Christians: Persecution - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:53 pm on 25 March 2024.

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Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench 7:53, 25 March 2024

My Lords, all over the world, Article 18, the universal right to freedom of religion or belief, is a violated right, which is why we must thank the noble Baroness, Lady Foster of Aghadrumsee, for initiating this short debate.

Some 80% of the world has a religious faith, and people of all faiths are persecuted, as the right reverend Prelate reminded us. The noble Baroness reminded us that this is a great week for Christianity, with Easter; but it is a great week for all monotheistic religions, with Jews having just celebrated Purim and Muslims celebrating Ramadan. But what singles out Christians is that 350 million of them—one in seven in 144 countries —are persecuted in every country where Article 18 is breached, and 13 Christians are killed each and every day because of their faith. The Times said of our indifference that we had become “Spectators at the Carnage”. Jonathan Sacks once said:

“The persecution of Christians … is one of the crimes against humanity of our time and I am appalled at the lack of protest it has evoked”.

We talk about persecution as if it ended with Nero and the lions in the Colosseum, but it is one of the most shocking untold stories of our time.

Although the Minister and Fiona Bruce MP, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief—a role that I, too, hope we will legislate to make permanent—have striven to implement the Truro review recommendations, the tide of visceral hatred continues to rise. That is foolish, given the economic link between countries that respect Article 18 and prosperity, stability and harmony, and given the link between persecution and displacement, now at a record 114 million people.

I will discuss China and then highlight two Commonwealth countries. There has been a frenzy today about China’s cyberattacks in 2021, one of which was against me, along with sanctions imposed three years ago. Today the Deputy Prime Minister told the House of Commons that the response was “swift and robust”—I dread to think what leisurely or weak would have looked like. There are still no sanctions against state officials, and nothing to match the 47 imposed on Hong Kong by the US. It is wholly incommensurate with the 1 million Uighur Muslims subjected to genocide, the brutal oppression of Tibetan Buddhists, the crimes against Falun Gong and the persecution of Christians. The latter includes the imprisonment of Protestant pastors, the demolition of churches, the jailing of the Christian journalist, Zhang Zhan, who went to Wuhan to ask awkward questions about the origins of Covid, and the trials in Hong Kong of Cardinal Zen and now of Jimmy Lai, a deeply committed Christian. Can the Minister say whether the Foreign Secretary will raise those issues with the Chinese ambassador when he summons him tomorrow?

I turn to Pakistan. Tomorrow, as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Pakistani Minorities, I will chair an inquiry into discrimination and persecution. I recently met representatives of the over 1 million workers employed like slave labour in brick kilns in Pakistan, who are overwhelmingly Christian. Often illiterate, they rarely earn enough to subsist, much less to clear the loans that they are forced to take out, becoming bonded labour. Debts have been passed down to children from one generation to another, and workers are abused at the whim of their owners, with Hindu and Christian women and girls particularly vulnerable.

Tomorrow, we will hear first-hand accounts from victims. Only last week, two Christian sanitary workers—Asif Masih, 25, and Shan Masih, 28—lost their lives while undertaking the hazardous task of cleaning a choked sewage line, due to the absence of proper protective gear. It was not the first tragedy of its kind. On 14 February, the Minister told me that our aid to Pakistan for this year is £41.5 million, rising to £133 million next year. How much of that will be used to promote the rights of religious minorities? When did we last speak to the Pakistan Government about FoRB? When did we last engage with the Commonwealth Secretary-General about ForB?

That takes me to Nigeria. Some 82% of all Christians killed for their faith last year were in Nigeria: 4,998 Christians were slaughtered, with 200 murdered during Christmas services in 2023. Open Doors reports:

“Christians in Nigeria continue to be terrorised with devastating impunity by Islamic militants”,

with

“abductions for ransom, sexual violence and death … leaving a trail of grief and trauma”.

Last November, on Red Wednesday—when the FCDO was lit in red to commemorate the persecuted—thanks to Aid to the Church in Need, I met Dominic and Margaret Attah, survivors of the Boko Haram Pentecost attack on St Francis Xavier Church in Owo, when 40 were murdered. Margaret’s legs were blown off. Their bishop, Jude Arogundade, at a meeting here that I chaired, lacerated a Head of State for attributing the attack to climate change, a foolish simplicity repeated by some of our own officials, who seem illiterate when it comes to extremism and construct false narratives.

Margaret wanted to know why no one had been brought to justice. I asked the Minister, and he told me in reply:

“We continue to call for those who committed this attack to be brought to justice and held to account”.

Needless to say, they have not been; nor have the abductors of Leah Sharibu, who was abducted on 19 February 2018 by ISIS West Africa from the Government Girls Science and Technical College in Dapchi, Yobe State. Leah was told to convert and was raped, impregnated and enslaved. She is still held captive. I promised Rebecca, her mother, that I would lose no opportunity to raise her case. Following a recent meeting with the Africa Minister, have our officials followed that up? What are the Nigerians doing to get her released? Where is the ICC inquiry into potential crimes against humanity in relation to the Christian minority in Nigeria? Those preliminary inquiries concluded three years ago.

How much will Nigeria receive in ODA next year? What percentage will be used to promote FoRB, and when did we last raise that with the Commonwealth? More believers are killed for their faith in Nigeria each year than everywhere else in the world combined. In the face of these deadly violations of a universal right, our indifference and our silence are simply not acceptable.