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

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 1:52 pm on 1st March 2018.

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Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative, Stirling 1:52 pm, 1st March 2018

I compliment Jim Shannon on his exceptional speech, which was a tour de force of some of the issues that the Government need to address. He mentioned the situation in Nigeria, Nepal, Iran, Pakistan and Eritrea.

We have to keep making the case for freedom of religion and belief. We must not take it for granted. With the indulgence of colleagues, I would like to make that case, speaking personally from the experience of my faith group. Many colleagues will know that I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Last summer, quite a few hon. and right hon. Members attended performances of the British Mormon pageant, a musical drama depicting the arrival of the first Mormon missionaries in Great Britain in 1837 and the story of the first British converts and their faith. It was performed by a cast of hundreds of volunteer actors and musicians in the grounds of the Mormon temple in Chorley.

The story of the Mormons is a very British one. At one time there were more Mormons in England than in Salt Lake City, and the British influence on the Church is evident to this day. For example, a singing group of early Welsh Mormon converts became the world-famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

When the first missionaries arrived in England in 1837, they travelled to Preston from Liverpool, where one of the missionaries had family. When they stepped off the coach from Liverpool, they found themselves in the middle of an election meeting in Preston market square—Preston was unusual at that time because the franchise was wider than the norm. They were greeted with the unfurling of an election banner that read, “Truth will prevail.” That is a very appropriate theme this afternoon.

The early missionaries took that as a good sign for the work that they were about to commence, but the early members of the Church were subjected to persistent and organised violent persecution. Prophet Joseph Smith, the first president of the Church, was assassinated, and the Mormon pioneers were eventually driven out of the United States. Led by Brigham Young, a latter-day Moses, they established their Zion, a city of refuge in the mountain west, which is Salt Lake City today.

The Church has 13 articles of faith, one of which reads:

“We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience and allow all men the same privilege. Let them worship how, where and what they may.”

Given the history and the origins of my Church and its earliest adherents, Members will understand that freedom to live in peace according to one’s beliefs and conscience, devoid of offence towards others, is a matter of deeply felt importance to me.

Today, more than at any time past, none of us can ignore the global and regional importance of religion to politics, conflict resolution, economic development, humanitarian relief and more. Some 84% of the world’s population identifies with a religion, yet 77% of the world’s inhabitants live in countries with high or very high restrictions on religious belief.

Article 18 of the United Nations declaration of human rights says:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion;
this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

In its latest annual report, Open Doors attempts to rank the countries that are the worst persecutors of religious minorities. It has been described as a “Who’s Who” of intolerance, brutality and fear. There is a top 10 of countries that are described as practising extreme persecution of religious minorities: North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan, Eritrea, Libya, Iraq, Yemen and Iran.

The report also makes the point that all faiths endure persecution, but Christians are among those who suffer the most. My hon. Friend Michelle Donelan made the point as lately as yesterday, in questions to the Department for International Development, that we should dedicate a fixed proportion of international aid to tackling religious persecution. I support that. The United Kingdom should take a lead and set an example. We have at least some influence over countries on that list I read from the Open Doors report.

If we in this Parliament do not commit to defending the rights of all people to tend to their own soul in whatever way they see fit, who exactly do we expect to step forward and fulfil that role and responsibility for us? While it is right that we should approach human rights from a legalistic point of view, we should also be concerned about the spiritual welfare of those who are denied the freedom to exercise their conscience. Our determination to be the defenders of freedom of religion and belief should shape how we interact with other societies and how we bring our global influence to bear.

The plight of the Baha’i community in Iran is appalling. Knowing members of the Baha’i community here in the United Kingdom and recognising their gentle and engaging nature, I find their plight tremendously upsetting. Their situation has not been unnoticed by the international community. The United Nations universal periodic review is a mechanism by which all UN members have their human rights records scrutinised by their peers. The Chilean Government, who conducted a review of Iranian human rights, said that Iran should adopt provisions to prevent all forms of discrimination against women and girls and, in particular, to promote access to higher education for members of the Baha’i community and other religious minorities. The Iranian Government accepted that recommendation, but it has not been followed through and the Baha’i religious minority in Iran continues to have limited access to higher education. It remains official policy in Iran to deny members of the Baha’i faith access to higher education. Iranian policy states:

“They must be expelled from universities, either in the admission process or during the course of their studies, once it becomes known that they are Baha’is.”

In other words, students who have a minority point of view are expelled.

The Iranian Government have failed to live up to their commitment to remove discrimination from education, and continue to expel Baha’i students from Iranian universities. I ask the Minister to consider whether the UK mission to the Human Rights Council in Geneva should at the very least make a clear statement about the plight of the Baha’i community in Iran specifically about the denial of access to higher education. All Governments have a responsibility to deliver on the promise of religious freedom, and to protect the freedom to worship and the basic tenet of the free exercise of conscience.