Christians: Persecution - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:37 pm on 25 March 2024.

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Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 8:37, 25 March 2024

My Lords, I join the chorus of thanks to my noble friend Lady Foster for initiating this debate, and I thank all noble Lords for their very insightful contributions.

Many noble Lords talked about the significance of Holy Week, and about other faiths as well. As a Muslim myself, I have already mentioned to my dear colleague on the Front Bench how, no sooner had I opened my fast for Ramadan—no sooner had I taken a date and a swig of water—than I was summoned to the Chamber. The insightful and detailed nature of what we have heard today is reflective of the depth of interest on an issue that I myself regard as a key priority, not just as a Minister but at a very personal level. Before I go into details, I will say that I was intrigued when my noble friend Lord Moylan described—I think I am paraphrasing him correctly—that there are few innovations in the UK that do not come across the pond from the US. As someone who had just opened his fast, the words “chicken tikka masala” immediately came to mind.

On the important issue of freedom of religion or belief, I share in what many noble Lords have said. Whether you are a practising Christian, Muslim or from any faith in our incredible country, the real test of your own faith is not just defending your own but standing up for the rights and beliefs of those of other faiths or, indeed, no faith. It is an incumbent and fundamental human right.

Across the world, the abuse and violation of the right to freedom of religion or belief is deeply concerning. Indeed, as my noble friend Lady Foster said, it is shocking. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, talked about things not being known. Sometimes it is the unsaid that needs to be said, and Christian persecution is reflective of exactly what needs to be said.

As someone who is an Ahmadi Muslim, I was called in by the then Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who asked me about the persecution of communities: “Tariq, what do you think about having a report looking at Christian persecution?” Quick as a flash, I said, “Of course, Jeremy; it needs to be done”. Wherever we see Christians persecuted around the world, other communities are equally persecuted.

On the question of scale and diversity, the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, mentioned North Korea, and I agree with her. There are other areas, such as the Roman Catholic Church in Nicaragua, for example. Sadly, these are just a few examples of places where Christians are persecuted.

On the recent Open Doors World Watch List report, which the noble Baroness and many noble Lords mentioned, I was pleased to attend the launch event, as was acknowledged. There, we again heard the startling and shocking statistic of one in seven Christians being persecuted worldwide. Last year alone, 5,000 Christians were murdered—these are just the accounted for numbers. This is the reason we must continue to challenge violations and abuses wherever they occur. I assure all noble Lords that we are very much seized of this as a Government, and I will illustrate some of the detail in the short time I have. On the questions I do not answer, I will write to noble Lords in more detail.

My noble friend Lord Moylan said that the central message is to never take your eye off the ball. Persecution can happen any time, anywhere, and we need to remain vigilant, whether it is in the east, west or anywhere across the globe. The UK Government are firm in our position that no one should be persecuted, abused or intimidated because of their faith, religion or belief. The noble Lord, Lord Curry, rightly talked about Christians protecting all. I say to the noble Lord that that is reflective of all faiths and their protection of other faiths. Protecting and promoting this fundamental human right has been a long-standing commitment of the Government—indeed, of successive Governments in which I have had an opportunity to serve.

We demonstrated the depth of our commitment two years ago, when, together with the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, I hosted an international ministerial conference. At that conference, we brought together over 800 faith and belief leaders and human rights actors, and 100 government delegations, to agree on a plan to promote and protect FoRB. Since the conference, we have taken several actions to build on the momentum. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, for his kind remarks, both about the work of the Government and my personal commitment. I agree that we must continue to act in a very focused manner on this.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford talked about essential human rights and reflecting on our own country and the rising tide of attacks on different faiths, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. As was rightly coined, we should be intolerant of religious intolerance.

We are strengthening international coalitions within FoRB. The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, asked about our work with the United States. I have a small personal anecdote. The then ambassador for freedom of religion Sam Brownback, who is well-known to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked me to have a meeting with him and one other individual in the US mission. That is where the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance was born. He asked me whether the UK would support it and I said that of course we would. Freedom of religion or belief remains a priority in our multilateral work.

We underlined our commitment on the national pledge to mark December’s anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We regularly raise situations of concern at the UN Human Rights Council. Just a few weeks ago, we raised the plight of the Baha’i community in Yemen and Iran, the Ahmadi Muslims and Christians in Pakistan, and the Roman Catholic Church in Nicaragua, during an interactive dialogue with the UN special rapporteur. We hold states accountable for their obligations though the UN’s universal periodic review. In January, we were an active participant, when we focused on Nigeria.

