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Persecution of Christians

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:18 pm on 6th February 2020.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 3:18 pm, 6th February 2020

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?