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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?