. Our Government’s special envoy on this matter should see giving greater security to places of religious worship around the world, including Christian worship, as one of his tasks. There is no reason why embassies cannot task someone with an analysis of where such places are most at threat and of what additional security can be given to them.
Anyone who listened to the moving words of David Linsey, who lost his sister Amelia and his brother Daniel in that outrage in Colombo, must admire the demonstration of genuine Christian love and generosity to his enemy that he has expressed since the attack. He is admired internationally because of his comments about how he wants to respond to the violence that was inflicted upon his family. This nation should be proud that he has turned that hatred into a platform on which he can express his Christian love to others. I invite Members to meet David Linsey on
The Government should also move further on my and other Members’ campaign to proscribe the Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation which inspires hatred and attacks on Christians at home and abroad. Members have mentioned the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and its Foreign Secretary was here last week. He told MPs that his kingdom had banned the Muslim Brotherhood because it turns their sacred beliefs into a tool of hatred to inspire attacks against Christians in particular and against political freedom. It was amazing that he said that, but he also expressed amazement that the United Kingdom had not taken similar action to ban Muslim Brotherhood.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for putting that on the record. It is amazing. This is an organisation that uses and abuses the beliefs of a whole culture to attack Christians and others, which is frightening and wrong. It hides in and uses mosques illegitimately for its hatred against Christians, and it is right and proper that the full facts about the Muslim Brotherhood in this nation are brought out. I will be meeting the Home Secretary’s staff next week to talk about the Muslim Brotherhood and will pursue its proscription in this country.
When I went to Egypt in 2011, I met members of the Muslim Brotherhood in their headquarters. They assured me that they had no political intentions in Egypt and that they did not want to govern the country. They are now the reason for the persecution of Christians in Egypt, and that persecution is pretty full-on. I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point and with my right hon. Friend Dr Lewis.
Indeed, an app promoted last year by the Muslim Brotherhood encouraged the incitement of hatred against Christians and against Muslims who joined the British Army, identifying them as people to be targeted and killed. We can see where this fanaticism can go and how it is driven.
Some years ago, before I was a Member of Parliament, I visited the underground Church in China and met its worship leaders. Even today, they live in constant fear of persecution. They know they could be imprisoned for evangelising even members of their own family.
The watch list that has been widely debated today gives the statistic that 5,500 churches in mainland China have been destroyed, closed or confiscated in the past two years, which is a terrible indictment of a country we wish to partner on some major projects and with which we have great links. Indeed, several centuries ago, the first ambassador to mainland China hailed from Stranocum near Ballymoney in my constituency. There have always been great links between our nation and China, but the statistic on churches is appalling.
Brexit trade deals offer an opportunity—that with trade comes liberty of religious belief. We, our Ministers and our Government should be unashamed about asking for liberty of religious belief to go hand in hand with trade deals. We should open up the world, not to proselytise or evangelise but to allow freedom of belief and difference to abound.
As the Speaker’s Chair rightly proclaims:
“The hand that deals justly is a sweet smelling ointment. A heedful and faithful mind is conscious of righteousness.”
This has been an excellent debate, and I will shortly do my best to summarise the most memorable contributions.
I am glad that my new colleague, my hon. Friend Fabian Hamilton—I am the new one, not him—predicted at the outset that there would be consensus on tackling this rising crisis and on following up on the Bishop of Truro’s important recommendations. However, it would be remiss of me not to say that the Bishop of Truro and other senior members of the Church of England must be careful what they preach for. Although they and we are right to stand up for Christians overseas, those senior members of the Church are entirely wrong in the pastoral guidance that says the only Church-approved sexual relations are within married heterosexual couples, and that those of us who do not fit into that category should be abstinent. That is important to this debate because tolerance on all sides is important and we must practise what we preach. We cannot be intolerant in one respect while asking for tolerance and respect elsewhere.
In this debate we have heard good examples of why tolerance is important, and let us remember that Christianity is often the bellwether of whether a state is repressive. Repressive states tend to choose to repress Christians. We know that Christians in many countries have suffered huge repression. Since the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam, the Christian community in Iraq has dwindled by 83%, from 1.5 million Christians to just 250,000.
We have seen the rise in attacks on Christians and Muslims in Sri Lanka. I have been to Sri Lanka many times and I have been shocked at the level of intolerance that sometimes prevails—my driver will sometimes refuse to go into Muslim-owned restaurants with me. It is a deep concern that we need to tackle.
