Religious Persecution - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:13 pm on 11th July 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 5:13 pm, 11th July 2019

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Elton for tabling this debate and all noble Lords for their thoughtful, perceptive and passionate contributions. My noble friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon was keen to respond to this debate but he is currently chairing a session on this very issue as part of the first ever media freedom conference in London. I know you will all feel diminished by his absence but I shall do my best as his understudy to deal with the important points that have been raised.

Persecution of people on the basis of their faith or belief or because they have no faith at all is unfortunately a phenomenon, a malaise, as old as faith itself. Invariably, it is born of ignorance, fear and a failure to appreciate our common humanity. It is the practice of intolerance. The noble Lord, Lord Taverne, is right to point out that tolerance is at the heart of respect for common humanity, whether that comprises people who have a faith or who have none. My noble friend Lady Stroud rightly stressed the need for tolerance, including on our own doorstep here in the UK, a sentiment echoed by both the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins.

It is deeply concerning that in the 21st century, religious intolerance still blights the lives of millions of people around the world, affecting people of all faiths and beliefs on every continent. This year alone, we have seen attacks on individuals, religious symbols or places of worship in countries as varied as the United States, Burkina Faso, the Philippines, New Zealand, France and here in the UK. No one is immune. Indeed, the scale of the problem was eloquently referred to by my noble friends Lord Elton and Lady Stroud, the noble Lords, Lord Bhatia and Lord Sheikh, and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. The noble Lord, Lord Singh, pertinently and helpfully pointed out that at the heart of all faiths should be love and mutual respect. That takes us back to the point about common humanity. The noble Lord was quite right to remind of us of that. It is certainly something worth reflecting on.

In the first two decades of this century, minority communities in the Middle East, including Christians, have visibly decreased in size, as people have been forced to flee their homeland for fear of persecution at the hands of Daesh. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, raised that issue and also the atrocities in Iraq. We support the investigation of alleged crimes and the preservation of evidence so that perpetrators can be brought to justice. Without first ascertaining the evidence and preserving it, there is no process which can follow, so it is an extremely important part of the sequence of events.

Some noble Lords mentioned that in China, Uighur Muslims are suffering extreme levels of harassment, discrimination and persecution by the state, while Baha’is are prosecuted for their faith in Yemen and Jehovah’s Witnesses are criminalised in Russia. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford spoke very powerfully about this aspect of global intolerance. Those are all shocking examples of the ways in which people of faith are singled out, marginalised and discriminated against.

It would be easy to extrapolate from these examples that persecution is on the rise in this century. Indeed, I think that might have been the apprehension of a number of your Lordships, but I urge a note of caution. While there is no doubt that millions around the world continue to suffer discrimination on grounds of their faith—I shall give some examples in a moment of the UK’s work to tackle the issue—our understanding of the extent of persecution of people of faith is limited by the lack of data on religious minorities globally. That is a material gap in our knowledge and a serious deficiency regarding the extent of what we are dealing with. The UK is trying to tackle this head-on, including through our support for the Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development and a pilot project to develop a methodology for tracking data on religious minorities.

Noble Lords will know that the Minister for Human Rights, my noble friend Lord Ahmad, as a person of faith and the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief, believes passionately that the freedom to choose, change and practise your religion, or to have no religion at all, is a universal human right that should be enjoyed by everyone, everywhere. I particularly thank the noble Lords, Lord Anderson and Lord Alton, for their tributes to my noble friend, who has brought energy and focus to the debate. He has been involved in extensive advocacy of the rights of Christian communities and other persecuted minorities around the world. He has enjoyed success—in Pakistan, for example, on specific cases and issues—and he is building a constructive relationship with Pakistan’s Human Rights Minister. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, and my noble friend Lord Elton who raised the issue of Pakistan. I think the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, wanted to know what we are doing about the treatment of minority communities. My noble friend Lord Ahmad discussed concerns about freedom of religion or belief and the protection of members of minority religious communities during his visit in February. My noble friend Lord Elton asked about aid. We endeavour to ensure that UK aid to Pakistan targets the poorest in Pakistan, and we have robust controls to ensure that it reaches the intended beneficiaries.

