Religious Persecution - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:02 pm on 11th July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development) 5:02 pm, 11th July 2019

My Lords, for the record and for the benefit of my party’s leader, I am not sitting on the Government Benches; I am of course speaking from the Opposition Benches. I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for initiating this vital debate. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, I am a proud member of the APPG for International Freedom of Religion or Belief.

Why do I, as a humanist and a gay man who has been subjected to religious bigotry—and whose community is subjected to religious bigotry throughout the world—support freedom of religious belief? The harsh reality is that, in today’s world, countries that do not respect religious freedom or the right to no belief invariably do not respect other basic human rights. That is a vital point. As the noble Lord, Lord Singh, said, the persecution of Christians often goes hand in hand with the persecution of other religious groups. He mentioned India, for instance, where the rise of Hindu nationalism affects millions of Muslims, Sikhs and Christians.

I very much welcome the Government’s initiatives to put this issue centre stage globally. The 2016 FCO conference, convened to share ideas and to extend and defend the right to freedom of religion, was certainly a great success; we had participants from 38 countries.

I welcome the recognition given to the important role that freedom of religious belief can play in tackling extremism and promoting democracy. That is why we committed in our 2017 election manifesto to the appointment of a special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, an individual who would ensure that the defence of religious freedom was mainstreamed throughout the work of every government department. Of course, in June 2018 the Prime Minister appointed the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, as Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief. I think all noble Lords recognise his hard work in delivering this agenda.

I share the concerns expressed by many human rights groups and other groups about how the Government will ensure that they maintain the momentum on freedom of religion or belief. Of course, the Bishop of Truro’s report was commissioned by the Foreign Secretary last December to review whether the Government could do more to address the persecution of Christians worldwide. We have heard reference to the Open Doors 2019 report on the persecution of Christians, which found that it was both more widespread and more serious. As noble Lords have referred to, of the 50 countries listed in the report, 40 are places where Christians experience very high or extreme levels of persecution. In 2014 only 22 of the countries in the report were given that rating, so something is getting worse.

Earlier this week the bishop’s report was published. I certainly accept its conclusion that Christians are the “most persecuted” religious group in the world and that we must act to address this. But in doing so we must recognise what the bishop said about Christian persecution having,

“multiple drivers and as such it deserves special attention. More specifically it is certainly not limited to Islamic-majority contexts. So this review is not a stalking horse for the Islamophobic far-right”— which we saw marching outside Parliament this afternoon —and does not,

“give the Islamophobic right a stick to beat Islam with”.

It is really important to make that point.

The noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, referred to the terrible events in Srebrenica. Today is the anniversary of that dreadful massacre, in which over 8,500 Bosnians—young men and boys—were murdered by people who professed to be of the Christian faith. After I asked a question of the Minister yesterday, the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, responded to me in writing this morning and updated me on his department’s support for Remembering Srebrenica, a charity that has been funded by the department since 2013. I mention that because of that charity’s work in organising 800 commemorative events across the UK to mark the 24th anniversary. It will both honour the victims and foster stronger community relations in Britain. It is through education about those horrendous events that we will really change opinions.

I very much welcome the bishop’s report, its important findings and most of its recommendations. However, like the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, I too have concerns and I hope that the Government will look at it in depth. I read in the Guardian that Jeremy Hunt said at the press launch that he would enact all the recommendations if he became Prime Minister. In case that does not happen, I would be grateful if the Minister indicated when she expects the Government to give a formal response to the recommendations and how they will be adopted and implemented.

I too welcome the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, and the excellent idea to conduct a review into the plight facing the non-religious. I hope the Minister will commit to conducting a similar review, given the scale of the plight faced by the non-religious and humanists around the world. It would go a long way towards guaranteeing the right to freedom of religion or belief for all. It would also ensure that the Government’s position as a global leader and champion of freedom of religion or belief around the world will be maintained.

One measure to hold different nations to account over their human rights and FoRB violations is to include human rights clauses in trade agreements that the UK will be required to renegotiate. Certainly, EU trade policy is increasingly incorporating human rights considerations into these matters, so can the Minister give an assurance today that the FCO’s important work on human rights and FoRB can be mainstreamed throughout the new trade agreements? Noble Lords have referred to China, which is often put up as the huge hope in terms of trade, but we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and others about the appalling continued mass detention of Uighur Muslims in west China simply for practising their religion. It looks like they are in concentration camps—and we have seen those before. I hope the Minister will tell us more. We have also seen non-approved Christian churches being closed in China and their members arrested. Can the Minister tell the House exactly what we are doing to raise these issues with the Chinese authorities?

Freedom of religious belief is not simply a matter for Governments, as many noble Lords have alluded to during the debate. We need to hear all the voices advocating respect and tolerance, and that is why interfaith groups and interfaith work is so essential. I hope the Minister will be able to reassure us about the projects the Government have supported to promote that—including the use of the Magna Carta fund—detail what we are doing and ensure that it is ongoing.