The latest nationality laws mean that many Muslims feel their place is not being recognised in India. That affects not only Muslims, but Christians in India. The rise of intolerance and Hindu nationalism is not something we should celebrate.
Although Christians communities have suffered, we must also remember the Rohingya communities in Myanmar, the Yazidis in Iraq and the Uyghur Muslims in China, whom we also heard about. Atheists around the world are also often persecuted. In Iran, there is particular persecution of those of the Baha’i faith, who have not been mentioned today. My constituency has a Baha’i centre and people there would be keen for me to mention them, too. The lesson is that intolerance anywhere—whether it is because someone is a Christian or a Muslim, or because they have no faith or a faith—is intolerable. We should all find it intolerable.
That is why some of the points we have heard today are important, particularly those made by my hon. Friend Ms Brown. Importantly, she summed this up when she said, “If we do not stand up, who are we?” We consider ourselves the mother of all Parliaments, one of the birthplaces of democracy. Who are we, as a country, if we do not stand up for important values? That is why, when Andrew Selous talked about the importance of linking our diplomacy to human rights and freedom of religion, that resonated with the views of Members from across the House.
Jim Shannon talked about his work in the all-party group, for which he should be applauded. I hope the Government will not only continue to respond to the recommendations that he read out, but help start to implement them. Bob Stewart talked particularly importantly about the repressive nature of Saudi Arabia, one of our key allies in the middle east. It might have made some progress, but it is clearly not enough. We have a responsibility to look not only at how we do diplomacy, but at how all of our organs of state interact with those in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the repression there. Ian Paisley mentioned the Colombo attacks and the fact that Christians in this country are often subject to repression. All of those contributions were important.
Sir William Cash mentioned the work of Open Doors, which we all recognise is an important body of work. If there is one positive thing to come out of its report, it is that it shows a reduction in the number of attacks and murders this year, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East. The bulk of that reduction appears to be down to the decline in the number of killings in Nigeria, which is still the deadliest place in the world to be a Christian. Any fall in the death toll there is welcome, but I hope the Minister shares my concern that while we have seen that reduction and a push back in Nigeria, the threat of Boko Haram, on which we heard some extremely moving statements from Fiona Bruce, has spread elsewhere. Boko Haram and other extremist jihadist groups in north-west Africa need to be tackled in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and other countries. While there has been a reduction in one place, we have seen an increase in death and persecution in neighbouring countries. We need to tackle that rapidly and give it some attention. Perhaps the Minister could tell us what work is being done at the international level, particularly with the African Union, to try to get a grip on the situation before every country and Christian in that region faces the same kind of crisis as that in Nigeria today.
We have had a good debate and I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for presiding over it.
This has been a lively and at times impassioned debate, and it has been a testament to the strength of feeling throughout the House and the country that no one should suffer discrimination, violence or persecution because of their faith or belief, or for not following a faith. I shall try to respond to all the points raised and highlight the UK’s action on this issue.
First, we are deeply concerned about the way in which blasphemy laws are widely abused. The Government regularly apply diplomatic pressure to countries that abuse their blasphemy laws. That work is often done behind the scenes because of the sensitivity of the issue.
I know that Members care deeply about the treatment of religious minorities, including Christians, in Pakistan. I pay particular tribute, as so many others have done today, to Jim Shannon, who works particularly hard to raise awareness of this issue. Let me answer the questions about Pakistan. The Government share the concerns expressed today and regularly urge the Government of Pakistan to ensure that all their citizens enjoy the full range of human rights, as laid down in Pakistan’s constitution and enshrined in international law. The Government strongly condemn forced marriage and forced conversions.
In India, our missions often bring together members of minority communities, including Christian groups, to better understand the religious and cultural divides, and to help to bridge them, including through the projects that we fund.
Colleagues understandably expressed particular concern about the safety and security of minority communities in the middle east in the light of recent events. Let me state clearly and on the record that the Government will continue to promote and protect human rights in the region. We will not shy away from urging Governments to protect the rights of all their citizens, in accordance with international human rights law.
The Minister has several times mentioned the policy of urging and condemning, but the Government do have considerable financial leverage by way of the huge international development budget. Do the Government have a policy of using that budget, quite legitimately, to put pressure on Governments who abuse human rights, such that if they want to continue to get large amounts of aid they will have to mend their ways?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. That idea has been mentioned a couple of times and I will come to it in a little while.
May I say gently that my anxiety about that line, although I respect it, is that it is almost cultural imperialism? There are other countries that are not in need of our aid that are more substantially economically viable. That does not mean that they should not have our opprobrium because they do not need our dosh, to put it succinctly. The FCO is supposed to be one of the most skilled Foreign Offices in the world; I am sure it can find ways to apply pressure without taking food from those who need it most.
