Freedom of Religion or Belief — [Ms Karen Buck in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 1:30 pm on 1st March 2018.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 1:30 pm, 1st March 2018

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered freedom of religion or belief.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. This debate is specifically about how the UK Government can work to advance the right of freedom of religion or belief at the 37th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. It is a pleasure to speak on these issues. I thank all the hon. and right hon. Members who have taken the time to come on a Thursday afternoon. There are lots of reasons to say, “No, I cannot be here.” I was speaking at the Christian Solidarity Worldwide event on Wednesday, and I reminded people that there would be snow on Thursday. I said, “Maybe the snow will keep you here.” I said that graciously—I do not want to keep Members for anything but the right reason—but there were Members who had to go home early and Members who were unable to get home and so have come. We are pleased that everyone has made the time to be here. I thank you, Ms Buck, for chairing this debate, and we look forward to significant and helpful contributions from all Members.

I declare an interest as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, which speaks on behalf of those with Christian belief, those with other beliefs and those with no belief. I am also the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the Pakistani minorities. I want to put those two things on record before we start the debate.

I thank Members for participating in this important debate and for continuing to speak out. Every Member here has spoken out on behalf of those who are persecuted for their religion or belief. I also put on record my thanks, in anticipation, to the Minister. We know how much commitment he has for these issues. He is a Minister who will respond to our requests to him in the way that every Member believes in their hearts that he would. It is pleasing to see the shadow Minister in his place. We know he has the heart for this issue, and we look forward to his significant contribution. I look forward to hearing the comments of other Members on how the Government will raise the issue in the UN Human Rights Council session, which kicked off on Monday. We are having this debate today because we want to send our comments to that session. Hopefully the participation we have in Westminster Hall today will go to ministerial level, governmental level and then to the UN.

As most Members in the Chamber will know, the UN Human Rights Council is responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights. At each session of the UNHRC, member states come together to discuss human rights violations, give them international attention and make recommendations. We will use the debate to highlight issues that we hope can then feed into the UN human rights commission, which is also meeting. That is why I am very thankful for the opportunity to have this debate, so that Members can raise freedom of religious or belief issues with the Government, and so that the issues can be brought to the UN and given the international attention they desperately deserve.

As Members will know, I have campaigned for many years to raise freedom of religion or belief issues in my role as chair of the all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief. I hope to discuss some of those issues in the hope that it will help the Minister and his team to advance the right to FORB at the UN Human Rights Council. As the debate unfolds and as people participate and make contributions, we will form a joint opinion of what we want among all the parties here, the shadow Minister and the Minister, and that will go up into the heart of Government.

I want to speak about five issues; other Members will speak about others. They are: the mass violence of armed Fulani Muslim herders in their conflict with Christian farmers in Nigeria; the criminalisation of blasphemy and religious conversion in Nepal; the continued state-sponsored persecution of the Baha’is in Iran; forced conversion in Pakistan; and abuses of freedom of religion by the Eritrean state and the ongoing imprisonment of Patriarch Abune Antonios—given my Ulster Scots accent, I hope that sounded as it should.

Sessions of the UNHRC represent an excellent opportunity to increase international attention on an issue, so it would be remiss of me not to use this debate to shine a light on the growing violence of armed Muslim Fulani herders in their conflict with Christian farmers in Nigeria. Since 2001, climate change, over- population and extremist religious interpretations have combined to cause mass violence between those two groups in Nigeria’s middle belt. Despite rarely being discussed in the media, the global terrorism index estimates that up to 60,000 people have been killed in the conflict since it began 17 years ago. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced, and thousands of villages, churches, mosques, livestock and businesses have been destroyed, at great cost to local and state economies.

There is no doubt that violence has been committed by actors on both sides of the conflict, but the Fulani herdsmen militia, armed with sophisticated weaponry including AK-47s, is thought to have murdered more men, women and children in 2015 and 2016 than Boko Haram. We all know how cruel, brutal and violent Boko Haram is. In 2014, it was recognised by the global terrorism index as the fourth deadliest terrorist group in the world. The scale of the violence is unprecedented. At the federal and state level, the Nigerian Government have long failed to respond adequately.