My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has also shown personal leadership on the issue of freedom of religion or belief, and a commitment not only to promote respect for diverse faiths and beliefs here in the UK but to take action to confront the worrying levels of persecution around the world. In the context of the UK, I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith: wear your ashes with pride as a badge of your faith and belief and your observance of that faith.

I am proud of the action that the UK has taken, and continues to take, to promote interfaith understanding, to combat intolerance and to support those who have suffered discrimination or persecution. Our approach recognises that religiously motivated attacks and atrocities often—although of course not exclusively—occur in and around conflict. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey of Clifton, also mentioned the influence of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes on religious persecution. That is an influence that we can all identify with.

That is why, in addition to our work specifically focused on promoting freedom of religion or belief, we dedicate significant resources to preventing conflict and securing accountability and justice for survivors, in areas as diverse as women, peace and security, girls’ education, children and armed conflict, and preventing sexual violence. We also provide significant funding to support communities. I suggest that a common theme of human rights runs through all those activities. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, correctly pointed out the importance of this debate in the context of human rights and the importance of human rights in the context of this debate.

In Iraq, as a number of noble Lords observed, we have spent over a quarter of a billion pounds supporting people who have fled their homes on account of Daesh’s persecution. We have also committed £1 million to support the investigative team that is now collecting evidence of Daesh crimes in Iraq—an important point noted by the noble Lord, Lord Alton.

In Nigeria, religion is one of many factors contributing to the ongoing intercommunal violence. We are exploring how we can work with the Nigerian Government to promote interfaith relationships and find enduring solutions to these disputes. The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, spoke movingly about the deeply troubling situation in that country.

The noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Swansea, raised the important issue of collaboration. We work at a multilateral level with like-minded partners and at international institutions to defend freedom of religion or belief. For example, following the appalling atrocities committed against the Muslim Rohingya community in Myanmar, the UK has led the international response, including through our role as penholder at the United Nations Security Council. We continue to press for accountability and justice, and for the safe return of the Rohingya to their homes in Myanmar. At the Human Rights Council earlier this year, we publicly called out countries that are failing to uphold the right to freedom of religion or belief for all their citizens.

I could give many more examples to illustrate UK action to champion freedom of religion or belief through our posts overseas—from private lobbying on individual cases to our community-level programme work—but we know that there is always more we can do. That is why my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary last year ordered an independent review into Foreign and Commonwealth Office support for persecuted Christians. As your Lordships know, that report has now been published, and I think that it was referred to by every contributor to the debate.

I noted in particular the comments made by my noble friend Lady Berridge. She clearly issued a caveat about the whole issue of definitions, and that was echoed by the noble Lords, Lord Green of Deddington and Lord Collins, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith. I hear those concerns and certainly undertake to relay them to the department.

Many of your Lordships wanted to know when there would be a response to the report. I can confirm that we are working across government to agree a formal collective response as soon as possible. Noble Lords will be aware that a number of the recommendations reach beyond the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and involve other departments. I am pleased to say that not only the Foreign Secretary welcomed the report very warmly; the other contender for the position of Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, also welcomed the review and said he would always prioritise protecting religious freedoms and standing up for those facing persecution.

We will consider this hard-hitting report in depth. We will look at its recommendations carefully and, in doing so, see how they can be applied to our work in support of all faiths and beliefs. This is not a task that government can achieve alone, which is why we will continue to work closely with faith organisations, NGOs, civil society and parliamentarians to break down barriers, build bridges between communities and promote respect for our common humanity. This was a sentiment eloquently expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, and by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey of Clifton, in a thoughtful and optimistic contribution.

I have a number of points to try to deal with. If I omit to cover anything raised, I undertake to write. My noble friends Lord Elton and Lord Farmer raised the issue of persecution and its definition. The Government define persecution as,

“an act that is sufficiently serious by its nature and repetition as to constitute a severe violation of basic human rights”.

That definition is set out in UK domestic law in the Refugee or Person in Need of International Protection (Qualification) Regulations 2006.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, for recognising the UK’s contribution in relation to Syria. This was also the subject of comment from a number of other contributors. In conjunction with the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Swansea, the noble Lord, Lord Green raised the issue of the help that we provide through the United Nations Refugee Agency, which has undertaken particular efforts to encourage other religions to register; this may well be reflected in more evidence of persons of faith becoming part of the resettlement programme.