There are other positive actions we are taking in different parts of the world. The Middle East was mentioned. While there are challenges in a number of countries, including Iraq and Iran, there is a positive element of the work that we do. Last June, we led a resolution at the UN Security Council, with the UAE, on tolerance and international peace and security, which was unanimously adopted for the first time. It directly addressed the persecution of religious minorities in conflict settings. After the global conference, we pledged to build coalitions to boost global efforts.

I commend my dear friend Fiona Bruce MP for her work and dedication in serving two consecutive terms as chair of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance. Indeed, the FoRB role predated the Truro review. I had the honour to lead on it, as the first FoRB envoy, under the then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and then Prime Minister Theresa May. The Government are fully supportive of Fiona Bruce’s Private Member’s Bill. She has had that assurance from me several times privately, as well as publicly. I am delighted that my dear friend is watching carefully from the Gallery. Earlier this month, I was pleased to meet with both my honourable friend and the new chair of the alliance, Ambassador Robert Řehák of the Czech Republic. This network has now extended to 42 counties and has published numerous statements on persecuted religious minorities, including one last year on Christians, covering countries such as Nigeria and Myanmar. I know that these are a focus and interest of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox.

When she was the chair of the international alliance, the special envoy established a scheme to raise awareness each month of different prisoners of conscience. Last year, we saw the release of Hanna Abdimalik, a Christian in Somaliland, and Shamil Khakimov, a Jehovah’s Witness in Tajikistan. Again, I pay tribute to the work of Fiona Bruce MP and that of the wider alliance in this respect.

On bilateral action, we do not shy away from challenging those not meeting their obligations. We have heard already from the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, in introducing the debate, about the challenges faced across the Middle East. I am reminded that I have raised in my interactions with Israeli interlocutors the importance of Jerusalem to the three Abrahamic faiths. During the current crisis, I have been in regular touch, including with imams and the Archbishop of Jerusalem. I pay tribute to his work.

The UK Government strongly condemn the violence faced by religious minorities in Pakistan. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and to the honourable gentleman Jim Shannon, for raising the persecution of the Christian community in Jaranwala, in Punjab. During the most violent attack of recent years, mobs burned churches and attacked Christians’ homes. The Foreign Secretary raised the persecution of Christian communities directly with then Prime Minister Kakar. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked when we last raised the issue of religious persecution with Pakistan. I did so only last week, with the visit of its new Foreign Minister, Ishaq Dar. I also regularly raise concerns about the attacks on marginalised religious communities with the high commissioners of different countries, including Pakistan’s.

The UK regularly raises the issue of insecurity and its impact with the Nigerian Government. We heard from the noble Lords, Lord Purvis and Lord Alton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, on various issues relating to minorities. I assure the noble Lord that we remain much seized of the case of Leah Sharibu.

India and China were raised. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, knows that our focus is on the Uighur Muslims. The noble Baroness, Lady Foster, the noble Lord, Lord Curry, and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, raised issues concerning India. On a recent visit there, I had a direct discussion with the Indian Home Minister, particularly about Manipur.

I am conscious that I have only about a minute and a half left. I assure all noble Lords that the reports from the Bishop of Truro have been embedded; 22 recommendations were made some years ago, after an independent review of our work. Implementing the recommendations has been largely positive; it was assessed that most recommendations were at an advanced stage of delivery or in the process of being delivered. In the interests of time, I shall write a letter on the detail of where we have progressed on the 22 recommendations and lay it in the Library.

I assure noble Lords that every recommendation, including on training and on the permanence of the FoRB envoy’s role, is embedded in our work. The FoRB envoy has hosted a series of round tables, including focus on areas such as Nigeria, Pakistan, Iran and Myanmar. Just last week, she brought together many committed FoRB advocates for a reception at the FCDO.

I assure noble Lords that we remain committed to the key priorities of raising the issues of Christian persecution. We marked Red Wednesday by lighting up the department’s UK-based buildings. I commend the hosting in Parliament by the FoRB envoy of Margaret Attah, survivor of a terrorist attack on St Francis Xavier church in Owo, Nigeria.

To conclude, this has been a short but important debate, focused directly on the issue of Christian persecution. As I said, it is an issue of which the Government are seized. Freedom of religion or belief must remain on the international agenda, and we continue to work with our international partners to forge a united approach to protecting and promoting not only freedom of religion but all human rights.

I end with the words of Jesus, who said, at John 13:34:

“I give you a new commandment: love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another”.

House adjourned at 8.50 pm.