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Persecution of Christians

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:00 pm on 6th February 2020.

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Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton 3:00 pm, 6th February 2020

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 20 January. Or perhaps they would have included the lives of the 10 Christians beheaded by ISWAP, which released a video showing 10 being beheaded and one man being shot on Boxing day 2019, with a voiceover saying:

“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’
connivance”.

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.”

He adds:

“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 20 January and discussed UK support. We all know that it is possible for issues to be mentioned, even at the highest level, without concerns moving forwards in any substantive way. That simply cannot be allowed to happen regarding an issue of such gravity. Therefore, may I ask the Minister to raise a few specific points with her counterparts in the Nigerian Government? I have three questions.

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?

Yesterday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo launched the International Religious Freedom Alliance, stating:

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”,

and

“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.”