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Persecution of Christians

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:04 pm on 6th February 2020.

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Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Inclusive Society) 2:04 pm, 6th February 2020

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 10 October last year, a 14-year-old Catholic girl, Huma Younus, was abducted from her home in Karachi by three men. She was taken to the city of Dera Ghazi Khan, 600 km from her home. A few days later, her parents received official papers informing them that their daughter had converted to Islam and was now married to a much older man called Abdul Jabbar. Sadly, abduction for the purposes of forced conversion and marriage is a major issue in Pakistan. According to the Centre for Social Justice, between 2013 and 2019 at least 159 cases were officially reported, the vast majority of victims being poor Christian or Hindu girls who were abducted and forced against their will to convert and marry.

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 8 January. Michael’s abduction and murder are the latest in a long line of atrocities committed by Boko Haram that include the murder of Father Clement Ugwu, the kidnapping of Father John Shekwolo and the continued detention of Leah Sharibu, the only one of the 109 young girls who were kidnapped in 2018 who is still being detained. She is being held because of her refusal to convert to Islam.

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.