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

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 2:06 pm on 1st March 2018.

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Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden 2:06 pm, 1st March 2018

On the border of my constituency is the largest mosque in western Europe. Unveiled across its entrance is a welcoming banner that reads “Love for all, hatred for none”. The mosque can accommodate an incredible 10,000 worshippers, so it is no wonder that there is a thriving Ahmadiyya Muslim community in my constituency.

The Ahmadi community identifies as Muslim, but does not believe that Mohammed was the final Prophet sent to guide mankind. Not only does freedom of religion evade the Ahmadi, but they are actively persecuted across the world, including in the UK. I would like to take hon. Members on a global tour, from Africa to Asia, and from Greater London to Glasgow.

Algerian Ahmadis live in fear and are denied fundamental human rights, contrary to the guarantees offered by the Algerian constitution. Between the summers of 2016 and 2017, 280 Ahmadi Muslims across Algeria were arrested due to their faith. In Egypt, the Interior Minister, Mr Magdy Abdel Ghaffar, issued arrest warrants earlier this year for at least 25 Ahmadi Muslims, following which the Ahmadi publications secretary, Ahmed Elkhatib, was arrested after a raid on his home.

In Burundi, 13 young Ahmadis were arrested earlier this year. They were attending a religious education class at a mosque in Bujumbura city when it was raided by the secret service. I am pleased to hear that that situation has now been resolved, although it should never have occurred in the first place. In Indonesia, Ahmadi mosques have been burned down, some Ahmadis have been denied voting rights and the right to marry, and many have been driven out of their homes.

I could go on, but the persecution is happening right here on our doorstep. In Glasgow in 2016, Ahmadi shopkeeper Asad Shah was murdered by an extremist. During the police investigation, officers claimed that the incident was “religiously prejudiced”. In Waltham Forest, Muslim members of the Waltham Forest communities forum actively stopped an Ahmadi Muslim being re-elected in October 2017, stating that he could not be a representative of Islam.

The country I want to focus on today is Pakistan, which is home to an estimated 4 million Ahmadis. Across the country, they are actively targeted by the state on the grounds of their faith. In 1984, under General Zia, the Government of Pakistan made it a criminal offence for Ahmadis to call themselves Muslims, to refer to their faith as Islam, or even to preach or propagate their faith. Since that year 259 Ahmadis have been killed, and 183 assaulted for their faith; 84 mosques have been demolished, sealed, burnt or forcibly occupied, and 52 banned from construction; and 65 Ahmadis have been denied burial in a Muslim cemetery. Yet Pakistan is a country where people have a constitutional right to freedom of religion.

In order to vote in the forthcoming elections, Ahmadis must either sign a declaration that they do not belong to the Ahmadi community, or acquiesce to their status as non-Muslims. What is more, that separate electoral list for Ahmadis is published and publicly available. On Monday, the High Court in Islamabad ordered Pakistan’s national citizenship authority to provide detailed information on an estimated 10,000 Pakistani citizens who are believed to have changed their religion from Islam to Ahmadiyya. No wonder Ahmadis face such widespread persecution.

In October 2017 Captain Muhammad Safdar, the son-in-law of Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, gave a hate-filled speech in the National Assembly, encouraging all public authorities, including the judiciary, to oust the Ahmadiyya Muslim community from all aspects of life in Pakistan. The following day three Ahmadis were sentenced to death on spurious charges. In December I received an extremely concerning report that Captain Safdar was visiting the UK. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, I wrote immediately to the Home Secretary. Twelve weeks later I received a quite remarkable response from UK Visas and Immigration:

“In order to safeguard an individual’s personal information and comply with the Data Protection Act 1992, we are limited in what information we can provide when the request is made by someone who is not the applicant. We are therefore unable to provide you with information about Captain Safdar without his written consent.”

Let me make that clear. As a Member of Parliament, representing hundreds of Ahmadis in my constituency, owing to data protection I was unable to receive confirmation that a member of the National Assembly of Pakistan who had just made a hate-filled speech against the Ahmadi community was entering the UK. I ask the Minister, in whose interest is it for the data protection of that man to be considered more important than the protection of the Ahmadi community as a whole?

Freedom of religion is one of our most fundamental human rights. It is an indispensable pillar of the freedom of communities and societies worldwide. The case of the Ahmadi community globally proves that it should not be taken for granted because, when it is denied, the consequence to life can be threatening.