The hon. Lady’s intervention epitomises how difficult this matter is and how skilful our wonderful civil servants and others need to be on this matter.
In Iraq, the UK has committed more than £260 million in humanitarian support over the past six years. That funding has provided a vital lifeline for emergency food, shelter, medical care and clean water to the most vulnerable in Iraq, including members of minority communities such as the Christians and the Yazidis.
In Syria, Christians and other minorities have suffered dreadfully in the conflict, particularly at the hands of Daesh. The UK is working on a political settlement, which protects the rights of all Syrians, regardless of ethnicity or religion, and we are supporting work to bring accountability and justice to the people, including to survivors of religious persecution.
My hon. Friend Fiona Bruce spoke movingly, paragraph by paragraph, on the issues in Nigeria. I was almost ashamed to listen. Communities of all faiths have been affected by rising levels of violence. Communities of different religions live together peacefully across most of the country. Insurgent groups such as the Fulani, Boko Haram and Islamic State in West Africa seek to undermine the rights of freedom of religion as protected by the Nigerian constitution, with appalling attacks against civilians, including a recent spike in Christian targets. I will pass on my hon. Friend’s request to Department for International Development officials, to reply directly to her.
I was also asked what we have done to make clear to the Nigerian authorities at the highest levels the importance of protecting civilians, including ethnic and religious minorities. We regularly raise concerns with the Nigerian Government about the increasing levels of violence. Most recently, the Prime Minister did so during his meeting with President Buhari at the UK-Africa investment summit on
The Minister will recall that I raised this point in my remarks earlier. I do not believe that it is cultural imperialism to use our clout—given that we give more than £300 million a year to Nigeria—to insist that the Nigerian Government do what they must do and protect their own citizens. That is not cultural imperialism; it is good practice. We will be following the US and the EU in doing that. It is perfectly good practice to insist that if we are giving taxpayers’ money to Nigeria, it should protect its own citizens.
I thank the Minister for giving way; she is being very generous in taking interventions. She has said that points have been put on the record, but, with DFID in my constituency, I know that we are contributing enormous amounts of aid to these countries. What response do we get back? What progress is being made? What plans are being put in place? What concrete evidence is there that these countries are actually listening to anything we say?
With DFID offices in her constituency, the hon. Lady must realise that that is a question for DFID. Again, the civil servants in the Box will have heard what she said and, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, I am sure that they will reply to her.
We have talked about other areas where the UK Government are particularly encouraging the Nigerian Government to do more to reduce conflict. The fostering social cohesion conference being hosted by Wilton Park this month will look at the complex drivers of conflict and aim to identify solutions that meet the needs of the communities. I hope that that goes some way to answering the questions asked by my right hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh.
Today’s debate has focused on the persecution of Christians, but, as other Members have mentioned, we should not overlook the suffering of other religious groups around the world. We are deeply concerned about the persecution of minorities in China, particularly the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, and we have raised our concerns on numerous occasions, including at the UN General Assembly last year. We are also aware of reports of church closures in China and of individuals being detained because of their faith, including Pastor Wang Yi who was sentenced last year. To answer the specific question: yes, we have raised our concerns about his case directly with the Chinese authorities. Lord Tariq Ahmad does this on behalf of the Government, and we will continue to monitor the situation closely.
I know that communities of Iranian heritage with links here in the UK, including the Baha’i community, are terribly concerned about the treatment of minorities in Iran. During the United Nations General Assembly in September 2019, the UK brought together many supportive states and independent legal experts to highlight increasing concerns about Iran’s human rights record.
The Minister has twice mentioned the General Assembly. My hon. Friend Andrew Selous and I have both made the point that the United Nations is somewhere where we can have a moral authority to speak, especially when we are president of the Security Council. We should drive very hard to get the United Nations to be quite clear that the persecution of any religion is totally unacceptable.
I thank my hon. and gallant Friend for that strong intervention. He has, again, absolutely put the point on the record, and the Government are under no illusions about the power of being the penholder in the United Nations Security Council—work in progress, my friend.
In November 2019, during Iran’s universal periodic review, we urged that our specific recommendations be accepted and reiterated concerns about the treatment of minority religious groups. The Government share those concerns, and we are committed to taking action with the international community to press Iran to improve its poor record on all human rights issues.
