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.

Alert me about debates like this

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

I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. I had the opportunity to meet the gentleman to whom he refers, and I agree that his stories were heart-rending. No one could fail to be moved by what he told us.

Finally, during this month’s UNHRC session there will be a specific interactive dialogue on the human rights situation in Eritrea. The UK can contribute to that dialogue by raising the Eritrean Government’s continued abuse of FORB. That abuse was highlighted in 2016, when the UN commission of inquiry on human rights released a report, concluding that the Eritrean Government perceive freedom of religion as a threat, and that there are reasonable grounds to believe that they have committed crimes against humanity. If we believe that—and that belief has an evidential basis—we need to do something.

In Eritrea, there are only a handful of recognised religious organisations, and people who practise unregistered religions face fines and imprisonment, often without charge or trial. Estimates of the number of religious prisoners in Eritrea vary, but it is thought that there are between 1,000 and 3,000 prisoners. Reports of the torture and inhuman treatment of those prisoners are, sadly, only too frequent. According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, prisoners have been held in metal shipping containers, underground cells, and in the open air, in desert areas surrounded by barbed wire or thorns.

Even the recognised religions are tightly controlled by the state in Eritrea. Abune Antonios, the patriarch of the recognised Orthodox Church, was deposed and replaced roughly 10 years ago. He has been under house arrest since that time. Here we are 10 years later, having been unable to persuade the Eritrean authorities to release him. Antonios was reportedly released in 2017, appearing at a mass in July following an alleged reconciliation with the Eritrean Government. It is widely believed that his tightly managed appearance was aimed at convincing the international community that the human rights situation in Eritrea was improving and, more significantly, at convincing the Eritrean people that the division caused by the patriarch’s removal was over—paving the way for a pro-Government successor. After his reappearance, the patriarch was returned to house arrest. He has not been seen since.

Will the Minister urge the Eritrean Government to release Patriarch Antonios and the prisoners of conscience detained unlawfully simply because of their beliefs? I also suggest that he encourages the Eritrean Government to extend invitations to relevant UN representatives, enabling them to conduct unhindered, thorough, independent and impartial human rights investigations?

To sum up, FORB is a fundamental human right. Tragically, countless people worldwide are suffering because of its denial. In Nigeria, armed violence by Fulani herders has taken the lives of countless innocent people. In Nepal, the Government’s laws threaten the freedom of religious minorities. In Iran, the Baha’i community are oppressed by the state at every point in their lives. In Eritrea, holy men and peaceful believers wind up unlawfully imprisoned. In Pakistan, thousands of young girls are taken from their homes and married off to men against their will. Those are just a few examples of FORB violations across the world.

I believe it is our duty as parliamentarians to speak out for those who have no voice, those who are suffering and neglected and those who want to live their lives in peace—those who just want to worship their God in the way that they want. The 37th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council offers an excellent opportunity to help those vulnerable people, and I ask that the Government raise these issues at this month’s session. During the dialogue with the special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, I ask that the Government repeat their stated commitment to FORB. I know the Minister will do that, but will he give us the assurance that it will go to the next stage, to protect the lives of persecuted religious minorities?

Will the Minister also share the steps that he has taken to advance FORB with his counterparts at the UNHRC, and encourage them to take such measures as well? That would be helpful for the debate, and to reassure those in Westminster Hall, in the audience and those watching outside.

Before I finish—this is one of those “finally and penultimately” moments, but I am getting there—I hope hon. Members will not mind if I say a few words about the late Asma Jahangir, the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran. Her name is familiar to many human rights activists and will be familiar to many in this room. She was a lawyer and campaigner, who co-founded and chaired the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. She suffered imprisonment and house arrest for her support for democracy and human rights, but her resilience and capabilities saw her become the first woman to serve on Pakistan’s Supreme Court Bar Association. She was a strong defender of human rights in Pakistan and spoke out against violence against women, a position that exposed her to serious threats. At the international level, she was called to serve the United Nations human rights machinery in three roles, first as the UN special rapporteur on extra-judicial executions, then as special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief and finally as special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, a post she held until her death last month on 11 February, aged only 66. Speaking as someone who is close to 66, that is a young age—I am not that close, but I am going that way.

Pakistan has lost one of its most courageous daughters, the United Nations has lost one of its most effective human rights defenders and many people of faith and campaigners for religious freedom and for women’s rights have lost a friend. She will be mourned in prayers by many communities. I hope that in our debate today in this House we are paying some tribute to Asma Jahangir’s work and her contribution to human rights.

In conclusion, I thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving me the opportunity to bring this subject forward for debate and I thank all hon. Members for coming to participate. I look forward very much to the responses from the shadow Minister and the Minister. Today, in this House, we can be the voice for the voiceless across the world.