It would be remiss of us in any debate on this matter not to recognise that discrimination against and hostility towards faith communities also exists in western countries. We were sickened to see antisemitic graffiti sprayed on businesses and synagogues around north London in December, and in New York, during the Hanukkah celebrations, five victims were stabbed as they worshiped at the home of their rabbi. These incidents were all the more appalling because they took place just weeks before the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, when we were all reminded of what can happen when good people turn a blind eye to hate. My hon. and gallant Friend Bob Stewart has put on record the amazing story about his mother being present as an SOE officer at the liberation Belsen. That is a story that will stay with me for some time. That anniversary was also a time to recommit ourselves to enhancing understanding between communities of different faiths and beliefs. It is clear that there is much more to do, even in countries such as ours, with good human rights records.
Can the Minister tell the House how the Government intend to use their network of civil servants based in our embassies around the world to conduct a review of what are effectively soft Christian targets in various countries?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question; I will get to that in the next paragraph.
As I said at the start, the Government are committed to implementing the recommendations of the Bishop of Truro’s review. I stress again that the recommendations do not focus just on Christians. As has been mentioned, only two of 22 recommendations refer to specifically Christian issues. Bishop Philip said clearly that we must seek freedom of religion or belief for all, without fear or favour. That is the basis of our freedom of religion or belief work. We will implement the recommendations in a way that will bring real improvements to people’s lives.
To answer the questions about training for FCO staff, we believe that training staff to develop an understanding of religion is hugely important. We are in the process of defining and procuring a new, expanded training package, which will reach all officers who need it in the FCO and across government, and we will now make sure that issues related to soft targets around the world where we have any influence will form part of that training. That work is part of our wider, long-standing effort to champion human rights, because we know that where one right is denied, others are also under threat.
Looking ahead, the Government are determined to be a force for good in the world, not only as a champion of human rights, but as a defender of the rules-based international system and a leader in the fight against global challenges. The Government will take on board comments made about that and about DFID spend.
It is my understanding that the Government have agreed to all the recommendations in the Bishop of Truro’s report. Recommendation 8 says:
“Be prepared to impose sanctions against perpetrators of FoRB abuses.”
Can the Minister set out a little of the Government’s thinking on how that might be applied? If she cannot, will she very kindly place a letter on this issue in the Library for hon. Members to have a look at?
I am sure that my hon. Friend would have shared his letter if I had written just to him. [Interruption.] Of course he would; he’s a good Christian boy. I would be delighted to approach the answer to his question in the way he describes, to help all Members of the House.
I specifically asked about the case of Huma Younus, who has been kidnapped, forced to convert to Islam and forced to marry a much older man, and whose parents are desperately seeking an international response. Will the Minister or her Government respond—if not today, at some point in the future—to this critical issue of a child who has been abducted, forced to convert and forced into marriage?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for repeating that very important point. I thought that I had mentioned that we condemn all forced marriages. If I did not say it loudly enough, I say it again now. My civil servants in the Box will see what we can do about making that a central point.
My hon. Friend is being extremely generous in giving way, and probably over-patient. Several Members asked about attaching conditions to the international development fund. I gently mention that that will require legislation; it is not just a policy decision to impose those conditions. Achieving those objectives would actually require legislation, as was the case with my International Development (Gender Equality) Act 2014. I just mention that so that it gets locked into the Box.
I am grateful. My hon. Friend has been in this Parliament for so long that he knows all the intricacies; sometimes, however well-meaning our colleagues are, the practicalities of actually achieving what they would like to achieve might be slightly more constrained and long-winded than perhaps they might have thought would be the case. I am very glad that he has put that on the record.
I am not seeking to stretch the Minister’s patience too far; she is being very indulgent. One of the challenges that we have had with these debates over the years is that we have raised issues that have related either to the FCO or to DFID—or to both—but we have only had a Minister from one of those Departments before us. I raised a number of questions in my speech that straddled both Departments, so I would be grateful if the Minister liaised with her counterpart in DFID and wrote to me answering some of them. I appreciate that some of those questions were really quite detailed, and there is no way I could have expected her to answer today, as I said in my speech.
Of course. Forgive me if I did not say it loud enough, but I will be happy to repeat it now: I will get somebody from DFID to write to my hon. Friend with the answers to her questions.
The Government believe passionately that everyone should enjoy the same freedom to choose and practise their religion, or to hold no religion at all. We will continue to strive for that to become a reality for everyone everywhere, and to strive for a world in which all nations respect and protect the rights of all their people, irrespective of their faith or belief. Those suffering persecution today, including the 260 million Christians, deserve nothing less.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the matter of the persecution of Christians.